Gurmat Sangeet: The revival of traditional Sikh music

Unfortunately, and perhaps onlyfor myself,I don’t remember the last timeI visitedone of my localgurdwaras and can say I was moved by the kirtan. Perhaps I feel thatmost (though notall)kirtan has become modernized to such an extent that it doesn’t really encompass the spiritual enlightenment that shabads were intended to.Actually, itwas only after a recent visit to a Namdhari gurdwarathat I truly felt that I had heard kirtan in its true element. For those of you who, like myself were unaware, Namdhari Sikhs believe thatthe only way to reach God is to sing in Raag, the mode of classical Indian music. For Namdhari Sikhs, the instruments they play and the style they sing in is very particular. They place a firm emphasis on rare instruments dating back to the 16th century, the time of Guru Nanak whocontinued the Vedic tradition of writing the holy scriptures in Raag.

Gurmat Sangeethas always played a significant role in Sikh history and began in the 16th century as the musical expression of divine poetry and yetmany of us have never been exposed to this form of kirtan. During our Gurus’ time, Gurmat Sangeet was devotional meditation and music and instruments were used as an accompianment.

Sikh music in the 16th and 17th centuries was comprised of the then-prevalent classical and folk music styles, accompanied by stringed and percussion instruments. The classical style was the devotional dhrupad style, a somber, deeply meditational style in which the text was of prime significance and the music played a supporting, albeit important role in the quest for Divine Essence. Folk music encompassed songs that marked various aspects of life – ghoriaan were sung at marriage, alaahniaan at death, and vaars to glorify brave warriors. [link]

It is said that Raags have a direct relationship to human moods; Soohi representing joy and seperation, Basant representing happiness, and Sarang, sadness. Information from the Sikh Music Heritage Institute states that Guru Nanak began Sikh music with the accompaniment of the rabab, a stringed melodic instrument; Guru Amar Das introduced the stringed instrument, saranda; and Guru Arjan Dev, developed the jori, a two-headed drum. During the 1920s a sharp decline in their use made them almost extinct. The harmonium took the place of stringed instruments and the tabla replaced the pakhaavaj and jori. There are various global efforts taking form to revive classical Sikh music. The Gurmat Sangeet department at Punjabi University, Patiala, the Raj Academy in the UK, and the Sikh Music Heritage Institute in California have dedicated resources to educating and training individuals to play traditional Sikh instruments with the hope that Gurmat Sangeet will be revived.

Here is an example of traditional Gurmant Sangeet (Ustaad Ranbir Singh Ji – Raag Asa – Taus):

YouTube Preview Image

Okay, so now that you have digested all that, what are your thoughts on the need to revive classical Gurmat Sangeet?


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16 Responses to “Gurmat Sangeet: The revival of traditional Sikh music”

  1. KhalsaJi says:

    We must always remember that Raag is simply the conduit for the divine message and that Gurbani is more important than the presentation of Raag. Namdharis do not accept Guru Granth Sahib and Gurbani as their only and eternal Guru and I feel that this more than negates any positives that come from their retention of traditional Gurmat Sangeet.

    We as Sikhs must not be lenient and lax in pointing out the anti-panthic movement that Namdharis represent.

  2. Sundari says:

    KhalsaJi, I appreciate your comments. But before this thread goes in the wrong direction by harping on the differences between Namdharis and mainstream Sikhs, I would like to say that Namdharis are not the only group of Sikhs that perform in Raag, they were just used as an example. I may not agree with all their beliefs, but I do believe this is something they have maintained very well. Nevertheless, this post is about Gurmat Sangeet and I hope it won't be about whether or not we [dis]agree with what Guru the Namdharis follow.

    Also, while I agree that Gurbani is ultimately the most important part of the divine message, I would argue that the presentation of Gurbani is very significant and cannot be understated.

  3. KhalsaJi says:

    We must always remember that Raag is simply the conduit for the divine message and that Gurbani is more important than the presentation of Raag. Namdharis do not accept Guru Granth Sahib and Gurbani as their only and eternal Guru and I feel that this more than negates any positives that come from their retention of traditional Gurmat Sangeet.

