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Singing Style

Singing in the form of var is one of the oldest and original folkloric styles of Panjab, in which the focus is on the valor of the warriors. More than mere war-poetry, however, it later evolved into laudatory-poetry. The tradition of var singing precedes the arrival of Guru Nanak Sahib. These vars were sung by minstrels (dhadhis) or bards (bhats) in the past.

Out of the Guru Granth Sahib’s total twenty-two vars, nine vars have instructions provided for singing in specific folk tunes popular during and before the time of Guru Nanak Sahib. There is clear instruction by Guru Nanak Sahib to sing Asa Ki Var in the folk tune of the var of Ṭunḍe Asrāj (maimed king As). Bhai Prem Singh records the tune of Ṭunḍe Asrāj in his book ‘Ratan Saṅgīt Bhanḍār’ as follows:

Asa tune rhythmic pattern 3
bhabkio sher sardūl rāi raṇ mārū bajje.
  kh       1      2          3    kh        1    2    3
bhab ki o sher sar dū la rā i vā le vā le vā ā raṇ mārū bajje.
ma ma ma ma pa pa pa pa sa+ni sa+ni sa+sa ni dha ma pa pa.
(Note: sa+ means sa of the next octave; tar saptak)
- Rest on previous aforementioned notes.
khān sultān baḍ sūrme vic raṇ de gajje.
khat likhe ṭunḍe asrāj nūṁ patishāhī ajje.
ṭikkā sāraṅg bāp ne ditā bhar lajje.
phate pāi asrāi jī shāhī ghar sajje.

In contemporary times, before singing Asa Ki Var, ragis sing an appropriate sabad in Rag Asa as an invocation. After this, Asa Ki Var is started with the singing of the first stanza ‘hari ammrit bhinne loiṇā’ from the six chants (one chakā) of four stanzas each revealed to Guru Ramdas Sahib. This is followed by ragis taking turns to sing saloks in a specified rag in a slow rhythm or without a specific rhythm (bol-ālāp) in a sequential order, during which the tabla player continues to play notes in a slow tempo (cheṛ). In the end, the first stanza is concluded with the pauri, which is sung in the form of the popular old folk tradition.

The pauri is concluded with a tihai (repeating a set of tabla beats three times before ending). The tabla player then recites the pauri again. Then the ragi begins the next stanza of the chant. Based on this sequence of chants, saloks, and pauris, a total of six chants, sixty saloks and twenty-four pauris are sung. According to the need of the hour and the message of the respective chants, ragis also sing appropriate sabads on the related themes in between.

Some ragis try to sing Asa Ki Var in other rags, which is not recommended. Revelation of Asa Ki Var by Guru Nanak Sahib in Rag Asa in an indication that it is recommended to sing it only in Rag Asa.

As per Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha, while singing a pauri, a percussion instrument (Pakhavaj or Tabla) is not played in a rhythmic format (gat), but only played in strokes (sath) as an accompaniment to the pauri recitation. The pauri is recited to the audience in a singing format so that they can understand the meaning of the words. It is unfortunate that those doing kirtan are forgetting the pauri rendering style, and they do not sing the pauris of bilāval, kānaṛā, etc. as per the old tradition while concluding the cauṁkī in the morning, evening and night.

Note: The pauris of Asa Ki Var are comprised of four or five lines. Because the last line is smaller than the others, there is a tradition of repeating it, in order to maintain poetic balance. After singing the pauri, it is read again to everyone, so that the audience may better absorb the message of the pauri. This repetition also gives time to the ragis to prepare for the next pauri.

Asa Rag

Rag Asa is fourth in the sequence of thirty-one principal rags recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib (pages 347-488). Guru Nanak Sahib’s one hundred seventy, Guru Amardas Sahib’s forty-eight, Guru Ramdas Sahib’s thirty, Guru Arjan Sahib’s one hundred eighty-eight, Guru Teghbhadar Sahib’s one, Bhagat Kabir’s thirty-seven, Bhagat Namdev’s five, Bhagat Ravidas’s six, Bhagat Dhana’s two, and Baba Pharid’s two sabads are recorded in Rag Asa. Most of Guru Nanak Sahib’s sabads have been revealed to the Guru in Rag Asa.

Earlier ragis used to sing this rag skillfully along with all its subdivisions. There are other prevalent forms of Rag Asa, which are sung along different subdivisions, like Pahāṛī, Bilāval, Kaliāṇ, and Kāphī.

