Sikh music (Shabad keertan) began in the 16th century as the musical expression of mystical poetry conceived by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak. Following him, all the Sikh Gurus sang in the then-prevalent classical and folk music styles, accompanied by stringed and percussion instruments. The classical style was the devotional dhrupad style, where the text was of prime significance and the music played a supporting albeit important role. The Gurus specified the raags in which they sang each hymn in the Sikh sacred scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, which is organized by the 62 raags that were used. Out of these, 31 are main raags, and 31 are variant raags. Several of these raags are unique to the Sikh music tradition. In addition to using and modifying traditional instruments, the Sikh Gurus developed new stringed instruments like the taus and percussion instruments like the jori''.
While Hindustani music underwent significant changes in the setting of Mughal courts, and a separate stream of Carnatic music developed in southern India, Sikh music retained its original form and styles. It thus became a unique musical tradition, encompassing a variety of rich melodic forms and a well developed percussive system, with a variety of accompanying stringed and percussive instruments, such as the rabaab, saranda, taus, pakhaavaj and jori. This music flourished into the 20th century.
Major changes occurred in the 20th century. The classical style was largely replaced by contemporary popular genres often based on Indian film music. Within the remaining classical tradition, the devotional dhrupad style was overtaken by the darbaari khayaal style. The harmonium took the place of stringed instruments and the tabla replaced the pakhaavaj and jori.
Significant efforts have been under way since the 1970s to revive the rich Sikh music tradition initiated and developed by the Sikh Gurus. Various terms used to refer to this tradition include Shabad keertan parampara, Gurbani sangeet parampara and Gurmat sangeet.
The three types of Sikh musicians - rababis, ragis, and dhadhis continued to flourish during the period of the Gurus. Guru Nanak started the rababi tradition by engaging Bhai Mardana as his accompanist-musician. Formerly the Muslim singers were called mirasis, but Guru Nanak gave them a new name - rababis, because they played on the rabab (rebec) and adopted the Sikh way of life in food, dress and manners. Some of the notable rababis after Mardana were his son Shahjada. Balwand and Satta, Babak - son of Satta, Chatra - the son of Babak, and Saddu and Baddu - the rababis used to perform kirtan regularly at Amritsar before the Partition in 1947. The last of the line of rababis was Bhai Chand whose kirtan has been heard by many living people before 1947. After the Partition of India and Pakistan, the rababis migrated to Pakistan, the line of rababis is almost dying out without Sikh patronage.
The second type of musicians - ragis were the amateur singers whom Guru Arjan encouraged to perform kirtan in order to avoid dependence on professional rababis. Some of the bards (bhatts) at the Court of Guru Arjan, whose compositions are included in the holy Sikh Scripture, became ragis and did kirtan before the congregations at different centres. Early in the eighteenth century, Bhai Jassa Singh Ahluwalia - the great warrior performed kirtan at Mata Sundri’s residence at Delhi, after the passing away of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708. Kirtan at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, was discontinued (on account of the persecution and atrocities of Muslim rulers) for many years in the eighteenth century. When the Sikh missals (confederacies) obtained control of Amritsar, kirtan was restarted at the Golden Temple. Bhai Mansa Singh ragi performed kirtan at the Golden Temple during the regime of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Bhai Sham Singh Adanshabi did kirtan at the Golden Temple for more than seventy years. Outside Amritsar, Sant Attar Singh, Bhai Sujan Singh, Bhai Randhir Singh and his groups proved to be devoted kirtan-iyas ("Sikh kirtan musicians") who did commendable missionary work.
The mordern ragi group generally consists of three persons: one plays the tabla or jori (pair of drums) and he seldom participates in the singing; the other plays the harmonium, and the third plays a stringed instrument or harmonium or cymbals. The leader of the group sits in the centre and the group is known by his name. Even today, ragi-groups are employed by the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee to perform kirtan in relays at the Golden Temple and at some historic Gurdwaras in the Punjab. Some of the travelling ragi-parties continue to perform kirtan in different parts of the world where there is a concentration of Sikh residents. Some groups of American Sikhs are particularly devoted to kirtan and sing hymns every morning in their Ashrams or in the local Gurdwara on holidays.
Guru Hargobind first employed the third types of musicians called dhadhis early in the seventeenth century. He instructed them to sing heroic ballads (vaars) in his court to inspire the Sikhs at acts of valour and heroism. Bhai Abdulla - expert in playing the Sarangi, and Bhai Natha - player of dhadh (a small hand-drum) were quite popular. The clash with the tyrannical Muslim rulers appeared imminent. The dhadhi-groups performed before the sangat and groups of Sikh soldiers. These groups subsequently became very popular all over the Punjab on account of the use of folk tunes and their zealous and emotional style of singing. These folk singers had hardly any knowledge of Hindustani classical music, but their appeal to the masses was irresistible. A dhadhi group consists of two or three singers, one playing on the sarangi, another playing on the dhadh, and the third may be their leader, discoursing on the contents of their songs. Though they are expected to sing vars of the Scripture, they usually sing their own poetic compositions on the daring exploits of Sikh warriors and martyrs. One of the famous dhadhi-jathass was that of Bhai Kishen Singh Kartor. Sohan Singh Seetal is also a well-known dhadhi.
The tradition of kirtan developed over the period of the ten Gurus is as follows:
Ragas have a direct relationship to human moods and the following are the connections between Ragas and feeling:
In connection with Tala or musical beats/rhythms and the ‘Ghar’ in the Guru Granth Sahib, the following can be concluded.