    We as Sikhs must not be lenient and lax in pointing out the anti-panthic movement that Namdharis represent.

  4. Sundari says:

    KhalsaJi, I appreciate your comments. But before this thread goes in the wrong direction by harping on the differences between Namdharis and mainstream Sikhs, I would like to say that Namdharis are not the only group of Sikhs that perform in Raag, they were just used as an example. I may not agree with all their beliefs, but I do believe this is something they have maintained very well. Nevertheless, this post is about Gurmat Sangeet and I hope it won’t be about whether or not we [dis]agree with what Guru the Namdharis follow.

    Also, while I agree that Gurbani is ultimately the most important part of the divine message, I would argue that the presentation of Gurbani is very significant and cannot be understated.

  5. Rababi says:

    The preservation of Gurmat Sangeet and Raag by the Namdharis is something that 'mainstream' Sikhs must learn from and adopt. Raag comes from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. To honour the Guru we must sing the holy shabads as they appear. Yes the Shabad is most important, but the way it is carried is equally as important and shouldn't be taken lightly. Its the vehicle for understanding and absorbing Gurbani, and should be respected that way.

  6. Rababi says:

    The preservation of Gurmat Sangeet and Raag by the Namdharis is something that ‘mainstream’ Sikhs must learn from and adopt. Raag comes from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. To honour the Guru we must sing the holy shabads as they appear. Yes the Shabad is most important, but the way it is carried is equally as important and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Its the vehicle for understanding and absorbing Gurbani, and should be respected that way.

  7. saihaj says:

    Props to the Langar Hall for covering this issue which deserves much attention but has not really been covered elsewhere. Gurmat sangeet should be preserved in it's original form. We are doing a disservice to the next generations by not focusing more on this form of classical music. However, I think that those people who have a strong interest in studying this subject and learning to play traditional instruments will continue to do so. As a community we should support and encourage this art form just as much as we encourage joining bhangra teams.

    Hopefully now that it has been covered by this blog, more people will know about the significance of gurmat sangeet!

  8. Mewa Singh says:

    While content (Gurbani) trumps form, in my opinion, I, wholeheartedly, agree with Sundari's analysis that the Gurmat Sangeet tradition should be patronized so that Sikhs may enjoy (as close as possible) and hear the same sounds and compositions as the Guru Sahibs originally intended.

    My only hesitation is sometimes with those that argue that ONLY Gurmat Sangeet should be patronized as again I believe content is most important and if people desire in the future to 'rap' Gurbani or creatively interpret it (a la Rabbi Shergill in a few lines in his Pagri Sambhal Jatta), I believe that should be permissable and encouraged as well.

  9. saihaj says:

    Props to the Langar Hall for covering this issue which deserves much attention but has not really been covered elsewhere. Gurmat sangeet should be preserved in it’s original form. We are doing a disservice to the next generations by not focusing more on this form of classical music. However, I think that those people who have a strong interest in studying this subject and learning to play traditional instruments will continue to do so. As a community we should support and encourage this art form just as much as we encourage joining bhangra teams.

    Hopefully now that it has been covered by this blog, more people will know about the significance of gurmat sangeet!

  10. Mewa Singh says:

    While content (Gurbani) trumps form, in my opinion, I, wholeheartedly, agree with Sundari’s analysis that the Gurmat Sangeet tradition should be patronized so that Sikhs may enjoy (as close as possible) and hear the same sounds and compositions as the Guru Sahibs originally intended.

    My only hesitation is sometimes with those that argue that ONLY Gurmat Sangeet should be patronized as again I believe content is most important and if people desire in the future to ‘rap’ Gurbani or creatively interpret it (a la Rabbi Shergill in a few lines in his Pagri Sambhal Jatta), I believe that should be permissable and encouraged as well.

  11. Singh says:

    If you want to be moved, go to an akj smagam :) The kamayee (spirituality) of the Sikh makes all the difference.

  12. Singh says:

    If you want to be moved, go to an akj smagam :) The kamayee (spirituality) of the Sikh makes all the difference.

