The Sikh sacred music tradition, kirtan, started with Guru Nanak, the founder of the faiih.

Nanak and the successor Gurus were all well versed in music and commended kirtan as

The highest expression of one’s devotion. They gave kirtan the position of centrality in Sikh worship.

The Sikh Gurus composed a large volume of devotional writings in poetic form. The words used are from several Indian languages and dialects with discernible influence of Sanskrit, Prakrit, Persian and Arabic. Most of the verses however are in the language spoken by saints and savants of the time and understood by common people. Verses only from Sikh scriptural literature can be sung in kirtan.

The compositions are set to classical Indian ragas. The language has a uniquely lyrical quality. The choice of words and imagery is from life and bounteous nature. This unique union of poetry and music makes Gurbani a divine melodv created out of rhyme, rhythm and imagery.

Centers for development of kirtan tradition were started in the Guru’s times Over time several institutions, called Taksals, developed and have helped carry the tradition forward. There was significant contribution by Muslim rababis in the development and transmission of kirtan tradition starting from the time of Nanak

The uses of musical instruments in kirtan started with the rebeck playing of Mardana while Nanak would chant God’s praises or sing his own compositions to introduce his teachings to people. The Gurus even developed new instruments like sarinda, jodi, and taus for providing accompaniment in kirtan.

In its early stages professional singers sang the hymns, set to ragas, continuity provided by association of generations of certain music traditions with the Guru’s court. The practice of congregational singing and kirtan by laypersons started in the time of the fifth Master.

The popularity of kirtan is on the rise. The electronic media has brought sacred music sung by the best ragis into homes. The Sikh Diaspora has also carried the tradition to distant lands. In the emerging environment, multicultural influences are visible in the innovative approaches adopted by some ragis.  Likewise there is a discernible movement to revive kirtan singing to ragas as in Guru’s times. There is continuity and there is change in the kirtan tradition but its centrality as the preferred mode of Sikh worship remains unchallenged.


Music symbolizes the human quest for harmony within the self and with nature and environment without. The message of music is universal and knows no boundaries. It has the power to transcend and unite. In all cultures, at all periods of human history, language and music have connected humans with what is holy. The human spirit has tried to express its spiritual longing through the medium of poetry and music. In form the sacred music ranges from the primitive through a variety of traditions the world over to an array of contemporary expressions. In substance it contemplates the spiritual, ethical and temporal issues that confront the humans every day.  

All musical traditions including devotional music have their origin in a cultural milieu. Over time these traditions have been transforming with the changing environment and in response to emerging challenges. The Sikh sacred music tradition began and had its initial development in the cultural cradle of India, more particularly Punjab of the medieval times. Its mission was to awaken a ritual dominated people to their spirituality and unite them in prayer. Its message was one of universality, equality, love, sharing and living an earnest, prayerful life. The means were its rich heritage in music, a lyrically expressive language, vibrant people and the enlightened leadership of the Sikh Gurus. 

Over the centuries, the Sikh sacred music tradition has developed, grown and spread. It has changed and it has not but it has continued to nurture and fulfill the spiritual search of the believers. In the contemporary world, the adherents of Sikh faith are widely spread with significant presence in the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Afghanistan, Iran and some countries in the Mid East and Africa. These exposures have further challenged the tradition to renew, reposition and re-assert. We will be cognizant of this dispersal as we explore the subject. 

As a backdrop we will briefly look at the ancient Indian music heritage and the Sikh sacred music tradition. 


Music, in the Indian tradition, has been associated with man’s quest for the spiritual since its very early stages. Sages and savants have contributed to the development of music and enriched it. Transmitted orally from the guru to the disciple, the singing accompanied by instruments like mridang, jharjhira etc. was an accepted mode of worship. The first book on music written by Bharata around the second century shows a structured musical system. Subsequently the strong royal patronage during the Gupta period saw its further development. A book by Martanda in the 6th century explains the well- developed raga system of the times both for sacred – marga – and secular – desi – music. In the twelfth century Jayadeva gave a great boost to sacred music.[1]

The Muslim influence during the second millennium did not encourage sacred music but professional singing did receive patronage from some of the rulers.[2] Amir Khusro (1253-1325) was a great musician in the Khilji court and is credited with introducing new forms of music like khayal, qawali, instruments like sitar, dhol and Sufi practice of devotional songs. Tansen (1506-1589) was a highly accomplished musician in the court of Akbar and a great exponent of dhrupad. Sixteenth century also saw the dhamaar/ mridang based tradition accept emerging khayal, thumri, ghazal formats and tabla, sitar, sarod, sarinda as accompanying instruments.  

