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Dya Singh: "Our Culture Must Evolve"


The Sikh Times (U.K.), Jul. 31, 2003

"In the Southern hemisphere, away from the stern and restraining eye of the traditional Sikh establishment, no less than a revolution in Gurbani sangeet [music] has been taking place over the last decade. With the production of Dya Singh's highly acclaimed C.D. 300, which won Dya Singh the Male Artiste of the Year World Music Award in Sydney, Australia in Mar. 2000, that revolution is now complete. Dya Singh of Australia is a household name in the arena of multi-cultural world music." (From an article about Dya Singh)

Dya Singh of Australia is the youngest son of devout Sikh parents. His blending of East-West musical traditions has won him acclaim from many classical pundits and some unlikely sources like the great classical raagi [singer of devotional music] Avtar Singh. However, Dya Singh remains controversial with some traditional Sikhs who object to his style and the fact that Western audiences applaud the music by clapping. Traditionalists regard Dya Singh's style as mixing religious and cultural music. The Sikh Times posed some questions to Dya Singh by e-mail and his response is published for the information of our readers.

The Sikh Times (T.S.T.): Dya Singh, we thank you for taking time off from your busy schedule in North America to enlighten our British Sikh readers about your mission. Despite your popularity with young Sikh and non-Sikh audiences in open programs, you remain controversial with some traditional Sikhs. Why do you think there is a need for your type of Gurbani singing? Why "Dya Singh?"

Dya Singh (D.S.): In fact I am grateful to The Sikh Times for this opportunity to explain my mission in life. First, let me assure you, I am a lowly, little-informed in Sikhism, former accountant with a concern for future generations of Sikhs. I have three daughters who have to fight a daily battle against the onslaught of Western culture and other dominating influences alongside millions of other Sikh youth worldwide. But, I have a gift from Waheguru [God]. I can sing and compose music. I am also lucky that I learnt kirtan [devotional music] with my Bapu [father] from the age of about five. When I hear that little children insist on listening to "Dya Singh's Mool Mantar" - actually, it is the voices of my daughters they love - before going to their play-groups or schools in the morning, that is more than sufficient reward for me and justification for my humble mission.

I was born in a Muslim country where Sikhism has been allowed to flourish for the last 100 years. Hence, my experiences are varied - not solely Indian or Punjabi. I am a product of the Sikh diaspora. After 1984, I became disillusioned with my vocation as an accountant and experienced a desire to serve my Khalsa Panth [community] after the Attack (1984) [reference to Operation Bluestar, the Indian Army's attack on the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar (Punjab, India)] upon Sikh psyche worldwide. My tool is Gursangeet [devotional music] and whatever Sikhism I know. In particular, I wish to convey that we are basically a peace loving and hard working community and only wish good for everyone - sarbat dha bhala [success to all]. That we respect all other religions, castes, and colors even though we have a distinct identity (stress) and Guru Nanak's truths are universal for all to share and practice.

I feel that in our institutions and gurdwaras [places of worship] we are no longer following the true spirit of Sikhism. We have returned to ritualism and superstition by stretching the concept of maryada [code of conduct]. We practise the caste system and have baradri [caste-based] gurdwaras. We have confined the universal message of the Guru to the four walls of the gurdwaras. We perform ritual paths [prayers]. We no longer research and study the Guru's word in the spirit of sikhi sikhia gur vichar. Sikhism is the study of the Guru's teaching. We are no longer following in the Guru's footsteps and taking the Guru's message to the world.

T.S.T.: What is your Group's mission?

D.S.: As explained recently to the cyber-sangat through e-mail groups, our group's mission is three-fold:

a) To help and encourage Sikhs worldwide to think outside the gurdwara walls. To raise Sikh public image in the mainstream through open days at the gurdwara and Sikh awareness concerts where the city/town's dignitaries are invited to listen to us perform Gurbani kirtan [devotional group music] and dharmic kavitas [devotional poems]. To encourage speeches about Sikhism and Sikhs. To create a higher profile for Sikhism and greater knowledge about Sikhism.

b) To help Sikhs come together and form strong bonds rather than remain fragmented. Every town/city which has one gurdwara inevitably has a second - mainly for not being able to get on together; for the wrong reasons.

c) To try and reach our youth by whatever means - youth camps, Western folk festivals, arts festivals, New Age festivals, other places of worship, shopping malls, radio, T.V., etc.

My mission is to show that Sikhism is user-friendly and that it is the Guru's response to the New Age. My mission is to take the universal music-based message of the Guru to audiences world-wide and to all the diverse cultures we live in.

T.S.T.: There is some controversy due to your programs and concerts being held in theatres, concert halls etc. Why do you feel the need to do that? What do you sing at these places? Sometimes there is adverse comment about some of your mixed programs and applause (clapping) from the audience.

D.S.: As I have said above, we do our programs at all sorts of places around the world. And why not? Was that not Guru Nanak's way? Did he not take Mardana and Gurbani kirtan to all sorts of places? Did he instruct his audience not to express appreciation according to their local custom? In my humble opinion, seven out of ten Sikh youths do not go to gurdwaras for obvious reasons - boring; nothing in there for them; no programmes tailored to their needs; not encouraged to do kirtan since professional raagi jathas [groups] get prominence and parents do not encourage them; jathedars [priests] are always fighting for kursis [chairs (a reference to power)].

