When Eeshar Singh was first invited to play at the Darbar festival, he apparently declined. Prompted for a reason by the same Sikh elder now laughingly introducing Singh’s performance, the Bradford-born musician had related that this summer past he was getting married. Some of the white-British members of the audience around me guffawed. The Barbican’s Darbar festival is perhaps the most prestigious celebration of Classical Indian music in the U.K.; for most Indian musicians of Eeshar Singh’s age, performing at Darbar is a dream. However, upon hearing the same disclosure, the majority Punjabi-Sikh audience grinned. Whether you’re born in Amritsar or Leicester, every Sikh knows how all-consuming it is to get married Punjabi-style.
Despite his initial reticence to perform, Singh’s confidence and maturity with the santoor slowly had me entranced. His first raga, delivered solo, grew slowly in intensity such that I found myself slowly lulled into an unexpectedly meditative state. When Yashwant Vaishnav joined Eeshar Singh on the tabla, the addition of Vaishnav’s percussion even further intensified the rhythmic mysticism evoked by Singh’s santoor. The santoor is built like a harp and makes a pealing sound that rings almost celestial; the tabla, meanwhile, is a set of Indian drums that look deceptively simple and yet produce an incredible range of textures and sounds. Together, Singh and Vaishnav pulled me into another world. I understand now why the santoor is considered a divine instrument for Sufi mystics.
Sat in the auditorium, I was too hypnotized to think any interesting thoughts. Upon recovery, I reflected on how moving it also felt to be sat in one of London’s leading cultural institutions listening to a genre of music I associate with the Sikh gurudwara. Even more so, to be surrounded by other Punjabis, many like myself and Eeshar Singh, members of the British-Punjabi diaspora. And perhaps most moving was the visible presence of white-British musicians who were just as grateful to be sat in that hall listening to world-class music as me.
At the end of the concert, an impassioned Sikh cried out boleh so niyal, which is perhaps the most recognisable of the Sikh jaikara, or exultations. I’d only ever heard this phrase as the closing invocation of Sikh prayer, and indeed only heard the answering call sat sri akal murmured by members of a Sikh congregation. Besides being an integral part of Sikh liturgy, this powerful phrase is also expressed in moments of intense joy or fervor. In English, it translates to: ‘Shout aloud in ecstasy; True is the Timeless One.’ My ears were still ringing at the end of Singh and Vaishnav’s duet when I heard this spontaneous invocation to the Divine thundering out from the audience. The whole auditorium echoed as from every other seat came the ringing bellow of Sikhs answering the call. Eeshar Singh clasped his hands together; as for me, caught off-guards and intensely moved, I sort of trembled. It was perhaps one of the most religious encounters with my own faith I’ve ever experienced, surrounded by a British audience at a secular venue in central London.
It’s a strange thing when you grow up hiding what makes you different, and as you get older you begin the process of undoing and unlearning that shame. And then a few years into adulthood, to experience that rare unprompted eruption of pride for your people is still strange and shocking, because it comes not from deliberate deconstruction but from raw emotion. I feel very grateful that Eeshar Singh and his zealous audience of uproariously proud Punjabis could manifest that in me.
Review by Sophia Sheera
Sophia is a writer interested in migration, cultural citizenship, displacement and queerness with a focus on Central Asia and Northern India. Sophia is inspired by talking to the people whose stories are sidetracked by sensationalist headlines, and as such aspires to share those counter-narratives through political journalism.
Sophia’s latest review is here https://www.abundantart.net/review/national-gallerys-contemporary-fellowship-exhibition-opens-with-nalini-malanis-my-reality-is-different-at-the-holburne-museum-bath-7-oct-to-8-jan-review/
Image by Sukhpal Bhogal, Source-Darbar Festival
For more information:
Darbar Arts Culture Heritage Trust (Darbar) | Indian Classical Music