Ragi Jatha of Bhai Surjan Singh
Strange are the ways of nature. When it snatches away some faculty from an individual. It compensate the individual by rewarding him with some additional faculties to such an extent that absence of the lost faculty does not matter. This is equally true in the case of Bhai Surjan Singh. Nature snatched away the light of his eyes but bestowed upon him two great qualities, first a sweet and melodious voice and the second an astonishing memory. He also got surrounding and resources conductive to the development of these faculties. As a result Bhai Surjan Singh's achievements surpassed those of many with healthy eyes.
Bhai Sahib learned music at the orphanage at Armtisar. Master Sai Ditta a teacher of the orphanage was one of the famous music teachers of his time. He taught music to Bhai Santa Singh also. In the begining, Bhai Santa Singh formed his ragi jatha alongwith Bhai Surjan Singh. Later on, when Bhai Santa Singh inducted his brothers into the Jatha, Bhai Surjan Singh formed a separate jatha.
The style of Kirtan of Bhai Surjan Singh was different from that of the other ragies. He switched over to performing kirtan in simpler style instead of traditional and classical style. Hymns being sung in this style had a great influence on such audience that did not have sufficient knowledge of the classical style. This influence was more pronounced on the urban middle class audience. This class of audience did not have enough time and resources so as to develop interest in the classical style of singing. As a result Bhai Surjan Singh became very popular with his class. Many more ragis followed Bhai Surjan's style after watching his success. Hard work is not needed much, for rhythm may perform kirtan. An individual with even basic knowledge of rhythm may perform kirtan in this style, but every one may not have the qualities of Bhai Surjan Singh.
His voice was full of melody and would never grow dull. He appeared to be singing from the depth; of his personality. He seemed to be singing to please not the audience alone but the fascinate some one very close to him.
He had an astonishing memory. He could memorise a hymn by merely listening to it once or twice. He had towards the end of his life memorised the Gurbani appearing on 300 pages of the holy Guru Granth Sahib. He could therefore quote extensively for a long time during the course of his kirtan. As a result his kirtan became more effective.
Another reason of Bhai Sahib's success was cutting of gramophone discs by the gramophone companies. These gramophone discs popularised his kirtan to a great extent. These were purchased mostly by the urban audience because they had been enjoying the kirtan and had the capacity to purchase the gramophone records. The records of Asa Di Var sung by Bhai Surjan Singh are most saleable even today.
It is commonly told that Bhai Sahib used to practice kirtan every day, but his method of practicing was uncommon. He would get up at two in the morning, finish up his daily routine, have a bath and start reciting the Bani that he had memorised, in a loud voice. This way, he would recollect the Banis as well as practice his rhythm.
The hymns sung by Bhai Surjan Singh touch the very heart of the listeners. Every one may be able to sing some of these, because they have been rendered in a very simple tune e.g.
Jo Mangeh Thakur aapne te, soi soi deveh
Kis hi koi koi manjh niwani hik ton
Men prem na chakhya mere piare man bhao kare.
These hymns have been sung so forcefully and quotations have been offered in such a manner that every listener's mind turns ascetic.
Many ragies cast aspersions on the system of Bhai Sahib's singing by saying that he has harmed the classical style of kirtan and that the sathais of his rendering were not traditional or according to the lines of 'rahaos'. It may be so, but equally true is the fact that Bhai Surjan Singh has influenced lakhs of listeners by kirtan and many continue enjoying his kirtan through gramophone record even now.