So what induced me to change my entire life, leave behind everything and everyone familiar, travel over 7,000 miles – halfway around the world, to live in an unknown land and study with a teacher I had never met?
In two words, Shabad Guru.
Shabad Guru literally means word teacher or sound teacher. It is encompassed by Gurbani Kirtan from the Sikh faith. Shabads are sacred Sikh hymns that are set in the Indian formal music system known as Raag.
My dream is to have a deep, practical knowledge of the Hindustani Classical musical system of Raag and to be able to sing and play authentic Gurbani Kirtan. I am also studying the Punjabi language because I think the language is beautiful and it enables correct pronunciation and comprehension of the sacred Shabads. A person could spend their whole life in such studies. I am coming at this late, so I will do my best to accomplish as much as I can, with Waheguru’s Grace!
The Shabads of the Sikh faith are an experience of the exquisitely beautiful, great longing for the Beloved Divine – Waheguru. Shabads are potent. I have felt their power to shift consciousness, manifest healing, relieve emotional pain and suffering, bringing contentment and peace in an otherwise devastating depression. When chanted with a pure heart, these effects are experienced by both the musicians and the people listening or chanting along. In the beginning was the Word… The Word is the vibration, sound current, the source of all creation and it is beautiful and immeasurably powerful.
A winding road brought me to this place and time, as life takes us all on unimaginable journeys!
In my late teens when I was studying classical voice/opera, I begin to have difficulty singing. I feel it was caused by misuse of my voice on inappropriate material (skill wise) and inadequate western methods of training the voice. The upper range of my voice was lost and I experienced physical pain and tension while trying to sing. For many years I felt unable to sing at all. The voice comes so directly from the heart; my heart felt broken; it wanted to sing!
I held a silent prayer that one day my voice would heal, that I would be guided to a teacher who would enable me to learn in a new way that would free my voice to sing once again.
A Light Appears…
Shortly after beginning my practice of Kundalini Yoga and experiencing the incorporated chanting of sacred sounds, I felt intuitively that somehow through this yoga, my voice would return. I felt this was the path I had been praying for.
It was during a workshop with Yogi Amandeep Singh that I first heard the intoxicating sounds of Gurbani Kirtan. He played a recording of a Shabad during meditation. I had never heard anything so compelling, so beautiful, so powerful, in my life. A flame was lit.
Later, during a Summer Solstice event, I had the joy of listening to the Chardi Kala Jatha. To my knowledge, the Chardi Kala Jatha are the only westerners, allowed to do Kirtan in the Darbar Sahib – the Golden Temple, one of the most holy sites for Sikhs, located in Amritsar, India.
My late friend, Siri Karta Kaur Khalsa, was the mother-in-law of the main Chardi Kala Ragi, Sada Sat Simran Singh Khalsa. Through her, I was able to meet him and she arranged to have him teach a kirtan class for our community when he and his lovely wife, Gurudas, were town for a visit a couple of years ago. Little did I know that class was about to change the trajectory of my life…
The class Sada Sat Simran taught was my first exposure to the classical Indian method of training the voice. The two hour class was broken down into two parts: one hour of vocal exercises, using the Indian system of sargams, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa and the second hour, we learned and chanted the beautiful Shabad, Mere Lalan Ki Sobha.
The class ended and I was convinced the answer to my long held prayer had come. I had found the path to regaining my ability to sing as well as someone knowledgeable in the traditional, Indian style of Kirtan that so called to my heart! I went up to Sada Sat Simran and with hope and longing asked, “Would you be my teacher?” My heart sank as he replied, “Well, you should go study with my teacher (Ustad Ji).” I paused, then said with concern, “But, he is in India, right?” “Yes” was his calm reply… He then told me I could come back the next morning for one more class with him, which I did.
I still vividly recall my second lesson the next morning. Golden waves of August morning sunlight seeped in to Siri Karta’s blue sitting room, warming the air and lending a quality of timelessness to the scene. The sounds of the electronic tanpura droned sweetly as Sada Sat Simran began playing the harmonium and expertly guided me through another hour of challenging vocal sargams. Long before the hour was over, I felt my ears were ready to fall off from the intense deep listening required and my still struggling voice felt raw and spent. I made a recording of the lesson and the previous day’s class that were to serve me well over the next two years.
From the moment I was told to go to India, doubts and difficulties in making that a reality flooded my mind. India? Really? Do I have to go that far? Why that teacher?
The Shabads are written in Gurmukhi and Punjabi alphabet characters are used. I couldn’t read or understand Gurmukhi. Yes, there are English transliterations, but they tend to become more of a hinderance then a help, particularly if you are serious about wanting correct pronunciation.
I didn’t know anything about this teacher in India. Not even where he was located in that vast country.
How much is this going to cost? How will I support myself for this endeavor?
Surely knowing Punjabi would be helpful? I knew n-o-t-h-i–n-g about Punjabi!
My voice felt so fragile. Would I be able to strengthen and nurture it enough with the recorded lessons to be in the best possible form for beginning studies with this Master teacher, if I actually made it to India?
