By day, he uses the pen. By night, he wields it. Meet Bakhtawar Singh, the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Tarn Taran by day, and Sufi poet-lyricist Bakhtawar Mian by night. The 1992-batch Punjab Civil Services (PCS) officer has been working for the past five years to promote singers who have been appreciated yet sidelined, like Barkat Sidhu, or those who do not realise the power of the talent they possess, like mela singer Toto who has been given a new, niche identity as Saida Begham.
"I was posted as SDM in Baghapurana in year 2000 when I discovered that I could write, and poetry at that," said Bakhtawar. We asked how, and he revealed a quaint, long story. "Well, I have to thank my son for that, who was barely a year old then. He fell ill frequently that year, and I befriended the doctor, Dr Kiranjot Singh, who introduced me to spiritualism. I ended up attending a three-day camp of the Osho mission, where they made us write down our experiences. I was fine with prose, but soon, as I progressed through camp levels, within a year I started jotting down my experiences in verse, and then progressed to an abstract sort of poetry."
The meditation had his family worried. "My wife thought I had lost it," he laughed, "but soon she saw the calm on my face, and encouraged me."
Son of a farm labourer from Wadala Khurd near Amritsar, Bakhtawar had a brush with leftist revolutionary dramatic arts at college in the '80s.
Perhaps that explains why he was attracted towards sufi poetry and artistes who skim the margins of the mainstream. "Barkat Sidhu was my favourite on doordarshan. He lived near Baghapurana, so I used to visit him frequently," he recalled. Around 2004, Bakhtawar showed his work to Barkat. "He praised me and gave me the suffix Mian," chuckled Bakhtawar, "I thought he was saying it because I was the SDM.
But when he asked me to compose the lyrics, I proposed we record it too." That resulted in the album "Tere Sang Sang" in 2006. For resources, Bakhtawar uses his personal money and gets some help from his wife Sukhwinder Kaur, a Punjabi teacher at SR government college.
He registered Legend Records Society that produced the album as non-profit. "I could not rest. I wanted a female singer as most of my writings are from the woman's perspective. Barkat led me to his niece Toto, who lived in Shahkot, where I was posted then." Toto, whom Bakhtawar terms "a typical, hugely talented Mirasi woman with no clue what she possesses", was rechristened Saida Begham and brought to a studio. Her album "Saanwal" came out in 2007. With a poetry book to his credit meanwhile, Bakhtawar next picked Master Lal and his son 20-year-old Yakoob from the Amritsar heritage festival, cutting two albums with them in 2010. In 2011, he picked Bibi Nooran's granddaughters Sultana and Jyoti, before they had become a national rage with their MTV song "Tung Tung".
"The album is almost ready. We are so proud to be singing his poetry," said Sultana, who calls Bakhtawar 'papaji'. Would his poetry be picked up if he were not a PCS officer, we asked. "I don't know; people accuse me of vanity. They are entitled to their opinion," he smiled. "I am writing, but also promoting art. At best, I am a facilitator."