The bhakti movement had been active for some time. The bhakats wrote their songs in praise of God in poetic format and sang these to the accompaniment of musical instruments.[3] This was the time when Nanak proceeded on his eastern missionary with Mardana, a Muslim minstrel and the Guru’s companion, accompanying. That was the beginning of Sikh sacred music, kirtan. Patwant Singh places the year at 1496.[4]


Guru Nanak was eighteen when he came to Sultanpur in 1487. It was his routine to remain absorbed in meditation for hours and while the Guru chanted God’s praises, Mardana would play on rebeck.[5] In his travels Nanak, accompanied by Mardana, used to sing his own compositions to introduce his teachings to people. When the Guru settled at Kartarpur in 1521, he started the practice of morning and evening prayer sessions and kirtan in the dharamshal that he established there to continue his missionary. He was following God’s command, said he.[6] His dharamshal was open to all and the rural folks gravitated in large numbers to hear the spiritual message he passed to people as it was revealed to him:[7]  
The early Sikh Gurus were great singers and well versed in music. The second Sikh Guru, Angad, continued the tradition of kirtan and his ministry in Khadur became the second center of kirtan. Mardana’s sons were the minstrels at Khadur. The Guru also started the tradition of - langar – community kitchen serving the congregation, the poor and the wayfarers.   
Guru Amardas spread the tradition across the growing Sikh congregations by making it a part of the activities of manjis – dioceses – that he established. He also set up a center for kirtan at Goindwal where the morning and evening service was performed by Pandha and Boola. He preached that those who sing His praises enshrine God in their hearts[8], and merge into him – a powerful message for the seekers.[9]  
Guru Ramdas was very well versed in music. The city of Amritsar founded by him grew into the most important center of kirtan. He also introduced the variant –partal – in which the antras of the raga are sung to different taals.   
Guru Arjan introduced the tradition of kirtan sessions/sittings called chokis at Amritsar. At one stage when Satta and Balwand, the court musicians, refused to perform the kirtan, the Guru asked the members of congregation to learn to do kirtan. This encouraged the practice of devotional singing by laypersons using folk tunes. Even though Satta and Balwand later relented, the tradition of the laypersons performing kirtan continued alongside the professional singers. Guru Arjan also established a center for kirtan at Taran Taran. He introduced a musical instrument called –sarinda. The use of sarinda and tabla became accepted in his time.   
Among the later Gurus, Hargobind, popularized the singing of vars in tunes prescribed in the Granth. He also established a kirtan center at Kiratpur. Guru Har Rai dispatched accomplished ragis to spread kirtan to distant places. Guru Tegh Bahadur, had ragis accompany him in his travels. Guru Gobind Singh established a kirtan center at Anand Pur. Dhadhi jathas used to sing vars in bir-ras in his court. He was a great musicologist and had 52 poets and several musicians in his court. He introduced the khayal style of singing in kirtan.
The use of musical instruments in kirtan started with the rebeck playing of Mardana. During the time of later Gurus use of other instruments got introduced. These include instruments like rabab, sarinda, taoos, dilruba, mridang, tabla, dhadi, sarangi used by the rababis and dhadis. The laity used instruments like dholak, chimta, khartal etc.  
The Gurus pursued a comprehensive approach to make Gurmat Sangeet an integral part of Sikh mode of worship and the Sikh tradition. Their use of ragas and folk tunes; patronizing generations of professional singers to provide continuity and distinctive character to kirtan; encouraging involvement of laity; use of and introduction of new instruments; establishment of kirtan centers and strengthening the bonds between sangat, langar, kirtan and worship is a testimony to their vision.  
The first six decades or so of the eighteenth century were a traumatic period for the Sikhs. Their ascendancy under the leadership of Banda Bahadur was short lived. Even during this period incidents of hostility against Sikh tradition were taking place. Banda is said to have punished a Masand who had broken the guitar of a Sikh musician in prayer and assaulted him.[10]   
The Sikhs faced implacable hostility of Mughals on the one hand and Afghans on the other after the death ob Banda [d.1716]. By 1734 the emerging Sikh leadership organized Budha Dal, a band of older Sikhs, who had the care of Gurdwaras as one of their responsibilities.[11] Two institutions, Dam Dama Sahib at Talwandi Sabo and Dam Dami Taksaal at Chowk Mehta started during this period grew into important centers for kirtan.[12]  
During the Sikh holocaust period [1746 – 1762], when the Sikhs had to take to a guerrilla mode of existence, the Gurdwaras and kirtan centers were managed by Nirmala & Udasi sects who continued the kirtan tradition.[13] Noted Sikh warriors Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Deep Singh were accomplished in kirtan and thus provided symbolic patronage by the leaderships. Dodhurpur Taksaal which has also been training the visually handicapped in kirtan was set up in the eighteenth century – an egalitarian step in troubled times and possibly a unique development for those days.[14]  