Rag Asa is a famous and melodious rag of Panjab. Prevalent even before Guru Nanak Sahib, the var of Ṭunḍe Asrāj was also sung in this rag. Compositions of preceding bhagats in Rag Asa serve as evidence of the fact that this rag was prevalent even before the arrival of Guru Nanak Sahib. Folk legends, songs, stories and tunes sung and narrated in Rag Asa were extremely pleasing. Because of its unique qualities, outside of the kirtan tradition, Rag Asa is dominant in folk-music, classical music, and cinema also.

The rag is devotional in nature. The court singer and poet of Patiala estate, Bhai Prem Singh, in his book ‘Ratan Saṅgīt Bhanḍār,’ writes that Rag Asa is obtained from an elegant combination of Siriragu, Megh Rag, and Rag Maru. Therefore, it falls under the category of dawn-dusk rags that are sung and played in the morning and evening. This is a rag whose vadi note falls in the upper part of the middle octave, i.e., pa, dha, ni and is elaborated by singing in higher octave (utrāṁg vādī rāg).

That: Bilaval Notes: All natural (shudh svar)
Forbidden Notes: In aroh Ga and Ni
Jati: Aurav-sampuran Vadi: Ma Samvadi: Sa'
Aroh: Sa, Re Ma, Pa Dha, Sa' Avroh: Sa' Ni, Dha Pa Ma, Ga Re Ga Sa
Singing Time: First quarter of morning and evening.

Tune of Tunda Asraj

In accordance with the instructions of the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Sahib, it is customary to sing Asa Ki Var in the early morning in the local folk-tune popularly named after King Asraj (Ṭunḍe Asrāj Kī Dhunī). One of the hands of King Asraj was amputated, therefore he was called ṭunḍā (maimed).

Scholars have narrated the story of King Asraj differently. Principal Teja Singh has described this story thus:
“King ‘Asiraj’ was the elder son of King Sarang. ‘Asiraj’ had two stepbrothers, Sardul Rai and Sultan Khan. Out of jealousy, they took Asiraj out on a hunting expedition, and wounded him before throwing him into a well. They told their father that a lion killed and ate Asiraj. A group of traders happened to check the well for water and discovered Asiraj there. Having pity on him they pulled him out, dressed his wounds and helped him heal. Bhag Jass, who was the king of the country the traders visited next, had died without an heir; so his ministers decided to find and enthrone the first person who entered the city gates the next morning. In accordance with Divine Will, Asiraj happened to be the first person to arrive at the city gates when the ministers were waiting there. They took him and immediately appointed him King of the country. Asiraj ruled well. Somehow his fame reached his father, King Sarang, who repented and wrote Asiraj a letter. When this news reached Asiraj’s stepbrothers, they started preparing for a war. Asiraj won that war, and, with the consent of his father and the latter’s ministers, ascended to his father’s throne. Minstrels wrote the var of Tunde Asiraj in Panjabi.”

It is not known which country or region the characters of this story belong to. The pauri of the var is in Panjabi and var is a genre of Panjabi poetry. Consequently, it seems to be a story of a King belonging to some region in Panjab. The description of this story also matches the characters of Puran Bhagat and Rup-basant, etc. Hence, it requires more scrutiny.

It seems that this var that highlights valor and heroism was sung even during the time of Guru Arjan Sahib. The dhadhis sang the praises of the king’s bravery in a tune that was popular among the people. It seems that among other reasons, Guru Arjan Sahib selected this tune for singing Asa Ki Var due to the structural similarities between the five-line pauris of Asa Ki Var and the var sung in praise of King Asraj.

The saloks accompanying the pauris are also sung in Rag Asa.

The narrative of King Asraj that is popular in Sikh literature is recorded in the Tika Faridkot (approximately 1880 CE). Dr. Charan Singh seems to have recorded this in his book ‘Bāṇī Biurā’ (1902 CE) with a difference of only a few words. All exegetes (interpreters) have used the above source as reference, but no one has quoted the original text; nor is the quote available anywhere.

Sample from Dr. Charan Singh is given below:
bhabkio sher sardūl rāi raṇ mārū bajje.
khān sultān baḍ sūrme vic raṇ de gajje.
khat likhe ṭunḍe asrāj nūṁ patishāhī ajje.
ṭikkā sāraṅg bāp ne ditā bhar lajje.
phate pāi asrāi jī shāhī ghar sajje.