  13. N. Singh says:

    Closer to my Guru – Discovering the Meaning of Ghar

    December 7, 2008

    A Sikh is someone who follows the teachings of Guru Nanak and his one-in-spirit successors. These teachings of the Guru were the revelation of the Divine, and so following the Guru’s teachings brings one closer to the Divine. The Sikh is a disciple, student or learner – learning the teachings through study, reflection and right action. The teachings are written down in the Guru Granth Sahib – its title indicating its status as carrier of the living Word of the Guru. Study and reflection begin with reading the Word.

    But there is another aspect of imbibing the teaching of the Guru – the Guru Granth Sahib is organized according to musical structures – raags of the Indian musical tradition. This tradition is based centrally on recognizing the spiritual dimension of musical sound. The Guru Granth Sahib is carefully organized by musical structures to recognize and promote the role of spiritual sound in communicating the Word and teachings. Singing the hymns of the Guru Granth Sahib is a central aspect of Sikh devotional practice.

    For many decades, one key aspect of the musical structure of the Guru Granth Sahib has been characterized as a mystery. No one, not even the most prominent Sikh scholars or hymn singers (raagis), seemed to have an explanation for the musical meaning of the term ghar, used to qualify many of the raags in the Guru Granth Sahib. Ghar, if present as a characterization, would be a number between 1 and 17. Different explanations were floated, but none seemed consistent, coherent or convincing enough. I was always troubled by this mystery. To me it seemed that we had lost something priceless. The Guru had given us a treasure and we had lost one of the keys that would open it.

    This morning I read an analysis by Dr. Inderjit N. Kaur, based on detailed research that draws on India and the surrounding region’s complex musical history and heritage, which offers a clear and compelling explanation of the meaning of ghar. Reading it, I felt exhilarated, without, at first, understanding why. Then I realized what it was. As a Sikh, I had learned something priceless. I had a new insight into the treasure of the Sikhs. I felt closer to my Guru.

    The analysis that moved me so much is at http://www.sikhmusicheritage.org.

    Click on the link at the right of the page.

  14. N. Singh says:

    Closer to my Guru Discovering the Meaning of Ghar
    December 7, 2008

    A Sikh is someone who follows the teachings of Guru Nanak and his one-in-spirit successors. These teachings of the Guru were the revelation of the Divine, and so following the Gurus teachings brings one closer to the Divine. The Sikh is a disciple, student or learner learning the teachings through study, reflection and right action. The teachings are written down in the Guru Granth Sahib its title indicating its status as carrier of the living Word of the Guru. Study and reflection begin with reading the Word.

    But there is another aspect of imbibing the teaching of the Guru the Guru Granth Sahib is organized according to musical structures raags of the Indian musical tradition. This tradition is based centrally on recognizing the spiritual dimension of musical sound. The Guru Granth Sahib is carefully organized by musical structures to recognize and promote the role of spiritual sound in communicating the Word and teachings. Singing the hymns of the Guru Granth Sahib is a central aspect of Sikh devotional practice.

    For many decades, one key aspect of the musical structure of the Guru Granth Sahib has been characterized as a mystery. No one, not even the most prominent Sikh scholars or hymn singers (raagis), seemed to have an explanation for the musical meaning of the term ghar, used to qualify many of the raags in the Guru Granth Sahib. Ghar, if present as a characterization, would be a number between 1 and 17. Different explanations were floated, but none seemed consistent, coherent or convincing enough. I was always troubled by this mystery. To me it seemed that we had lost something priceless. The Guru had given us a treasure and we had lost one of the keys that would open it.

    This morning I read an analysis by Dr. Inderjit N. Kaur, based on detailed research that draws on India and the surrounding regions complex musical history and heritage, which offers a clear and compelling explanation of the meaning of ghar. Reading it, I felt exhilarated, without, at first, understanding why. Then I realized what it was. As a Sikh, I had learned something priceless. I had a new insight into the treasure of the Sikhs. I felt closer to my Guru.

    The analysis that moved me so much is at http://www.sikhmusicheritage.org.

    Click on the link at the right of the page.

  15. Ilona says:

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  16. n songs says:

    Thanks nice info really.