Budha Jor Taksal in Rajasthan and Sewa Panthi Taksal in Gujrat [now in Pakistan] also go back to the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century Matsuana Taksal and Singha Wala Taksal as well as several branches of the existing centers came up. The early twentieth century saw the growth of Taksals at Taran Taran, Chamkaur [Hargana], Domeli, Nanaksar [Kalera Wala], Delhi [Rakab Ganj] etc. Similarly two institutions to impart kirtan training to the blind and orphans/destitute called Soorma Ashram and Yatim Khana respectively were set up. Amritsar continued to enjoy central role in the growth and development of kirtan.   
Another source of continuity was the musicians, both of the rababi genre and those who had graduated from the various kirtan centers and taksals. The rababis and many other exponents passed their learning from generation to generation. There are several noteworthy names and a list published in1900, names 31 rababis and around the same number of other musicians.[15] 
During all this period many changes took place in popular culture, secular music, musical instruments and so on. However while new instruments got introduced in kirtan, (harmonium, which progressively became the main accompaniment) the music format did not change significantly because of the continuing influence of Amritsar and other centers and taksals. According to Principal Daya Singh, as long as the control of the gurdwaras was in the hands of mahants, the kirtan tradition continued as of old.[16] Gurdwara Reforms in 1920’s had major influence on Sikh traditions including kirtan.  
The Sikh Gurus, spread over a period of over 200 years (1469-1708) composed a large volume of shabads and devotional writings in poetic form. Compositions of six Gurus and selections from the work of certain Hindu and Muslim saints were included by the Gurus in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS). Guru Arjan compiled the SGGS and arranged the scripture according to ragas. Compositions only from SGGS, Dasam Granth, vars of Bhai Gurdas and poems of Bhai Nandlal are permitted in kirtan. All these are written in poetry; thus rhyme is an integral part of Sikh scriptural literature.  
The words used in SGGS are from several Indian languages and dialects as also from some foreign tongues like Persian and Arabic. The influence of Sanskrit and Prakrit is discernible though most of the verses are in sant bhasha, the language spoken by saints and savants of the time and understood by the common people.[17] The freedom in spoken language to modify the words to enhance their emotional effect, to balance the rhyme and measure etc. has been eminently used by the poets.[18]  
The language of scripture is suited to express the pure, distinct sounds and facilitate euphonic blending of letters into words. The arrangement of consonants alternates aspirated and unaspirated sounds e.g. ta, tha; da, dha. This helps breath patterns that support concentration. In a meditative state sound resonates with one’s own body to heighten the level of anand – bliss.[19]  
The compositions in SGGS are in padas, pauris, shlokas, chhands and swayyas. Poems with two, three, four or more padas are called shabads. Those used in long compositions like vars are named pauris. A var may have pauris in several verse forms.[20] A variety of rhyming patterns and meters is used in padas and pauris. Shlokas are mostly written as couplets and are characterized by their brevity of thought and expressive language. Chhands may have four to six padas. Words such as ’ram raje’ may be added to Chhands when interspersed in a var. This enhances melodic effect when sung to the prescribed tune. Swayyas are laudatory verses about Gurus and are written in a variety of meters.
The language of the SGGS has a uniquely lyrical quality. The choice of words and imagery is from life and the bounteous nature – joy, sorrow, union, separation, love, fear, anger, charity; the sun, moon, stars, trees, cool breeze, hues of clouds, singing birds – reaching the inner depth of human feelings and touching the spiritual and holy within. The hymns full of love divine and rapturous in effect are aptly suited to use music as a vehicle to inspire soul to transcend itself and bring peace, contentment and equipoise. All human longings, aspirations, experiences and feelings of joy, awe, wonder, change, expressed in ragas make Gurbani a unique union of music and poetry placing devotional singing in a supreme place.[21] It truly is a divine melody created out of rhyme, rhythm and imagery.
The compositions in SGGS are in 31 ragas. Several of the ragas have variations e.g. raga Gauri in the Granth has 7 variations. The Gurus did not express preference for any raga nor does their order in the Granth indicate any heirarchy. “The raga which awakens one’s mind to God is the best.”[22] Raga Asa, Maru and Tukhari are found only in the Granth.  
Each Guru composed hymns in a variety of ragas. Nanak’s compositions are in 19 ragas; Angad’s in 9; Amardas’s in 23; Ramdas and Arjan’s in 31 and Tegh Bahadur’s in 16 ragas in classical and folk tradition. The compositions of various saints and others also are spread across the spectrum of ragas. Guru Gobind Singh’s compositions in the Dasam Granth are in 19 ragas. Raga formats are not specified for the works of Bhai Gurdas and Nandlal.  
