Indian Classical Music and Sikh Kirtan


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Chapter 8: Gurus and Kirtan

Gurus and Kirtan

The Word of the Guru is the music heard by seers in ecstasy,
(Guru Nanak)

Guru Nanak (1469-1539)
Guru Nanak used to chant his own verses even before he set out on his missionary tours. At Sultanpur Lodhi [1] where he worked as a store-keeper he would go out early morning and late evening in the company of Mardana to sing praises of God. Guru Nanak would start his divine song while Mardana played of the rebec. When Guru Nanak started his first missionary journey in 1499, he visited Sajjan Thug at Talamba (near Multan). At that time he sang the following song to the accompaniment of Mardana's rebec. So great was the impact of his music that the heart of Sajjan melted and he realised the enormity of his crimes.

'Bronze is bright and shining,
Rub it and it gives out blackness;
And a hundred washing cannot remove it.
They are true friends (Sajjan) who stand by me' [2].

When Gurur Nanak went to Benares, he met Pandit Chaturdas, the cheif priest, who doubted the value of singing the praises of God in place of display of holy symbols like rosary and necklace of basil beads. Guru Nanak explained to him the importance of kirtan by using the metaphor of the Persian wheel:

'Make God your well, string His Name for the chain
Of water-pots and yoke your mind as an ox to it.
Irrigate with nectar and fill the plots therewith.
Thus you shall belong to the Gardener' [3].

Guru Nanak regarded hymn-singing and hymn-listening with devotion as a link between man and God:

'Musical sound (nad) originated from God.
It's holy in every sense. The best way to worship
God is to blend the divine Word with sacred music' [4].
The singing (nad) produces a response or echo (Anahad nad) within the soul. He felt that Gurbani and kirtan are
superior to all spiritual practices and as such they lead to the door of salvation.
'The Guru's hymn is the tenth gate of music,
the Vedas and everything.
My soul is imbued with the Lord of the universe,
Who contains all pilgrim-spots, fasting, and austerities' [5].

After setting at Kartarpur in 1521, Guru Nanak performed Kirtan both morning and evening at the Dharamsal or kirtanghar, as his residence was called. He used to tell Mardana which strings (notes) too play for a particular hymn. After Mardana had played on the rebec for a few minutes, so as to create an appropriate atmosphere, Guru Nanak would start singing his song in that raga. Such was the great love between the two that the Guru designated two of his salokas as Salok Mardana which are found in the Adi Granth on page. 533. Guru Nanak propagated his message of love and peace through kirtan. He used a composite language containing Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and Sindhi words. His appeal to the listeners lay not so much in his words-some of which were quite unintelligible to his foreign audiences-as in his feelings and pious conduct. His spontaneity, his melody and his sincerity captivated the imagination of rural folk and they some how grasped his message. Once on the outskirts of Baghdad, Guru Nanak, according to his routine, sang his hymns early in the morning, while Mardana played on the rebec. The orthodox Muslims got upset by the performance of his music in the lands of Islam and decided to punish him. As Pir Dastagir and his followers approached the spot, Guru Nanak began another song.The gentle strains of his music soother their hearts. They forget to throw stones at him. Their leader held a discussion with the Guru about music. He affirmed that music excited the passion and was regarded by Muslims as a means of sensual amusement and vulgar joy and consequently banned in Islamic countries. Guru Nanak explained to Pir Dastagir the true function of music. It is a potent instrument of both good and evil. It melts the hearts and thus and can be a vehicle of spiritual inspiration. God the great Musician has created the cosmic melody-the gentle rustle


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