Not to mention the realities of leaving everything and everyone behind – including my cat and steady job!
One thing I was certain of. If Waheguru (God) wanted me to go to India to study Shabad Kirtan, all obstacles would be removed.
The Path Begins to Clear…
Several months after the lessons with Sada Sat Simran, I was attending my local Gurdwara and was told that if I would come on Saturdays, I could join the children’s Punjabi language class. This was where I met my dear friend, Gurpreet; a Punjabi Sikh who is also a loving mother, wife and retired mathematics teacher. With her help and regular study, I was able to read and write Punjabi/Gurmukhi at a very basic level, within a few months. This milestone gave me confidence that this endeavor might be possible.
There was a kind Granthi at the Gurdwara who showed me 10 basic Sargam exercises for keyboard and voice. I practiced them regularly and begin to experience some comfort with playing the harmonium – this too was something necessary that was not in my “skill set”.
Sada Sat Simran said the refining of the voice would take a very long time, grinding out the imperfections by using the classical Indian method. I kept this in mind as I practiced with my recordings daily. Slowly, over time, I would periodically notices improvement of sound quality, accuracy with the exercises and comfort while singing.
I took advantage of every opportunity of studying Gurbani Kirtan/Shabads, whenever an opportunity arose. This included traveling to attend workshops.
In Massachusetts, I attended workshops with Bhai Kultar Singh, a Ragi from Delhi, India. Bhai Kultar comes to the U.S. twice each year to teach. His workshops are an enjoyable way to sing many beautiful Shabads. I felt further strengthening and healing of my voice from his workshops. But I also realized that the longing in my heart for immersion would not be satisfied with these short, 4 day workshops.
A deeper experience came through attending Snatam and Prabhu Nam Kaur Khalsa’s 10 day Soul Radiance Shabad Kirtan workshops, which are held at the beautiful Baba Siri Chand Ashram and Guru Ram Das Gurdwara in Millis, MA. This more intensive workshop setting provided some amazing experiences and opportunities – not to mention many beautiful Shabads! Again my voice continued to heal and strengthen – every so slowly. But I was still left with a great longing. Traditional Indian Sikh Kirtan has a totally unique sound that I am drawn to like a moth to a candle flame. And I was still longing for a complete immersion to learn about the system of Raag and all the other details that go into birthing that sound so unique to traditional Punjabi Sikh Kirtan.
Through this time period, I was also working through crippling stage fright. My voice would shudder and my hands would shake. At one point during Snatam’s workshops, the students (I believe there were about 50 of us) were asked to take turns chanting one line from a Shabad, into a microphone, in front of Snatam and the class. Of course, I randomly got the line with the high note in it – always the most difficult for my still tender voice! On top of that, the stage fright made my voice all wobbly. I did horribly. I slunk off to the washroom and cried. Not because of embarrassment, which I definitely felt, but because of my frustration with myself. I looked in the mirror at my red, splotched face and puffy eyes and I cried aloud to God in that moment, “Please, please take this fear from me. I am ready for it to be gone. Please take this so I can go on and progress with my music.” This prayer was from my heart. I can truthfully say that from that day forward, the death grip of my stage fright begin to lessen. Today, I still get nervous as we all do when we want to do our best and circumstances are variable, but I am not crippled by it.
Answers Come and a Decision is Made…
One sunny afternoon in December of 2017, as I chewed over the question of why this teacher? Why India? I sat at the kitchen table in my apartment, doing some internet research and found some wonderful resources of information about Ustad Ji. I learned he was in Amritsar, the location of Darbar Sahib – The Golden Temple. This felt like a good omen to me. The Golden Temple is such a holy and powerful place. To live in Amritsar and have regular opportunities of visiting the Temple felt intuitively right on some deep level. I found recordings of Ustad Ji doing kirtan, photographs and a short interview article. I looked into the eyes of his photograph, the windows to the soul. I saw a compassionate, open hearted, fatherly, kind man. I listened to his kirtan recordings and heard the most beautiful, warm, masterful voice ever to touch my ears. Ustad Ji’s words in the interview article hit home and touched me deeply. I knew in that moment, he was my Teacher. I fully understood why him and why India. One other important detail became very clear; if I didn’t do this, I would regret it the rest of my life. Now, how to make it happen?
Over the next year, I starting working on details such as contacting Ustad Ji, researching costs of living and tuition. I spoke with Sada Sat Simran for his valuable input on tips for living long term in India. I planned a budget and began to SAVE every penny I could. I also continued to invest in the workshops that would further my progress in the interim and used my income tax return to pay for formal Punjabi lessons. I tried to do everything I could to ensure success.
Between the December 2017 and my arrival in India in December of 2018, I watched obstacle after obstacle whisked away. I saw this as confirmation that Waheguru was guiding me to my destiny in India.
Today as I write this, I have been living and studying in India for just shy of 4 months. I still feel Waheguru’s hand guiding me on this journey.
This blog will allow me to share ups and downs of this road less traveled. Thank you for sharing this journey with me!