The Icon of Multicultural Australia
By Neeru Saluja
T H E I N D I A N D O W N U N D E R
He is the icon of multiculturalism in Australia, spreading the universal message of harmony and love through the language of music.
Blending North Indian music with western folk, he captivates his audience with his mystic charm. A revolutionary in Sikh music, Dya Singh, based in Adelaide, is internationally acclaimed for creating a new form of traditional music.
Originally from Malaysia, Dya Singh learnt the art of singing from his father, a Sikh spiritual minstrel. At the tender age of five, he was accompanying his father in the gurdwaras and in 1992 he formed his own group.
Till now, his achievements include tours to USA, England, Canada, Singapore, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and all around Australia, release of fourteen CDs and four cassettes.
His World Music group has appeared at major Australian arts folk and music festivals, community and special events and he has been voted South Australia's leading musician several times as well as being voted leading male Australian World Music artist in 2000.
Truly, he is a non-resident Indian well set in his traditions and it's a matter of pride that he was chosen to perform at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne for four performances.
Amidst his performances at the Games, Dya Singh took time to speak to The Indian Down Under. Here are the excerpts from the interview:
You have performed all over the world in music festivals but it’s the first time you're representing the arts and culture of India at an international sports event. How did you feel while performing in the Commonwealth Games?
It is an exciting feeling for me because I am born Malaysian, but with a very rich Indian (Punjabi) heritage and a good grounding in Sikh traditional music which is strongly linked to North Indian classical and Punjabi folk music.
I am equally conscious and proud of the fact that the Prime Minister of India is a very upright, honest and dignified Sikh gentleman, Dr. Manmohan Singh - a fine example for the Sikhs and all the Indians worldwide.
My daughters, who also dance very well, are two generations removed from India, yet strongly very Sikh in their background. The group represents the multicultural face of Australia but the backbone of our music is Punjabi, north Indian. This is momentous, that we performed at these games representing multicultural Australia and helped to usher in the next games which are going to be in India. I find this very exciting.
You've performed all over the world, but not in your home country, India. Why so? Do non-resident Indians appreciate your music more than Indians born and brought up in India?
The opportunities have not come our way yet to tour India. As India opens out more, to the west especially, I think we will do very well in India given the chance. It takes a sponsor or organiser to get these things happening.
In our performances, audience and congregations are normally addressed in English as primarily I am trying to reach the youth and urging them to appreciate and involve themselves more in their rich heritage and quality of life. Because of this, Indians - well, mainly Punjabi Sikhs who do not speak English - find that a little disconcerting, but generally, Indians, especially, of course, those who speak and understand English and youth do enjoy our renditions.
Purists of Indian classical and folk music are not always too happy with us because we do not always stick to classical or folk, or bhajans or shabads or ghazals in their traditional or conventional form. Nevertheless, we use these forms, basically, to present ourselves as a multicultural group and as music into the future. In the process, perhaps, make it more palatable to youth and mixed audiences. It will be a tremendous challenge to present ourselves in India when the opportunity comes.
Tell us more about your group – surprisingly it has many non-Indians. How were they attracted towards your genre of music?
My fellow group members, from diverse backgrounds, are my equal colleagues and we are one family. We enjoy each other’s company and they all complement the music of my background. Dya Singh, the group, certainly has a diverse representation. There is Dheeraj Shrestha, of Nepalese origins, arguably one of the best tabla exponents in the world; Andrew Clermont of German extract, playing the violin (Anglo-Celtic style), the guitar and also the didgeridoo; Keith Preston, born in England of Irish background plays the (Greek) bouzouki and Irish bohdran and Indian/Kashmiri santoor; Quentin Eyers plays guitar and didgeridoo; Joshua Bennett from Adelaide plays guitar and the Punjabi dilruba; and latest addition, Lucy Langham, also from Adelaide, plays the European flute. And last, but most importantly, my three daughters, who are my life and vocal backing.
I guess our music has a depth, a strong message of universal truth, reflective, non-denominational yet joyous. It has tradition but tradition without rigidity. This is simply because the message is universal and I like to believe that our music is universal and with depth. I think the soul likes what we present!
How do people react to your music, especially non-Indians?
