Music of our Gurus: Gurmat Sangeet by Dr. Hakam Singh
Gurmat Sangeet, also popularly known among Sikhs as Kirtan, is the singing of hymns from the Sikh Scriptures according to the rules prescribed in the Sikh Scripture, Shri Guru Granth Sahib (“SGGS”). The rules prescribed for singing of any particular hymn include the musical measure (Raga) and the rhythm (Tala or Ghar?) given before the start of each hymn in which that hymn is supposed to be sung.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, was the originator of Gurmat Sangeet. At the time of Guru Nanak, the Bhakti movement was at its peak. Hymns of several Bhaktas were sung ritualistically by their followers in random folk tunes. Guru Nanak emphasized, that singing of praise of Akal Purakh (God) with single-minded focus was the supreme form of worship, specially, when it was sung in the appropriate measure and rhythm (Raga and Tala or Ghar) prescribed for the Shabad: SGGS P.747
Fifth Nanak, Guru Arjan Dev further corroborates this: SGGS P.214
Throughout Guru Nanak’s travels, which spread over a period of over three decades, Bhai Mardana, a bard by birth, and an expert player of Rabab1, was his constant companion. Whenever the Guru was in a spiritual discussion with some one, he would urge Mardana to start playing on the Rabab in a particular Raga while he himself would substantiate his point by singing one of his poetical compositions. It is said that the message delivered through the hymn in his melodious voice, with Mardana’s accompaniment on Rabab, touched the inner core of the listener’s heart and had a profound and lasting effect.
“Mardana! Play upon the Rabab, the Divine song has arrived”, are the oft-quoted words of Guru Nanak in the Janam Sakhis. At the end of his travels when Guru Nanak settled in Kartar Pur, the twice-daily singing of Kirtan (morning and evening) became a regular part of prayers. The instruments used were the Rabab for melody with the accompaniment of Pakhavaj or Mardang, a two-sided drum, to give the beat (Tala). The foundation of Gurmat Sangeet was thus laid.
The successor Gurus kept up this tradition and Gurmat Sangeet was established as the most important part of the Sikh congregational prayers. The Gurus were quite knowledgeable in music and were great poets as well. While Guru Nanak had composed his Bani (utterances) in 19 Ragas, Guru Amar Das, the third Nanak, composed in 17 Ragas. The fourth Nanak, Guru Ram Das, composed in 29 Ragas and the fifth Nanak, Guru Arjan Dev, composed in 30 Ragas. Guru Arjan was also himself a great musician. He invented a string instrument, Saranda, which, unlike Rabab, is played with a bow. Bards belonging to the Rababi clan of Mardana came to the courts of the Gurus where their art was respected and valued, specially, if they had learned Gurbani. They thus became, for several generations, true exponents of Gurmat Sangeet. Bhai Baddoo and Bhai Saddoo were the musicians in the court of Guru Angad Dev and Bhai Satta and Bhai Balwand were in the courts of Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan Dev. Guru Arjan Dev gathered all the utterances of the first four Gurus and to these, he added his own as well as those of some Bhaktas, and compiled the Sikh Scripture, Pothi Sahib?. He organized all the hymns according to Ragas and Talas (Ghar). Thus he established Gurmat Sangeet as a discipline, on firm footing.
During Guru Amar Das’ time, some Sikhs started learning music so they could lead the congregational prayers in the Gurudwaras of their home towns. However, learning music and playing on string instruments requires single-minded devotion for several years; and no notable musicians among Sikhs of that time, are known to have existed. All through the period of the ten Gurus, Gurmat Sangeet was, by and large, sung in their courts by Rababis. But as the number of Sikhs increased, and as Gurudwaras got established in many large towns, the required number of Rababis was not available. Also, at the time of Guru Arjan Dev, the court Rababis, Satta and Balwand, were ousted for their use of derogatory language with reference to Guru Nanak. Thereafter, the Sikhs started learning instruments like Saranda, Taus and Pakahwaj and singing Kirtan.
