Songs of Kuldeep Manak: Fragrance of Punjabi Soil

In Punjab and Rajasthan, folk singers belong to mostly Muslim religion. First example is of Mardana the disciple of Guru Nanak who played the Rabab when Guru sang the praises 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. Also they have become so attached to Sikhism that from their outlook supporting the turban and beard, no one distinguish them from being the Sikhs.

Among these folk singers was Kuldeep Manak who hailed from Jalal village in the Bathinda district. 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. 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 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 place. 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 Rajputs 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 in 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.

Raja Asraj

There are stories which are popular in a culture as they appeal the masses. In Punjab, there are so many Quissas, stories told by Bards which have become permanently etched in the psyche.

Take for example the love tales. There are stories of Heer Ranjha, Sassi Punnu, Mirza Sahiban. All have tragic endings, these are stories of sacrifice in the love. The duos could not face the opposition of their families and society and ended their lives.

These ballads are sung in one form or the other. There is another genre in Punjab that extols the acts of bravery or chivalry of the heroes of the Punjab. The style is called “vaar”. It has simple unsophisticated verse tuned to few musical instruments and sung in highly charged pitch so that it could be easily understood by the village folks.  Some examples are Dulla Bhatti and Sikh vaars.

One such is the story of Raja Asraj. Not much is known about where he dwelt in his lifetime. But due to his honesty and pious and kind heart, his story is sung in the form of Vaar and the Dhun (tune) was so much liked by Guru Arjan Dev that he tuned the famous recital called “Asa ki vaar” to be rendered according to Asraje Dhun or tune.

Asraj was the son of King Sarang from his first wife. King fell for another woman and married her. Second wife was very young many years younger than the king. The story is somewhat similar to another story relating to Puran Bhagat which is also very popular. New wife of the king happened to see handsome Asraj and instantly fell in love. But Asraj did not took any interest and  stayed firm in his faith and beliefs. When the queen’s motivations did not succeed she accused the prince of sexual assault to have the revenge. The King did not see the truth and ordered his son to be done to death. He also ordered the executioner to bring back severed limb as a proof.  There might be another reason though. Step mother did not want her step son to become the future king and desired instead one of her own sons to succeed the king in place of Asraj.

King’s advisor was a wise man so he decided to cut off a hand of the prince instead of getting him killed. After his hand was cut off he was left alone in a jungle near a well. Some merchants passed from that place and one of those merchants took Asraj along and sold him to a laundry man in another town of different kingdom.

Asraj started spending his time working in his owner’s home. The king of that province passed away without leaving anyone to succeed him. Since the king did not have any children, it was decided by the advisers that whosoever comes to the door of the province first shall be crowned the next king. As the providence would have it, Asraj happened to the first person and was made the king of that province.

Since he belonged to the royal family, he managed the kingdom affairs very efficiently. Public was very happy. There was a drought in the region and people died of hunger but his populace was unaffected because Asraj has the wisdom to kept a large stock of food grains.  Merchants of other countries started coming to Asraj’s country to buy grain. The advisor of his father who saved Asraj from death also came and Asraj recognized him. Asraj met and served him with great love and friendliness. He also sent a lot of grain to his father without taking any price.

When that adviser reached his country he told the king the story of Asraj becoming the king and motivated him to transfer his kingdom over to Asraj. The king had also realized the reality so he accepted his adviser’s virtuous advice and sent an invitation to his son.

When Asraj’s stepson Sardool Rai found out his father’s plan, he along with his cousin Sultaan Rai took on Asraj. In the ensuing battle Asraj came out victorious. After winning Asraj approached to meet his father and his father transferred his kingdom over to him. Asraj then ruled over both countries.

Bards composed a Vaar in his honour. It is called Tunde Asraje ki Vaar. Tunda in Punjabi means without one hand since one hand of Asraj was chopped by the adviser when his father had ordered him to be killed. Famous Asa ki Vaar which is recited in every Gurudwara in the morning is based on the this raag.

Dulla Bhatti: More than a Robinhood

Dulla Bhatti is a famous folklore hero of Punjab. Punjab means here the erstwhile Punjab of undivided India. His ballad called Dulle Di Vaar (Ballad of Dulla) is very popular in the rural area of Punjab. It extols the deeds of his extraordinary bravery in the form of songs. I still remember in our younger days, the ballad sung by folk singer Kuldeep Manak was a craze in whole of Punjab.

He is seen like Robinhood, who was savior of the poor and helpless, rescuer of the young girls abducted by Mogul soldiers during their raids. Dulla was a contemporary of Great Akbar. His real name was Rai Abdullah Khan Bhatti, was a famous legendary muslim Rajput who refused to be subdued by the Governors of Akbar in Punjab.

The bravery of the Rajputs is well known world over. His father was hanged by Akbar to instill a fear in the hearts of the Punjabi Rajputs who refused to submit to his rule. At that time Dulla was not born and somehow the truth of his father’s death was not told to him by his mother till he became a handsome and dashing youth. He vowed to take revenge from Akbar and for a time Akbar’s son Salim who had revolted against his father on the disapproval of his infatuation with Anarkali, sided with Dulla and even incited him. Dulla began by looting the horses from a trader who worked for Akbar. Then he looted the valuables sent by Akbar to Middle East and distributed them to the poor and needy people.  Such was the level of resistance put up by Rai Abdullah Khan that Akbar had to shift his capital from Delhi to Lahore for nearly 20 years, making the Lahore Fort his headquarters, and renovating its basic structure.

Akbar wanted to capture Dulla dead or alive and brought to his capital. He dispatched two of his able generals; Meerza Ala-ud-din and Meerza Zia-ud-din with the command of over 12000 troops. The army reached Dullah’s village but could not find him. Due to his Robin Hood personality, Dullah was popular among masses. Akbar had ordered the generals to bring Dullah, dead or alive and failing that, bring the women of his house to the court. In obedience of the orders, the army secured the women and started marching towards Lahore.

When word reached Dullah, he charged back. The two sides fought with courage but the Moghul army was soon on the run. The generals begged Ladhi, mother of Dulla, for their life, who then ordered Dullah to forgive them. After the shameful defeat, the Moghuls invited him for talks and deceitfully arrested him. Upholding tradition, he was kept for a while at the Shahi Qila and was hanged in front of Kotwali, a police station now marks the place. His funeral was administered by the Sufi poet, Shah Hussain.