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Introduction To Gurmat Sangeet

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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:

"gurmiq 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 : "Sbd 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 1958 :

"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 hn"

"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 be practiced.

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.