To Gurmat Sangeet
The singing of Gurbani
as a form of worship is an unbroken tradition that was started by none
other than Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of the Sikh faith. Bhai
Mardana, Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s beloved disciple, a fine singer and
musician and an accomplished player of the Rabab was instrumental in delivering
Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s message. Bhai Mardana accompanied Guru Nanak
Dev Ji on all of his Udasis or travels throughout the world. Janamsakhi
accounts indicate that Gur Nank Dev Ji actively used music as the primary
means of disseminating his message during his travels. Bhai Mardana would
play his Rabab, people would gather around and Guru Nanak Dev Ji would
then share his Bani with them.
In the preface to Gurbani Sangeet Prachin Reet Ratnavali , Volume 1, Bhai
Sahib Avtar Singh and Bhai Sahib Gurcharan Siingh Ji write :
"sRI gurU nwnk dyv swihb
jI ny ... pRBU dI pRwpqI leI BgqI dw suKYn FMg hrI kIrqn pRc`lq kIqw"
"Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji started the tradition of kirtan as a means
of reaching God."
Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s use of music as a medium for his message had
a lasting and far reaching impact on the practice and traditions of the
new faith that he created. Gurmat Sangeet, is an integral part of the
practice of Sikhsim today, hundreds of years after his passing. The traditions
of Raga, Tala and the practice of singing Bani are as prevelant today
as they were in Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s time, as a result of his directly
encouraging his followers to sing the praises of God day and night.
One of the most succinct definitions of Gurmat Sangeet can be found in
Gurmat Sangeet Sagar, Volume 3, by Gyani Dyal Singh Ji:
sMgIq dw Bwv hYY - gurU dy bqwey inXm Anuswr gurbwnI nUM gwien krnw"
"The essence of Gurmat Sangeet is the singing of Gurbani in the manner
prescribed by the Guru."
Guru Nank Dev Ji, in his Bani has provided several precise directions
and indications on how the Bani is to be sung. First and foremost is the
indication of the Raga; this is unequivocally the Raga in which the shabad
is to be sung. The word ‘Rahao’ or pause, signals that the
preceding line encapsulates the central theme of the shabad. This is the
line that is to be sung as the Sthai or refrain. All other lines in the
shabad are to be sung as Antras, usually set to notes different from the
Sthai and often employing higher notes in the register, from the set of
notes permitted in the Raga the shabad is being sung in.
Guru Arjan’s contribution towards the compilation of Sri Guru Granth
Sahib as well as the richness of his own compositions, in 30 ragas, is
well known. In addition Guru Arjan was instrumental in encouraging Sikhs
to participate in and become exponents of Gurmat Sangeet. Before Guru
Arjan, accomplished Rababi Kirtaniyas in the traidion of Bhai Mardana
were the primary keepers of the Gurmat Sangeet tradition. According to
popular accounts, Bhai Satta and Balvand, who continued to offer Kirtan
Seva in Guru Arjan’s Darbar, blinded by arrogance on account of
their musical prowess, decided that they would not sing any more in the
Guru’s Darbar. It is said that Guru Arjan then directed members
of the Sangat to start Kirtan themselves and not rely on the Rababis.
When the Sikhs protested that they were not musically adept, Guru Arjan
gave them instruments which miraculously began to play all by themselves!
In reality, Guru Arjan’s encouragement served to strengthen the
tradition of Gurmat Sangeet in the Sikh masses which had begun as far
back as Guru Amardas Ji’s time. Guru Arjan led by example; it is
believed that he started the practice of singing the complete Asa Di Var,
as it appears in its present form not just by professional Rababis but
by the common Sangat. Guru Arjan also established a ‘Kirtan Di Taksal’
literally, a Kirtan Mint for instructing Sikhs in Gurmat Sangeet.
The following excerpt is from an essay by Bhai Vir Singh Ji, titled :
dy Bwv qy rwg dI qwsIr" (Shabad De Bhav Te Raag Di
Taseer), which appears in gurmq
sMgIq pr hux qk imlI Koj (Gurmat Sangeet Par Hun Tak Mili Khoj),
a seminal work on Gurmat Sangeet published by the Chief Khalsa Diwan in
"DwrnW v`l pMjvyˆ gurU
jI dw ivSyS DÎwn ies leI sI ik Sbd rwg dI AYsI qrz ivc gWivAW jwvy
ik ijs qrz ivc sMgIqk kwieidAW Anuswr auho Bwv pYdw kr dyx dI rcnW dy
ArQ Bwv ivc qwsIr hY ArQwq SbdW dw ArQ Bwv qy DwrnW dw sMgIqk Asr idl
pr ieko iksm dw vlvlw pYdw krn"
"Guru Arjan paid particular attention to the tunes in which Shabads
were sung because it is extremely important that Shabads be sung in those
tunes, conforming to the relevant Raga, which evoke the same emotions
as the contents of the Shabad"
Bhai Vir Singh Ji goes on to state that when Guru Arjan started the tradition
of Ragis singing Gurmat Sangeet, he instructed them in this unique way
of singing to ensure that Gurmat Sangeet would always be aligned with
the Gurbani that it served as a vehicle. The specific Raga based tunes
that have been prevalent since the time of Guru Arjan and have been preserved
and handed down from generation to generation of Ragis and Rababis embody
the essence of Gurmat Sangeet.
