The Harballabh Music Festival: A Historical Overview

in Article
Published on: 22 February 2017

Radha Kapuria

Radha Kapuria is a PhD Candidate at King's College London.

The Harballabh festival of classical music at Jalandhar in East Punjab is renowned in the world of Hindustani music as that rare site where all the ‘greats’ of Hindustani music first performed, prior to attaining international acclaim. From Bhimsen Joshi to Zakir Husain, all musicians hold the spot of the Harballabh—where a feast of four days and nights of classical music has been held every winter since 1875—as sacred, and the blessings of festival-founder Baba Harballabh as the reason for their subsequent success. Behind such glory, however, lies a far more complex history.


Jalandhar: its geographical, historical and cultural location

The historic town of Jalandhar, located in the Bist Doab, or the region between the Beas and Sutlej rivers, is one of the two oldest cities of the Punjab. The other is Multan, located across the border in present day Pakistan. Both cities were one of the five major districts into which colonial Punjab was divided after its annexation in 1849—the other three being Rawalpindi, Lahore and Ambala. Jalandhar, or ‘Jullundur’, as it was referred to until recently in a spelling with colonial origins, is geographically the centre of the ‘Doaba’ region and more generally of the eastern Punjab.


Jalandhar is an old settlement dating back to antiquity, with many different forms of heritage rubbing shoulders. Traces of the Indus Valley civilization have been found across many sites and villages of Jalandhar district. The name of the city appears in Hindu mythology: the Padma Purana mentions a 'Daitya' or demon king, son of the Ganga and the Ocean called 'Jalandhara' (Shastri 1998: 40; Dilgeer 2004:17–19). The first historical reference to Jalandhar occurs in the reign of Kanishka, when in around A.D. 100, the Fourth Buddhist Council (marking the final schism between the northern and southern churches of Buddhism) of theologians met near Jalandhar. The city was visited by Hiuen Tsang and also figures in the accounts of Ptolemy and Hiuen Tsang, as ‘Kulindrine’ and ‘She-lan-ta-lo’ respectively (Dilgeer 2004:18) The city witnessed many Hindu and Muslim rulers (Gazetteer of Jalandhar 1980:22–26) thereafter and was occupied by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1807.  


Present-day Jalandhar is full of nooks and corners that breathe of many eras of its bygone history. Architecturally in particular, crumbling remains of colonial-era buildings, havelis and religious shrines of all three major religions are abundant, especially in the old city.

Fig.1: A Protestant colonial-era church built in 1895


Fig. 2: Mausoleum of the Chishti Sufi saint, Hazrat Imam Nasiruddin Abu Yusuf Chishti, who is
believed to have come from Iran to Jalandhar in the 11th century


As it developed until 1947, Jalandhar had an unusual landscape in terms of the organization of the city into 12 bastis (settlements), 12 kots (literally ‘fort’, but here referring also to locality) and 12 gates (Dilgeer 2004:58, Gazetteer of Jalandhar 1980:492). Most of these outlying bastis of Jalandhar were founded during the 15th and 16th centuries. The town, existing since the days of antiquity, thus has a number of monuments with immense historical, mythological and religious significance. The mausoleum of Imam Nasir and Jama Masjid (Dilgeer 2004:60–61) belong to the 15th century.


Fig 3: Entrance to the Imam Nasir Sufi shrine


Fig. 4: The shrine of the Sufi saint inside the precincts of the Imam Nasir mausoleum, which shares space with the samadhi of a local Nath Yogi, who was popular in Punjab.


After the defeat of the Sikhs at the end of the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1846, the British annexed the entire Jalandhar Doab, and it became the Commissionership of the states beyond the Satluj river. Thus Jalandhar was one of the earliest regions of the Punjab to be brought under colonial control, with the rest of the Punjab following some two or three years later in 1849 (Gazetteer of Jalandhar 1980:2). The British also established the cantonment here and connected it with the Grand Trunk Road and railways (Dilgeer 2004:11–15).


