Shabad kirtan, literally meaning ‘word chant’, is the central communal worship ritual of the Sikhs – a religion based on the realisation of the oneness of God through singing and listening to mystical poetry. Sikh dharma is among the youngest of world religions and was founded by Guru Nanak (born in 1469).
The word shabad relates more to the actual verses in the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy scriptures revered as the living eternal Guru) than to the musical style in which they are performed. There are numerous ways of singing shabads and any number of musical styles can work well as long as the performers have a good feel for the words – the word being God in this case. The shabads have evolved over the past 500 years, absorbing influences from North Indian classical – Dhrupad as well as khayal – and Punjabi folk traditions.
The poetry was initially compiled by the Sikh’s 5th Guru, Arjun Dev, (1563-1606) and consisted of verses from Guru Nanak as well as the poetry of other mystics such as the Muslim Sufi 'Baba' Farid (1173-1266), the mystic-poet Kabir (1440-1518) and numerous Hindu figures including the famous 12th century bard Jayadeva.
The compilation was gradually extended by subsequent gurus – all of whom were poets as well as musicians – adding more verses with a clear indication of the various ragas prescribed for each of the poems. A total of 31 shuddh (pure) ragas and another 30 or so mishra (mixed or composite) ragas, many in common use in North Indian classical music, are contained within the Sikh holy scriptures, making it also a very useful musicological document.
After the 10th and final Guru, Gobind Singh (d.1708), an exceptionally talented poet of Punjabi as well as Farsi, the book of mystical verse itself came to be regarded as the Guru. For this reason, Sikh devotional singers, known as ragis (exponents of raga) perform only in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, whether in a gurdwara (Sikh temple) or a private house. They receive similar training as other classical Indian vocalists and are arranged along similar gharana (school of music/hereditary style) lines as the rest of North Indian vocal music.
If sung correctly, shabad kirtan provides one of the most transformational listening experiences. Unlike qawwali, which often aims for frenzied excitement (although sometimes sharing the same song texts) shabad kirtan has the power to gently lift listeners straight into their innermost souls, resulting in a tremendous feeling of joyful calm.
There are usually two (or three) principal voices and a supporting chorus backed by harmonium, sarangi, or its other older variations like dilruba or saranda, with tabla for percussion. There is no clapping and direct appreciation of the musician is extremely bad form, because this is not a recital or performance to be enjoyed, but a serious ritual to be felt.
Although devotees sway gently to the melody and rhythm, and often know all the words by heart, there is no vocal appreciation of the singers, although devotees can often be heard to mutter, under their breath, 'Wahe Guru Satnam' ('the one and only true God') but this too, is more in direct response to the poetic text rather than to any musical prowess on the part of the singers.
Shabads have been recorded by a huge number of major singers in India, including several pop and film playback singers. Inevitably, there are numerous very good recordings since this music is performed every single day in every gurdwara around the world by musicians of varying skill but some its finest exponents reside at the Darbar Sahaib (Golden Temple) of Amritsar.
Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.
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