For decades, Guru ki Wadali, a village seven kilometres from Amritsar, has been known for its famed gurudwaras Atari Sahib and Damadama Sahib till the Wadali Brothers made the tiny village a significant speck on the global musical map. Many devotees of Guru Arjan Dev and Guru Hargobind, from both sides of the border, who visited the gurudwaras, have stopped by the house to pay their respects to the musicians who have been synonymous with Punjabi Sufi gayaki.
Puranchand, the pehelwan (wrestler), and Pyarelal, his younger brother, who’d play Krishna in the village ramleela, got the world to sit up and notice them when they reintroduced the kafis and qalams of sufi saints Baba Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid and Amir Khusrau, and the poetry of Amrita Pritam on the proscenium stage. Though they debuted as musicians in their 30s and became popular only in their 50s, the duo apart from their sufi gayaki stirred up the wistfulness of ghazal in Punjab, and took soulful shabads of gurbani far and wide. Pyarelal Wadali, 75, passed away on Friday due to a cardiac arrest.
Exhilarating rhythms and refrains, and intricate yet delicate improvisations have been the hallmark of the Wadali Brothers. Their performances have found packed halls in India and abroad, especially in Pakistan. While Puranchand, 77, who trained under legends like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of Patiala gharana and Pt Durga Das, was an expert in elaborate improvisational techniques, he had a relatively coarse voice to go with his training. Pyarelal, who was trained by Puranchand, had a crystal clear timbre. The two voices made for a delightful combination and delivered Sufi poetry like no one had after Ut Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the region. Be it their famous attempt of Bulleh Shah’s Ghunghat chak o sajna and Charkha, or their version of Amir Khusrau’s Dama dam mast qalandar, Wadali Brothers created melody, fervour and love for the divine and appealed to audiences across the board. This would now be incomplete without Pyarelal.
Pakistan-based singer Javed Bashir, who spoke to The Indian Express from London, said that he kept coming back to what he heard from them. “There was something unique about Wadali Brothers. While we in Pakistan mostly speak their language and their Punjabi is so similar to our dialect, yet musically, they were some of the finest. The intricacy in the qalams, where they included Hindustani classical elements in Sufi, was so beautifully done. From the entire avaam of Pakistan, I send my prayers to your country in the hope that this god’s messenger rests in peace.”
Wadali Brothers began their career in 1975, nearly 25 years after Puranchand began wrestling in an akhara, and Pyarelal acted in the local ramleela. In a previous interview to this reporter, he said: “They always made me Krishna. I’m dark and that’s what was needed. I never enjoyed it much”. Their father, a musician, pushed them towards music and the duo was to debut at the famed Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan in Jalandhar in 1975 but were denied entry, as the organisers thought that the two, in their simple cotton kurta pyjama, weren’t worthy of being on stage. The brothers then decided to sing the prayers at the Harballabh temple, where an AIR official spotted them and decided to record them. “Pyarelal ji was a lovely human being. Even though the Wadali Brothers achieved so much musically, the two brothers lived in Guru ki Wadali, on simple food. I was a part of varied festivals with them and their humility is something I won’t forget,” said Punjabi singer Jasbir Jassi.
Wadali Brothers also found much popularity in the mainstream through songs like Rangrez and Tu maane ya na maane, which in the past few years have also became touchstones of Sufi mausiqi due to their intelligent writing and rendition. While they mostly performed together, in the last few years, Puranchand had also begun to perform with his son Lakhwinder Wadali. Wadali Brothers is a term that’s as iconic as it is heavyweight. It will not be the same again.