The transition from pre-colonial to colonial Jalandhar, in administrative and political terms, is key to understanding why the Harballabh festival emerged here of all places. Jalandhar’s colonisation by the British led to its emergence as a newly strategic location: whether it was the establishment of the railways in 1870, which linked the town to the important city-centres of Lahore and Delhi and hence to the rest of the country; or the setting up of the British army cantonment; or, indeed, the constitution of the city as a new administrative centre for eastern Punjab.  However, several aspects of the socio-cultural lives of Jalandhar’s ordinary people continued as before, the most important of which were the various fairs held round the year. Most of these, despite being of a religious nature, constituted an occasion of celebration that was all-inclusive and eclectic. Indeed, the main features of all these fairs were remarkably common; this is how the Census Handbook for ‘Jullundur District’ describes their ambience:


Wandering minstrels at times appear and sing the love tales of Sussi Punnu, Sohni Mahenwal, Hir Ranjha and Buga. Snatches (boli) of these tales are sung by the villagers themselves.  A wrestling match by professional athletes will draw a crowd even from neighbouring villages. Fairs are highly appreciated… Most of them are purely religious gatherings, at which people combine devotion with amusement, and buying and selling are confined to sweetmeats and other articles of food. (Punjab District Gazetteers 1917:145)


These fairs were symbols of Punjab’s syncretic ethos: most of the important fairs in Jalandhar district were not confined to any one religion. Instead, each of the three major religions had their own peculiar fairs, in many of which members of all communities participated equally. Thus the Census Handbook notes that on the occasion of its annual urs mela, 'both Hindus and Muhammadans attend(ed)' the fair held at Imam Nasir’s shrine, on '2nd Thursday in Hār (June-July)'. As per the roster of the fairs, this is the only one that attracted the largest numbers, going up to 15,000: the maximum number recorded to attend a one day-long fair in Jullundur tahsil. The only exception to this is the fair during the annual Dusahra festival of Hindus, for which a number of 40,000 people is given. However the time period is clearly recognised under the ‘Date of Fair’ as 'lasts 10 days', which makes it difficult to estimate the numbers over a single day (Punjab District Gazetteers 1917:145). Either way, one gets an idea of the way members of all communities in Jalandhar attended these mammoth celebrations irrespective of the religious communities they belonged to (Annexure 1).


The fact that the Harballabh fair was held in winter months—the slackest period of the agricultural cycle—marking the maximum migration from rural to urban areas, also accounts for the large numbers of peasants travelling to Jalandhar city to attend it. In the words of Neeladri Bhattacharya, 'for many cultivators this was a period of leisure and festivities; for agricultural labourers it was a season of low wages, lack of employment and migration to urban areas' (Bhattacharya 1992:150)


The phenomenon of fairs makes sense in the context of a Jalandhar that was only gradually undergoing urbanisation with the onset of colonialism. Fairs, given their sheer size and the large numbers they attract, are essentially rural phenomena, and their prevalence in the heart of Jalandhar town point to the fact that peasants visited the town for purposes of religious devotion and entertainment, apart from more mundane reasons. The large presence of peasant-listeners then is what made the Harballabh festival acquire the epithet ‘Mela’. Echoing this archival description from the Census Handbook about fairs in general is the oral testimony of the late Mr. Ashwini Kumar (1921–2015), who retired as the Director-General of the Border Security Force. He was also the man who, in the 1950s, modernised the Harballabh festival along professional lines. Describing his childhood experiences of visiting the Harballabh Fair in the 1920s, Mr. Kumar recalled in a 2011 interview:


I remember the scenes of the Harballabh from my childhood: people would come in thousands to listen to the three nights of music; me and my brother would be especially sent from Lahore by our father, an avid music-lover. He had even retained a full time mirasi practitioner to teach us children the intricacies of classical music. At the Harballabh Fair, I clearly recollect how a peasant member of the audience stood up and interrupted the singing of one of the ustads, saying ‘twaadi eh waali shruti theek trahn nahi lagi’ (you didn’t strike that particular shruti very well.) (Ashwini Kumar interview 2012)


This image of the well-informed peasant, aware of the intricacies of classical music, one who would travel on bullock cart from his far-off village, bed and bedding-in-tow, to enjoy classical music, is a crucial component of most people’s memories of this festival. The ‘exception’ that classical music is for this region, it can only be fully entrenched within the cultural ‘norm’ of the Punjab, when ratified as having an interested but also informed peasant audience of phenomenal numbers. Regardless of enduring stereotypes, in terms of sheer numbers, at this time the rural population was substantial for the Jalandhar tahsil, around 85% in 1881–1911 (Census Handbook 1916 Part B:x).


