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Kirtan: Singing to the Divine

The musical tradition of the Sikhs.


Published: 11 Apr 2018

Time taken : >15mins

Whosoever listens to kirtan or sings kirtan of Hari shall be free of all ills.

– Guru Granth Shahib

In Sikh tradition, no ceremony, occasion or event is complete without the singing of kirtan, which is a devotional hymn in praise of God. A recognised form of congregational prayer, it has, according to the scriptures, the ability to cleanse the mind of all impurities physical and sensual; liberate one from the yoke of time and death; cast away disease, sorrow and suffering; and bring peace and bliss.

Understanding the Sikh religion

One of the youngest religions established just a little more than five centuries ago, Sikhism is the ninth largest in the world. Despite that, it is also one of the least understood. While some mistake it as an offshoot of Hinduism or Islam, devotees regard it as an independent religion.

Sikhism is rooted in oneness and love, and encourages a life of servitude and spirituality. In Punjabi, the word “sikh” means “disciple”, and central to the faith is the relationship between the Sikh and his master, who guides him through the teachings and writings of the 10 Gurus. The religion stresses the importance of doing good over getting too absorbed in ceremonies and rituals. It is the belief that in leading a good life, one must work hard and live honestly, treat everyone equally, serve others, be generous to the less fortunate, and keep God close in the heart and mind at all times.

Every devotee is required to follow a strict daily routine that includes rising early in the morning, meditation, reciting various scriptures throughout the day, and ending the night with a recitation of the Kirtan Sohila. Sikhs carry around with them five articles of faith: kesh, their long uncut hair; kanga, a small comb; kara, a band of steel; kirpan, a small sword; and kacha, a pair of shorts.

Kirtan Rebab

A performer playing the <em>rabab</em> at <em>A Tapestry of Sacred Music</em>, 2010.

Hymns of praise

Sikhism was founded by 16th century poet and composer Guru Nanak, who wrote much of his teachings and revelations in the form of poems, which he sang with his companion Bhai Mardana, a bard who played the rabab (a type of plucked string instrument).

This established the Sikh tradition of singing divine hymns to musical patterns known as ragas. In the hands of his spiritual successors and devout Sikhs, this musical tradition flourished as a means of spiritual elevation as they created and developed new ragas, styles and musical instruments.

Over time, Guru Nanak's hymns as well as those of his nine successors were compiled into what became the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs regarded as the Eternal Guru. In the book, the hymns of the Gurus are grouped under 31 raags or ragas, modes characterised by a specific series of notes and path melody. Each raga has a name, an associated time of day or year when it is best performed, and a particular emotion which it is to induce.

Known as kirtan, the singing and contemplation of these raga-based hymns from the scripture occur day and night at Harimandir Sahib, the most sacred of Sikh shrines located in Amristar, India, and every morning and evening at every Sikh temple.

Every important occasion in the Sikh household, including birth, marriage and death, is solemnised with the kirtan. Pairing call-and-response chanting with musical accompaniment, kirtan has devotional lyrics and a gentle, rhythmic ebb and flow that help Sikhs centre their thoughts, meditate with a clear mind and establish a connection with their god.

Sikh musical instruments to know

1. Rabab

The first instrument is a plucked string instrument played by the companion of the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak. It is dubbed "the shadow of Guru Nanak" because of how it accompanied his singing and followed him on his travels around the world.

2. Saranda

A short-necked bowed string instrument created and played by the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan Dev.

3. Israj

A bowed string instrument which is somewhat similar to, but smaller than, the dilruba.

4. Dilruba

The name is Persian for "heart stealer". This long-necked bowed string instrument has four main strings and approximately 16 reverb strings that vibrate when the main strings are played, creating harp-like sounds. It was created and played by the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

5. Taus

Played with a bow, this instrument is designed and shaped like a peacock, which is what its name means in Persian. In India, it is also known as the mayuri—"mayur" meaning "peacock" in Hindi.

Adapted from content first published in the programme booklets for A Tapestry of Sacred Music in 2010 and 2016.

Contributed by:

Lim Liting

Lim Liting is a freelance writer.

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