Some ragas are season related e.g., malhar – rainy season, basant – spring. There are also preferred times for singing certain ragas e.g., raga asa, ramkali, bhairav, tukhari and prabhati in pre-dawn hours; devgandhari and bilawal in early-morning; gujri, todi, suhi, Gond and sarang in pre-noon hours and so on.  
The tradition of singing of devotional hymns in simple tunes developed alongside the more rigorous rendering to classical music during the time of Gurus itself. Another tradition of folk music in kirtan is the singing of vars. Of the twenty-two vars in the SGGS, instructions regarding the tune in which these should be sung is given for nine. Dhadhi singing in bir rasa, characterized by the use of sarangi and dhadi as musical instruments, is also used for exposition of vars.  
In sodar, the Guru describes the court of the Lord. His vision is of a place where music abounds – innumerable instrumentalists, infinite variety of notes and symphonies with the entire universe singing God’s praises. Innumerable the notes, infinite the players, countless lending their voice, all singing His praises.[23] Music has a special place in the Divine court.  
Nanak has referred to himself as - khasam da dhadi – God’s minstrel. He had Mardana play rebeck when he sang in communion with the source of his inspiration and share his message. Gurus preached the great merits of kirtan - it removes impurity from mind[24], helps gain freedom from cycle of birth and death,[25] [26] brings comfort to mind and body.[27] The name of the Lord cures all ailments.[28] Not just that heaven is where His praises are sung.[29]   
Listening to kirtan also earns merit. Those who sing and listen to kirtan their evil propensities are curbed, they receive what they desire, and misfortunes do not befall them.[30] [31] The persuasion is to always sing, listen, and recite God’s praises.[32] In Japji Nanak says – sing thou His praises: sing, listen, internalize.[33] Listening is a step in the progression of spiritual journey. It transforms the mind and enables man to comprehend Reality.[34]  
Congregational singing removes inhibitions, strengthens bonds of fellowship, and helps concentration and ecstatic state of mind.[35] Kirtan in the company of the virtuous earns the highest merit.[36]  
Gurus regarded sacred music as an instrument for stabilizing the mind and establishing communion with the divine. They commended kirtan as the highest expression of one’s devotion.[37] By declaring supremacy of kirtan in this troubled age, the Gurus gave kirtan the position of centrality in Sikh worship.[38] [39] 
Kirtan may be performed in specified ragas or in simple, light music tunes. The manner of presentation may vary e.g.: 
·   Parman: reinforcing the theme by extracts from other shabads 
·   Vyakhya: accompanied by a discourse/explanations 
·   Rain sabhai: continuous night long kirtan by sangat 
·   Prabhat pheri: street singing by sangat in early hours 
·   Nagar: in a procession across town by sangat/ragis  
·   Darbar: an extended program in which several ragi jathas perform in turn 
The setting for performance of kirtan in a Gurdwara is fairly standard. The Ragis, generally three, are seated on one side of the Guru Granth Sahib. If seated on a dias, the platform is lower than the Guru’s seat. The main ragi is seated in the middle. Some groups may have additional members, usually to provide added support in instrumental music or some times to join in singing of the refrain. A recent innovation has been joint kirtan by a group of jathas in a darbar setting. The dhadis sing standing, their members changing places before the mike as they sing, play the instruments or give a discourse. Prabhat pheri and nagar kirtan are performed walking or from a mobile platform.  
Kirtan tradition started with morning and evening prayer sessions. In the time of Guru Arjan, four sittings of kirtan started at Harmandir and came to be called chokis because of four member ragi jathas.[40]Even though the common practice now is for three ragis to perform kirtan, the name has survived. Rababis and Ragis continued the choki tradition at Amritsar. Till 1947, of the 15 chokis, 7 were by Muslim rababis.  The contribution made by rababis over centuries to the continuance, popularization and spread of Sikh sacred music starting from Mardana, followed by his progeny and others can only be termed tremendous.[41] 
Presently the chokis followed in various Gurdwaras are according to local tradition and available resources. The historical Gurdwaras have taken to the practice of multiple chokis. The chokis identified to be more commonly in practice are [42]
·         Asa di var: early pre-dawn hours; the chhant is generally sung in rag asa; slok in anibidh; and pauri in folk tunes 
·         Anand di choki: pre-noon hour: mid-day ragas sung in this choki 
·         Charan kamal di choki: early afternoon hours ragas like sarang/dhanasri 
·         Sodar di choki: early evening/dusk; appropriate ragas; sodar sung in pauri tradition followed by recitation of rehras 
·         Kirtan sohila: late evening; hymns in appropriate ragas and recitation of kirtan sohila  
