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Poet, Singer, and Activist

Music Slideshow: Umber Di Shehzadi (To the Princess of the Skies)

Posted by on Oct 4, 2010 in Featured, Music Slideshows | 0 comments

I wrote Umber Di Shehzadi – Princess of the Skies, a poem about space colonization, 41 years ago. Back then, people thought this was something in a science fiction novel or movie (they also thought the same of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon!). Space Colonization may happen within my lifetime, who knows? But before we jump up and clap our hands at this so-called progress, we should pause and think about what we are doing to the planet we live in, before colonizing other worlds. I recently created this moving image slideshow set to images and my voice. If you are interested in learning more about the story behind this kavita (poem), please read my Kavita Di Kahani blog here.

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Sufi Sensation, Mamta Joshi, Pays a Tribute to ‘Umber Di Shehzadi’

Posted by on Sep 27, 2010 in Discussion, Videos | 2 comments

Dr. Mamta Joshi

Dr. Mamta Joshi Live in Concert

Dr. Mamta Joshi, a Sufi singer with a Ph.D. in music, contacted me through FaceBook after listening to my poem “Umber Di Shehzadi: To the Princess of the Skies” set to images and my voice on the you tube. She is a young woman with a lot of passion and tremendous talent. She wanted to sing my poem at her upcoming concert in Surrey, Canada on October 10, 2010.  As many of you know, I have no classical training in singing, so I am very excited to see, how Dr. Mamta Joshi brings out the soul of a poem I wrote 41 years ago, with Sufi Music.

I am constantly amazed at just how small the world keeps getting. I wrote “Umber Di Shehzadi” 41 years ago, when I guess the world was still too large and communication not so fast. The poem was published in Punjabi magazines and newspapers and I sang it amongst friends, certain party gatherings and local functions. It was only recently when my son Navdeep Singh Dhillon, a NYC based writer and English instructor, helped me to modernize the poem by creating Moving Images: setting the original poetry to images and my voice (as well as translating it into English), which we then posted on the you tube (subscribe to my you tube channel)

Although I received numerous phone calls, emails, as well as wonderful comments on the you tube worldwide, the world really started to get smaller when this happened:  Devinder Singh Saroya, Director North Zone Cultural Center (NZCC), Ministry of Culture Government of India, who shares an interest in other cultures, art, lalit kala, human rights, and happens to be from the same area of India I am from, found me because of this you tube video. He wrote this on my face book a couple months ago, “It is a pleasant surprise that human beings like S. Pashaura Singh Dhillon with such pious feelings and universal appeal can be found on Planet Earth in our times! Discovered him today from the page of an intellectual who in turn was found by sheer chance after two decades… “(Courtesy FB Suggestions).

And somehow, Mamta Joshi, the rising Sufi Maestro herself came to know of it. I still don’t know how she found me. I was logged onto face book one day and Dr. Mamta Joshi got hold of me in the chat box one night, a place I didn’t know even existed before she approached me to chat! During the conversation, she told me that she had watched my poem on the you tube and hadn’t seen anything like it before. “The poetry is so close to my heart,” she said before asking if she could have my permission to sing “Umber Di Shehzadi” with classical taans for her forthcoming concert in Canada.”  I am very selective sharing my poetry, but for some reason, I immediately gave Mamta Joshi permission. Perhaps it was her enthusiasm or the way she spoke about music and poetry that gave me the confidence to let her have a go at a poem I have held in my heart for over 40 years.  I was immediately impressed and even more confident of my decision as soon as I heard her sing on the youtube. In addition to videos on you tube,  she has performed at venues all over India and abroad, with many articles written about her in various newspapers.

SD Sharma, a reporter for the Chandigarh Tribune writes about Mamta Joshi, a young lady passionate and learned in Sufi music. He writes, “Blissfully unaware of the lyrical connotations and deep philosophical and spiritual content of songs, child prodigy Mamta preferred to sing Heer Waris or the utterances of Bulleh Shah and other Sufi saints while her class mates relished popular filmy songs at her school functions at Jalalabad in Punjab. As ordained, Mamta kept achieving excellence in the realm of folk, classical and sufi  music in academics and performances. She was rightly hailed as a golden girl at the GNDU (Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar), winning six gold and silver medals each in various national music competitions. She also won the HRD (Human Resource Development) ministry (Govt. of India) scholarship of Rs. 50,000.”

