Nusrat's Heir: Dya Singh

He was born in Malaysia, completed his professional education in the UK, lives in Australia and sings Indian music. And that's only the smaller 'fusion' story of Dya Singh's life. The real fusion story, which has now become his legacy, is his music. With the spirit of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to reach a wider audience and a mellow voice that reminds you of Jagjit Singh, he mostly sings devotional music in traditional raga format, complete with translations in English. Sounds impossible, but its true, and the admirers Dya Singh has won worldwide bear testimony to his uniquely blended style.

"I'm not very religious", he says, "but I'm a strong advocate of spirituality. I want my audience to be touched, even if they don't understand a word of what I'm singing. I want to touch their soul, specially the younger people." A typical Dya Singh concert will have shabads, bhajans, ghazals, sufi qawwalis and old Hindi songs. And typically each of the renditions is accompanied by a full translation in English for those who don't follow the language. Dya says," I regard music as a vehicle to spread the message and the best medium to use is English. So although I sing Gurbani, I explain the essence in English and try to connect with the audience". Which probably explains why he also has his fair share of detractors. He has been accused of singing Kirtan at unconventional places, to atypical audiences, without much regard to the accepted norms of singing and listening to Kirtan.

But it's obviously an attractive package for youth and the non-Sikh community at large, if his concerts are any yardstick to go by. Most recently Dya Singh's group performed to packed audiences on the sidelights of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Every show was applauded, many people touched. According to him, the best moment of the whole event was when he received a phone call from the Chief Minister of Delhi, Mrs. Shiela Dixit who was in Melbourne to accept the Commonwealth Games Federation flag as the host of the next Games. "Hearing that this regal lady is my fan, who I had greatly admired as the only lady on stage among all the officials during the Closing Ceremony of the Melbourne Games, was my crowning glory indeed", says Dya.

His accompanying musicians come from all parts of the globe and so do the musical instruments. As his Irish bouzouki player, Keith Preston says," our tag line is, we take Sikh music to the world and bring world music to the Sikhs". Therefore, you have traditional Indian instruments like harmonium, santoor, tabla and dilruba going hand in hand with bouzouki, guitar, bohdran (Irish war drum), violin, flute and the didgeridoo, an aboriginal Australian wind instrument. In fact, the first ever album they recorded was called Australian Sikh rhythm and soul and the genre was "mystical music".

Dya believes in giving each of his musicians a free flow, so every now and then, a raga might be followed by a typical rhythms and blues piece on the guitar. He doesn't seem to set any parameters for his accompanists, which makes the music more exciting and unexpected. "I don't want them to blindly imitate Indian music. They imbibe the spirit of our music and cross-pollinate it with their own creativity".

Says Keith, who also plays the santoor and the bohdran apart from the bouzouki, "Dya's music is not like Bhangra music or other commercial music. You can't manufacture this music or create a formula to copy it. Frankly I don't think any other musician has Dya's ability to collaborate so effectively with other musicians and to communicate so freely with a non-Indian audience".

But fusion wasn't always the mantra for Dya. As a child, he remembers accompanying his father Harchand Singh, singing shabad kirtan in Malaysia. "My father had learnt kirtan from sadhus in India before he went on to learn the ragas, so his style was very folksy. That was my first musical influence". As he grew, Dya remembers imitating all the famous singers like Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar, often featuring on the local radio stations at eleven or twelve years of age, singing the latest Hindi songs back then. "Growing up in Malaysia was wonderful for me because I was open to all influences. In any case my father never restrained my creativity and always encouraged me to imbibe various musical styles".

But equally, his father never encouraged him to become a professional singer or ragi, so soon he found himself in the UK, completing a degree to become a chartered accountant. Thereafter, he migrated to Australia and ran a thriving practice for many years. But then, something happened that made him give up his practice forever and devote his life to music instead. "After the events of 1984, I just wanted to do something for my community. I wanted to show the world that Sikhs are non-violent, that we are not terrorists. I knew I had the gift of the voice and decided to use it."

So in 1992, Dya Singh's group formally came together to embark on a musical journey, from which they have never looked back since. "Had I continued as a chartered accountant, I might have made my millions, but I wouldn't have had the satisfaction that I feel so deeply today. That, to me, is invaluable". Seeing him make that statement at his simple yet elegant home in Melbourne, one doesn't have much trouble in believing that he really does mean it.

Dya's group has traveled to many countries in the world and performed at venues ranging from humble homes to mandirs, gurudwaras, halls and even iconic venues like Royal Albert Hall. They have performed in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Kenya, Tanzania, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and of course Australia. Regular performers at Adelaide's famous world music festival Womadelaide -- where Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a frequent performer too-- they were named World Music group twice in Adelaide and awarded "Vocalist of the Year" at World Music Awards in Sydney in 2000. The subject of many documentary movies, he has been featured on Australian television a number of times.

But it hasn't always been accolades and bouquets for Dya and his group. The accusations and brickbats have also followed them around. Purists think he is too radical, even heretical, performing shabad kirtan on open stages, alongside other music. "I have got into a fair amount of hot water for my singing. Some people love us, some hate us and some have even banned us", he admits. So does that bother him? "It used to, before", says Dya, "but not anymore. At first I felt, that it would be the end of me. But slowly I realized that I had a different objective. There are thousands of ragis out there to sing in the gurudwaras but I sing for the mainstream. Also, how are we to reach those who do not go to gurdwaras? Well I sing 'Gursangeet' for those who don't".

Even Keith Preston says," Dya is probably more accepted by the white community in Australia than the Sikhs. But I think he has done more to bridge the gap between Sikhs and non-Sikhs around the world, much more than any other singer even aspires to. Dya is no saint, he's just an ordinary guy but he is unique. Even if you don't agree with his form of music, you must give him credit for what he has achieved".

Even Dya doesn't make any false pretences about his role as a singer. "I'm not a Ragi or a 'kirtani', I just follow the aspiration of my soul. My target audience is in the mainstream, especially among the youth of the world. I don't want to convert anyone but am conscious of the universal truth as revealed by Guru Nanak. I believe if the youngsters of today connect with their own spirituality, they would appreciate life more and have a better value system".

So what's next? "Well, I've never consciously set any milestones or goals for myself. My main desire was to produce one CD and now I have 16. Everything else is now a bonus." But he is looking forward to performing in India, something he has deliberately avoided up to now, in search for the right occasion. Right now, he is working on a CD called "The Other Side", which is purely based on ghazals and sufi kalaams. But his ultimate satisfaction comes from the fact that he is "leaving a strong legacy of music behind". Dya says, "I have presented a different, more palatable music for the younger generation. After I'm gone, at least one of my daughters will pick up the threads and give purpose and direction to this form of music".

So while some people credit him with starting a 'quiet revolution' in the world of traditional Punjabi music and some others despise the 'pop' status he has given to religious music, the fact remains that Dya Singh is a contemporary musician who has reinterpreted devotional music for a modern audience. He is a proud father of three daughters Jamel, Parvyn and Harsel, who have also taken an active part in this evolution process. Having lived in Adelaide for over two decades, he now lives a life of contentment in Melbourne, both as a musician and as a doting grandfather of two little children. His wife Jessie, a committed rights activist is a global traveler, involved with many NGOs around the world. She says," Dya has the gift of music and I have the gift of the gab. We both try to use it in the best way we can."

And that is undisputable - whether you like Dya's brand of music or not, its hard to remain untouched by it. It is both soothing and stirring at the same time, and above all, it is original - and probably that in itself is his biggest achievement.

Courtesy: India Today

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