Shabads from specific compositions are used for occasions like birth, death, weddings etc.  At the onset of spring, magh sangrand, traditionally the ragis at Harmandir are presented a bouquet of flowers by the Head Granthi and asked to sing hymns in basant raga. At Anandpur Sahib, the basant tradition is celebrated by singing hymns in bir ras, shastra maalaa and holi related ragas  
There are certain conventional practices associated with kirtan: 
·         Words should be correctly and clearly spoken; text preferably remembered; music should be soft; it should facilitate creation of ras to enhance receptivity to the message; the message has precedence over music[43] 
·         The selected composition and parman should be from the allowed texts,  sachi baani [44] 
·         The singing should be offered in humility, loving devotion and blissful awareness of the divine message[45] [46]
·         The congregation should restrain expressive gestures and listen with devotion – kirtan is contemplation on God’s word, not listening to a song[47] [48]  
In the Sikh spiritual tradition, singing hymns in sangat with accompaniment of music is an institution next to Guruship and the principal of equality/inclusiveness.[49]In the true kirtan setting, the three institutions come together to create the model of Sikh spiritual concept. Sitting together as one in the holy presence of the revealed word, Guru, and contemplating in harmony on the Divine is the way for a householder to commune with the Lord. Sikhs are therefore persuaded to sing God’s praises in the company of sangat with their minds not wandering[50]Sangat composed of all followers, men, women, high, low is given the status of God manifest. It is not just a collection of individuals, but a live corporate being with holy, divine character. Centrality of kirtan in the life of sangat makes Sikhism a congregational religion. The mutually reinforcing institutions give sangats moral and social force. The Sikh spiritual beliefs, democratic practices and social community sense draw their sustenance from these institutions[51]  
The popularity of kirtan is on the rise. The electronic media has brought the sacred music sung by the best ragis into homes through the television, Internet and the CD/cassettes.
There are several examples of innovation. Ragi Baljit Singh and his jatha use tar shenai, in place of the popularly used harmonium. Relatively a young group, Baljit received training at home and then from Piara Singh, the famous dilruba player, Ustad Vilayat Hussain, the well-known sarod maestro and the famous Bismilla Khan. With rich background in training in classical music, the group performs kirtan in classical ragas and are the only group to have ventured to eliminate the use of harmonium altogether.
Another fact that cannot escape notice is that the profession of ragis is and has been entirely dominated by males. Women in the Sikh community have traditionally enjoyed relative equality compared to other segments of the Indian society. In history Sikh women are known to have played important role in various activities, both church related and temporal. Several women have great erudition and in-depth knowledge of scriptures. Likewise there are Sikh women who have excelled in the field of music – Neelam Sahni, Jaspinder Nirula, Surinder Kaur, Ajit Kaur to name a few. They have all sung shabads, in large sammelans, on radio/television and even joined ragis in composite groups. Neelam whose shabads were included in the album brought out for the Guru Nanak’s 500th anniversary and has shabad albums with Rafi, Manna Dey and Jagjit Singh thinks that it will be some time before women succeed in breaking male domination in kirtan. In her judgment, if one were to go by the male-female mix in recent /new albums, the trend would seem to be getting worse.  
An unseemly controversy relates to kirtan by sehjdhari Sikhs. Historically Muslim singers have performed kirtan service at Harmandir and other places. Even now rababi groups from Pakistan perform at kirtan darbars etc.[52] Reservations about kirtan by sehjdhari Sikhs therefore would appear to be inconsistent with the faith tenets as well as tradition.  
There is a view that in the Sikh kirtan tradition the artistes have enjoyed and exercised their freedom to sing the hymns the way they liked or the way they could. It was therefore not uncommon to hear that they used popular tunes because: 
·   Sangat liked light tunes 
·   Rendering them in classical mode was difficult 
·   All ragas in Gurbani could not be sung[53] 
Taking the last point first. Available evidence testifies to the contrary. Dr. Gurnam Singh has rendered all the poetic formats e.g. ashtpadi, chaupadas, partaal, alauhinis etc. in Gurmat style in all the 31 ragas and 31 raga forms using the rahau verse as sthai. [HMV SPHO 840541—50][54]Music India has issued work of Ragi Avtar Singh who sings in tradition handed down for generations. An initiative to revive the tradition of singing to ragas as per Gurbani has been an annual sammelan started by Sant Baba Sucha Singh in1991.  Extending over four days, the participants include famous ragis, rababis and professors[55]Per Baljit Singh; SGPC has also been organizing an annual Convention, around October, at Amritsar where ragis from all over the country participate. The objective is the promotion of kirtan tradition in classical ragas as practiced during the Guru’s time. 
