All-women group rises in tribute to Guru Nanak

Updated September 22, 2019

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A video recently went viral featuring Aarti of Baba Guru Nanak, which Indian composer, singer and artiste Madan Gopal Singh has translated as ‘Ode to Cosmos’. The video shows four women singing the Aarti as homage to Guru Nanak as part of his 550th birth anniversary celebrations. This Lahore-based band, called Harsakhiyan, comprises sisters Zainub Jawwad, Saleema Jawwad, Ismet Jawwad and their mother Bina Jawwad.

“There was a suggestion to sing Aarti of Baba Nanak to celebrate his 550th birth anniversary. It’s like a big deal for all the Sikhs. We also wanted to pay a tribute to Baba Ji and there could not have been a better occasion to do it than his 550th birth anniversary,” Zainub tells Dawn. “It was a project conceived by Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan and Madan Gopal sahib. Many singers committed to compose and sing the Aarti, but I think we were the first ones to execute it. I composed it after a lot of research.”

The Aarti of Guru Nanak has been previously sung by many singers. Zainub says the other singers had sung it in Raag Dhanashree, but she wanted to do it differently, hence composed it in Raag Pahari.

The video raised curiosity about the band whose rendition of a piece of Heer Waris Shah had already gone viral earlier on social media.

Talking about the origin of the band, Zainub says: “I conceived Harsakhiyan. We all used to sing together at weddings and other gatherings. We are all trained by Ustad Riaz Ali Qadri and used to sing together his compositions like gharoli and sehray. Gradually, we started receiving requests from family friends to sing after which we thought of forming a band if we are singing so much. We initially called it Sakhiyan. But when we came to Harsukh -- a cultural centre for art and educational activities that also houses the Jawwad family, the name changed to Harsakhiyan.”

The band has sung and recorded another poem of Baba Nanak, titled Jaachak, as a tribute to both the founder of Sikhism as well as one of their teachers, Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand -- one of the last Rababis and kirtan singers of Pakistan belonging to the tradition of Bhai Mardana, the Muslim companion of Guru Nanak.

“Jaachak is an old composition by Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand. We learnt from him for years,” adds Zainub.

Zainub points out that Harsakhiyan does not only sing kalam of Guru Nanak as they have sung hamd from Heer Waris Shah also. However, they sang it differently from how Heer is traditionally sung. “It’s a composition we got from Taimur Afghani, the Heer singer from Sheikhupura. He had also got it from somebody else. Our content is not limited to Baba Nanak; we sing wedding songs, Bulleh Shah and other poets too. We also get compositions from different sources,” she adds.

Talking about their music teachers, Zainub explains: “We started learning singing from Ustad Riaz Ali Qadri, who taught us kafi. We later learnt from Ustad Naseeruddin Sami sahib who trained us in khayal singing. From Bhai Chand, we learnt not only Rababi tradition, but also thumri and ghazals".

Zainub has sung original soundtracks for a couple of dramas too, including ‘Jeevan Ghuman Gheiryan’ for TV drama Chakkar and ‘Tum Bin Pareet Adhoori’ for stage play, Musk.

“Both the songs were written by Punjabi poet Afzal Saahir. Umair Hasan collaborated with me to compose the first one, while the second was my own composition,” she says.

Zainub’s mother Bina is another member of the group where she has an overwhelming presence due to her age and heavy voice. Bina was already a trained kathak dancer before she learnt singing. She learnt dance from Maharaj Ghulam Hussain Kathak from 1974 to 1999, the year he passed away in Lahore. “I was not allowed to perform on stage in public, but I continued performing before exclusive audiences.”

Talking about her singing, Bina says the Maharaj was against her learning music despite the fact that she wanted to. He would tell her, “It’s hard to learn one classic art, how can you learn two?”

When Bina’s kids were growing up, she got a chance to learn music along with them in the 1990s, keeping it a secret from Maharaj Kathak. However, he later found out about it.

“I got a teacher, who was not fond of fame, Ustad Mirza Nasiruddin of Qawwal Bacha Gharana. I had a passion for voice. He lived in Samanabad. I learnt from him for 20 years until 2014. He was not fond of recording music. He never sang for commercial purposes.”

Saleema is the third member of the band. While Zainub is a teacher by profession, Saleema is a lawyer.

“I started going to Najm Hosain Syed’s Sangat in 2007 with the purpose of learning ashlok of Baba Farid that he had composed. There, I met Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand, which encouraged me further about music that I had learnt till then. We started this group in 2010,” Saleema says. She has also sung a duet, ‘Par Chanhan De’, with Arif Lohar for the movie, Zinda Bhaag.

Ismet Jawwad, the fourth member of the group, is also a teacher by profession.

Harsakhiyan sings with minimum instruments, depending heavily on vocals. The reason they cite is that they are not paid for their performances, hence can’t pay the accompanying musicians.

The band plans to take its music venture to a professional level, not keeping it just as a hobby. But there are very few recordings of their songs as they say they mostly sing live. The band, however, features in the recently announced line-up of singers for the upcoming 12th season of Coke Studio.

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2019