Asian Music and Dance

Dharambir Singh – the UK’s own sitar maestro

Single-minded musician, wise teacher and artistic innovator are roles that come naturally to renowned sitar-player, Dharambir Singh. This mild-mannered gentle soul has been a force behind the spread of Indian classical music in the UK. 

In an exclusive interview, Jahnavi Harrison uncovers the story that starts from the kid riding on his bicycle to Ustad Vilayat Khan’s home in the north Indian town of Dehradun and takes twists and turns in his new home of Great Britain, to light up the path for South Asian classical musicians to follow after him.

“Icried – it was very mixed feelings. I told my wife, ‘I’m not going to go for this. I don’t want it.’” Dharambir Singh pauses as he describes the moment he opened the letter he received this year, announcing his nomination for an MBE. “There was a part of me which thought it was really going to mess my ego up. Then I thought, it’s for my sector and fellow musicians – if I didn’t accept, then what chance would there be for all the other great people out there?” 

The humility and gratitude Dharambir expresses is genuine and palpable, remarkable from a man who has been behind the scenes of many of the milestone developments of British Asian classical music over the last thirty years, and an outstanding artist in his own right. In his trademark turban and kurta for today’s photo shoot, he looks every inch the traditional man. Dharambir expresses his love for the country that has allowed his career to flourish, “It’s an awesome space that allows for things to be built and expressed”, and his passion for supporting young British Asian musicians. Traditional, perhaps but conservative, certainly not: “There should be markers for every arts organisation who are funded to demonstrate how many British musicians they are impacting, and if they are not, then the funding should be taken away. They must do whatever is needed.”

 ‘…without him the British Asian youth would have lost out on a golden heritage.’

It comes as little surprise that Dharambir is loved by the young musicians he holds so dear. The increasingly ubiquitous Soumik Datta is full of praise for ‘Uncleji’ – “He has inspired nearly three generations of young British musicians to expand the imagination, take risks and think outside the box and has taught us to exist as a unified community. A pioneer we must applaud and celebrate, for without him the British Asian youth would have lost out on a golden heritage.” As someone who has spent the majority of his career investing blood, sweat and tears in cultivating a new generation of talented artists to Indian classical music, Dharambir is equally glowing in his praise for Soumik and all of these other ripening fruits. “Not only do they all know their craft of Indian music, but they know so much about Western music, because they’ve grown up with it. Ensemble music-making is natural for them. I don’t think we respect that – people still think you have to go to India to get good musicians but times have changed.”

Of course, Dharambir speaks from experience, having traversed the classical music world across continents and decades. It’s a long way from his beginnings where, aged six, he was sent from East Africa to keep his grandparents company in Punjab. His grandfather sung Sikh devotional songs and his uncle, Sardar Avtar Singh, played tabla alongside working as an aeronautical engineer. It was this uncle who recognised Dharambir’s interest and eventually took him to his first sitar lesson in Amritsar at the age of thirteen. During a period of lessons with Professor Sita Ram, he was spotted by the head of the Sikh Namdhari sect, Satguru Jagjit Singh, who had a keen ear for musical talent and was proactive in finding him new opportunities. “As a kid that was a great inspiration,” he says, describing how he received a smile and praise from Satguruji: “I just thought, I want to make him more happy.”

“My grandma gave me ghee in a little pot to give to the cooks at the local dhaba…”

By Satguruji’s arrangement, he agreed to leave home at fifteen to live in Patiala and study with Pandit Narinder Nirula, a disciple of Ustad Vilayat Khan. “Thinking back now, I wouldn’t even do that with my own kids,” he laughs. “I had a little bike which I would ride to school in the mornings for my music lessons. My grandma gave me ghee in a little pot to give to the cooks at the local dhaba, so that when I ate there, at least they’d have something decent to put on my chapatis!”

When Satguruji met Ustad Vilayat Khan himself, he earnestly asked if he would take on Dharambir as his student, to which he agreed. Dharambir was sent to Ustad’s home in Dehradun, and at last he had his first lesson with the great sitar master. Still, he hardly had a chance to focus on his music. “I would travel from my new boarding school by bus for my lessons, but by the time I reached Ustad’s house, it was time to go back to school again.” He couldn’t expect much sympathy either. “(He was) living in a different world – it wasn’t like I was going for an hour’s lesson. I would show up and if he felt like it, he would teach – if not, that wasn’t his problem. It was a very harsh system, probably designed to test if people would stick it out or not.”

