Gurmat Sangeet is a unique musical tradition which is five centuries old. It is part and parcel of the Sikh religion. Nanak, born a Hindu, the founder of the Sikh religion, and its first Guru began the tradition as he and his childhood Muslim friend Bhai Mardana traveled around Asia and the Middle East spreading Nanak's divine message of one loving God. The tradition was continued and refined by every Sikh Guru through to Gobind Singh ji. It continues to this day. With Gurmat Sangeet, the divine message is communicated through Shabad (hymn/s, religious messages or poems) Kirtan (Sikh devotional music). Shabad Kirtan has become an inseparable part of the Sikh way of life. The Kirtan Chauki tradition has been in vogue in the gurdwaras for centuries and the Kirtan tradition as practised on special occasions is an extended form of this tradition. This practical Kirtan tradition is in accordance with the Shabad Guru of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
The Bani of the Granth Sahib, written and indexed according to the prescribed Raagas, singing forms, music signs/ headings and the other guidelines issued in the Bani, creates an original and specific musicology. A scientific approach to music can help in recognising more explicitly the musical tradition according to the Guru Granth Sahib.
Such a system of music, enshrined in the Holy Guru Granth Sahib is exactly in accordance with the musical tenets established by the Gurus. What came to be known as "Gur Shabad Kirtan" is a unique confluence of Shabad and Kirtan propounded by Guru Nanak with the aid of the divine music from Bhai Mardana's Rabab. There music and songs to God emerged as a unique system in Indian music which has spread into the musical traditions of the world. In Bani Gur-Shabad Kirtan has been assigned a very prominent status as stated in the following couplet:
The Guru Granth Sahib contains Bani of the Gurus in addition to the Bani of contemporary and earlier Saints and Bhagats. The classification of Bani according to Raags makes it clear that the Bani is written in accordance with a particular system as conceived by Guru Arjun Dev the fifth Guru while compiling and editing the Guru Granth Sahib. Beside the Raagas, different classical and folk singing styles, Rahaao and other music signs are those elements of the Gurmat music system which always remain active due to their original musical characteristics and for the presentation of Shabad Kirtan. The Bani under Shabad Kirtan is to be sung according to the prescribed raags, raaga forms, singing styles, music sings, Rahaao, Ank (digit) and so on. Different music elements which discipline Shabad Kirtan, can be known by an independent systematic discussion about them and its functional aspect may become more clear by systematic thought.
The entire Bani of the holy Sri Guru Granth Sahib has been classified under 31 Raagas and 31 different Raaga forms (Parkaars) thus making a total of 62.
Raaga references on the Gurbani as headings are a clear indication for singing any piece of Gurbani according to the prescribed Raaga and that has been ordained in Sikh tradition and fundamentals.
Under the Gurmat Sangeet tradition, Raagas are in propagation with their original melodic forms. Sikh musicians, uninfluenced by the changes in Shudh Thaat notes as Bilawal scales from Kafi scale, kept the traditional purity of Gurmat Sangeet in practical form. As a sequel, a tradition which is more than 500 years old, remains very much in existence as the Sikh musical tradition. These original Raaga forms of Gurmat Sangeet are a unique contribution to Indian music's Raaga tradition.
These Raagas (31 Main and 31 Raaga forms) are Shudh (Siree, Maajh, Gaorhee, Aasaa, Dhanaasree, Soohee, Maaroo, Tookharee, Parbhaatee etc.), Chhayalag (nine Raaga forms of Gaorhee and Asa Kaafe, Tilang Kafee, Soohee Lalit, Bilawat Mangal, Parbhatee Bibhaas etc.), admixture of two Raagas or including the melodic reflection of any other Raaga, and Sankeeran (Gaorhee, Poorbee, Deepkee), combination of more than two Raagas. Originality of seasonal (Malhaar, Basant etc.) and regional (Maajh Aasaa, Tookharee etc) Raagas under Raag forms is another important feature of the Gurmat Sangeet System. With a view to disseminate the divine message to the people, Guru Nanak Sahib toured different places.
