Sikh Music and Tradition


For this post I decided to speak a little bit about Sikh music and tradition, since this has been one of my projects for the last couple of years and it seems that so few people here know anything about what is at the heart of this sizable cultural group. The Sikh Panjabi population inAustraliais huge, but their religion is a mystery to many. Many are also subjected to racial harassment and confused for Islamic terrorists, since the men traditionally show their faith with a long beard and a turban covering their head. So who are these distinctive looking people, what do they believe in and why is music so important to them?

Firstly, so situate the Sikh tradition, read my previous post on the Bhakti movement (if you haven’t already). Sikhism is a fruit from that fertile epoch of Indian history, when the bards of devotion roamed the sub-continent inspiring the populus to ecstatic song. Sikhism (Gursikhi) is related to the nirgun branch of the bhakti tree, the heritage of Kabir and the Sufi poets (such as Baba Farid) who all eschewed ritualism, dogma and overtly anthropomorphic representations of the ultimate reality. Nirgun means ‘non-quality’, designating that stream of Indian religious thought which approaches the sacred often via negation and rejects the sort of popular religious mythologies which give form or attributes to the divine. Nirgun teaches that reality is One and that the One is infinite (anant), indivisible (akhandi), ineffable (alakh) and that this is your true master (satguru). Some of the correspondences with Buddhist philosophy have been commented upon. In the absence of mythological forms, Nirguni Bhakti tends to use poetic metaphors to generate an intense relationship with the ineffable, these metaphors then washed away in the next inundation of verse.

The founder of the Sikh movement was the remarkable bard Guru Nanak who wandered the length and breadth of the Indian sub-continent, and beyond, conversing with seekers, sadhus and saints and singing his bani (‘lore’). He collected many of his own songs, and those of other like-minded poets, in a book which he carried with him on his travels. He was known for his humour and his satires on ritualistic dogma. Towards the end of his life he settled at home in the Panjab and a group of followers gathered around him. Thus began the Sikh movement. He taught that God is everywhere and in everything, so pointless to pray to statues or make pilgrimages to ‘holy’ places. Everything is humming with divine presence and every body is equally infused. “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim”, he said, so caste and social strata are null and void. He taught his disciples (Sikhi: one who learns) to meditate on the One and to sing bhakti song together. And to encourage them to put their differences aside, he made them all sit and eat together, regardless of caste or religion of origin. The shared meal (langar) is still an important element of the service at a Sikh temple (gurdwaara).

When Guru Nanak died, the role was passed on to one of his disciples and the linage continued. The flock (sangat) continued to swell, gathering lambs from both the Hindu and Moslem pastures. They came often to escape their burdens of caste or socio-religious dogma, as well as for the great music, food and company, no doubt. The 5th Guru (Arjan) made a collection of devotional lyrics (shabads) applicable to be sung in the gurdwara and compiled them in 1604 into what is the largest anthology of bhakti poetry in existence, now the Sikh Holy Scriptures, the Guru Granth Saheb. Its 5894 poetic compositions include songs from the first 5 Sikh gurus as well as other poets from all over Nth India. Its language is not ‘Punjabi’ (nor Gurmukhi: which is the name for the script used), but various dialects of medieval Hindustani, or what we would now call Hindi. Guru Arjan included work from both Hindu bhaktins, such as Ravidas, and Sufi sants like Sheik Farid. The earliest recorded works from that enigmatic iconoclast Kabir are to be found there as well. The 10th Sikh Guru decided that the movement had no more need for a human guru, since all the guidance could be found in the bani of the Granth saheb, so he installed the book in the temple as the true guru henceforth.

The shabads in the Guru Granth are arranged in chapters of 31 ragas. They are written simply as poetic verse, to be composed freely in the suggested melodic paradigm of the raga. Therefore one will hear the same shabad sung in so many ways and in various styles or genres. Some of the ragas listed in the Granth have become rare or obscure in modern Indian Classical music (eg. Dhanusri, Bihagda), and some seem to be particular to the region of the Panjab (Majh, Asa). It is perhaps difficult to tell what the original forms were, since ragas are variable over time and space and their nomenclature is often disorganised. Nowadays, it is a bit too rare to hear the shabads sung in anything like their listed ragas, the forces of popular fashion often overwhelming the force of tradition.

The tradition of Sikh sacred music, called Gurbani Kirtan (or Gurmat Sangeet), is a beautiful marriage of the austere classical and the gregarious folk music genres. The earlier Sikh musicians were essentially Dhrupad singers (see my web page for ‘Dhrupad’), and this flavour can still be tasted in the older generation of Ragis (trained lead singers), particularly in the family tradition of Bhai Avatar Singh, an 11th generation Ragi who passed away a few years ago. Originally, the pakhawaj (the drum of the dhrupad genre)  was used, and this then became the ‘Sikh tabla’, the jhori, which sounds very similar to a pakhawaj and uses the same technical repertoire. There are also a number of stringed instruments particular to Gurbani kirtan tradition, such as the dilruba, kinnari vina and the taus, a large and wondrous bowed instrument shaped like a peacock. The earliest accompaniment instrument was a fretless lute called a dhurpadi rebab, the instrument played by Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak’s companion on his travels.

There has been a growing revival of interest in the elder and more classical approach to Sikh kirtan over the last couple of decades. As the older generation of ragis passes away, efforts have been made to preserve their rich heritage of compositions, sometimes hundreds of years old. We are seeing a return of instruments like the jhori, dilruba and taus, and even a few dulcet rays from the tampura to pierce that ubiquitous fog of harmonium noise (a very recent invasion into Indian music). The city of Ludhiana in the Panjab hosts a yearly festival of traditional Gurbani  kirtan (the Adutti Gurmat Sangeet Samellan)  intended to promote this endangered art form. And I hope that one day Bhai Baldeep Singh finishes his documentary “The Sacred Music of the Sikhs”, from which there are a few excellent clips up on youtube.

Wahe Guru