KIRTAN (from Skt. kirii, i.e. to praise, celebrate or glorify), a commonly accepted mode of rendering devotion to God by singing His praises, is a necessary part of Sikh worship. Music plays a significant role in most religious traditions. In Sikhism it is valued as the highest form of expression of adoration and counts as the most efficacious means of linking the soul to the Divine Essence. Kirtan in the Indian tradition can be traced back to the Vedic chant in the second millennium B.C., the impulse behind it being the realization of the effect on the individual of joining the sound of music to the religious text.
In Vedic rites, recitation was employed emphatically to bring out the meaning of the verses.Kirtan as we now understand it was popularized in medieval India by Vaisnava bhaklas and Sufi saints who sang usually their own compositions which not only produced in them a feeling of spiritual ecstasy but also led their followers into a mood of fervour.Jayadcva, a twelfth century Bengali poet who composed the famous Gita Govinda, is generally considered to be the first in line, although centuries earlier Vaisnava poetsaints of South India, the Alvars, had earned much popularity with their devotional songs, called Nalayiradivyaprabandham. Along with the Vaisnavites of the Bhakti cult who sang lyrics about the sacred love of Krsna and Radha, appeared holy men of the Sant tradition like Jnanadeva (1275-1296) and Namdev (1270-1350), who addressed their songs and adoration to the Formless God.
In Islam in India, Sun mystics such as Shaikh Farid (1173-1265) composed and sang songs to express their longing for the Divine Being.The Vaisnavitc saint Ghaitanya (1485-1533) and liis contemporary Sufi saints also popularized sankirlana and qnwwdh, respectively, as forms of groupsinging. Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith, and the succeeding Gurus promulgated, besides repetition and contemplation of the Divine Name, Inrtan as a form of worship.Guru Nanak in one of his verses thus figured forth the ecstasy of kirtan: “Rag ratan pand parvdr, tisu vichi upajai amritu sdr music is ajewal born of the (supernatural) fairy family; from it rises the essence of nectar” (GG, 351).
But warning men against the voluptuous indulgence in music, he said, “Git rag ghan tdl si kure, trihu gun upjai binsai dure, duji durmati dardu na jdi, chhutai gumiukhi ddru gun gdi false arc such songs, musical measures and the many rhythmic beats as bind one to the three modes of Maya, resulting in one`s alienation from God. By wilfulness one does not annul suffering. They who follow the Guru`s instruction are saved. The remedy lies in chanting God`s praises” (GG, 832). Likewise, Guru Amar Das, Nanak III: “Singing of Raga Bilaval will become acceptable only when through it the holy Word finds utterance.
Music and melody excel as they by the holy Word lead to concentration and serenity. Were one to devote oneself to serving the Divine, one would attain honour at the Lord`s court even without having recourse to melody and music” (GG, 849). In Sikh kirtan, music, though an essential element, is subordinate to the holy Word. Musical embellishment and ornamentation are permitted, but what is of real essence is gurbam or the scriptural text. Technical virtuosity for its own sake will have little meaning.
Contents of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Holy Book of the Sikhs, can alone be sung in Sikh kirtan, more accurately sabdakirtan. The only other approved canon for this purpose is the compositions of Guru Gobind Singh which do not form part of the Guru Granth Sahib but are anthologized in a separate book, the Dasam Granth, and of Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Nand Lal. The text comprising the Guru Granth Sahib is organized according to rdgas or musical measures, 31 in number, with further variants in many of them, to which the hymns were composed.The Gurus themselves were well versed in music.
At plac es in their hymns they have described themselves as “bards of the Lord.” Guru Nanak kept with him as a constant companion a Muslim musician, Mardana, who played the rabdb or rebeck as the Guru rendered the hymns composed by himself.Guru Arjan, who compiled the Guru Granth Sahib, was an accomplished musicologist, who is said to have designed a new string instrument, saranad, for use by ragis or performers of kirtan. The Gurus employed professional rababis (rebeck players) and ragis (musicians) to perform kirtan in their presence. Dhadis, using small handdrums called dhads and a stringed instrument sang vdrsor ballads.
Guru Arjan encouraged lay Sikhs to train as kirtan singers. Rababis as a class of hereditary musicians were almost exclusively Muslims and groups of them continued to recite the sacred hymns inside Harimandar, the Golden Temple, until the partition of 1947 when they migrated to Pakistan. Dhaais`mgers specialize in heroic balladry rather than in sabdakirtan. It is the ragi ensemble which now performs kirtan in Gurudwaras and at congregations held on religious and festival occasions. Gurdwara music begins in the early hours of the morning.