Dr. Mamta Joshi, Canada Tour

Dr. Mamta Joshi, Canada Tour

In addition to holding a doctorate in Indian classical and vocal music, she also has a gold medal in her MA (Music) and a silver medal in MA (Kathak dance). SD Sharma continues, “Mamta Joshi emerged as a female sufi singer of eminence. After hearing her, acclaimed sufi maestros Wadali brothers Padamshri Puran Chand and Pyare Lal blessed and extolled in their inimitable style saying ‘If Pakistan has Abida Praveen, we have Mamta Joshi to emulate after she attains that age and experience.’ The prophecy proved true as Mamta Joshi became the first Indian female sufi singer to give solo performance of Sufiana qalams at the India Nehru Centre, London in June 2006. She repeated her tradition of excellence to perform at the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall later. Earlier, as student artiste she toured UK under Heritage cultural exchange programme giving live performances in Glasgow, Wales, Chester, Cardiff, and Ludlow Castle in 2003 . “The exposure was a good learning experience. I remember that my recital of ornate sufi poetry enlivened the Shiv Kumar Nite at Birmingham in Septmber of 2008,” claims Mamta. Decorated with prestigious awards by legends like Yash Chopra, Subhash Ghai, Amrish Puri and Indian High Commissioner in London, Mamta still has her feet firmly rooted to the ground. Mamta owes all the credit to her guru Arun Mishra ji for imparting the best nuances of music and DS Saroya for her promotion in the realm of musical arts”.

And now Dr. Mamta Joshi is going to pay a tribute to “Umber Di Shehzadi” after 41 years of waiting, bringing out its grandeur and soul with Sufi Music. Her first concert is scheduled in Surrey, Canada on October 10, 2010. Mamta wants me to be there so that she and her husband Chetan could meet me and ask how I decided to write ‘Umber di Shehzadi.’ I am still debating if I should cross the Canadian border!

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Punjabi Poem: Dheeaan

Posted by on Sep 20, 2010 in Gurmukhi Poems, Punjabi Poetry | 0 comments

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Kavita Di Kahani: Umber Di Shehzadi Nu (to the Princess of the Skies)

Posted by on Aug 26, 2010 in Kavita Di Kahani | 0 comments

I am not aware if each kahani has a kavita behind it, but each kavita appears to have something to do with some kind of a kahani. Below is the Moving Image of “Umber Di Shehzadi de Naa: To the Princess of the Skies,” a kavita I wrote 41 years ago and which I recently set to images and my voice. This is the story of that kavita.

I first came up with the idea for Umber Di Shehzadi during the dead of the night in the rented front room of BDO, a friend and class fellow from Khalsa College, Amritsar, who was living in Southall, London.

Khalsa College, Amritsar

Khalsa College, Amritsar

There were about half a dozen of us, all classmates from the same year of Khalsa College Amritsar, who by the quirk of fate immigrated to the UK in a span of a year or two of each other during the late 1960s. We all found our first jobs in factories or bakeries. And we were all single. That meant that over the weekends, we had no other obligations, and would often get together at each other’s  rented one-room accomodation. (none of us, fresh arrivals from India, owned homes yet).

That particular evening, we were all there to witness a historic moment: to watch the first human walk on the Moon. The Apollo 11 space flight landed the first humans on Earth’s Moon on July 20, 1969. The mission, carried out by the United States, was considered a major accomplishment in the history of exploration and represented a victory by the U.S. in the Cold War Space Race with the Soviet Union.

BDO’s real name was Surain Singh Sandhu belonging to Dibbi pura, a village on the border of Pakistan in district Amritsar, but we all called him BDO because before moving to England, he used to work as a Block Development Officer in Punjab. And this designation stuck (and he liked it) even though, after moving to England, he worked as a machine man in a factory making steel ropes for the shipyards in Middlesex and then as a postman in the main  Post office in London.

On this special evening, BDO entertained us with a deliciously cooked chicken served with English Cream Sherry and as usual his Punjabi landlady prepared the rotis for us. Wise desi landladies in those days used to let us single people cook our own daal, sabzi, and meat, but would not trust us with making rotis in the shared kitchen. They would politely offer to make and supply rotis free of charge because as much as we thought we were quite the experts in the kitchen now, we would make such a mess by spilling and spreading wheat flour all over the shared kitchen during kneading the dough. So they figured it took the same amount of effort to cook the rotis as it did to clean it all up later, especially from the hidden spaces around the cooking area.

As we sat glued to the BBC, an announcement came on telling us that the program would be delayed by a few hours from the time originally stated by the U.S. network, CBS News. We tried unsuccessfully to take a little nap in between, but remained very excited as the moment began to move closer to midnight, the expected landing time in London.

Neil Steps on the Moon

Neil Steps on the Moon

When it finally came on the television screen, we were mesmerized and hung on every word: Launched from Florida on July 16, the third Lunar Mission of NASA’s Apollo Program was crewed by Commander Neil Arden Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the spot they named ‘Sea of Tranquility’. Identifying themselves as having landed at the newly made up name ‘Sea of Tranquility’ Neil Armstrong baffled the CBS News broadcaster back in the USA momentarily, who I think was Walter Cronkite, before he could fully comprehend what was going on. From a small one-room apartment in Southall, my friends and class fellows of Khalsa College, Amritsar and I watched Armstrong and Aldrin become the first humans to land and walk on the Moon. The magnanimity of what we had just seen is still fresh in my mind.