Regarding audience preference let me relate a recent experience. At a kirtan darbar, Bhai Ravinder Singh followed Prof. Darshan Singh. Darshan Singh has a powerful presence, is erudite, enjoys big name recognition and presents in light classical style. The hall was packed, in awe, attentive, focused. They took every nuance of his presentation, every word of his lofty theme. Ravinder Singh, much younger but not a lightweight – he sings at Harmandir - has a mellifluous voice. He started with a simple shabad, touching beautiful words, sung feelingly in a light tune. In minutes the congregation was joining in singing the refrain with him – some visibly moved to tears. There, no doubt, are many ways to the Lotus Feet!  
The ragis also have their tale of woes. There is a feeling that the Gurdwara Reforms have reduced ragis/grant his to employee status. This has constrained their role and become a major disincentive – several respected ragis like Samund Singh, Santa Singh, and Surjan Singh did not encourage their sons to continue the tradition. They regret the practice of appointing ragis with inadequate musical training, poor knowledge of scriptures and neglect of old kirtan traditions in historical Gurdwaras[56]
The number of training institutes for kirtan has grown and several committed, highly accomplished and knowledgeable persons have contributed to their growth and development. A system or an agency to obtain and disseminate any feedback to the training bodies should be helpful in sensitizing them to any shortcomings in the performance of ragis and other existing or expected issues concerning kirtan. The impression one gathers is that several kirtan training institutes are mainly serving the altruistic objective of providing opportunity to the disadvantaged[57]. This is laudable but we may have to do more to reconcile our various objectives and resources.  
The congregation in any Sikh Gurdwara in the US shows the telling absence of young adults and those in upper teens. My conversation with several of them shows that the main reason cited is their inability to understand the meaning of whatever is spoken in the Gurdwara. They generally liked kirtan but said they did not understand what the words meant. A study of second and third generation Sikhs in America has confirmed that like all other immigrants they are significantly distanced from their contemporaries in Punjab or new immigrants[58]
These observations are not lost on the Sikh Diaspora and they are sensitive to the need for and concerned about the problems of “assimilation”. There is recognition that some things must be done to save their language, culture and religious tradition being run over. At the same time they recognize that it is unrealistic to expect continuity without change, especially in an alien, multicultural environment. In the sphere of kirtan, innovations are emerging. Americans who have adopted Sikh faith are devoted to kirtan and have released a number of kirtan albums. At the World Festival of Music at Los Angeles in 1999, Guru Armadas Ashram offered the Sikh kirtan presentation, “ a program that combines Sikh hymns with modern American spiritual music”[59]  
Another well recognized innovative lead has come from Dya Singh and his “world music group”. They have become an example of the dynamics of multiculturalism with members from various ethnicities. They use tabla, dhol, mridang, drums etc for percussion. Other instruments used include electric guitar, santoor, bohdran, flute. They sing shabads and their English translations to popular and classical tunes. They have achieved remarkable success in taking kirtan to young Sikhs and mixed western audiences. The Singh family maintains distinct Sikh appearance and they know enough to answer any question asked by the audience[60]
There are several other groups working on revival, innovation and transmission of kirtan tradition in various countries. Interaction between various influences is bound to both challenge and reinforce the traditional practices. Good work in being done by the Pittsburgh Group whose efforts have resulted in urge to learn classical kirtan among young Sikhs in the US[61] 
Guru Ram Das says – among all the musical measures that alone is sublime, O brother, by which the Lord comes to abide within.[62] The melodies in which the Guru’s word is sung are all true; their worth cannot be told. The Lord is beyond melodies and airs and merely through these His will cannot be realized. Nanak, they alone are right who realize their Lord’s will. It is they who are blessed with understanding of the true Guru. Every thing comes to pass through Him, as per His will.
The tradition of kirtan goes back to the very beginning of Sikh faith. The Gurus gave a position of centrality to kirtan in Sikh worship. They also created a beautiful paradigm of mutually supporting and reinforcing institutions to help the mission and the message to reach the faith adherents and answer their inner search for spirituality.  
Over the centuries the tradition has survived and in many ways grown, developed, changed and revived. The explosion of electronic media, dispersal of the believers, global communications are exposing every tradition to multicultural influences. Kirtan tradition is no exception. Some change is inevitable but it should be ensured that its direction and pace must strengthen and increase reach of the tradition.
Nirmal Singh,
Farmington, CT