These travels of Guru Nanak are popularly known as Udasis. During these long travels (udasis) Guru Nanak Sahib used Raagas belonging to local tradition to aid in propagating his message, of which the Deccani Raaga (Gaorhee Dakhnee, Wadhans Dakhnee, Bilwal Dakhnee, Raawklee Dakhnee, Maaroo Dakhnee, Parbhatee Dakhnee) tradition deserves special mention. Dakhani in word in the Sri Guru Granth indicates the southern music system. In Gurbani, the Raaga Dhyana (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Page 83, 585, 791, 849, 950, 1027, 1285, 1419, 1425 etc.) of some Raagas have been given with a view to express the nature of different Raagas in their spiritual context according to the Gurmat.
Bani has different headings alongwith Raagas such as Ashtpadian, Chaupade, Ghorian, Alahllian, Vaar and the others in the Guru Granth Sahib. Under the Bani arrangement, these forms not only assume poetical forms but specific singing styles and music forms also which have a particular technique. The Gurus have not only used different classical and folk music forms in Buni but these have also been used in conformity with the Gurmat musical system which is based on elements of music like Raagn, Rahaao, Ank and other musical singes. Under this system, classical musical forms have been liberated from the rigorous discipline of the art of music and given an equipoise(Sehaj) by conforming it to the spirit of the Sikh musical system. Similarly spontaneous freedom of folk forms has been given the specific discipline of Gurmat Sangeet.
The Guru Granth Sahib contains Ashpadi and Partal of classical music and Vaar, Chand, Ghorian and Alahunian of folk music. Vaar (ballad) singing style has a special place in the folk music. In the Guru Granth Sahib different Vaars under different Raagas have been given a heading of traditional folk musical tunes.
The Gurus while creating the above Kirtan tradition not only started different Kirtan Chaukees in functional from but also chose special musical instruments. Playing on the Rahab by Bhai Mardana during Guru Nanak's time, Siranda during the times of Guru Amar Dass and Guru Ram Dass, Siranda and Israj during the period of Guru Arjan Dev, Taus and DhadSarangi for Vaar singing during the period of 6th Guru, Mirdang during the ninth Guru's time, Tanpura during Guru Gobind Singh's time, were particular which explicity proves the use of special musical instruments. The use of special musical instruments in vogue was also done in an original way. The use of those 'Tanti (stringed) instruments are especially useful for purity of notes, of the Raaga and traditional excellence of the Gur Shabad Kirtan.
In development of the great original tradition, the Gurus beginning with Guru Nanak Sahib along with Sangat(congregation) set up some Kirtan centres where musicians (performers of Kirtan) practically and fractionally developed such tradition. Sikh history bears testimony to the fact that after the Second Udasi, Guru Nanak Sahib set up the Sikh Dharamsal (Gurdwara) as an institution where the tradition of Kirtan started by the Guru was specially reiterated. Historical references make it clear that Gurbani was sung twice a day, in the morning and in the evening at Kartarpur.
Sodaru Aartee Gavveeai Amrit Vele Japa Uchaaraa (Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 1, Paurhi 38)
- At this place, first by making Bhai Mardana stay on, Guru Nanak proceeded on hisThird Udasi. Bhai Mardana continued to perform Guru Nanak Bani's Kirtan. After Bhai Mardana's passing away, his son Bhai Sajada (Sehjad) used to sing in the Guru's abode. Hence Kartarpur emerged as the first centre of Gurmat Sangeet.
- In addition, Guru Angad Dev founded Khadoor Sahib and continued with the Kartarpuri standard tradition. Besides Bhai Sehjad, Bhai Saddu Baddu were the famous Rababis at the Guru's abode.
- Guru Amardas founded Goindwal as a special centre for the propagation of Sikhism, 22 Manjies (Seats) were founded where as Sikh traditions and Sikh ways of life were propagated in different areas. Gurmat Sangeet was also popularised among the Sikh congregations . Bhai Deepa, Bhai Pandha, Bhai Bhula were the famous Kirtaanias of the Guru's period.
