History of Gurmat Sangeet Kirtan

Kirtan and singing the praises of Waheguru (god) is one of the central tenets of the Sikh faith. Singing is evoked in many passages of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, the Sikh holy book and holds the utmost importance because singing the shabad of the guru is the ultimate experience of divinity, and contemplation of the divine.

The Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji is a compilation of shabads (hyms) written by the Sikh gurus and hindu and muslim saints. These shabads all have emotional resonance, they are discourses with Waheguru and the world, contemplating, questioning and answering the nature of the world, and life, our minds, our ego and the divine.

Image: GSA Jatha playing Kirtan in Raag

Raag underpins the structure of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, shabads and the performance of kirtan

Raag underpins the structure of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, shabads and the performance of kirtan. Raag has many meanings, mood, emotion, being coloured, being affected to feel a certain emotion. [read more] Technically a raag, is a sequence of pitches played in a particular pattern, with each pattern is designed to evoke an emotion.

Each raag has a distinct set of rules of how to build a melody, specifying scale, ascending the scale (arohi), descending the scale (avrohi), the svars that are the most prominent (vadi), the notes that are used sparingly, ornamentation of notes, bending notes, phrases to be used and avoided. Rules for improvisation to maintain the distinct emotional resonance of the raag.

Just as an artist will intentionally select brushstroke technique, colour palette, and composition to evoke a mood or tell a story, the composers of raag were trying to paint a picture through the raag-specific composition of shabads. People don’t always need technical knowledge to be moved by painting, to experience the mood, and thus it is so with raag.

The Instruments of Gurmat Sangeet

In the darbar of Guru Gobind Singh Ji in the mid-18th century there were most likely multiple instruments, including other stringed instruments such as the taus, dilruba, tarshenai, and the drum instruments that provide the taal (beat) jori and pakhawaj.

The instruments we played and the sound they created have changed considerably. The vaaja is now the most popular instrument for kirtan. Go to any gurudwara or kirtan darbar, these spaces and practices are dominated by the vaaja. It seems inseparable from the Sikh musical experience. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, the kirtan experience was considerably different. Up until the early twentieth century, kirtanis performed kirtan on stringed instruments and adhered to a number of complex traditional musical themes and structures. The vaaja was introduced recently, and in 50 or 60 years its popularity exploded (Lallie, 2016).

Stringed instruments have unique features that enable raag to be performed in its complexity

Image Dilruba Strings

These instruments have unique features that enable raag to be performed in its complexity.[read more] Their sound resembles the human voice and they enable the playing of gamaks (delicately mixing svaras in a raga) and meends (glide from one note to another). These are not possible on a harmonium, thus the richness and excellence of melody is unavailable. The vaaja is not suitable for vocal music, because it cannot reproduce the various delicate shades of vocal music. Stringed instruments are better for the accompaniment of vocal music.

Instruments Taught at GSA