The roster of fairs given in the table reproduced in Annexure I below shows us how at the venue of the Devi Talab (a holy tank and sacred sakti-peeth, that also contained a Sufi shrine), where the Harballabh fair was held in winter, the ‘Hindu Dusahra’ festival was also held, which combined with a ‘horse and cattle fair’. This reference firstly establishes the importance of the Devi Talab as a site in the popular geography of the city related to fairs. More importantly, it demonstrates the fact that peasants and other rural folk were familiar with the spot, given the ‘horse and cattle fair’, and those keen on music would find it convenient to arrive a month or two later in December for the ‘Harballab, or Musician’s fair’. The extant evidence thus firmly establishes the importance of the Devi Talab as a physical site associated with popular Hinduism in Jalandhar.



The inception of the Harballabh festival


The origins of the festival lie in the tradition of singing dhrupad couplets in Sanskrit, practiced by the brahmins in the Punjab. Dhrupad is a classical music genre associated with Hindu spirituality, and was performed in north Indian temples more generally. Singing in the dhrupad style was more widely prevalent in the Punjab—with musicologists believing that Guru Nanak himself sang to the accompaniment of the rabab in a variant of dhrupad, which survives as partaal gaayaki of the Sikh tradition today. The Ramagarhi artisans from within Sikhism were also proficient in dhrupad singing but also sang more light forms of music. Further, Muslim practitioners of dhrupad have been also extremely prominent throughout the Punjab. Another very vibrant tradition was that practised by the mirasis (hereditary genealogists and bards)—who were extremely versatile and were adept at performing a range of music across genres including folk, qawwali, bhajans and khayal renditions (Tandon 1961:79; Neuman 1980:90–135). These traditions of music in the Punjab are less known than the more widely recognised folk music played on the tumba by Jat Sikh peasants or indeed, the qawwali music associated with the Sufi saints.


The Harballabh festival grew out of what was originally an annual commemoration of the erstwhile mahant (Swami Tuljagiri) of the Devi Talab sakti-peeth site by his successor, Baba Harballabh. Swami Tuljagiri himself was next in line to Swami Hemgiri, who came from Hoshiarpur and established himself as the gaddi nasheen mahant of a site that had hitherto apparently been occupied by Muslim saints Shah Sikandar and Bhure Khan. Having vanquished the so-called Muslim ‘threat’, the patta of the Devi Talab land was given to Hemgiri by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, which consolidated the Devi Talab site as firmly Hindu (Shastri 1998, Bawra 1998:10–12). Hemgiri’s successor was Tuljagiri, who initiated many rituals marking out the sakti-peeth site as an important ritual spot in the sacred geography of upper caste Hindus of Jalandhar in particular. These developments popularised the site, with saadhus and sants now arriving in large numbers (Punjab District Gazetteers 1917:145, Shastri 1998).[1]


In the winter of 1875, the talented and blind dhrupad musician born in Bajwara (district Hoshiarpur), Baba Harballabh, who was the mahant of the sakti-peeth site at the Devi Talab, invited other musicians, especially dhrupad singers of the region in an endeavour to honour the memory of his guru and preceding mahant, Swami Tuljagiri.


Fig 5: Iconic image of Baba Harballabh inside the precincts of the Devi Talab Mandir complex


According to Dr Joginder Singh Bawra[2], the principal biographer of the festival, who based his book on oral testimonies from the 1970s onwards (Bawra 1998), it is not entirely true that Baba Harballabh was an accomplished musician, as has been made out in official discourse (see and in numerous, ever-burgeoning instances from the 1960s onwards. As he puts it, while describing the first festival held to commemorate the memory of Swami Tulja Giri:


In 1875, Harivallabh ji organised a bhandara on the occasion of the first death anniversary of his guru. In order to celebrate this death anniversary, according to the regulations of the sage-community, many saints/hermits and great souls etc. were invited. Swami ji also had a great love for music. He could also sing a little bit of the dhrupad genre. It is believed that he had received musical education from Shri Duni Chand. On this occasion, along with a sermon, some programme of classical music also took place.' (Bawra 1998:22)


By the next year, in January 1876, the festival underwent further changes because many musicians from across the Punjab, such as Miyan Ahmed Baksh of Phillour, Muhammad Baksh of Hariyana (district Hoshiarpur), Vilayat Ali and Meera Baksh of Shyam Chourasi gharana, and musicians from Jadla, Amritsar and Lahore also joined in (Bawra 1998:23). Across the oral and written record, we witness how the primary audience of this festival comprised mainly saints and ascetics—sadhus, sants, fakirs, pirs—who collected for this annual mystic mela to listen and sing to music for the sake of bhakti and ibādat, to commune with the divine. Oral testimonies from the exponents of the Punjab’s Talwandi gharana of dhrupad singing[3] such as Bhai Baldeep Singh in India and Ayesha Mahmood in Pakistan maintain that the first sitting in 1875 occurred when a nazrana (gift) of one and a half rupees was offered to Miyan Kalandhar Baksh Talwandiwale by Baba Harballabh.


Thus, by 1876 this became more than an impromptu gathering, and began to take on the shape of a regional music festival, with musicians from all over the Punjab region travelling to perform at the festival. By continuing the musical commemorations in memory of his guru and initiating an annual mela of music, Baba Harballabh broadened the range of the solely devotional music that was sung at this site. The fact that Baba Harballabh himself passed away (c.1885) at the same time in the year as his own guru Tuljagiri, in whose memory he had begun the festival, prompted his successor Pt. Tolo Ram, to intensify further the musical leanings of the barsi (ritual around the death anniversary).


Dr Bawra describes the performers in the context of the earliest musical sittings, establishing the importance of the performance of genres like dhrupad, dhamar and tappa at the mela by musicians like Miyan Meera Baksh and Miyan Muhammad Hussain of Haryana. Referring to a composition in Raga Hindol, Bawra tells us how it was composed by Nāth Rām of Batālā and disseminated to the Haryana musicians by Baba Harballabh. This brings to the fore the important centre of musical exchange that this mela was. Musicians came forth to perform in an atmosphere of camaraderie, the occasion marked by the mandate to sing for the divine in bhakti and ibādat in mystic communion that transcended communities. A small vignette which captures the lyrics of a dhrupad composition, illustrates this cosmopolitan, inter-religious sphere very vividly. Apparently, Miyan Muhammad Hussain of Haryana was renowned for singing the following dhrupad composition in Rag Bilāwal:


Sahsar gopi ek Kanhaiya, ya dekhūn main Rām

Dehar mein maseet mein but khane mein maykhane mein

Koi to bole kalma nabi ka, koi bulawe ram ki jai


Thousand milk-maidens, but only one Krishna; or shall I look at Rama?

In the household, the mosque, the temple or even the tavern;

Someone recites the injunctions of the Prophet, while someone proclaims victory to Ram.


Thus, though the specific locale of the origins of the Harballabh Rag Mela was a particularly Hindu one, the vehicle of music drew together musicians and mystics from outside Hinduism to pave the way for the emergence of a rich, eclectic, diverse and inclusive sphere of mystical music performance. 



Institutionalization and the impact of V.D. Paluskar


Accidentally arriving at the Harballabh festival in 1901, some 16 years after the death of Baba Harballabh, Pandit Vishnu Digamber Paluskar’s discovery of the Devi-Talab marked a turning point in the history of the mela (Bawra 1998:30, Kapuria 2013:58–59). Along with his fellow Maharashtrian, the musicologist Pt. V.N. Bhatkhande (1860–1936), Pt. V.D. Paluskar (1872–1931) took on the mantle of the reformation of Indian music. Paluskar’s visit to the Harballabh coincided with the establishment of his first Gandharv Mahavidyalaya at Lahore. This reformation drive was supported in the main by English-educated, middle class Indian elites led to a redefinition and conscious restructuring of music, assigning it with a new, modern respectability. Pt. Paluskar helped popularize a nationally recognisable format of khayal-centred classical music; this had an impact on the hitherto dhrupad-oriented Harballabh festival too. The Harballabh festival, which was hitherto run solely under the headship of the mahant Pt. Tolo Ram of the Devi Talab, was now to be organized by the Harballabh Sangeet Mahasabha. This was officially created in 1922, by members of Jalandhar’s middle-class elites, at the initiative of Jagannath Parti, a young English teacher at the local Sain Das Anglo-Sanskrit High School.


