Legendary Figures: The Sikh Gurus, sanctifying North Indian classical music

Category Legendary figures 11 May 2019



The Sikh Gurus have contributed an enduring legacy to Indian classical, based around singing the Sikh scriptures - a genre known as shabad kirtan (literally ‘word-song’). Shabad-kirtan is the main communal worship ritual of the Sikhs, members of the one of the world’s youngest religions, founded in the late 15th century by Guru Nanak, himself a mystic-poet who was constantly in the company of classical musicians. He was succeeded by ten more gurus, all of whom were poets as well as musicians, hence sustaining the distinct genre.

The Sikh’s holy scriptures, known as the Guru Granth Sahib (sometimes referred to as the Adi Granth) are an anthology of prayers, poetry and hymns - many verses containing the actual sayings of the Sikh Gurus – contained in 1,430 pages and featuring 5,864 verses. The verses are collectively known as bani, shortened from its full form Gurbani meaning ‘utterances of the Gurus.’ It is the world’s first scripture which contains and sanctifies verses from numerous mystics and poets of different religions, communities, ethnicities and social classes from different periods in history.

It included Kabir (a weaver), Surdas (a blind poet associated with the Bhakti devotional movement) and Baba Farid (an 11th century Sufi master who is also considered the first poet of the Punjabi language and whose poetry has been revered and immortalised only within the Sikh religious tradition).

Singing, and listening to the scriptures being sung, represents a musical expression of mystical poetry. The method makes it easier to learn and memorise the verses, particularly in the (then) non-literate and largely agrarian Punjab society.

The Guru Granth Sahib is also a unique scripture in that it serves as both a poetic as well as musicological document, helping music historians to accurately date certain raags (melodic structures) or, at any rate, to narrow down the ones which were most prevalent in the 16th and 17th centuries as well as those that are specifically of Sikh origin.

There are a total of thirty-one raags named in the Guru Granth Sahib with an additional thirty-two composite or mixed raags – the latter unique to the Sikh musical tradition. The verses carry specific instructions for the raags – and often also the taal (rhythmic cycles) to which they must be sung. The rasa (emotional content of a raag) was a paramount consideration. All the Sikh gurus appear to be very well-versed at ascribing particular raags to enhance a specific emotion contained in the verses.

There were a total of ten Sikh gurus, Guru Nanak having been the first, until the book of mystical verse itself was declared the Guru. All the Sikh gurus regularly sang the verses, accompanied by melodic and percussion instruments, in all the North Indian classical styles that were dominant at the time, as well as drawing from Punjabi folk music. An accurate expression of the text was paramount, with music confined to a secondary or supporting role.

Even so, musical instruments played an important role with the gurus introducing some important – and now very rare – antiquated ones including, the taus (the Farsi word for ‘peacock,’ which the instrument resembles), with a deep, mellow sound. But it gradually fell from favour owing to its weight and lack of portability, evolving into the smaller, lighter, dilruba (named after a Persian word meaning 'stealer of hearts') - sort of cross between sitar and sarangi, played with a bow.

A predecessor of the sarangi and very similar in design, the saranda is said to have been the predominant instrument for melodic accompaniment in the time of the 5th Sikh Guru, Arjan Dev (1563-1606) - the anthologist of the original Guru Granth Sahib.

With the advent of film music and its enormous popularity in the 20th century, some Sikh devotional singers, known as raagi ('exponents of raag') began singing the scriptures to popular film-song tunes (ironically, many of which were inspired by Punjabi folk in the first place). This led to a concerted effort by other musicians and musical activists to restore what they call Gurmat Sangeet, the traditional classicism of the old days.

All through the 20th century, there have been intermittent attempts to include non-indigenous instruments or to create more modern orchestras for the accompaniment of shabad kirtan, but most of these attempts have not succeeded, with both singers as well as listeners preferring the original classical format.


• Listen to the music | Bhai Baldeep Singh, a 13th-generation musician, gave up a career in aviation to perform Gurbani Kirtan. Recorded live at Darbar Festival 2006:


• Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia


—Also see Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music, our new series exploring how music with ancient roots continues to innovate in a fast-paced, interconnected modern world. Expand your appreciation!


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