Pyarelal Wadali

Beyond boundaries

Print edition : April 13, 2018

The Wadali brothers (Pyarelal on the right) during a concert on Eid in New Delhi on August 31, 2011. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Pyarelal Wadali (1943-2018) bridged the divide between classical and folk music during a lifelong journey marked by devotion.

WHEN news of the noted Sufi singer Pyarelal Wadali breathing his last at a private hospital in Amritsar after a prolonged battle with diabetes and heart problems trickled in, it elicited a note of resignation from some quarters and grief from others. His brother Puranchand, the other half of the famous Wadali brothers duo, locked himself up in a room and did not emerge from it until the realisation of his brother passing away sank in. He was speechless—all he could manage was a wave of the hand with moist eyes. It was left to Puranchand’s son to announce the passing away of Pyarelal. He also said that the cremation would be at their ancestral village, Guru ki Wadali in Amritsar district of Punjab, from where the renowned brothers began their journey.

Those who confined themselves to a sad sigh were aware of the heroic battle Pyarelal fought with a series of ailments, ranging from diabetes to more recently gangrene, and renal and cardiac issues. They knew that over the last few months, Pyarelal was reduced to a pale shadow of a man who, in his prime, had mesmerised audiences. He never had to appeal for attention; his performance commanded it. His fans understood that Pyarelal, forever a picture of quiet dignity, deserved to be remembered better. Accordingly, taking the focus away from his illness, prayers were performed by people of different faiths for the departed artist, a fitting tribute to a man who began his career by performing at the Harvallabh temple in Jalandhar and went on to carve out a niche for himself as a sufi singer. Of course, he sang bhajans and kaafiyans too and went on to bridge the divide between classical music and folk music, no mean achievement for a man who did not learn at the feet of a guru or an ustad.

The thought of honing his skills did not strike him when he was young. He was then content to perform at the temple and win the praise of people, much like when he used to act in Ramleela earlier or when his dark complexion often brought him the role of Krishna in local plays. His world was small and his desires were limited. The first performance at the Harvallabh temple set a template for the brothers. Music was not just an avenue for earning a livelihood, it was to be a devotion. Little wonder then that the two went on to become hugely popular for their sufiana kalam and for songs seeking to make mere mortals communicate with the Divine.

While Puranchand trained under Pandit Durgadas, a disciple of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pyarelal picked up the nuances from his brother. So good was he at the assimilation of gyan that with constant riyaz he was able not only to keep his more flamboyant brother company but also gradually act as a sober foil to the latter. While Puranchand exhibited a lot of style, a lot of untamed energy, and often caught the listeners’ attention with his loud, robust voice, Pyarelal concentrated on the next sh er, the next misra. Occasionally, he would communicate with the audiences by relating an anecdote, an untold story. To his brother’s fury, he was the much-needed ice. Together, they set stage on fire. Their performance was as much a feast for the eyes as for the ears.

The brothers were destined for music, but they were not always chasing their destiny. Early in life, the elder brother was more at ease as a wrestler in an akhara, while the younger one was winning praises for his bit parts in Ramleela. Pyarelal did not then realise that there was a world beyond Guru ki Wadali and Ramleela, just as his brother was happy to throw his opponents down in a mud pit.

One day, a sufi named Baba Sadiq Shah heard the elder brother sing and soon prevailed on him to devote his energy to learning music. That the direction was provided by a sufi was hardly a surprise considering the brothers’ father was himself an accomplished sufi singer and wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps. The brothers took the sufi’s words seriously and devoted themselves to riya z, to honing their undoubted talent.

Destiny played a crucial role in the lives of the brothers. At the beginning of their career, they had gone to perform at the Harvallabh Mela in Jalandhar and because they were denied an opportunity there, they began singing at the temple. Soon, they were heard by an official of All India Radio who got them contracts with AIR, which was followed by greater exposure on Doordarshan.

As the brothers’ popularity crossed the boundaries of Punjab, they began to be feted across the country, and requests came in for their ghazals, kafiyaans, sufi songs and bhajans. They mixed it all very well. They had a rare ability to sense the pulse of the audiences: the elder brother did it through speech while the younger brother understood with one long look at the audiences, and accordingly they picked the kalaam for the evening.

In an interview to The Hindu, Pyarelal once said: “When we go on stage, we gauge the mood of the audience and start singing. If the audience is the kind that wants to dance and jive, what would be the point of singing a slow song?”

At a concert in Jaipur around 10 years ago, where the who’s who of the world of literature had assembled and there was more than a sprinkling of Bollywood stars, the brothers stole the limelight. For a few hours in Jaipur, classical became popular and folklore transcended geographical boundaries.

The brothers became more famous through Pinjar, a cinematic take on Partition by Chandraprakash Dwivedi. The film was based on Amrita Pritam’s novel and did not carry much possibility of music. The Wadali brothers, however, captured the sorrow of the dispossessed and the displaced with “Dard Marya” and “Waris Shah nu”, the latter’s lyrics written by Amrita Pritam herself.

For all its piercing sorrow, Pinjar showed only a single hue of the multifaceted brothers whose craft was imbued with the spirit of Bulle Shah and Waris Shah, Heer-Ranjha and Baba Farid. The other colours came through gradually in films such as Tanu Weds Manu and Mausam, the former’s “Rangrez” showing the limitless possibilities of the brothers and the latter’s “Ik Tu Hi” proving that there was still space in cinema for artistes who refused to compromise. If some people were pleasantly surprised to find the Wadali brothers strike gold in Hindi cinema, their association with Coke Studio for “Tu Mane Ya Na Mane” made them a household name among the new generation too. From Harvallabh temple to Coke Studio had been a long, long journey.

The departure of Pyarelal at this point in time is particularly painful. Along with his brother, Pyarelal stood for all faiths, performing with equal zest at a temple or sufi festival and in Eid festivities. Some seven years ago, during a performance on Eid in New Delhi, their song “Tera naam naam” sent a message that was both timeless and limitless: “You who have so many names... we have built a temple here, a mosque there, a church there, and we barricade ourselves.”

He sang, “ Na namaaz aati hai, na wuzu aata hai, sajda kar leta jab saamne tu aata hai” (I do not know how to offer prayers, I do not know the way of ablution, but when You appear before me, I prostrate myself). Such profound words came from a man who never went to school.