Back then, little did I know about the Dhadi tradition. But the songs about the herioc deeds of GurSikhs, who had sacrificed themselves for the Panth as Shaheeds-martyrs of the Sikh faith--made me think. Listening to the vaaran or ballads, I would wonder what made the fearless warriors stand against the tyranny of the state. In the words of the dhadis, the martyrs cheerfully (hass hass-ke) ended their young lives. The vivid dhadi narrative consisting of a simple, yet rough dialect of the rural Punjab, a lifelike description and the striking words had spellbound me to the vaaran. It excited me even more when I got to know that the dhadis had existed for centuries in the Punjabi landscape, and that Sixth Guru Sahib, Sri Guru Hargobind Sahib ji had formally ascribed them as the official singers of the Sikh court.
The word dhadi or dhadhi means 'one who sings ballads while playing the dhad, a musical instrument'. Nothing certain is known about the origin of the Dhadi parampara. Usually this tradition is linked to the family and court bards of ancient Punjab and Rajputana. Sohan Singh Seetal, a famous Sikh writer and poet who himself wrote many vaaran, prasang and tarané based upon Sikh history, tells us in his autobiography that as warrior tribes from Rajasthan moved northwards into the Punjab, their panegyrists or family historians, called bhats followed them. According to Rattan Singh Jaggi, the dhadis were supposed to be a branch (up-samparda) of the bhat or kharak-singers, specialising in the performance of herioc ballads.
According to some historians, Raja Mann Singh Tomar (1486 - 1516) of Gwalior was the first to administer a royal dhadi by the name Bakhsu (d. 1535) at his court. Later on, Bakhsu came under the protection of Nawabs of Kalinjar and Gujrat. Others say that the tradition originally came from Afghanistan where the dhadis used the dutar, a Persian or Uzbek lute-instrument.
In Sri Guru Granth Sahib ji, the word appears in the Holy writings of Guru Nanak Sahib, Guru Raamdas ji and even Bhagat Naamdev ji (ca. 1270 - 1350). Thus, it is clear that the Dhadi tradition has a long history streching almost thousand years. In Guru Sahiban's Bani in Manjh Di Vaar (SGGS: 148), Guru Nanak Sahib have described themselves as a dhadi who sings the praises of God. Similarly, Guru Raamdas ji has used the word for themselves in Sri Raag Di Vaar (SGGS: 91). We can say that Guru Sahiban have transformed the traditional role of dhadis, which was to sing praises of their landlords or rulers, to sing the glory of God or the Universal Ruler.
However, in the Sikh political context, we can trace the origin of dhadis back to the times of Guru Hargobind Sahib ji, who eastablished the Sikh High Court, Sri Akaal Takht. Guru Sahib established the practice of bards singing the accounts of chivalry of the brave heroes of the past before the Sikh congregations assembled at Sri Akaal Takht. Regular diwans were held in Amritsar, where the dhadis sang their heroic ballads to awaken the warrior spirit (veer-rass) in the hearts and minds of the Sikhs. According to Sikh tradition, Guru Sahib had two professional dhadis, Bhai Abdullah and Bhai Natha employed at his court. Similarly, in Guru Gobind Singh ji's darbaar, there were two dhadis by the names Shabila Mushki and Nath Mal, who arduously sang about historic events filling the listeners' hearts with great courage.
Generally, a single dhadi-jatha consists of at least four performers. Three of them would be musicians, while the fourth person performs the most important function of explaining the background to the song. While perfoming a vaar or geet, the three musicians would either sing individual verses one by one, or a main chorus together. Among traditional dhadis we find two instruments; the sarangi and the dhad itself. The sarangi is a bowed string-instrument and is one of the main instruments of classical Hindustani music, used almost like a voilin. On the other hand, the dhad or the main instrument of the dhadis, is a small goblet-shaped shoulder drum. The musician holds the drum in his left hand and plays it by striking it with his right hand fingers.
The introduction to the vaar, recounting the historic deeds and bravery of Sikhs in the past, sets the mood for the present performance. The listeners - mostly the Gurdwara sangat - are made part of a Panthic mileau. The dhadis, being the premier transmitters of Sikh tradition at a Gurdwara-level, trying to connect historic facts with the present political situation. The dhadis sing about the Sikh heroes, their brave acts, and about jangan and saaké - the battles and events faced by the community. Thus, the Sikhs are made aware of the challenges faced by the community throughout their history.
