Indian Classical Music and Sikh Kirtan


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Chapter 9: Music of the Granth Sahib

Music of Guru Granth Sahib

O God's people, sing the Lord's praise with priceless melody
and timbre (Gumrerbitu Arjan).

The Sikh Scripture compiled in 1604 as Adi Granth, later renamed by Guru Gobind Singh as Guru Granth Sahab, is unique among the world's scriptures, because its poems were set to music by the Gurus. This is the only scripture which is mostly in music-1343 pages out of a total of 1430-and it shows the harmony between Revelation and raga. The Gurus realised the power of music over men's minds and souls and as such they conveyed their innermost thoughts and feelings through the medium of music. This sacred music appeals to all men even though the meaning of the wording may unintelligible to them. Pure music is free from the limitations of word, meaning or rhythm.

It is a unique combination of various faculties and limbs: melody-pattern from the intellect, devotion from the heart, playing on instruments by the hands, tunes from the throat, and the rasa from revelation. The importance of revelation is emphasised in the scripture in the following lines:

'People consider it as a song, but in fact it is a meditation on Divinity'[1].

Gurbani (Guru's hymns) and kirtan (sacred music) are the essence of Sikhism.
Kirtan is a sort of celestial melody. Guru Ramdas calls it Anahad nad-heavenly strains containing unending nectar.
He says:

'On hearing the hymns of the true Guru, the musical instruments ever play and unstruck music resounds' [2].

The vocal music produces on echo within man-in the soul itself-which is called instruck music. Guru Nanak observes in this connection:

'Within me rings the unstruck music (of bliss).'

Similarly Guru Arjan affirms:

'The flute of the Name, O Nanak, plays within the devotee.' Sacred music is fine art wedded to spiritualism. Kirtans not merely classical music. It is also the sugar-coating of Gurbani. It is not performed to make Gurbani pleasing and palatable. The Gurus were very clear about its objective. They warned the listeners not to confuse it with other types of music or deem it as a mode of entertainment. The Gurus called the secular type of music fake and false, because it was a manifestation of the singer's ego and dealt with wordly pleasures and attachments:

'Singing, raga and instrumental rhythm as such are false;
They arise out of the three gunas(Rajas, Tamas and Satava and perish in no time' [3]

In the kirtan, prominence is given to the sacred word and content and the devotion which accompanies the singing. Pure classical music is a display of raga-gymnastics and alaap technique and often the words or bols have no meaning.

Kirtan: A Distinct Tradition of Sacred Indian Music

Though it may not be correct to call kirtan a distinct school of Indian music, it is certainly a distinct tradition and a new contribution to sacred Indian music. It uses both the classical Hindustani music and desi(folk) music for divine praise and glorification, and employs the local idiom and poetic forms so as to intensify its appeal to the masses. Its objective is spiritual inspiration and its medium is the emotional appeal of both pure and popular music. By combining the purity of raga and tala with correct intonation and feeling, its appeal extends even to highbrow musicians.
Undoubtedly, the Sikh school of music established by the Gurus adopted some elements of the existing devotional music-the bhajan and kafi-of different religious sects of India. However, the Gurus added a new dimension to the current forms of music by harmonising the Hindustani and Karnataka styles under the forms of Dakhni. They used the existing ragas in different ghars and dhunis. As such they made a distinct contribution to Indian music. Dr. A.S. Paintal remarks in this connection: 'The Sikh sacred music, through its intimate sharing of the spirit of classical
Hindustani music and its artistic assimilation of the popular and folk styles of music for its aesthetic-emotional


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