In the Harimandar at Amritsar, kirtan starts around 2 in the morning in summer months and around 3 in winter and is continued by a relay of rdgi j at has or choirs till late in the evening. At other places, it may be intcrmittant or limited to morning and evening hours. Traditionally, there are four chaukis or services of kirtan. They are: (1) Asa ki Var at early morning; (2) Charan Kamal or Bilaval chaukim the forenoon (for 4 hours after sunrise); (3) Sodar chauki at sunset; and (4) Kalyan chauki in the evening about an hour and a half after sunset. A ragi jatha commonly comprises three members a lead singer nowadays usually playing the harmonium, a companion also at harmonium, and a tabla player (iahid, a pair of drums). The more elaborate ensembles may have one or more additional singers playing traditional string instruments such as tails, tanpura or sarandd.
The ragis sit on the ground or on a platform but always lower than, and usually to the left of where the Holy Book is seated. Smaller localities depend on local talent and simpler instruments such as a dholaki, a harmonium, cymbals and chimta (tongs fitted with jingling metallic discs). The performance follows the basic design of the classical tradition. Only permissible texts are rendered, with no extra words or syllables added. Every hymn is sung, as far as possible, in its correct rdga and performed in appropriate lai (tempo), sur (melody), tan (tune) and tal (rhythm).
The kirtan commences with an alap (longdrawn vocal tune) setting the pattern and tone of the music. The tempo is slow and words are pronounced in a mood of reverence and devotion. The refrain is presented in the first place by the lead singer and is repeated in chorus by the other ragis. Then the harmoniums and/or string instruments repeat the tune to be followed by a vocal recitation.
Raga phrases may be presented in their entirety or divided to suit the text and the tune. In either case, the phrase will end with a chorus. Interludes in the development section, i.e. melodic material from both sthai (refrain) and antard (crescendo), may occasionally be done by tabid alone or sung with a vowel sound to the same melody instead of a repetition by a reed or string instrument. If a full classical development of a rdga is not attempted, a lighter classical style may be employed, especially for slokas and pawls, of a vdr. Explanatory or amplificatory passages, again out of permissible texts alone, may be inserted in the main composition and presented in a related rdga or in a recitative musical style.
The lead singer generally introduces all new texts and musical material but the others may join in during the latter part of the phrase.Sabdakirfan has some limitations placed upon it traditionally in order that the religious structure of the performance is not compromised. In no case must the holy text be garbled, not even for musical effect. Every single word must be accurately pronounced. The message must reach the listener through clearly enunciated words.
Hymns should be sung with affirmation in a full voice. Gamaks or musical ornaments should be limited to those essential to the correct performance of a raga such as glides between notes to maintain a connected melodic line. However, creative faculties of the performers should not be inhibited. Hand gestures, clapping and dancing arc prohibited. No appreciation may be shown to the rdgis during the performance.
The Sikh Rahit Maryda or code of conduct published under the authority of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, statutorily elected religious body of the Sikhs, defines kirtan as rendition of gurbani or Scriptural texts in (appropriate) ragas. For illustration, verses from Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Nand Lal could be used. Even when singing the hymns in open religious tunes, i.e. when they arc not being rendered by the ragi ensemble in prescribed ragas, with the entire congregation participating or forming an alternate chorus, the purity of line and phrase has to be maintained, eschewing additional words or syllables.
Only a line from the hymn in question may be used as the refrain. Combining discourse with kirtan is sometimes resorted to generally by the lead ragi, but it is not favoured by connoisseurs of music, or by lovers of gurbam who prefer nirol, i.e. unadulterated sabdakirtan. Lately, kirtan darbars, continuous sessions in which several choir groups lake turns at singing Sikh hymns, akhand (uninterrupted) kirtan or rain sabdi (nightlong) kirtan have come into vogue. They not only cater to the aesthetic and spiritual needs of the devotees, but also help widen the scope and appeal of Sikh kirtan.
1. Deva, B.C., Indian Music. Delhi, 1974
2. Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh, Gurbani Sangit. Patiala, 1979
3. Sundar Singh, Bhai, Gurmat Sangit. Amritsar, n.d.
4. Singh Sabha Patrika. February-March 1978