- After Guru Amardas, Guru Ramdas laid the foundation of Chak-Ram-Das Pura, which later became famous as Amritsar, Satta and Balwand were the famous Kirtanias of Guru Ram Das's time. Here singing of Asa Di Vaar in the morning, Sodar in the evening and Arti at night, remained in practice. By the time of Guru Ram Das, the Shabad Kirtan tradition of Gurmat Sangeet was fully developed and established under which a unique singing style like Partal came to be practised, not found in any other musical tradition.
- The Fifth Guru, Arjan Dev Sahib had the onerous responsibility of developing Gurmat Sangeet tradition on a firm footing. By this time the Harmandir had been founded at Amritsar where continuous singing of Shabad Kirtan Dhuni was performed by different Chaukies. At this Centre of Guru Arjan Dev, where Rababi Kirtan Tradition emerged in a distinctive form, common Sikhs were also encouraged to perform Kirtan which is illustrated by the Sattva Balwand story of getting annoyed with the Guru. At this time, besides professional Rababis, amateur Shabad Kirtan by Sikh sangat tradition also came into being.
- After Guru Arjan Dev, Guru Har Gobind introduced Vaar music by Dhadies along with Kirtan.
- Guru Har Rai and Guru Har Krishan Sahib further propagated Gurmat Sangeet tradition.
- Anadpur Sahib was founded by Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib where he made the traditional Kirtan an inseparable part of practical tradition. Bhai Saddu and Maddu were the famous Kirtan performers at this great Sikh centre.
From the period of the Gurus, the same technique of training and propagation of Gurmat Sangeet has continued. According to one tradition, Rababi Kirtan performers continued to impart training on individual basis and with professional efficiency. As a result, different Rabab players and their progeny continued to perform Gurmat Sangeet, using the art of music. This tradition was in no way inferior to the contemporary tradition of the Mughal Court. In the world of music, these Rabab performers of the House of the Guru were recognised as Babe Ke. On the other hand, court musicians were known as Babur Ke. Babe Ke held a respectable place among the contemporary musicians because of their association with spiritual music traditions. This tradition of Rababi kirtankars continues till this day. Their particular style of singing and their perfection of Gurbani recitation successfully helps in differentiating their style. Many Kirtan performers became famous as a result of the amateur Kirtan tradition started during Guru Arjun's time. These Rabab performers who were recognised in comparison to the professionals, used to get their training from such musicians who were conforming to Guru's tradition and were well associated with the principles and practices of Gurmat Sangeet. Of these famous Kirtan performers of the Guru period Bhai Deepa, Bhulla, Narain Das, Pandha, Ugrsain, Nagori Mal, Bhai Ramu, Jhaju, Mukand are better known. Under the Gurmat Sangeet training tradition, where Rababis had family traditions, the amateur Kirtan performers had institutional traditions.
Sikh Music Literature
Since the beginning of the 18th century, many a scholar had composed shabad Kirtan compositions in music notaions. This parallels the efforts made in the arena of Hindustani music. Beside this practical performance on record, many scholars have contributed to the establishment of Gurmat Sangeet theory as well.
In the contemporary world of Sikh music, Gur Shabad Kirtan tradition, as founded by the Gurus and developed by the Sikh Panth, has established itself as an independent and original identity. This tradition of Gurmat Sangeet prescribed in the holy guru Granth Sahib can be termed as Sikh Musicology. In order to understand the Gurmat Sangeet tradition as directed and determined by the Gurus, such Kirtan is to be performed in a particular Raaga according to the established tradition. Bhai Vir Singh Ji, the famous Sikh scholar in the essay "ਸ਼ਬਦ ਦੇ ਭਾਵ ਤੇ ਰਾਗ ਦੀ ਤਾਸੀਰ" (Shabad De Bhav Te Raag Di Taseer), published by the Chief Khalsa Diwan in 1958 states:
"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
He further states that the very compositions which were sung at the times of the Gurus embody the essence of Gurmat Sangeet.