The Life of a Rababi – Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand (1927 – 2015)

Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand outside former gurdwara Ram Garh in Lahore (2009)

Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand outside former gurdwara Ram Garh in Lahore (2009)

Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand was one of three sons who, along with his brothers Bhai Sham and Bhai Bakshi, learned the tradition of kirtan from their father Bhai Chand (also known as Bhai Sunder Giani) who was one of the last Rababis to perform kirtan at the Golden Temple before partition. He passed away in 1949, only two years after the partition.

Bhai Chand senior (Bhai Sundar Giani) one of the last Rababis to perform at the Golden Temple before the partition of 1947.

Bhai Chand senior (Bhai Sundar Giani) one of the last Rababis to perform at the Golden Temple before the partition of 1947.

Bhai Chand traced his Rababi lineage to Bhai Sadha and Bhai Madha, who sang during the lifetimes of the last two Sikh Gurus: Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh. Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand was born in Raja Sansi, near Amritsar and spent most of his childhood near Amritsar at Chheharta Sahib, in Lahore, and other gurdwaras across the region where his father was positioned.

Bhai Chand senior (Sunder Giani), like his forefathers, was known as an accomplished musician and set up a kirtan academy in the 1920s attached to the gurdwara Ram Garh in Lahore where he taught classical music and kirtan to aspiring musicians and esteemed residents of Lahore. Ironically, the premises of the kirtan academy were occupied by Muslim evacuees in 1947 arriving in Lahore and has subsequently become a school.

Before his death in 2015, Bhai Chand lived in Lahore, Pakistan, where his family have resided since they left Amritsar in 1947. An article on the Rababi tradition provides an interview with Bhai Chand in depicting the changes that have taken place since the the 1920s when Rababis began to be viewed as outsiders within their own tradition (Purewal 2011):

I remember my paternal uncle and father telling of those (golden) days when we had the security of getting work and receiving audiences and sponsors who wanted to hear us sing in the old style. . . then, no one asked if you were singing in the correct raag (musical notation system). . . people enjoyed listening to us, knowing we were descendants of an old tradition which wasn’t someone else’s tradition, but their own as well as ours. (Interview with Bhai Chand, February 2009, Lahore)

The sense of location and ownership of the tradition is blurred in this quote in a way which does not privilege religious categories. ‘Ours’ and ‘us’ are used.

Reflecting on restrictions of the performance of kirtan in gurdwaras during a visit to India in 2005 and being refused the opportunity to perform at the Golden Temple:

Who bothered to ask whether we were gursikh (baptized, practicing Sikhs) in those days? Were my ancestors gursikhs? Did they wear the dastaar (turban) and show the signs of being a Sikh? No. But that never stopped them for having a passion for their music and their work… Those people [The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) who manages Gurdwaras in Punjab] have a short vision. … (Interview with Bhai Chand, November 2008, Lahore).

Bhai Chand points to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee as a key driving force behind the closing down of religious boundaries by erecting a narrowing definition of Sikh identity in its insistence of only baptized Sikhs being able to perform kirtan.

The iconic status of Bhai Mardana and the case study of Bhai Ghulam Muhammed Chand highlighted here have much sentimental appeal. This appeal shows a longing by many to recover this lost history from dominant histories of difference and estrangement between Sikh and Muslim. Bhai Ghulam Muhammed Chand’s momentous 2004 performance at Punjabi University in Patiala created an emotional atmosphere which can be witnessed in this clip. His historic visit to the UK in 2011 also saw many further emotional performances to eagerly awaiting listeners, wanting to feel part of this marginalised history. The popularity of these visits reminds us that, although such histories are marginalised, tradition does live on, passed orally through the lineages of families stemming from the numerous Rababi families who still survive across Punjab. While some Rababis converted to Sikhism in 1947 at the time of partition in order to maintain their livelihood, others reside in Pakistan where their knowledge has been preserved as a family tradition of resounding pride in a previous era of devotional performance. The Rababi tradition of kirtan thus provides a unique archive of memory, oral history and musical compositions passed down through the generations, providing a window into how one seemingly minor, accompanying tradition sheds light on the making of major religious traditions.

Please visit the References and further reading page to find out where to find out more about this case.

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