Khayal was popularized at Jalandhar by Paluskar and subsequently by the steady stream of his disciples like Vinayak Rao Patwardhan, Narayan Rao Vyas and Omkarnath Thakur.  The locally maintained archives at Jalandhar also yield documentary traces which prove that khayal was not always the predominant genre performed. Rather, an invitation letter surviving from 1924 testifies to the popularity of non-raga popular music such as the Punjabi kaafiyan, the shabd saakhi or the devotional devi ki bhetaan amongst even the elite notables to whom the letter was addressed, and who were the foremost patrons of the festival. Despite the main attraction being classical and raga music, the reference to genres which are of these quintessentially non-classical items can thus be seen as a means to attract a wider audience via these more popular genres and draw them towards classical music through the backdoor, as it were.


While the official history of the festival (accessed through souvenirs and replicated on the official website) has a clear chronology that provides us with the date of the establishment of the Sangeet Mahasabha, it does not historicise the reasons behind its establishment. Neither does it mention the changes the Mahasabha subsequently wrought in the performative space at the Harballabh. We get an idea of the latter from a notice issued in November 1928, a month before the festival is to take place, which outlaws the public presentation of gifts or money to musicians at the Harballabh stage or the reception of the same by any musician. Instead:


If any sahib wishes to give, then he is requested to call the singer to his home or visit the singer at the house where he is staying, and give him the reward there. Please do not try to give rewards in the sabha itself. Despite this request if any musician will accept rewards in this sabha, then his to-and-fro rent and reward will be seized (Shastri 1998:128).


This notice captures how the space of performance at the Harballabh was modernised and nationalised under the aegis of the Sangeet Mahasabha. Practices such as the spontaneous bestowal of gifts in cash and kind by besotted listeners to the musicians signified the links to an older style of performance associated with pleasure and entertainment.


The problem with this old practice for the patrons was the overt divisions it created amongst different musicians by persons external to the Sangeet Mahasabha.[4] More importantly, it smacks of an asymmetrical power relationship between patron and performer, reminiscent of the traditional jajman-mirasi relationship, with the patron belonging to a higher caste and the performer hailing from a lower status caste group. For a Paluskarite self-definition of musicians who perform for primarily devotional reasons (and not to earn money), the remotest possibility of being equated with lowly mirasis was unthinkable, especially at a place which is by now believed to harbour a tradition of music with an ancient and purely classical lineage.


There are also several examples of the Mahasabha’s attempt to discipline the audience upholding new, modern, disciplined and bourgeois norms for audience behaviour. In this new era of the onset of a new kind of classical music, struggling to be upheld as a respectable middle-class profession in itself, such practices needed to be outlawed, if the new middle-classes could attend the Harballabh, the dates of which had also been changed from January to the December Christmas vacation by the late 1920s to suit its needs.


Such a strategy also favoured the new, middle-class performer anxious to be treated at par with, or higher than traditionally lower-caste performers of music. These new middle class musicians can be evidenced in the many examples of the Arya Samaj anniversary celebrations in Lahore which editions of The Tribune newspaper of the 1920s and 1930s are replete with. (Kapuria 2012:63–65) Hence, saying 'no' to the money offered them is an effort to establish themselves as upholders of a hallowed tradition ‘of the gods’, aiming for a respectability as musicians that came necessarily with patina of religious devotionalism.


