At the Altar of Praise
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Bhai Balbir Singh is the first singer of the Golden Temple to win a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.
Seven-year-old Bhai Balbir Singh sang for the first time at the gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Tarn Taran, about 22km from Amritsar. His father, a hazoori ragi (religious singer) had been tutoring him in Gurmat Sangeet (hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib) for over two years. The main ragi of the gurdwara, his father's student, asked him to take over the singing of the kirtans while he went to relieve himself, since there was no other singer as standby. Singh began reciting the only shabad (hymn) he could remember. "People gave me silver coins and I was so pleased. I thought I was getting paid for my singing," says Singh.
At 80, he is the only singer from the Golden Temple, Amritsar, to be conferred the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. His Gurbani kirtans (songs from the holy book) have won him the award in the category of "other major traditions of music".
Singh comes from a family of singers. "My family has the honour of serving in the temple for four centuries. One of my forefathers, Hari Ram, used to sing kirtans in the durbar of Guru Arjan Dev Ji, (the fifth of the 10 Sikh Gurus)," says Singh. He was a household name when he sang at the Golden Temple from 1955 to 1991.
"Once, I was invited to gurdwara Hazrur Sahib in Nanded, Maharashtra, to perform kirtans for the then Prime Minister. "I was told I would only have five minutes. So when it was time, I began singing but stopped after five minutes. The PM, sitting a few yards away, asked why the singing stopped and urged us to continue. Finally, an hour and 40 minutes later, I had to ask for permission to stop," he says, his eyes twinkling.