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Punjabi Psalms

An Interview with Eric Sarwar, Part 2

In 2009, Emily Brink and Paul Neeley participated in two worship conferences in Pakistan co-sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) and the Tehillim School of Church Music and Worship (TSCM). Rev. Eric Sarwar, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan and founder of TSCM, arranged both conferences, one at the Presbyterian Seminary in Gujranwala, and the other hosted by Christ the King Roman Catholic Seminary in Karachi.

Impressed by Rev. Sarwar’s leadership and how psalms were sung with such vibrancy—from memory—by young and old alike, Brink invited him to speak at the Calvin Symposium on Worship in 2010; he returned in 2012 and again for the 2014 Calvin Symposium, this time staying on to begin a Th.M. in Worship at Calvin Theological Seminary. In this interview, Rev. Sarwar introduces RW readers to a psalm-singing tradition in Pakistan that has been largely unknown in the West. For additional information, visit worship.calvin.edu and type “Eric Sarwar” in the search box.

The first part of this interview appeared in RW 114. This second part picks the conversation right up where we left off, with the creation of a psalter in the Punjabi language.

Brink: This conversation is a good start in bridge-building. So the psalter was completed, but how did this book make its way into the hearts as well as the voices of the poor and mostly illiterate Punjabi Christians?

Sarwar: Presbyterians had already established boys’ and girls’ schools, theological institutions, and hospitals. The committee members visited all these schools to teach the tunes to both teachers and students, and through their struggles and painstaking efforts, these psalms were learned by children first, and from there to the local churches. But the main strategy was annual conventions.

In 1904, John Hyde, another U.S. Presbyterian missionary known as “Praying Hyde,” started a pastor’s convention. The convention was combined with psalm singing in 1908 when the first Sialkot Punjabi psalm book was printed in Western notation from Banaras, India. And so 1908 is counted as the first Sialkot Convention, which continues to this day; a hundredth anniversary was celebrated in 2009. People still gather annually for a full week of worship and fellowship. For three years when I was in seminary and directed the seminary choir, from 1999-2002, I had the honor of helping to lead the music for the services at the Sialkot Convention, from the opening service Monday evening until the closing communion service on Sunday morning with all the local churches as well. From Tuesday through Saturday there were five hour-long services at 7, 10, 1, 4 (youth services), and the major service at 7 p.m. for two to three hours.

Brink: Amazing! How many people would attend these conventions and these services?

Sarwar: It is like a huge campground, and thousands of people still come each year, always the last week of September. The highest number attend on weekends. I’d say the average weekend attendance is still about 25,000. Now you can understand how the common people learned these psalms! [See this link for a short video of a Sialkot Convention in 2011: tinyurl.com/RWsialkot.]

Brink: Even more amazing! Now I’m curious—did the people who knew how to read ever get a copy of the book in their hands?

Sarwar: At the first Sialkot convention in 1908, 2,000 copies of Punjabi Zaboor: desi raga wich (or Punjabi Psalms in Traditional Ragas) were published as an experiment, and they sold out that week. The next printing that same year also sold out. Soon others requested some of the psalms for their hymnals—Baptists in 1913, and the Church Mission Society in 1915. The Punjabi Zaboor was the most popular hymn-book of the 20th century in all of Indo-Pakistan.

Brink: How strong is this tradition today? I ask because at one time, Presbyterian and Reformed Christians in North America were also passionate about their psalm-singing heritage, but today, hymns and choruses are sung more often than psalms.

Sarwar: Unfortunately, the same thing has happened in Pakistan with the rise of new worship songs and recording studios, cassettes, and now CDs and Internet. As the people who knew these Punjabi psalms passed away, churches started to lose this heritage, like “the generation of those who knew God died” (Ex. 1:16).

While studying at GTS In Gujranwala, which is near Sialkot—the area at the heart of the Presbyterian Church in Pakistan—I had just learned how our psalm heritage began; but leading worship at the Sialkot Convention during seminary, I realized that out of the 405 songs, only 50 to 60 are still well-known and even included in the Sialkot Convention Hymnbook. More than 300 psalms have been lost and are no longer sung. I was burdened by this loss and felt a call to work for the revival of worship using the psalm book that was the first Christian indigenous worship resource of Pakistan. So I began three initiatives.

First, I started the Tehillim School of Church Music, using the Hebrew name for psalms in the title. Second, I released a recording of Psalms 1-9 from the original Punjabi Zaboor book, with the assistance of Heart Sounds International, which was released at the 2005 Sialkot Convention. Third, I started an annual psalm competition. Competitions have always been popular in Pakistan. After returning from seminary to Karachi, I noticed that there were competitions of Christmas carols and Lenten Passion songs, but nothing on the psalms. So, I thought, why not have a psalm competition? Within three or four years, it became a huge competition, attracting youth, choirs, and worship bands across the country. Then we decided to change the format from a competition to a festival, with soloists, choirs, bands, and expanding to include recitation, dance, drama, and readers’ theatre—with everything based on the psalms. These Psalm Festivals have become annual events, and after ten years in Karachi they are now being planned in other cities as well. The Psalm Festivals have had a great impact. Anyone who wants to hear more of these psalms can go to Youtube and search for “Punjabi Zaboor.”

But I have not been working alone. During this time I discovered that another person, Joseph Saeed Asi from Faisalabad City, was also at work to preserve these psalms through recordings. He has preserved about 30 to 40 percent of these traditional psalms, in professional recordings using voices. Also, in June 2013, I was invited to speak at the annual convention of the Christian (Presbyterian) Hospital in Taxila, Pakistan, and was surprised to learn of “Recordings of Punjabi Zaboor (Psalms) for Choirs”! Both of these efforts were more private recording projects that did not reach the people more broadly.

The most striking area for me is how God is using the psalms for peace-building and religious harmony with Muslims in Pakistan. In spite of persecution, this is another story that has to be told. For the story of a breakthrough of psalm-singing with Sufis, see my short online article tinyurl.com/psalmsandsufis.

Brink: So the work in Pakistan continues, though you are now in the United States. How will your work continue?

Sarwar: Besides monitoring the TSCM in Karachi, on August 2, 2014, I helped birth the Pakistan Association of Worship Leaders, attending the meeting of leaders via Skype. While I am in the United States, they will continue the work of worship renewal in Pakistan. And in the U.S. I am speaking at many Pakistani churches, since there are many among the Indo-Pak diaspora.

Brink: So many people, especially Christians, have left Pakistan. What are your hopes for the future of the church there?

Sarwar: My hopes for the future of the church in Pakistan are to establish more schools, including seminary courses in church music and worship; to produce more books and media resources; and to continue annual conferences and psalms festivals as a bridge for peace-building and interfaith harmony. I pray that God will bless these efforts.

Brink: Amen.

To hear Psalm 24 click on the link.