While this was in the realm of performative genres, the social space of the Harballabh also underwent a transformation after the intervention of Paluskar. As per newspaper reportage in the Punjab-wide English national daily The Tribune from the 1930s and especially the 1940s onwards, the presence of Paluskar’s disciples became a pre-eminent feature, right up to the 1970s. In the process, those who lost out were the Punjabi musicians, and in particular the mostly Muslim dhrupadiyas whose voices had struck the first notes at the Harballabh Mela. Thus, contrary to conventional belief resident in oral memory, that Partition in 1947 resulted in the decline of Muslim musicians in the Indian Punjab, the evidence from The Tribune reveals that this exclusionary trend in music already had been inaugurated, wittingly or unwittingly by Paluskar and his pupils, almost two decades prior to that cataclysm.



Modernisation of the festival and its recent history


After 1947, the Harballabh festival went through a slight lull, to be revived in the early 1950s as a modernized and professionalized festival of classical music at the national-level. This process was carried out under the indefatigable tutelage of Mr. Ashwini Kumar, eminent sportsperson and high-ranking police official who took over the mantle for the organisation of the festival during these years. Connoisseur, man of letters, sensitive listener, empathetic and passionate pedagogue, all these personal characteristics along with historical circumstances served to help him raise the festival to the heights it reached during his time. As Principal of the Phillaur Police Training Academy at the time of his taking over the charge of running the festival, Mr. Kumar, born in Jalandhar, a recognised music connoisseur and Harballabhite since his childhood days in Lahore, slowly worked to recast the festival. Mr. Kumar introduced several new features in the organization of the festival: re-galvanizing financial support from the rich and powerful bania (trading) community of Jalandhar as well as official state patrons, who, as we have just seen were already avid and eager to come to the aid of classical music. Most of all, Mr. Kumar streamlined the functioning of the Sangeet Mahasabha, injecting it with new practices such as collecting one rupee from each member of the vast audience. This had a more fundamental purpose than to sustain the festival: the revival of the old civic sense and spirit of ownership amongst the Jalandharis. Mr. Kumar’s stature as a decorated policeman and bureaucrat brought considerable state support to the festival, and it was declared as a national festival by the Indian Department of Tourism in the 1950s. In the1970s, a large temple was built at the Devi Talab, which grew in size and stature over the next few years, at the cost of the Sangeet Mahasabha’s stillborn attempts to build an auditorium and Harivallabh Bhawan.


Fig. 6: The Devi Talab Mandir, a site of pilgrimage and of the Harballabh Music Festival


The retirement of Mr. Kumar in 1982 coupled with the political volatility of the 1980s, which saw antagonism between Hindus and Sikhs as a result of the Khalistani movement and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. During the late 1980s, which saw the rise of a Hindutva wave across the country, there was an excessive concern about solidifying the spot of the Devi Talab as a rigidly Hindu space by the elites of Jalandhar. While there are no overt links of the Sangeet Mahasabha with Hindutva forces, the fact that during this very time it suffered ignominious defeat at the hands of the Devi Talab Mandir Committee, in the process losing out on the land allotted for its long-dreamed-of Harballabh Bhawan, reflects how belligerence was becoming the hallmark of a Hinduism focused on the temple.


As a result, the earlier inclusive Hindu sacrality, of which Baba Harballabh was a fine example, suffered defeat, and in the ensuing re-casting of the spatial configuration at the Devi Talab, music-making and listening became a secondary feature, almost incidental to the larger enterprise of defining the Devi Talab in terms of a temple, symbolic of a rigid, monologous and homogenous Hinduism, championed by and (arguably, crucial for) the success of Hindutva on the larger national stage. There have thus been a range of changes that have occurred in the history of the Harballabh festival during the long 20th century: a shift from mystical and devotional musical communion across religious boundaries in the late 19th century, to an increasingly strident middle-class morality in the early 20th century, onwards to a more disciplined institutionalization, witnessed in the shift from mela to sammelan during the mid-20th century. The Harballabh has thus meant different things to different people across various periods of its history.


