In North India particularly Punjab and Rajasthan, traditionally folk singers belonged to mostly Muslim communities. Foremost example is that of Mardana, the disciple of Guru Nanak, who played the Rabab when Guru sang the hymns of the God. He along with Bala were constant companions of the Guru and accompanied him on his sojourns far and wide. The tradition continued and many of the famous singers in Punjab claim to be the descendants of Mardana thorugh many generations. Also they have become so attached to Sikhism that from their outlook supporting the turban and beard, no one distinguishes them from being the Sikhs.
Among these folk singers was Kuldeep Manak who hailed from Jalal village in the Bathinda district of Punjab. He was born in 1951 and died in 2011. His father and forefathers were singers who sang in the Gurudwaras. His original name was Latif Mohammad which he later changed to Kuldeep Singh. Manak is an honorific which the then chief minister of Punjab, Sardar Partap Singh Kairon bestowed on him. Manak is any precious gem. He supported the turban. For about 30 years from the age of 17, he was undoubtedly the king of folk in Punjab. Like when Sun shines, the stars fade away, other singers did not stand anywhere near him in comparison except Surinder Shinda.
His voice was like the jangling of silver coins-pure and rustic. Bathinda borders Rajasthan and is a very dry and dusty area. There are frequent sand storms in the evening after the intense heat in the day time. The wind howls in the alleys and sand covers many things. One of the lyricists described his voice like the wind blowing during the storm-raw and hitting straight your heart. Since he sang the subjects related to folk stories and religion, he was immensely popular in the countryside. People were crazy about his songs. He sang a genre of folk music called Kalian and was called the Badshah of Kalian.
His songs cover so many popular and even unheard of Quissas-the stories of valor and love-which include Heer Ranjha, Laila Majnu, Mirza Sahiban, Kima Malki, Sassi Punnu as the love stories, Banda Singh Bahadur, Dulla Bhatti the Muslim Rajput who drove Akbar to such a desperation that he had to shift his base from Agra to Punjab to quell the Dulla, Jaimal Phatta-two Hindu Rajput brothers who refused to give their daughter to Akbar in marriage just like the parents of Jodha Bai did, Jagga Daku the Robinhood of Punjab and the death of Kehar Singh by his mother-in-law and brother-in-laws for the greed of money.
Further, his songs based on the religious stories like Sarwan of Ramayana who carried his blind parents from place to place for pilgrimage and was killed by an arrow from Raja Dashrath the father of Lord Rama, Pooran bhagat who was thrown into a well on the orders of his father King Salwan on the false charges made by King’s young wife Loona, subsequent rescue of Pooran by Guru Gorakhnath and his becoming a saint, then Raja Rasalu who was Pooran’s step brother born to the same Loona with the blessings of Pooran. The songs are replete with such stories.
The credit for his fame also goes to lyricist Dev Threekawala. The duo had a great rapport and churned out all this famous stuff. The winning quality of his songs was very simple and rustic language which tugged at the strings of the hearts of the simple village folks.
He was buried after death according to Muslim traditions. There were reports in the media that his wife who belongs to Sikh community tried to excavate his grave and to perform last rites in Hindu tradition but was prevented by the villagers.