[1] – G S Mansukhani, Indian Classical Music And Sikh Kirtan – from the Sikh net

[2] –Ajit Singh Paintal, Amrit Kirtan, Chandigarh [ak], Jan 98

[3] –Ak Jul 98, p.4

[4] –Patwant Singh, The Sikhs, 1999, p.23

[5] –Agnihotri, H L & C R, Guru Nanak Dev: His Life & Bani, 1996,p.31

[6] –SGGS p.148 khalaq ko adesh dhadi gavna

[7] –ibid. P 722 jaisi main aave khasam ki bani taisra kari gyan ve lalo

[8] –ibid. P.917 shabdo te gavo hari kera man jinni vasaya

[9] –ibid. P.1258 andin gun gave nit saache sach samave soi

[10] – Sohan Singh, Life & Exploits of Banda Singh Bahadur, Patiala, 2000,p.65

[11] –Patwant Singh, op.cit. p.82

[12] – Gurnam Singh, Gurmat Sangeet Parband tePasar, [Punjabi] Patiala, 2000 p.169

[13] – Ak Jul 98,p.6

[14] – Gurnam Singh, op.cit. p.171

[15] – ibid. 181

[16] – ak Nov 97

[17] – S S Kohli, Guru Granth Sahib: an Analytical Study, Amritsar, 1992, chapter I