Undeterred, Dharambir left school and continued his education by correspondence courses. It was during this time that he really became steeped in the lifestyle of a gharana musician, and received his most valuable training yet, though he didn’t recognise that at the time. “Our lessons were never in a systematic fashion, but listening to him talking and telling stories, was actually how I was being taught.” I ask if he ever felt frustrated, or that his time was being wasted. “I had no clue what to expect. Not coming from a musical background, this was all I knew. Some left, feeling they were being cheated, but I stuck with it.”

“It was a huge blessing for …an outsider to be endorsed by a guru like Ustad Vilayat Khan.”

One day out of the blue, Ustad called him and asked him to become his disciple. “I was shocked!” he exclaims. “All this time I thought I was your disciple!” A formal, grand initiation ceremony took place at the NCPA in Bombay in 1979 and a great many musicians attended. “It was a huge blessing for someone like me, an outsider, to be endorsed by a guru like Ustad Vilayat Khan,” he says.

He now sits in between his students, Roopa Panesar and Jesse Bannister as they awkwardly try to position themselves for a group photo. There is some discussion about how they should be arranged – at one moment Roopa sits on a stool, higher than her guru, to which she objects. They have a giggle about it, switching places and posing formally for a moment, before breaking into laughter again. There is a delightful ease between them, and the depth and history of their relationships are evident. “There is this idea about gurus, isn’t there,” says Dharambir, “that you can’t have a laugh with them – that everything has to be serious all the time.”

Through the constant debate over the nature of the guru-sishya relationship, Dharambir is clearly a guru for a modern era. He has taught hundreds of students in his career as an educator in the UK and designed music courses that are revolutionary in their integration of Western music teaching methods. Most recently he has been creating pioneering research in music technology that puts learning in the hands of the student who may not be able to be with a teacher regularly in person. 

He was recently chosen from hundreds for a fellowship from NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) to conduct four years of research in this vein – the honour of which he also brushes aside, “They must’ve had a gap for minorities.” One gets the impression that this period of research was perhaps the first in a very long time when he has had the chance to have time, space and funding to carry his research into new areas of personal inspiration and inquiry.

“…his experiences in education have served to deepen his humility and sense of wonder…”

The history of Dharambir’s success in England is one involving hard graft and immense dedication. Arriving from India aged twenty-one, he reluctantly decided to give it a chance on his dad’s reassurance that “if you don’t like it, it’s a holiday”. He never imagined that music would be his main focus: “I thought I’d have to do engineering, and I tried a training course for six months, but I realised my body wasn’t designed to stand at a machine all day.” In the meantime, he performed occasionally and was surprised to find a unanimously positive reception from British people and Indians alike. In Nottingham he was offered a job as the manager of a sleepy Asian community centre. A friend coached him to answer the interview questions properly, but it turned out to be unnecessary – interviewers had already heard his concert and almost gave him the job on the spot. He chuckles as he remembers walking into his new office to find his own secretary: “I thought, my God! A secretary! She was more experienced than me!” 

Greater musical engagement was provided by a move to Leicester to study Arts Management, where Dharambir got a job with the local music service teaching sitar in schools. “We were what you call teachers on wheels. I was teaching at a phenomenal rate with over 150 students on register – five schools on average every day.” He remembers walking into primary school classes and playing for the young children, after which he’d ask who was interested in learning – almost everyone wanted to, but he would do a few more tests and games to find those who were particularly capable. As if on cue, Roopa Panesar enters, now an acclaimed concert musician in her own right. She smiles as Dharambir remembers her as an 8-year-old in one of those first classes. While teaching, he also studied Classical Guitar up to Grade Six – his first experience of “taking music through the eyes”.

He speaks as if it was just last week, and one gets the sense that his experiences in education have served to deepen his humility and sense of wonder at the life path that has been revealed, step-by-step. He is clearly a natural teacher, speaking at ease about his own life with great introspection and the care of one used to noting lessons learned and carefully communicating the steps by which they were assimilated.

Much of his most celebrated work has been within the field of higher education, something he got a first taste of while doing a Masters degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS). Dharambir wistfully remembers squeezing his teaching schedule to find one day off each week and studying on the train down to London. A job at Leeds College of Music followed, opening up a whole new journey of discovery. Grappling with setting a syllabus for teaching Indian music at degree level to Western musicians was admittedly a challenging task, but he was successful in designing a foundation programme as well as setting up a popular arts club – Sangeet Northwest, which now goes by the name of SAA-UK. 