We have made quite a mark in western folk and arts festivals and amongst spiritually inclined groups like the multi-faith or inter-faith movement. We do not have the required kind of talent or perhaps sex appeal for the 'pop' or 'teeny-bopper' culture! But certainly amongst audiences of discerning music and especially world music, I think we are well accepted and have quite a good following. We are, I will say, pretty popular in the 'folk' scene as reflected by CD sales.
As an example of our flexibility and acceptance by non-Sikhs especially, last September we were supposed to do a concert in the main mandir hall in Nairobi, Kenya, but after the organisers came to see us do kirtan in the gurdwara, they insisted that we do our concert in the mandir itself which was a tremendous honour and greatly enjoyed by a mixed congregation of over 300!
You're an Indian brought up in Malaysia. How was it growing in a non-Indian culture? Was it difficult keeping in touch with your roots, how did you create a balance?
I will probably get criticised for saying this, but to be honest from what I have seen and experienced regularly visiting north India over the last fifty years, I think I have had less problems in keeping in touch with my roots than Indians themselves living in India.
Honestly, I believe Indians living overseas perhaps have a greater concern and make greater positive efforts to keep themselves and especially their children in touch with their roots. I have had no problems keeping in touch with my roots with a strong family background and you can see what I am involved in. Either one believes in the value of one’s background or one doesn't. You can be totally westernised and forget your roots living in Bombay as much as retaining your roots and culture living in Sydney.
Whom do you idolise and see as your guru?
I have a number of mentors or gurus. I am of course firstly, a Sikh - so my Sikh gurus are foremost. Don't forget that they were great musicians themselves. The Guru Granth Sahib, our Guru and scriptures, is written in music!
My immediate mentor was my own venerable father, Giani Harchand Singh. A number of other Sikh ragis, for example, Bhai Dharam Singh, Shumsher Singh Jakhmi and Bhai Sahib Bhai Avtar Singh Ji (who is still alive and well, and well into his eighties) are my main mentors.
My current mentor and idol is ghazal singer Jagjit Singh and the late Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I have also had the honour of spending some time with Anoop Jalota - I like his bhajans very much. As you can see I have a wide spectrum of Gurus.
Despite your popularity with Sikh and non-Sikh audiences, you remain controversial with some traditional Sikhs. Why do you think there is a need for your type of Gurbani singing?
I am a product of the Sikh diaspora. I have seen Sikh music and songs (kirtan) stagnate, and in fact go backwards and totally out of touch with the need of today's Sikh youth. It needed a 'pop' feel, yet without losing its spiritual and traditional essence. So, amongst the purists, our style of gurbani singing remains on the edge and allows for great debates and discussions and unfortunately, sometimes, arguments.
Nevertheless, I keep the purists and traditionalists guessing because I do have a fairly good traditional and classical background and some of our renditions reflect that - yet, we have a very popular following amongst Sikhs and non-Sikhs, especially Sikh youth. So, I guess, I am achieving my aim and in the process, nourishing my own soul.
Hopefully our style is a doorway for listeners to perhaps start appreciating the beauty of traditional Sikh gurbani singing. I will say over 90 per cent of gurbani singing in gurdwaras does not reflect true gurbani kirtan. Our style of kirtan is a glimpse perhaps of traditional soulful kirtan as presented by the living legends like Bhai Sahib Avtar Singh and perhaps, in my opinion, five or six other such groups from India.
Can you tell us a little bit about your recordings to date?
Well, we have, I think, at the last count about 16 albums. Some of 'world music' and some of kirtan. Australian Sikh Rhythm & Soul was our first live stage album. We have done numerous gurbani kirtan albums.
Last year we did a four CD compilation of kirtan which is very popular. We have also done a children's kirtan album called Dyasinghalong which is being developed into a karaoke DVD.
Our most recent album is a live recording called Live at the Lion done last September. I have just completed a very traditional sounding morning prayer double album called Asa Di Var. We also have the daily Sikh prayers – morning and evening in contemporary and modern style which is a bit of a hit with children. Unfortunately, we do not have a reputable international distributor as yet but they are all available from internet.
The language of music has no barriers. What message do you want to give to your audience through your music?
Our music and message is one of love, acceptance and equality. Yes, our message is also a spiritual one. Our theme is, If you do not see God in all, you do not see God at all.