As soon as their space ship, “Eagle” touched down, we sat there speechless. Then we saw Neil Armstrong setting his first footsteps on the moon’s surface, the ‘Sea of Tranquility’. I wasn’t sure how everyone else felt about this electrifying moment as they watched this with jaws dropped; for me however, I was in a different universe now. It was a bigger magic or miracle than any religious or non religious stories tell us about our respective belief systems and which the respective followers may or may not fully believe. But this spectacle was the mother of all miracles, no less divine to say the least, as it was for the whole mankind to see for themselves what was happening before their very eyes.

This was kind of like a new religion which transformed my human experience enabling me to see and feel the universe in a different way. This was a miracle which no one, believer or non believer could deny had occurred.

For a moment I forgot that Armstrong and Aldrin were busy collecting the soil samples, noting down the size and colors of the strewn off rocks and planting the American flag staff into the Moon’s surface in haste, in case the mission’s landing there was cut short for whatever reasons and the crew was ordered to return to Earth immediately.

The poet in me was looking beyond what we were seeing. In my mind’s eye, I was seeing a proverbial fairy tale . A magnificently beautiful magical fort like palace standing proud amidst this ‘Sea of Tranquility,’ where the human from the Earth has just landed. In this appearing and disappearing whimsical palace, living all by herself is the Earth’s sister, the untouched virgin Princess of the Planetary system who I called ‘Umber di Shehzadi’ (Princess of the Skies). Man has never asked for permission from the places or, in this case, the planet it wants to colonize. But if he did, I imagined what the Earth would tell her sister, the Moon, about the Man who had come to her planet.

Umber Di ShehzadiyeThe human from Earth walks to the palace and knocks at the palace doors. Soon the princess answers the door and gets wonder struck by what she sees standing in the door before her. Himself dazzled by her serenity and indescribable beauty, the human falters momentarily. Controlling himself the very next moment, he wastes no time in seeing her dilemma of being uncomfortable by his unannounced tresspassing and his completely camouflaged strangers’ looks. Before the door slams shut in his face, he quickly hands her the letter of introduction, which he takes with him as a sealed reference written by her planetary sister Earth; Written on the condition that only the princess and not the human should break open the seal to read it.

It was as powerful a moment as it was divine. The moment was a spectacle equivalent of imagining the Big Bang only in reverse. In millions of years, the violently separated planet Earth, for the first time had made contact back with one of its other planetary family members, describing her own fate as well as inquiring the wellbeing of others through a human!

In a far fetched and strange sort of way, in my heart it felt as though this was also about me. I had left my mother and my motherland, perhaps feeling the same way, behind in India. Looking for greener pastures, I had just landed here in England. A far distant strange land.
The princess, Umber di Shehzadi holds the letter in her delicate fingers, breaks open the seal and reads the letter silently to herself.

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Discussion: Punjab Cries for a New Perspective on the Environment

Posted by on Aug 16, 2010 in Discussion | 0 comments

The Land of five rivers-Punjab, bears witness to one of the oldest, if not the oldest civilizations in the world, where man first brought the land under the plough. That little man called the farmer or ‘Jat’ in Punjabi, (also politically addressed these days as ‘aam aadmi’)  kept the civilization ticking for over 5000 years.  What can be a greater ironic tragedy of all times, than watching the very specie itself, being pushed out of existence in its own habitat, and in front of our very eyes?

Persian Wheel

A Relic of the Past: The Persian Wheel

Change that comes through progress also means the destruction of what was in its place before.  Evolution through which this universe has evolved also meant change. Man cannot stop the wheel turning but he can learn to regulate and steer it safely. In my own generation, I watched the Persian wheel with its earthen pitchers and wooden mechanism driven by oxen replaced by metal buckets, wrought iron mechanisms with ball bearings in its own time. The things moved so fast and out of control since then that shallow and shallower tube wells went deeper and deeper in no time and now all are replaced by submersibles sucking water up to and beyond 500 feet beneath the surface. Elsewhere I also watched the man landing on the moon, perhaps in search of more water! This is the story of water alone, and there are stories of this nature abound.

Judging  the direction the aforementioned, the aam aadmi is being lured to go, and the continuing trend beyond, I wrote these poems, ‘Piplan de sung Bohrr Gva Lei… and ‘Umber di Shehzadi de Naa’ many years ago. The other day, my son Navdeep Singh Dhillon who teaches college level English in New York, sent me an interesting music video ‘Kikran,Tahlian,Berian’ by a popular Punjabi satirist comedian /singer,  Bhagwant Mann.