Bhai Vir Singh Ji', with the following words, laments the state of Gurmat
Sangeet in his time :
"rigIAW ny Aksr sMgIq nwl ipAwr
CifAw hY, qy rbibIAW ny bI nwtkW vl ru^ PiVAw hY qy Aksr sMgIq vl AYsw
ru^ kIqw hY keI vyr Sbd dy A`Kr hI smJ nhIˆ pYˆdy, ...; Ajy
kuvylw nhIˆ hoieAw, purwxIAW DwrnW cMgy rbibIAW qy ivrly rigIAW pws
"Ragis have often abandoned the nuances of music and Rababis have
embraced the msucial traditions of contemporary theater; music has been
emphasized over Shabad to the point where the very words of the shabad
are often unintelligible...; However, all is not completely lost yet,
some Rababis and a very few Ragis still retain some of the seminal tunes
[that are the essence of Gurmat Sangeet]".
Bhai Vir Singh Ji makes some important points in the above paragraph.
The practice of Gurmat Sangeet has to strike the appropriate balance between
the melody and the words of the Shabad. While the tune is tremendously
important, the musical aspects of Gurmat Sangeet can never be allowed
to overpower the message of the Shabd being sung. Neither is it acceptable
to abandon the discipline and principles of Raga, nor is it acceptable
to let it overpower the Shabad. Traditional compositions are the jewel
that in a very practical manner, show how exactly Gurmat Sangeet should
If Bhai Vir Singh was dissatisfied with the state of Gurmat Sangeet when
he wrote his essay, he would probably be dismayed if he were alive today.
The Rababi tradition is all but extinct. Popular music and the lure of
quick easy money has greatly corrupted the Ragi tradition. However there
is still a ray of hope because of the continuing efforts of a few dedicated
individuals, who continue to serve the tradition of Gurmat Sangeet faithfully.
Since the "DwrnW"
or seminal tunes that Bhai Vir Singh Ji emphasizes again and again as
being representative of Gurmat Sangeet, are so important, it is worthwhile
to cite a few sources that are still available. By far the primary and
most valuable source are the few living Ragis who represent long unbroken
teaching lines that have preserved this tradition for posterity. Bhai
Avtar Singh and his brother, Bhai Gurcharan Singh Ji certainly fall in
this category as do venerable Ragis and teachers such as Bhai Balbir Singh
Ji and Gyani Dyal Singh Ji. Several of a younger generation of Ragis also
deserve mention for continuing to propagate and preserve this tradition;
this group includes Bhai Narinder Singh Banaraswale, Bhai Surjit Singh
(Long Island), Bhai Baldeep Singh, Bhai Kanwarpal Singh, Bhai Gurmit Singh
Shant and Bhai Sarbjit Singh 'Rangila'.
Equally important to the preservation of this tradition are a few books
on Gurmat Sangeet that document several of these ancient compositions
using a fairly understandable form of musical notation. Some noteworthy
works are :
gurbwxI sMgIq, (Gurbani Sangeet Sagar;
Two Volumes); Bhai Gian Singh (Abbotabad)
gurbwxI sMgIq pRwcIn rIq rqnwvlI,
(Gurbani Sangeet Prachin Reet Ratnavali; Two Volumes); Bhai Avtar Singh,
Bhai Gurcharan Singh
gurmq sMgIq swgr
(Gurmat Sangeet Sagar; Four Volumes); Gyani Dyal Singh
In summary, Gurmat Sangeet, the primary form of worship in the Sikh tradition
represents an unbroken five hundred year old link to the founder of the
Sikh faith, Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji. While the tradition has endured, it
has to be nurtured and re-energized through the preservation and propagation
of the seminal tunes that have literally been handed down from the times
of the Sikh Gurus. The preservation of this tradition is the only agenda
of the Gurmat Sangeet Project.