Sufi music legend (1943 – 2018)

Ustad Pyarelal Wadali was the younger of the Wadali Brothers/Bandhu of Sufi singers from Amritsar, Punjab, known as India’s foremost exponents of Punjabi Sufiana qalam. The musical duo, 81-year-old Puranchand and 75-year-old Pyarelal, had a diverse repertoire. The fifth generation of singers and musicians, the brothers lived in their ancestral house in Guru Ki Wadali teaching music free to those who promised to preserve it. They led a very simple life devoted to divinity. Prior to becoming Sufi singers, Puranchand was a regular in an akhara (wrestling ring) for 30 years, and Pyarelal contributed to the meagre family income by playing the role of Krishna in the village RaasLeela for more than 20 years, travelling to villages.

On their father, Thakur Das’s insistence, Puranchand studied music from celebrated masters such as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana, and Pandit Durga Das. Pyarelal was trained by his elder brother, who he considered his guru and mentor till his death. In 1975, the brothers went to Jalandhar to give their first musical performance outside their village at the Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan but were not allowed to sing because their appearance did not pass muster. Disappointed, they decided to make a musical offering at the Harballabh Temple, where an executive of All India Radio, Jalandhar, spotted them and recorded their first song.

They began performing at the temple, starting off as bhajan singers but later ventured into the Sufi genre with distinction, carrying on the legacy of famous saint poets such as Baba Bulle Shah, Sarabjit Sinha, Kabir, Amir Khusro and Surdas for years. They also sang in the gurbani, kaafian, ghazal and bhajan genres. Few brother singer duos displayed their kind of chemistry, with creative differences non-existent. Always on the same page, they were careful to not exchange glances in each other’s direction while performing, as they could sense each other in their hearts.

Fondly called Chite Ustad, his singing complimented his brother’s and in tandem they gave some memorable and soulful performances, incorporating sufi poetry and philosophy. They abstained from Bollywood music for decades feeling it was a limiting factor for untamed lion hearts like them. But their range and proficiency drew the likes of director Chandraprakash Dwivedi who convinced them to experiment with Hindi cinema.

In 2003, Dwivedi suggested to composer Uttam Singh to try out the Wadali brothers for his magnum opus Pinjar. In their Bollywood debut, they rendered music director and writer Gulzar’s soulful lyrics in their unique style and then went on to sing in four other movies including Tanu Weds Manu, Dhoop, Mausam and Ik Tu Hi Tu Hi.
Soon they earned fame both in regional and Bollywood cinema and. gave several memorable compositions. They considered themselves as a medium to pass on the preaching of great Sufi saints.

From traditional instruments, stressing on aalap and taans, they soon experimented with instruments like a drum kit, keyboard and guitar in the orchestra, to make the sounds unique, adding western sounds only to help the youth experience its power. Apart from their love for food and drink, and performing on stage, they also judged TV reality shows. They preferred to stay away from the commercial rat-race, despite record companies chasing them, and newcomers earning lakhs of rupees by imitating their music.
In 2005, Puranchand was honoured with Padma Shri. The brothers also received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award Tulsi Award , Punjab Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, and Life Time Achievement Award 2015 in PTC awards.

To Pyarelal, his music was akin to prayer. In an electronic age of rap music no one could harm Sufi and folk music. Its soulful music, was like truth that can never die. Pyarelal, died aged 75 due to cardiac arrest in Amritsar. He is survived by wife Surjit Kaur, two sons and three daughters.

One simply cannot imagine the existence of the Wadali Brothers without Pyarelalji.

A. Radhakrishnan

A. Radhakrishnan is a Pune based freelance writer, poet and short story writer.