Appropriately, the video starts with Surjit Patar’s  sher on Punjab,  recited by Patar sahib himself, which when translated from Punjabi to English, while it loses all of its poetic essence, means something like this:
All birds flew away from here,
Monsoons made a U-turn there.
Even trees now secretly plan here,
To go elsewhere, any place, anywhere!

Anything said, sung or spoken to raise awareness (amongst our not so fond of reading people), to stem the tide of environmental degradation under their very nose, must be appreciated, encouraged, shared and popularized at every level. Surjit Patar, from his high pedestal as one of the leading thinking poets alive, is well positioned to do that. And he has done a wonderful job in introducing this useful work of art in the form of this musical video presented artfully by dedicated Bhagwant Mann.

Having said that, it is not quite as accurate as Patar suggests. According to the introduction, everything ever written or spoken about Punjab prior to this video, are all lies and nobody before Mann told the truth about Punjab. Even his own sher translated above, reiterates this point. Since environmental degradation is a nationwide phenomenon, Patar himself along with others, though not many, which include some writers, journalists, poets and a handful of community activists both in north and south India, have reported the true picture nationwide many a time.  Jaswant Singh Kanwal, Kuldip Nayar, and Gurbachan Singh  Bhullar, for example, have written numerous articles to raise alarms from time to time about the near breakdown of Punjabiat and Punjabi culture in Punjab, which is a victim of the same overall mindset.

With a background dealing in the environmental matters, and having spent over thirty-years working as a landscape architect half around the world, I fail to see a comprehensive  environmental policy ever conceived or being enforced statewide. In a fast changing scene for road widening schemes just to take one example in one aspect, it has a major impact on its flora and fauna including man. In layman’s terms, there is no evidence of a compensatory tree plantation plan in action for these major ecological corridors that remain for the bird and insect life as the last refuge in Punjab.

Banyan Tree Cut in Punjab

Banyan Tree Cut in Punjab

According to many newspaper articles, century old trees are being axed under road widening schemes without proper alternate route studies and alignment options fully explored.  The most recent article I read was by Rashmi Talwar in The Tribune, Chandigarh, aptly titled “Century-old tree cut in the name of commercialism.

Environmental Impact Assessment reports based on alternate route studies which ought to be properly carried out by the professionals, fully understood by concerned parties, and made public under the Right to Information Act (RTI) are rarely adhered to in countries like India. Consequently, planting of replacement trees, which ought to be organized before the felling or axing should begin, hardly catches up even years later. The native trees such as Tahli, Kikkar, Neem, Pipal, Bohrr and others are replaced by fast growing species such as eucalyptus and poplar for quick effect. This may look good for the overflying politician in a helicopter in the short term but it offers no refuge and little solace for the insect and the dependent bird life. Hence my poems, ‘Piplan de sung Bohrr Gva Lei… and ‘Umber di Shehzadi de Naa’ published in my book ‘Diva Bale Samundron Paar’ were written in the same vein.

Surjit Singh Rakhra, President of the Oversees Akali Dal

Surjit Singh Rakhra, President of the Oversees Akali Dal

This past weekend, I had the chance to discuss some of these issues with S. Surjit Singh Rakhra, President of the Oversees Akali Dal, currently visiting California at S. Charanjit Singh Batth’s residence near Woodward Lake in Fresno. His views on this subject were not new and mirrored what seems to be the general consensus: First, let India catch up to other countries in terms of technology, industry, and food. Then worry about the environmental damage. But getting up to speed for a nation delayed is one thing and is perfectly understandable for the respective governments to show to its people the quick results. But hoping to coming back and clean up the mess left behind later is an unrealistic goal. How can a century old bohrr (banyan) tree be uncut? How do we reverse the effects of air pollution and illhealth caused by air polluting vehicles, or industrial waste in our rivers and oceans by companies held unaccountable for their actions? There are, of course, steps that can be taken in the right direction, but many environmental problems such as groundwater pollution are simply irreversible.

Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal

Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal

It is not that the true picture has not been painted before the release of Mann’s video. The more poignant question to ask is where do we go from here? The only person today, who is brave and resourceful enough to catch the bull by the horn –  so to speak – appears to be Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal, a Punjabi eco-activist.  By combining his assiduously cultivated self-help philosophy with the environmental essence of the Gurbani, Seechewal has successfully reinstated the 110-miles long Bein rivulet by his own design. A more scientific approach however, is adopted and vigorously advocated by Jaito based environmental community action group called Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM) in Punjab. They appear to have initiated some innovative and systematic survey data collection work in the Malwa Belt infested with mysterious diseases apparently due to environmental degradation.  Maybe these kinds of initiatives and awareness at the grass root level are the only way forward to shame the present day rulers, policy makers  and the ruled alike. Your thoughts?

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