Soon after the death of Guru Gobind Singh, came a period of great turmoil for the Sikhs. For nearly a century they had to run for their life. Most of them took refuge in the Shivalik hills or the desert of Rajasthan. Often for months at a time, the Sikh gurudwaras remained closed. Only a few remained open. These were administered by Udasi Sants. The Rababis vanished and no musicians were available to perform the Gurmat Sangeet. The Sikhs, who were hiding in the wilderness, developed a simple form of Kirtan for their daily prayers in which there were no musicians or even musical instruments. They sang hymns now known as “Jotian de Shabad”, with rhythm supplied by their arms used as percussion instruments.
Towards the end of eighteenth century, as the political power of Sikhs increased, ultimately culminating into the empire of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, Gurmat Sangeet took a rebirth. Attendance of devotees at historic Gurudwaras like Janam Asthan, Nanakana Sahib and Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, took a quantum leap. Expert Rababis who were in hiding until then, started coming out and performing Kirtan in these Gurudwaras. This continued progressively till 1947 when India was divided and Pakistan came into existence. At that time some Rababis opted to migrate to Pakistan while many others embraced Sikhism and stayed in India to serve in Gurudwaras. Many Sikhs also learned Hindustani music and became professional exponents of Gurmat Sangeet, which underwent some changes.
During the time of Gurus the Rababis sang the hymns and the Gurus explained the meanings of these hymns. The Gurus also, by quoting other hymns (Parmans) from Guru Granth Sahib, substantiated the subject of the sung hymn. Now some Rababis as well as Sikh musicians (Ragis) took upon themselves to carry out this duty. This gave birth to two different lines of Gurmat Sangeet – the Parman-driven Kirtan, where the subject of the main hymn is further substantiated by other hymns, and the Wyakhia-driven Kirtan, where the Ragis explain the meaning or message of the hymn being recited. Bhai Chand, a Rababi, having had an incredible memory, had an inexhaustible store of Gurbani and could quote many “parmans” to corroborate the theme of any hymn that he was singing. Bhai Hira Singh and Sant Sujan Singh (and Prof. Darshan Singh at present) excelled in the Wyakhia-driven Gurmat Sangeet. Some of the more prominent Ragi jathas who excelled in one or the other form of Gurmat Sangeet included Bhai Sher Singh, Bhai Sunder Singh, Bhai Samund Singh, Bhai Jawala Singh and Bhai Dilbagh Singh Gulbagh Singh.
In spite of these minor changes in the style of Gurmat Sangeet, the singing of the hymns in the Raga specified in Guru Granth Sahib or in a classical Raga continued during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Ragi Jatha (a group of musicians performing Kirtan) usually consisted of four members. Two of them played on string instruments (Saranda, Taus or Dilruba), one played on Tabla (pair of drums) and the fourth, usually the leader, expounded the theme of the Shabad being sung. With the advent of Harmonium (a reed instrument with fixed keys) one of the string instrument players was replaced by the harmonium player. Gradually further simplifications took place. The explanation of Shabad was felt unnecessary and so was the string instrument(s).
Today, most Ragi Jathas comprise two harmonium players and a Tabla player. In an hour or so allotted to them for Kirtan, they sing three or four Shabads, mostly in film tunes or slightly modified forms of such tunes or even tunes that are infused with Western Music. Usually the Shabads sung do not have a unified theme and no elucidation or detailed explanation of the Shabads is given. In spite of the tremendous effort and care Guru Arjan Dev took while compiling the Pothi Sahib, to prescribe the Raga and Tala in which each Shabad was to be sung, today his directions are being blatantly ignored by most of the Sikh musicians. Although, the Ragis are reciting Gurbani, by failing to perform it in the prescribed raga and tala, what is being presented as Kirtan, is not what the Gurus intended it to be. In my view, this degeneration of Gurmat Sangeet to the present level can be attributed to several causes.
Disregard for the prescribed Raga: Many Ragis sing the Gurbani in popular tunes taken or adapted from compositions presented in bollywood movies. These tunes are, more often than not, a blend of more than one Raga. The Ragis do not necessarily select tunes based on the raga that is prescribed for the selected shabad in SGGS. In the movie, the music, which is usually composed in order to emphasize a situation (a scene) and is sung by a professional singer with a very melodious voice, may be quite attractive to ears and appropriate for the scene being depicted. That, in itself, does not lend it to touch the inner core of one’s heart, the way the prescribed raga and tala would do. These Ragis fail to understand that the Gurbani alone is not the message. The total message must include the prescribed raga and tala to have the effect on one’s inner core, as it was intended by the gurus.A Gurbani passage, sung in any random raga or blend of ragas and any tala the ragis find simple to perform, will not have the same effect as when a divine Shabad is sung in the prescribed raga and tala.
