What is the one thing that can make a difference to the Sikh Quam today?
“Embrace the poor,” said Ragi Bhai Nirmal Singh, former resident kirtani of Darbar Sahib, Harmandar Sahib.
The Sikhs need to embrace the poor – the Dalits and the many groups that have been sidelined or shunned for one reason or another.
“They’ve been pushed away,” he said in an interview with Washington-based Sikh activitist Dr Rajwant Singh last year. “It’s time to admit our mistakes and bring them back.”
The renown kirtani passed away on 2 April 2020 in Amritsar, a day after he was diagnosed with coronavirus disease (Covid-19). Coming from a poor Dalit family background, Nirmal rose to prominence as a well-respected exponent of Gurmat Sangeet.
He was performing duties at the Darbar Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple, during the Operation Bluestar in 1984 as well as Operation Black Thunder in 1988, both times narrowly escaping death.
Ragi Nirmal said the minute the groups became a proper and vibrant part of the Sikh community, the number of Sikhs would immediately rise. He urged the Sikh leadership to go out and invite them into the fold after having hurt their leadership in the past.
“Why have we kept Sikhi limited to a small group? Broaden its reach…..Guru Nanak did not attract people into Sikhi with corruption, but love abundance,” he said.
Instead of a ‘jephi’ (embrace), the present default mode seems to be to ‘jephaa’ (horde).
In November 2019, Sikhs commentated the 550th birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. How to make those celebrations worth the time and effort? Ragi Nirmal said Sikh leadership should put into practice the cardinal principal of equality.
“There is no need for a new hukumnama. We just need to apply Guru’s existing hukumnamas,” he added.
He also lamented on the flourishing of deras within his lifetime itself in the Punjab villages.
He noted that it had come an extent where some Sikh groups have created separate crematoriums for the different ‘castes’ and groups. “Dalits have been denied access to some Sikh crematoriums,” he said.
In an obituary for an Indian newspaper, Prof Pritam Singh, a visiting scholar at Wolfson College at University of Oxford, noted that Nirmal continuously performed kirtan for nine hours during Operation Black Thunder. He noted that it will perhaps go down in history as the longest performance ever by a musician in one go.
“His lectures, writings and music invoked the spiritual teachings of Gurbani to highlight the values of egalitarianism. In his musical selections from Gurbani, he paid particular attention to the teachings of anti-caste Bhakti saints such as Bhagat Kabir and Bhagat Guru Ravi Das whose poetry is included in Guru Granth Sahib,” adds Prof Pritam.
Driven by fear (Asia Samachar, 3 April 2019)
Renown ragi Nirmal Singh dies after testing positive for Covid-19 (Asia Samachar, 2 April 2020)
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