Updated: April 3, 2020 11:32:09 am
He rose from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of Gurmat Sangeet. Born in a Dalit family of Lohian village near Amritsar, Giani Nirmal Singh Khalsa, 67, came to define the genre with 80 albums and two books that are part of university syllabus. The man, who considered Pakistani maestro Ghulam Ali a close friend, and supported the movement for women raagis in the Golden Temple, was penning his autobiography when COVID-19 snatched him away on Thursday.
The Gurbani maestro, who was being treated at Amritsar’s Government Medical College Hospital, passed away at 4.30 am Thursday while being on ventilator support.
While his death due to coronavirus deprived his fans of the ceremonial farewell that they would have loved to accord him, it has also sent authorities across Punjab and Union Territory of Chandigarh on a frantic search for the source of his infection and also those who could have been infected by him during his public interactions.
According to sources, he had attended a wedding at Dhudike village in Moga on March 15. He had also performed a ‘kirtan’ at a house in Chandigarh on March 19 that was attended by many prominent people.
Best of Express Premium
86 VIPs in quarantine
Additional Commissioner Anil Garg, who is the officer in-charge for home quarantine, said that 86 VIPs who attended that event have been quarantined.
Intriguingly, while the Chandigarh administration was informed by Amritsar authorities about the case on March 31 (Tuesday), the quarantine process only began on Thursday.
Singh was invited by Sukhdev Sidhu, a businessman who owns several marriage palaces in Punjab and is a resident of house number 73 in Sector 27A, to the shagun ceremony preceding his son’s wedding.
Those who attended the event and have now been quarantined include Punjab’s State Information Commissioner Preeti Chawla, who is the daughter of former MP Tarlochan Singh, along with her family, former Civil Surgeon of Amritsar Dr Jai Singh, his dentist wife Dr Mamta Singh and Dr G S Sandhu, former Additional Director, Punjab Health Department. All of them stay in the vicinity of Sidhu’s house. Former Punjab IAS officer Upjit Singh Brar and his family also attended the event and have been quarantined at their residence in IAS/IPS Society in Sector 49, Chandigarh.
“Today, our team went to Sidhu’s house and asked for the guest list. We have found that 16 VIP families attended the event on March 19. A total of 86 people have been quarantined by us,” Additional Commissioner Garg said.
Others who attended the event belong to different business families from Chandigarh. They all have been quarantined in Sectors 18, 33 and 36. Sources said that team was facing hurdles in pasting quarantine notices outside the houses of some of these VIPs, but were doing so because of strict directions from senior officials.
Sukhdev Sidhu, who hosted the event, said that Raagi Nirmal Singh stayed at the venue on March 19 just for about one hour.
“Moreover, we have not seen any symptoms as of now. None of us has seen any symptoms. Rather, I checked with my guests too and everyone is healthy,” Sidhu said.
A message sent out last evening by Sidhu to residents of his locality read, “Dear ward members, I would like to inform you all, that Shri Nirmal Singh ji did perform kirtan at our house (No 73) on the 19th of March and left immediately after the Kirtan (1hour) and did not stay as mentioned in the report. I would also like to inform that everyone at home is fine and adhering to the government advisory regarding social isolation.”
The Health Department, meanwhile, also ensured that disinfectants were sprayed in the locality on Thursday.
Controversy over cremation
Back at an Amritsar village, the final rites of the Golden Temple’s former Hazoori Raagi were performed late in the evening. A medical team in protective suits carried out the last rites, while Akal Takht head priest Giani Malkeet Singh performed ‘ardas’ at the cremation. His son, Amiteshwar Singh, was in attendance.
But the cremation was mired in controversy after the Amritsar administration decided to cremate Khalsa outside the city at Verka village. Harpal Singh, a local Congress leader from Verka and husband of a party councillor, objected saying, “Smoke raised during the cremation can infect villagers.” After administration’s attempt to persuade him and others accompanying him failed, several individuals – even the SGPC – came forward to offer land for cremation. The body was finally cremated on shamlat land of Verka village at around 9 pm.
Later, SGPC president Gobind Singh Longowal demanded an FIR against Harpal Singh.
“We are surprised at this foolishness. Congress leader Harpal Singh has hurt community sentiments. District administration should register case against him. It was responsibility of district administration to arrange for proper cremation of Nirmal Singh Khalsa,” he said.
While saying that he would ask police to look into allegations against Harpal Singh, Amritsar DC Shiv Dular Singh Dhillon said that there was no strong reason for cremating the body outside city. “Proper cremation of anybody who has died of COVID-19 leaves no chance of infection,” he said.
But despite fear of the infectious disease dominating the minds of people, it was the respect earned by Bhai Nirmal Singh Khalsa during his lifetime that made several step forward to offer private land for cremation in no time.
Loss of a soulful voice
Born in 1952, Khalsa dropped out of school in Class V to help his farmer father. Fond of music, he grew up listening to ‘Punjabi Darbar’ aired by Radio Pakistan. “Later, I came to know that the singers I so admired included Bhai Lal ji, Bhai Santa Singh, Ghulam Ali, Noor Jehan and Reshma,” he once told The Indian Express.
However, singing was not a respected profession and his father discouraged him. But Khalsa learnt about Shaheed Sikh Missionary College, Amritsar, and ran away from house to appear for an entrance test for a diploma in Gurmat Sangeet.
In an interview, he recounted how one of the screening committee members was the longest serving president of SGPC Gurcharan Singh Tohra. “He liked my voice, and my uncle was his driver, which helped me get in.”
Later, Khalsa remained member of SGPC’s selection team to select raagis for the Golden Temple. He was also an accredited artist with Akashwani and Dordarshan, Jalandhar.
It was in 1979, at a relatively young age of 27, that he started as the Hazoori Raagi at Golden Temple. He had such a phenomenal memory that he had learnt more than 500 hymns along with their raagas. His recording of ‘Assa Di Waar’, a morning hymn, is considered seminal.
“His voice was soulful, and transported you to the realm of spirituality,” says Professor Gurnam Singh, founder of Gurmat Sangeet Department at Punjabi University, Patiala.
His art took him to many countries, and over time he developed a close bond with legendary Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali.
In 2009, he was awarded the Padma Shri for his contribution to Gurmat Sangeet.
A purist, he was worried about the coming generations of raagis. “They are not ready to give the time to Gurmat Sangeet that it requires,” he told The Indian Express during a conversation in the past.
Lately, he was in the news over his views about women raagis in the Golden Temple. He had even penned a book on ‘Parsidh Kirtankar Bibian’ or women raagis. Except Mata Sundari, all of them were born after 1960.
Talking to Express, Nirmal Singh had said, “Those who oppose women give the ridiculous logic that they go through periods every month. Don’t they know that a woman cannot give birth to a child without this natural process. If we really respect women as equal, we should give them equal rights in this field as well.”
Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?
🗞 Subscribe Now: Get Express Premium to access our in-depth reporting, explainers and opinions 🗞️
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.