The collective will of the Panth is highlighted throughout the dhadi narration. Vivid elaborations of horrific acts (zulm) against Sikhs are given by the dhadi-jatha. The whole atmosphere reminds the Sikh listener about the promises made to Dasmesh Patshah - Guru Gobind Singh ji. It is a promise of sacrifice, an act of individual offering in return for the collective welfare of the Panth. And the martyrs have fullfilled their promises as true warriors of the Guru. Staying in chardi-kala ('rising spirits'), the GurSikhs gladly gave up their lives. The dhadis show the optimistic nature of the Panth, in the true sense of the word. Being singled out, the Gursikh is still strong as an army of 125,000. Being tortured by criminals in uniform, the Singhs still uphold their values.
Compared to Gurbani keertan, another important form of Gurmat Sangeet (Sikh music), the dhadi tradition has a very different style of narration and performance. The melody of keertan is of peace and harmony. The stage is set to show the relation between Waheguru and the devotee. But the dhadi tradition is inspirational and activist. It is about martial struggle, here and now, in this human life. Also, the instruments used for Gurbani keertan are quite different from the ones used while performing the dhadh. When the raagi-jatha is performing keertan, they usually sit in a very comfortable position, however when the dhadhis are singing vaars, they stand up with raised arms. The raagis are spreading the Word of Guru Sahiban through the sangat. During Gurbani keertan, intuitive understanding and spiritual devotion is at focus in the congregation. Meanwhile the dhadis ask the (young) devotees to make an end to the ongoing tyranny by following the way of the past warriors.
Thus, we see a contrast between the two ideals of a GurSikh - who should be a spiritually enlightened being, yet an activist; a soldier of Akaal Purakh, one who is always ready to fight for justice. These two traditions of Gurmat Sangeet highlight the two cardinals of Gursikhi Jeevan, being a Sant and a Sipahi. It is the Miri-Piri of Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji set into practice through the mode of music. Tradition says that Gurbani keertan used to be perfomed at Sri Harmandir Sahib, but the dhadis-diwans were held at Sri Akaal Takht Sahib. Both the traditions are an integrated part of Sikh musicology which try to change society in accordance with the ideals given by Gurmat.
Even today, the Dhadi tradition has great importance in Sikh culture. Whenever there are any cultural, religious or political events, the dhadis are present. Although this tradition is primarily a tradition from Majha, with main centers in Amritsar and Taran Tarn, dhadi centers also exist in parts of Doaba and Malva. In modern times, famous dhadis such as Sohan Singh Seetal, Daya Singh Dilbar, Charan Singh Alamgir, Daya Singh Arif etc have gained popularity for their songs. At the peak of the Khalistani struggle, Gian Singh Surjeet of UK wrote ballads for Shaheed Laabh Singh, general of Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), to commemorate his martyrdom in July 1988.
Throughout the nineteenth century, dhadis followed the Sikh migrants to Americas and South-East Asia. We still find records of how dhadis used to perform at the early Gurdwaras in California and British Columbia. In the times of Gadhar Lehar at the start of the last century, dhadis were active in the struggle to enlighten Sikhs and Punjabis about their lost Kingdom of Punjab. In the recent years, dhadis have once again gained popularity among the Sikh diaspora. A new form of 'dhadi music' is being produced with dhadi singers leaving the traditional instruments in favor of hiphop-tunes, especially meant for the urban diaspora youth. In Punjab, political parties such as SAD (Badal) have been using dhadis in their political propaganda. Seeing dhadis at Akali Dal melas, singing againt Congress-party leaders is a common sight. The original dhadi tradition has been made a vehicle to gain political power, and the true ideals of martyrdom represented in dhadi-vaaran are diminishing. Commercialization and other evils have also crept in the dhadi circles, much like the raagis who have left the original Gurbani Raag Parampara in favor of bollywood tunes. Awareness about this tradition is important. There are no schools of dhadi-learning, and most of the musicians have learnt their skills from former dhadis. The centers in Amritsar are mostly meant for performance purposes.
Unlike their ancestors, the dhadis are now predominantly Sikhs found mainly in the Punjab, with a few exceptions in parts of Rajasthan. As martyrdom is something that cannot be excluded from Sikhi, the tradition (dhadd) that tells us about its importance and transmits the Sant-Sipahi spirit in the Panth is eqally important. Therefore, we have an obligation to preserve this rich tradition, ordained by the Guru Sahiban themselves.