What do we sing at these concerts?

Firstly, all our concerts are spiritually based (no tootak tootak tootian, etc. [a reference to popular music]) and the intention is to promote Sikhism and Sikh thought through the universal principles of Nanak. (All renditions always have some English translation.) We sing:

a) Gurbani - as this is the base of Sikhism and Nanak thought.

b) Sikh dharmic kavitas and kavi shiary [devotional poems]. Many gurdwaras do not allow us to sing dharmic kavitas and do not have a platform from where Sikh thought can be presented in music.

c) Sufi sayings, Bulle Shah, Sultan Bahu and other Punjabi poets - all based on spirituality and a form of promoting Punjabi - and qawalis, with [the requisite] clapping. We explain that this is a Punjabi art form - not Sikh, but Punjabi - to invoke the spirit (atma).

d) Bhajans [Hindu devotional music], Gregorian chants, call of the Muezzin etc.

e) Spiritual Hindi songs especially from old movies, which have a spiritual basis, to entertain other Indians who might come and also Sikhs. For example, man tarpat hari darsan kau aaj. These are carefully selected to fulfill the requirement of a spiritual concert. No Bollywood style modern pop songs are presented as they do not serve our purpose and I do not like them.

f) Demonstrations of musical excellence through tabla and other musical solos.

Why do we do the last four categories?

To present to non-Sikhs that we Sikhs do not look down upon anyone. We have a distinct identity but remain respectful of our fellow human beings, practising the edict of sarbat da bhala. This is represented by the mix of the Group which has a Nepalese tabla player of Hindu/Buddhist background and other musicians of various Christian backgrounds. All of them are now well conversant with Sikhism and fully in harmony with the principles of Nanak. None smoke, take drugs, or consume alcohol.

May I add that there is much ignorance even amongst popular raagis about the raag [melody] and popular music bases in Gurbani. An article by Gurmukh Singh, who has done research in this area, is on our Web site. In addition to prescribed popular lok dhuns, qawalis, heer, mirja, and other styles and dhuns have always been sung by classical Sikh kirtanias. As for form of applause and appreciation, whether you say wah! wah! [great! great!], sway your head, do a loud jaikara in sangat, or clap in appreciation, it is all done respectfully and with the same intent no matter how it may seem to the traditional ear. If you are in are a mixed audience, you can expect clapping. Having said that, I accept the point about decorum and so do our audiences.

T.S.T.: Dya Singh, how would you describe yourself as a "Sikh" music group?

D.S.: I prefer to describe myself as a gursangeetkar. Guru Nanak is reputed to have had two non-Sikh musicians - namely Bala and Mardana. Later, I believe, Mardana's son joined him. Perhaps my musicians are from farther afield like Nepal, Australia, Germany, England, and even Vietnam. But, I am merely following my Guru's example.

Let me say that great classical raagis like Samund Singh, Dharam Singh Jakhmi, Avtar Singh - master of puratan reets - and others will always be like the Northern Star, giving us direction to classical Gurbani sangeet. I regard myself as a bridge-builder to that classical Gurbani tradition from the East to the West and to that ideal kirtan in raags, as prescribed in Guru Granth Sahib.

I interpret classical Gurbani sangeet to Western musical blends through a multi-cultural musical team of highly talented award-winning musicians dedicated to the Guru's interfaith universal message - that is the reason why they have come together in the first place - and bring my audiences back to classical Gurbani sangeet tradition. There are those like Avtar Singh who understand this aspect of our musical mission. I regret to say that criticism of our mission often comes from those who least understand Gurbani sangeet tradition. Indeed, I felt greatly honored when not only Avatar Singh but others like Sucha Singh of Jawadi Kalan (deceased) expressed public appreciation for the Group's musical talent and mission.

However, there will always be my fellow Sikh brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts who will disagree with me due to their own traditional upbringing. To them I say, please tell me in no uncertain terms if I am encroaching on any fundamental principle of Sikhism. If it is a matter of tradition or culture, perhaps we should question ourselves as to whether such a tradition or cultural practice is relevant today and consider the need to evolve. Furthermore, our offspring are generally not going to accept all of our cultural and traditional baggage. All we can pray for is that they accept that Sikhism is one of the best tools for self-improvement on this planet. I speak of this through personal experience with my own offspring.

T.S.T.: Any message to Sikh sangats [communities]?

D.S.: I urge fellow brothers and sisters not to try to pull themselves into thier own Sikhism comfort zones, board the windows, and close and lock doors on your Sikhism practices, customs, and traditions. Our children will not accept that and I have seen the adverse effects of doing so. It turns out that one person who interrupted our program had huge problems at home and in the local community. The principles - the foundations of our Guru's teachings and Gurbani - shall stand firm and remain constant. However, our cultural baggage has to evolve to cater to future generations.

We now live all over the world and are exposed to many influences. We want our children to take advantage of all the influences. Yet, we want them to have the anchor of Sikhism to keep them steady in the turbulent waters of the 21st century. I am fallible but I am a fellow brother keen to see Sikh identity thrive and the Guru's message of goodwill and sarbat da bhala reaching every household in the world.