By Vidya Pradhan
He is a quiet phenomenon. Dya Singh may not be part of the spiritual mainstream yet, but the jovial singer attracts capacity crowds as he makes his way around the world, singing shabads, kirtans, bhajans and semi-classical film songs with the underlying purpose of spreading truth and goodness. The message is simple, the delivery full of joy and music.
I attended a special performance by Dya Singh and his multi-ethnic troupe at the Sunnyvale Temple last week. Accompanying him were his daughter Parvyn and three of his finest musicians – Dheeraj Shrestha, Andrew Clermont and Josh Bennett. Even with such a small entourage, through sheer strength of talent and creativity, the evening was rich with both musical substance and spiritual feeling. The songs ranged from a multi-religious chant( the audience provided the choruses of “Hare Ram” and “Allahu Akbar”) and a fiery, improvised version of Man Tarpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj that had us clapping several times through the performance. The solo riffs by the talented accompanists were breath-taking as they switched between the didgeridoo and the mandolin, dilruba and guitar. Parvyn’s pure voice provided a haunting harmony to the powerful vocals of Dya Singh.
I chatted with the singer a few minutes before the show began to find out a little more about what makes this energizing personality tick.
Your father was a big influence on you. I read that he was part of a Sikh ministry in Malaysia.
DS:Well, the word is minstrel. Minstrel to me means a musical preacher who is on the movie. The Malaysian Sikh community hired my father, Giani Harchand Singh Bassian to come and become the preacher in the community. In Malaysia there are 147 gurudwaras as the community goes back to about 1890. The Sikhs came as a police force for the British. They loved the weather and decided to settle there.
How do you maintain the Sikh identity after 5 generations in a foreign country?
DS:The reason why we were able to do it was because we didn’t have the external pressures that we have in western countries. Malaysia being a Muslim country, we were not heavily influenced by television, radio, etc. Also because of people like my father, there was a lot of influence on the younger children. Our parents were very dedicated, pious people and they made sure we had the right influences in our lives.
Is it easier to maintain the culture in Sikhism, rather than, say Hinduism?
DS:Not necessarily. I would say it is harder because you have an external identity to worry about. Once you are proud of what you are, once it is an identity you relate to, it is not difficult.
What is the guiding principle of Sikhism?
DS:I think the big principle is what we have on our tee-shirt. ( If you don’t see God in all, you don’t see God at all). That has become my biggest motivation. You must be able to see God in everyone. If you can’t do that, that creates a problem. If you can preserve your identity, but at the same time accept every other identity as equal to yours, that is the heart of our philosophy. That has been the saving grace of Sikhism.
Don’t forget that in our scriptures, we have over thirty sages writing in our Sri Guru Granth Sahib who were both Hindu and Muslim. And high caste and low caste. Our Guru Sahibs accepted whatever writing was true to the spirit of Sikhism. We bow to the Guru Granth Sahib. That means we accept every faith, every thought, as long as it is in the pursuit of truth.
How did you distill your message over the years?
DS:I think that the simple answer is that I have 3 daughters of my own and I am bringing them up in western countries. I wanted to communicate what I learned from my parents across to the younger generation at a time when they were under a tremendous amount of societal pressure. I wanted to put it across in a way that made sense to them. So in the process of teaching them, it became a mission that this was something I could do for other youngsters as well. And the medium is music.
But the music( shabads and kirtans) has a language barrier. How do you overcome that?
DS(laughing):Amazingly enough, music is the one tool that does not have a language barrier. The strength is the music, not what I am saying. Take the word mantra. Mantra means magic. It is like a magic potion. They know I am singing about goodness and truth and it is coming from the heart. Our first concert in the US was in the university in Chico. The 500 seat auditorium was packed with Americans and I started singing gurbani. All I do(in my performances) is say one or two lines in the beginning of each song to explain what it is all about – then I invite the audience to jump on the vehicle and go. Music has that power. That is the reason the Guru Granth Sahib is set to music.
I was not aware of that.
DS:All Guru Nanak did was sing. He had two followers – one was Mardana, a Muslim and the other was Bala, a Hindu and they sat under a tree and started singing. That’s what he did all his life. I am doing the same thing, 500 years later.
There are no discourses, just music?
DS:No. Sometimes if I am moved, I try to explain in the middle of a song. If I feel like it, just spontaneously, I’ll stop and talk about what I am singing.
You experiment a lot with the music. Are the lyrics pure to the original gurbani?
DS:They are very important. One stipulation from our 'Gurus' that is upon us when we sing gurbani is that it must be pure, because that is the mantra. I also sing old Hindi songs and bhajans.
There is a lot of classical influence in the music. I was not under the impression that gurbani had such a classical element to it.
DS:The Sri Guru Granth Sahib is written in 31 ragas with 66 variations. It is set to music. Gurbani is written to ragas! Unfortunately, we don’t have the level of musicians that can produce the depth that is required to render gurbani. The final destination for me is to present the simple 31 gurbani shabads in the 31 ragas they were written. And I want to do it in a modern way. The raga should not take over the shabad.
Does it keep evolving?
DS:It cannot be static. As time goes on, the instrumentation evolves as well. How are you going to connect with the younger generation if you do not evolve with them? I tell my musicians that I am not interested in the purity of the raga; I am interested in their spirit showing in the music they play. To me there is no such thing as a wrong note.
How successful have you been in your original mission, to communicate your message to your own children?
DS:The reflection of the communication that I have done with my children is reflected in my grandchildren. My grandchildren sit with me and sing. My greatest joy is when they want to join me on stage to sing. The other important thing to me, at the end of the day, is that the outward signs of faith are less important than what they feel inside. That is what I have been able to achieve with my children.
do you do in the youth camps you hold frequently?
DS:Exactly what I do with my kids. We held a youth camp recently in Sacramento. We sat down and recited the Mool Mantra in Raga Bilaval. The kids enjoyed themselves. We did the scales and the parents sat there with their mouths open, unable to believe that their kids could sit for so long and sing in a gurudwara. It is the attraction of the music.
What is the significance of gurbani to non-Sikhs?
DS:The message is universal. Gurbani is really the message. I’ll tell you the main things that gurbani says – love thy neighbor, always go for truth, do naam simran( meditation), make sure you eat the right things, make sure you do not drink the wrong things.
That sounds like common sense.
DS:That is all it is. It is the job of Sikhs to keep dishing it out to everyone. It is like the Vedas or Puranas. It is advice for us to lead good lives. Just like the Vedas and Puranas are applicable to the whole world, so is gurbani.
Is spreading the message an important tenet of Sikhism?
DS:Yes it is. It is very important because you want to spread goodness throughout the planet. There is a lot of evil in this planet, so spread goodness. Do not proselytize, just spread the word – Truth. Nanak said – ‘Truth is the highest virtue. Higher still is truthful living’
There have been Americans who have converted to Sikhism.
DS:Yes, Yogi Bhajan is one of the well known Sikhs in the west. I think being a Sikh is a status symbol as well. Youngsters want to be different, find some meaning. The image of a Sikh, dressed in all his resplendent glory, is something unique. Where Yogi Bhajan was concerned, he advocated vegetarianism, he was a very strict follower of Sikhism. So much so that he is a shining example to us now. His followers live such a pure life, it is a model for us.
I asked him why his name was spelt Dya when the usual spelling is Daya. "According to me, Daya is a male midwife," jokes Dya Singh. "I'd rather be merciful than a midwife."
More info about Dya SIngh and CDs for purchase can be found at his website, http://dyasinghworldmusicgroup.com.