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Wadali Brothers Resurrection of Sufi

The loss of Ustad Pyarelal Wadali drew the curtains on the legendary Wadali Brothers, who have enlivened India's musical legacy with their evocative singing and profound thinking, writes Sidhartha Mukherjee.

Some events are etched in the inner recesses of one's mind – as if a skilled surgeon has sculpted the brain with a scalpel. It was one of those chilly winter evenings, sometime in the late-eighties, in the dew-laden grass topped garden of Rabindra Bhavan at Mandi House, Delhi—there was an open-air music conference to celebrate the birthday of Rabindranath Tagore – a motley crowd of music aficionados were getting ready for a long haul. The audience had essentially gathered to hear the great Kishori Amonkar who was scheduled to come onstage in the wee hours with her famed Morning Ragas. As normally happens during intermissions, the audience was becoming a tad bit impatient as they waited for that rare glimpse of the great Gaana Saraswati from Bombay, in one of her rare appearances in Delhi. Most were busy in either fetching bottles of water or just standing up to rest their cramped legs. At that moment of ennui among the culture vulture Delhi crowd, imagine the general consternation when they heard the emcee announce that some Wadali Brothers would, in the meanwhile, perform Sufi numbers. As a further challenge to their forbearance, what could surely be considered a rather eager beaver move –two burly, moustachioed, rustic, lungi clad gentlemen with oil-slicked hair, ascended the stage. The sound technicians, in the meanwhile, were busy with their routine, fiddling with the equipment purportedly to fine tune it to the exacting standards of Padma Vibhushan, Kishori Amonkar. Many close to the stage were bemused to hear the younger one of the duo expostulate that if it was getting difficult to set the equipment they could perform even without it. At that point, the light-hearted banter was entirely lost to the crowd, although it later transpired into a perfectly practical suggestion. Most pundits had initially sneered – what blasphemy is this?
When the raspy voice of the elder brother belted out an exploratory taan, it felt as if a Ducati had revved up and suddenly, a perceptible hush fell. Not many amongst those present had heard such a unique voice before. It was as though someone had caught them by the collar and compelled them to listen up; such was the force of the sonorous roar. Rarely had those who had assembled on that fateful evening, ever encountered a voice which was filled with raw, unbridled passion while being mellifluous, at the same time. The earthiness of the voice coupled with the obvious classical overtones of the initial Aalap was unique and everyone instantly realised that they were in the presence of skilled exponents, who had mastered Ragas as well as the authentic Bols. It was a unique experience for the average Delhi audience, then. Although many present were well versed with Qawwali singing, this was so different that it succeeded in creating the Sama instantly. For the next hour and a half, the audience listened in rapt attention to the most unlikely looking singers -- one could be more at home in the wrestling ring or a heavy duty truck cabin. The Wadali Brothers - Puran Chand Wadali and his younger brother Pyare Lal Wadali, on that evening, had sung with the vigour and flair seldom witnessed in Delhi's open-air concerts. Most present were mesmerised by the performance and during its conclusion, had risen in unison to award a thunderous ovation. The effect of their performance compelled many to become dedicated fans for life.
Cut to Birla Sabhaghar in Kolkata, in the late-nineties — a predominantly Bengali crowd, which understandably was not well-versed with Punjabi or Urdu, were enthralled in a scintillating evening of Sufi music with the solemn lyrics of the respected Gurus and Murshids. During a corporate event at the venerable Kamani Auditorium, New Delhi, a couple of years ago, the joy de vivre of the Wadali Brothers came forth vividly when Ustad Puranchand Wadali told the light technicians not to dim the lights in the auditorium, as is the convention in concerts. They wanted to engage with their loving audience as their requirement was to be one with them. What followed was an enthralling evening of pure Sufi singing by the great Wadali Brothers.
The duo was what legends are made of; imagine the elder amongst them, Ustad Puran Chand Wadali started his career as a wrestler and the younger Ustad Pyarelal Wadali would sing and dance during the village Ram Lila. They were the fifth generation of musicians hailing from the Guru ki Wadali village in the Amritsar district of Punjab. While the elder brother was taught, amongst others, by the legendary Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the younger brother was taught by his elder brother. Their deep belief in Sufi traditions was exemplified by what they had once quipped, very early in their career — they would prefer singing in the praise of Almighty as Ibadat rather than record their voices in CDs and cassettes; an obvious take from the oral traditions of the subcontinent. They admitted that for them it was more important to sing a small child's requests from a far-off small, dusty, village rather than perform before large audiences in musical conferences. They liked to believe that their sworn duty was to carry the Bani of the Sufi Saints like Bulleh Shah, Sheikh Fareed, Guru Nanak Dev to the masses and it was a more a form of Hajri to the saints rather than singing per se.
Surely this is the hallmark of traditional Sufi singing. If I recall correctly, it was after much cajoling by Music India that the brothers did a few recordings as a representative of their style, lest it is lost to posterity. In the later years, their fans grew phenomenally within the subcontinent and beyond. People on both sides of the Sarhad had the good fortune of hearing them; popular social media catapulted them to stardom. Surprisingly, they seemed to remain unaffected by the glamour and simplicity as their hallmark was an honest approach.
The Wadali Brothers would weave the magic of Sufi music and leave their listeners spellbound – in a state of ecstasy which is intrinsic to the calling of any true practitioner of Sufiana Kalam. They always insisted on singing a purer form of Sufi music without any overt reliance on technology or loud instruments to carry them through. Their interpretation of the words of the great gurus and saints succeeded in bringing them closer to the masses which resulted in the resurrection of interest in Sufi music and the embroiled genre. Every listener would seem to be touched to the innermost core of his soul while listening to their songs. Often, a person's very being was transported to a higher plateau of unbridled love and bliss where existence acquired a new meaning. To be one with the divine and the need to break down the artificial manmade boundaries was a recurrent theme in many of their songs. The magic of the Patiala Gharana came out strongly in their singing and they became the darlings of both aficionados and the common man.
Many of us are familiar with blockbuster numbers like Charkha, Asa Tenu Rab Maneya, Dama Dam Mast Kalander, Farida Turiya Turiya Ja, Tennu Takiya to Laga Mujhe Aise and Ghughat Chak o Sajna. There are also some rare gems like Ranjha Mere Palle Paade, Jhat Pat Uth Pata Kar Ni and Tere Naal Parita Pakiya which showcase the depth and virtuosity of the Wadali Brothers. A band of brothers is not unique to the Indian singing pantheon, however, such a unique and simple approach is rarely seen in the blinding pyrotechnics of the current singing styles. It brought a much-needed breath of freshness to the universe of Indian music.
The younger sibling, Ustad Pyarelal Wadali always appeared in awe of his elder brother and guru Ustad Puran Chand Wadali. Ustad Pyarelal Wadali's deep sonorous voice was an ideal foil to the slightly mellow and seasoned voice of his elder brother. He would break into taans with consummate ease often weaving complicated patterns while keeping the lyrics in place and emphasising upon the oneness of the soul with Almighty. The rustic, forthright and very Punjabi approach made him everyone's darling. He left for his heavenly abode on March 9, 2018, leaving behind a void which is impossible to fill. Thousands of his fans bid him a final teary farewell in his hometown. With his demise, the duo's voice was silenced forever and Indian music was left bereft of some of its most soulful and stirring renditions. Indian Sufi music has seldom seen the likes of the glorious Wadali Brothers. No doubt, their recorded music will continue to enthrall the music lovers the world over but the ehsas of witnessing then perform live is lost forever. Alas, Pyarelal has indeed become the pyara of his Lord whom he pined for, in his songs, all his life.
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