 “I was always proactive in creating infrastructure,” he says, counting the numerous arts societies he has helped to found, including the most recent, Shruti Arts in Leicester. This isn’t missed by his peers. “He works pretty much behind the scenes,” says Sandeep Virdee, Artistic Director of the Darbar Arts Culture Heritage Trust, “but he’s been a catalyst to many individuals who have gone on to set up important new organisations and music projects for South Asian music in the country.”

So what about that eternal question – the future of Indian classical music in the UK? Dharambir is unsurprisingly balanced in hope and trepidation. Of the Bhavan’s degree programme, which he helped to advise and construct, he explains that it has been based “on the best of Western conservatoire, plus the Indian system. This is still very sensitive – the guru-sishya method versus the other – logging the skills which are given to students.” Despite six students successfully graduating the four-year course last year, interest has been sparse. “If this degree doesn’t take off then it’s a missed opportunity that I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to take again. It’s our capacity to get government funding.”

As for the up-and-coming talent in the UK, he admits that while the job market is not promising, “Professional means to make a living – in the Indian world professional just means he’s really good! A lot of people have great talent, and when they’re ready, they will make bold choices, but in the meantime they may be doing half days to make consistent money – we have to remain open to that. Even coming from a musician’s family, to see my sons go full-time into music has not been easy – they are also doing other jobs and then doing music at the same time.”

He leans back in his chair now, the summer sun setting out of the window. “The number of musicians living in England is manifold – it is so vibrant and amazing, but we must assert our availability within Europe now – we haven’t even scratched the surface there.”

Jesse Bannister

“I’m not scared,” says Jesse, preparing to take the train after the photo shoot to Tottenham, where the worst of the London riots has been taking place. “I grew up in those places where it’s all happening – I might’ve had such a different life, but music was definitely my way out,” he shares. 

Born in London in 1971 to an Indian mother and an English father, he went to Leeds in 1992 to undertake a Graduate Diploma in Jazz (with Honours) at Leeds College of Music. It was here that he met Dharambir Singh, and began his studies in Indian music alongside those of jazz. He is a rare musician in his ability to play Indian music on saxophone at a professional level – something mostly only seen in the Carnatic tradition. He also plays piano, flute, cajon, udu and congas. Jesse is also a composer, producer, promoter and dance/theatre accompanist with a wide range of musical and technical skills. He has worked with the Liverpool Philharmonic, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, the City of London Sinfonia, Talvin Singh, Sukhwinder Singh, Sonia Sabri and the Hallé Orchestra. Jesse returned to Leeds College to teach on the degree programme and has been there for over a decade. 

Dharambir praises Jesse’s ability to transcend cultural barriers and be a flexible artist: “When Jesse was being examined at the end of his degree course, my colleagues in Leeds said ‘What is he doing? How is he going to be successful?’ The chief examiner from London said ‘That’s the future!’” 

Roopa Panesar

Many would’ve seen the starry portrait of Roopa Panesar as the face of this year’s Darbar festival. There is no diva air about her, despite her immense talent. On stage she exudes humility as well as a glowing, assured confidence. “She is a concert artist in her own right now,” says Dharambir proudly, “I have to watch out when I play with her – she really keeps me on my toes.”

She first started studying music on the suggestion of her parents after she met her guru, Dharambir Singh, aged seven. Like many rising stars in the UK’s Indian music scene, Roopa’s journey has not been straightforward. She completed a degree in chemical engineering and worked in the oil and gas industry for two years before giving it all up to pursue music full-time about six years ago.

Now she balances motherhood and being a concert musician – something she admits is not easy. “It usually means practising intensely for an hour when my little one has gone to sleep, rather than a few hours of leisurely practising. Luckily, she’s very patient!”

Roopa continues to develop her career – giving high-profile concerts at the House of Commons, Royal Festival Hall and NEC Birmingham. Earlier this year she recorded music for the film soundtrack of West is West, the follow-up to the critically acclaimed film East is East. She also successfully completed a series of concerts across the UK this year that saw her accompanied by tabla greats like Sanju Sahai, Bhupinder Chaggar and Kousic Sen.

Roopa on her Guruji

“I feel so blessed to have learned from Guruji. He has been an amazing mentor in my music and life. I am always inspired by him and it is thanks to his dedication, hard work as a teacher and high visions that I am able to play sitar and perform today. His dedication to empowering and educating the youth is really unparalleled.“



Join the weekly Pulse newsletter and we will send you the latest news and articles straight to your inbox