Regardless, it has always been an integral symbol of Jalandhar’s status as a musical city in the Punjab. An anecdote from the life of the legendary singer K.L. Saigal who hailed from Jalandhar bears this out. When Saigal’s father moved back to Jalandhar from Jammu where he was a Tahsildar with the Maharaja of Kashmir, the young Saigal’s voice had broken and he was disheartened at his subsequent inability to sing. This was a period when Saigal immersed himself in listening rather than singing, and his biographer Pran Neville tells us:


...[everyone] expected him to… do something worthwhile for a living and settle down in life like other young men of middle-class families. On his part Saigal realised he was not cut out for this kind of life as his ambition was to understand the mystery and meaning of music. He came in contact with the Punjabi folk singers in Jalandhar and learnt about the traditional ragas integrated into the verses of the Punjabi love ballads… At the Har-Vallabh music festival, the annual traditional gathering of musicians from all over India in Jalandhar, Saigal had the opportunity of listening to the leading classical maestros of the day. He keenly observed the vocal styles of the eminent khayal and thumri singers from Lucknow, Agra, Gwalior etc. and he would try to imitate them and then sing in his private gatherings. Saigal was now all music—totally engrossed in his art, more to satisfy his inner urge than to entertain his listeners. (Neville 2004:21)


In the above account, Jalandhar emerges as a site of musical mingling of the folk and the classical[5] of Punjabi traditional music, and of music from elsewhere in north India, and as a cusp of the musical meaning which a young Saigal was in search of. As a melting pot of different genres of music and keeping alive a culture of listening, it perhaps should come as no surprise that the critically acclaimed K.L. Saigal, the popular singer of films who sang in a classical andaaz, should have fulfilled his initial creative urges in the musical mecca of Jalandhar.




This article is based on my MPhil dissertation (2013) on the Harballabh Music Festival at the Centre for Historical Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I am grateful to Mr. Naresh Kumar for his invaluable guidance.



[1] Shastri paints a very detailed picture of the function of this spot for Vedic prayers, holy dips in the Devi Talab tank, janeu ceremonies etc. Unfortunately we do not have other sources or perspectives on the history of this site.


[2] The late Dr. Joginder Singh Bawra (1936–2003), born in Montgomery district of west Punjab (now Pakistan) was a remarkable combination of musician, musicologist, teacher and in his later years, public relations expert for the Shree Baba Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan Mahasabha. Both his books provide us with a wonderfully comprehensive picture of the Harballabh Music Festival.



[3] For more information on the Talwandi gharana of dhrupad singing, see Paintal (1988:164–77). Paintal does not discuss the most prominent present-day exponents of this gharana who are based in Lahore, Pakistan¸ the students of Ustad Muhammad Hafeez Khan. For a detailed discussion of these exponents, see Basra and Widdess 1989. For a shorter account, see Sanyal and Widdess (2004:30–31).



[4] After all, the mahant (religious superior, in particular the chief priest of a temple) and the Mahasabha after him continued bestowing the jai patra (victory-letter) or jai mala (garland of victory) to a musician, as part of formal procedure which continues in an altered form even today.



[5] The most striking way in which this is evident even today is the fact that the leading folk and popular singers and composers of the Indian Punjab-such as Hans Raj Hans, Manmohan Waris, Master Salim, etc. are Life Members of the Shree Baba Harballabh Sangeet Mahasabha. See  An article from The Tribune provides a roster of the many popular and folk singers with vital connections to Jalandhar:  'Besides immortal singers like K.L. Saigal and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, singers associated with Jalandhar include the Bollywood playback singer Sukhwinder Singh, Hans Raj Hans and his Guru Pooran Shahkoti, Jasbir Jassi, Jazzy-B, Sarbjit Cheema, Manmohan Waris, Kamal Heer, Master Salim, Sukshinder Shinnda, Surinder Makhsoodpuri, K.S. Makkhan, Nirmal Sidhu, Ranjana, Sukhnain, Debi Makhsoospuri, Palwinder Dhami, Sarbjit of 'Koka' fame, Sabarkoti, Kaler Kantha and Surinder Laadi (Singh, 'It’s balle balle for singers from city', The Tribune, Friday, August 20, 2004, Chandigarh, India.



References and further reading


Anand, R.L. 1966. Census of India 1961: Punjab District Census Handbook No.10, Jullundur District. Chandigarh: Government of Punjab.  

Basra, K. and D.R. Widdess. 1989. ‘Dhrupad in Pakistan: The Talwandi gharana’, Dhrupad 4:1–10.


Bawra, Joginder Singh. 1998. Harivallabh Darshan. Jalandhar: Sangeet Kala Manch Publications.