[18] – ibid, p.64

[19] – Gregory P Fields in Sacred Music as a Religious Therapeutic, The Journal of Religious Studies, Patiala, Spring/Autumn 1999, p.68

[20] – S S Kohli, op.cit.p.71

[21] – Ak, Dec 97

[22] – SGGS, slok varan te vadhik, sabhna ragaan vich so bhala bhai jit vasya man aaye

[23] – ibid, p.8 vaje naad anek asankha kete vavanhaarey, kete raga pari siu kahian kete gavanhaare

[24] – ibid. p.289, gun gavat teri utras meil

[25] – ibid. p.,867, jo jan kare kirtan gopal tis ko poh ne sake jamkaal

[26] – ibid. p.62, har din rain kirtan gaave bohr neh joni paave

[27] – ibid. p.620, sookh sehaj anand gun gaave man tan deh sukhali

[28] – ibid.  sarab rog ka aukhad nam

[29] – ibid. tehain baikunth jeh kirtan tera

[30] – ibid. p.1300 jo jo kathey sunay har kirtan ta ki durmat nas

[31] – ibid. p.190 har kirtan sunai har kirtan gaave, tis jan dookh nikat neh aave

[32] – ibid. p.611 gavo sunno parho nit bhai

[33]– Ibid. P.2 gaaviye suniye man rakhiye bhau

[34] – Japji Pauri 8-11

[35] – Sikh Review, Calcutta [sr], Sep 2000,p.26

[36] – SGGS- p.642 har kirat sadhsangat hai sir karman kae karma

[37] – ibid. Sarang,M V, sabh te ooch bhagat ja ke sang, aath pehr gun gaaverang sarang

[38] – ibid. p.697 har kirat kaljug pad ootam

[39] – ibid. p.1075 kaljug main kirtan pardhan

[40] – Jagdish Kaur, ak Jul 98, p.5

[41]– Prof. Kartar Singh, ak Jan 98, p.5

[42] – Gurnam Singh, op.cit. p.50 – based on Bhai Veer Singh’s assessment

[43] – SGGS, p.943 shabad gur surt dhun chela

[44] – ibid. aao sikh satgur ke piaryo gaavo sachi bani

[45] – ibid. p.158. haumai vich gaaveh birtha jaaye

[46] – ibid.  jis nau parteet hovai, tis kaa gaaviaa thaaen pavey – suhi iv

[47] – ibid.  sarvani suno bimal jas soami – maroo solhe v

[48] – ibid. p. log janay yeh geet hain yeh to brahm vichar

[49] – Wazir Singh, Sikhism and Punjab’s Heritage, Patiala, 1990, p.94

[50] – SGGS. p.16 sadh sang jap nisang man nidhan dhare [also Harbans Lal, ak Dec98]

[51] – Sunita Puri, Advent of Sikh Religion, New Delhi, 1993, p.125 et.seq

[52] The desecendants of Mardana who accompanied Guru Nanak had remained rababis to all the ten Sikh Gurus and kept alive the musical instrument rabab. They also had been performing kirtan in Darbar Sahib but the practice was discontinued by Bibi Jagir Kaur, during her tenure as SGPC chief. Bhai Lal 17th generation in family lineage of Mardana had performed kirtan at Darbar Sahib once before the partition of India and again in 1962 during his visit to India. Eighty- three year old Bhai Lal was admitted to a hospital in Lahore on 29 October, 2012 after a heart attack.

[53] – Sr, Jul 2001, p.20

[54] – Gurnam Singh, op.cit

[55] – D S Nirula, ak Dec98, p.4

[56] – Principal Dayal Singh, ak Nov97, p. 12

[57] – Based on discussions with several ragis, kathakars, kirtan teachers including Principal Dayal Singh, Gurmat Vidyala, Rakab Ganj, New Delhi

[58] – Singh & Barrier [eds], The Transmission of Sikh Heritage in Diaspora, New Delhi, 1996, p.100 et.seq.


[60] – sr, Sep 95 p.48 & ak Jul98 p.13

[61] – SR Jan 99, p.49

[62] sabhna ragan vich so bhala bhai jit vaseya man aaye – Slok M IV, p. 1423

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