Sikh music

Sikh music

See also Kirtan

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.

Sikh Musicans

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.

Major Contributors to Sikh Kirtan

The tradition of kirtan developed over the period of the ten Gurus is as follows:

  • Hymns from the following compositions only are permitted in kirtan: Adi Granth, Dasam Granth, vaars and kabits of Bhai Gurdas, Bhai Nandlal’s poems.
  • The kirtan-group is generally seated on the right side of the palki of Guru Granth Sahib. No special seats or cushions are provided for the singers. However, in big diwans (Assemblies), the use of platform or dais is allowed, provided it is lower than the palki (seat) of Guru Granth Sahib. This is done to enable the ragis and the congregation to have full view of one another.
  • In the morning, kirtan of entire Asa-di-var (24 chhants, salokas and pauris) is completed. The singing of Asa-di-var is not to be interrupted by katha (exposition of a random hymn read from the Scripture) or lecture.
  • Appropriate compositions of Gurbani are sung at certain functions. For example at the time of Anand Karaj (Sikh Wedding) Lavan, Anand and suitable shabads ar sung. At the funeral of a Sikh, appropriate shabads relating to death are sung. Kirtan Sohila is recited before cremating the dead body.
  • Every hymn should be sung in the indicated raga and tala. The singer should use the appropriate laya, tan and palta. However, he must not forget the rasa and the appropriate ethos, mood and spirit of the hymn.
  • Vars should be sung as indicated in the Scripture. For example Gauri var should be sung in Gauri raga, Ramkali var in Ramkali raga, with appropriate dhuni if indicated.
  • Display of musical skill and excess of alaap and tan are not permitted, as they tend to make the minds of singers and listeners mercurial and unstable.
  • Correct pronunciation and intonation of Gurbani is essential so that the audience may understand the wording and the meaning of the hymn. The singer is not supposed to introduce any words of his own or make interpolations in Gurbani [1]. The use of extra words like ha, ji, wahwah, piyara, etc., is against the spirit of Gurmat.
  • The raga-technique and the sounds of instruments are subordinated to the singing of the hymn. What is brought out prominently by the musician is the Gurbani and its rasa, and not the musical expertise. Parallel quotations (parmans) to illustrate the theme are permitted during the kirtan.
  • Any hymn that has been commenced should be completed. Lack of time is no reason for stopping the singing of a hymn in between.
  • No kirtan is permitted during Akhand Path (continuous reading of the Scripture).
  • The listeners should not make offerings (donations) to the musicians while the kirtan is in progress. Offerings can be made at the end of the kirtan. The best way is one followed by Sufi Congregations, where the listeners make the offerings to the president of the function or the organiser who respectfully hands over the collections to the leader of the music-group at the conclusion of the function. No ragi should interrupt his kirtan to acknowledge a donation or offering, nor should he mention the name of the donor. He should make a collective acknowledgement of the offerings at the end of the kirtan. This procedure is in accordance with Resolution No. 5 dated 2nd January 1976 of the Kirtan Sub-Committee of the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar. In any case, interruption of kirtan to praise a donor or office-bearer of the Gurdwara or a distinguished visitor by name is absolutely forbidden, as it is against Gurmat (Guru’s instructions).

Raga: Melodic Scales

Ragas have a direct relationship to human moods and the following are the connections between Ragas and feeling:

  1. Soohi - joy and separation
  2. Bilaaval - happiness
  3. Gaund - strangeness, surprise, beauty
  4. Sri - satisfaction and balance
  5. Maajh - loss, beautification
  6. Gauri - seriousness
  7. Aasa - making effort
  8. Gujri - satisfaction, softness of heart, sadness
  9. Devgandhari - no specific feeling but the Raag has a softness
  10. Bihaagra - beautification
  11. Sorath - motivation
  12. Dhanasari - inspiration, motivation
  13. Jaitsree - softness, satisfaction, sadness
  14. Todi - this being a flexible Raag it is apt for communicating many feelings
  15. Bhairaagi - sadness, (The Gurus have, however, used it for the message of *Bhakti)
  16. Tilang - this is a favourite Raag of Muslims. It denotes feeling of beautification and yearning.
  17. Raamkali - calmness
  18. Nat Narayan - happiness
  19. Maali Gaura - happiness
  20. Maaru - giving up of cowardice
  21. Tukhari - beautification
  22. Kedara - love and beautification
  23. Bhairav - seriousness, brings stability of mind
  24. Basant - happiness
  25. Sarang - sadness
  26. Malaar - separation
  27. Jaijawanti - viraag
  28. Kalyaan - Bhakti Ras
  29. Vadhans - vairaag, loss (that is why Alahniya is sung in this Raag when someone passes away)
  30. Parbhati - Bhakti and seriousness
  31. Kaanra - Bhakti and seriousness

Taal: Rhythms

In connection with Tala or musical beats/rhythms and the ‘Ghar’ in the Guru Granth Sahib, the following can be concluded.

  • GHAR 1 - DADRA TAAL (There are 1 Taalis and the Beat has 6 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 2 - RUPAK TAAL (There are 2 Taalis and the Beat has 7 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 3 - TEEN TAAL (There 3 Taalis and the Beat has 16 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 4 - CHAAR TAAL (There are 4 Taalis and the Beat has 12 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 5 - PUNJ TAAL (There are 5 Taalis and the Beat has 15 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 6 - KHUT TAAL (There are 6 Taalis and the Beat has 18 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 7 - MUT TAAL (There are 7 Taalis and the Beat has 21 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 8 - ASHT MANGAL TAAL (There are 8 Taalis and the Beat has 22 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 9 - MOHINI TAAL (There are 9 Taalis and the Beat has 23 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 10 - BRAHAM TAAL (There are 10 Taalis and the Beat has 28 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 11 - RUDRA TAAL (There are 11 Taalis and the Beat has 32 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 12 - VISHNU TAAL (There are 12 Taalis and the Beat has 36 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 13 - MUCHKUND TAAL (There are 13 Taalis and the Beat has 34 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 14 - MAHASHANI TAAL (There are 14 Taalis and the Beat has 42 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 15 - MISHR BARAN TAAL (There are 15 Taalis and the Beat has 47 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 16 - KUL TAAL (There are 16 Taalis and the Beat has 42 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 17 - CHRCHARI TAAL (There are 17 Taalis and the Beat has 40 Maatraas)

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