 ———–. 2003. Harivallabh Darpan, Jalandhar: Sangeet Kala Manch Publications.


Bhattacharya, Neeladri. 1992. ‘Agricultural Labour and Production: Central and South-East Punjab, 1870–1940’, in The World of the Rural Labourer, ed. Gyan Prakash. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Dilgeer, Harjinder Singh. 2004. Encyclopedia of Jalandhar. Belgium: Sikh University Press.


Kapuria, Radha. 2013. ‘A Muse for Music: The Harballabh Musician’s Fair of Punjab, 1947– 2003’. Unpublished MPhil Dissertation, Jawaharlal Nehru University.


———–. 2015. ‘Redefining Music's Sacrality: The Harballabh Festival of Punjab, 1875– 1950’. Social Scientist 43.5/6:77–92.


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Annexure I: Table from Punjab District Gazetteers XIV B (1917)

Tahsil Village or town Date of Fair Estimated number of people attending Remarks
Jullundur Jullundar 2nd Thursday in Har (June-July) 15,000 Held at the shrine of Imam Nasir-ud-din. Both Hindus and Muhammadans attend.
Jullundur Jullundar 15th Sawan (about end of July) 2,000 A Muhammadan festival in honour of the Panj Pir, said to be five learned instructors in Islam, appointed by Mahmud of Ghazni, who were martyred.
Jullundur Jullundar 5th Muharram 4,000 A Muhammadan gathering at the shrine of Sayyad Alim Ulla Shah, where a Bihishti Darwaza has been instituted in imitation of that of Baba Farid at Pak Pattan, in the Montgomery District.
Jullundur Jullundar 14th Shaban 4,000 A Muhammadan festival, Shabbarat, on occasion of the annual making up of each person’s account in Heaven. In Jullundur the festival is chiefly marked by an ominous contest with fireworks.
Jullundur Jullundar 10th Muharram 10,000 The Muhammadan celebration of the Martyrdom of Hasan and Husain, grandsons of the Prophet
Jullundur Jullundar Dusahra (lasts 10 days) 40,000 The Hindu Dusahra festival combined with a horse and cattle fair, at the Devi Talab.
Jullundur Jullundar December   Harballab or Musicians' fair
Jullundur Jullundar December   Hindu fair at the Sodhal asthan. The offerings are taken by a Sao Brahman.
Jullundur Basti Sheikh Darwesh 7th Har (about middle of June) 4,000 A Muhammadan gathering at the shrine of Sayyad Kabir, who died abou 165 years ago.
Jullundur Basti Sheikh Darwesh 1st Sharwal 4,000 Do. On occasion of the lesser ‘Id (after the month of abstinence)
Jullundur Jamsher Holi 4,000 The Hindu Holi festival held at  a Gurudwara of Bairagi Fakirs, which is said to be 300 years old.
Jullundur Do. and Hardo Pharaula 11th April (Baisakhi) 800 Hindus come to bathe in the Bein. Such bathing usually restores Sikh children to health.
Jullundur Kartarpur 11th April (Baisakhi) 20,000 A Sikh festival. People bathe in the Gangsar tank, and pay their devotions to the Thamji Sahib and Adi Granth Sahib. The Guru comes forth with much pomp and takes his seat on the Damdama Sahib, where he reads the Granth Sahib. Next day the faithful present offerings.
Jullundur Jullundar Diwali 1,000 Procedure much the same as at Baisakhi festival
Jullundur Bhadiana 14th Phagan (end of February) 8,000 A Hindu fair (in honour of a stone image found at Kanaura, in Hoshiarpur, 200 years ago) transferred to Bhadiana, about  25 years ago on account of a fight between Hindus and Muhammadans at Kanaura.
Jullundur Beaspind 2nd Magh (about middle of January) 4,000 Called Chhinj. Instituted by Jassu, a Chamar, in accordance with  a vow to Sakhi Sarwar, when Jassu was buried in a well and miraculously escaped.
Jullundur Muhammadpur, near Alwalpur Various 3,000 Held at the Bhikamsar tank at the Holi, Chet Chaudas, Biasakhi and Diwali festivals.