Lack of Training: It takes single-minded devotion and inherent talent to properly learn music in the depths required to perform it in accordance with the dictates of the SGGS. The Ragis performing in the Gurdwara, often have not obtained training in such depth. Advancements in technology have led to economic boom.
Paucity of Time: With the strains of modern family life and pursuits of careers and lifestyle, most people are so involved in the ‘rat race’ to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ that they do not find time for spiritual pursuits – to learn to appreciate divine Gurbani and music, in the form gifted to us by our Gurus. Thus, they lack the knowledge to demand that the Ragis perform the Kirtan, as it was meant to be performed.
Introduction of Harmonium: The string instruments like Rabab and Saranda needed single-minded devotion for a few years to attain proficiency to play them. This offered sufficient opportunity to a learner to study and appreciate Gurbani and a number of Ragas. Only the serious students learn and become exponents of Gurmat Sangeet. Harmonium, with all its musical draw backs, can be learned in only a few months and has become an easy source of making money. Many Ragis, whose number is increasing day by day, learn harmonium, commit to memory or even write down a few Shabads on small slips of paper. These slips are placed on the harmonium in front of them and sung in modified (or unmodified) movie tunes. The congregations enjoy them because they can identify these tunes. In fact, they are actually enjoying the tunes, instead of the Kirtan, which itself is farther from the real Gurmat Sangeet. A large majority in the congregation do not even understand the meanings of the Shabad(s) sung, as no explanations are offered.
Management of Gurudwaras: Logic would dictate that what is presented as Kirtan in our Gurudwaras, should be checked and monitored by the managements of the Gurudwaras. Nevertheless, probably the most serious cause of this degeneration in the Gurmat Sangeet may be the passage of the ‘Gurudwara Act’ in 1925. Contrary to what was initially was thought would be a great benefit to the Sikh community, this act has done more harm than good to our cultural and spiritual heritage. The process of election for the membership of the Shiromini Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), an outcome of this act, which manages all historic Gurudwaras in Punjab, Himachal Pardesh and Haryana, has brought in people at the helm of affairs of this committee who have little or no knowledge of Gurbani and Gurmat Sangeet and whose sole purpose is to perpetuate their positions and control the vast revenue of these shrines.They appear to have little interest in properly managing and improving these institutions. Not only do they have little or no knowledge of Gurbani and/or Sangeet, they seem to have no aptitude to learn and/or appreciate either Gurbani or the Sangeet. They tend to hire favored Ragi Jathas who support them politically and/or are willing to work at the lowest salaries. Such Jathas naturally have knowledge of Gurbani and Sangeet that is proportional to their emoluments.
It is a matter of great pity that we, in our ignorance, have tarnished the great lustrous pearl which Guru Nanak bestowed on us in the form of Gurmat Sangeet. Instead of propagating its value among our children and friends all over the world, we have soiled it so that we cannot even recognize it.
If we are to retain and enjoy our great cultural and spiritual heritage, efforts must be made at all levels. Gurudwara managements must hire Ragis who properly perform Kirtan, as prescribed by the Gurus. The congregations must learn to appreciate the Gurbani in the form it was intended to be recited and Ragis must be trained properly before being allowed to perform in Gurudwaras.
Fortunately, recently some efforts have been made to revive the great tradition of Gurmat Sangeet. In India, a few years back, Sant Sucha Singh started a program wherein Sikh musicians were annually invited to sing Gurbani in the prescribed Raga and Tala. The Punjabi University, Patiala has established a department of Gurmat Sangeet under the leadership of Dr. Gurnam Singh, truly an expert exponent of the subject. In the USA foundations such as the Hemkunt Foundation and Ujjal Didar Singh Foundation, are working towards inculcating, among Sikh youth, the urge to learn Gurmat Sangeet. Currently, an endowed professorship of Gurmat Sangeet is being established at the Hofstra University, New York. It is sincerely hoped that these efforts will bear fruit and in the near future Sikh congregations will be able to enjoy the divine Gurmat Sangeet as it was presented at the time of our great Gurus.