Musings on Gurmat Sangeet, or Gurbani Kirtan, Sikh Sacred Music

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The documenting of an oral tradition

Hopkinton, February 1, 2005

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

Gratitude To The Unknown Instructors by William Butler Yeats

[This article is dedicated to those nameless Guru Ke Kirtaniye who faithfully preserved the Gurmat Sangeet Tradition through the centuries of tumult that the Sikh Panth lived through]

Over the years, as my interest in Gurmat Sangeet developed and grew deeper, I often found myself wondering – what was the singing of Gurbani like a hundred years ago ? Two hundred years ago ? In the times of the Gurus ?

These kinds of questions are incredibly hard to answer, for several reasons. The conveniences that we take for granted, such as the ability to record music are after all less than a century old ! While we are fortunate in having the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, which is unequivocally the word of the Guru, there is no comparable, unequivocal, authoritative source of musical knowledge that defines or illustrates Gurmat Sangeet in its pristine form.

The problem is compounded by a couple of other factors. Our sacred music, and indeed the larger body of Classical music from the Indian subcontinent, has over the centuries, been transmitted through an oral, rather than a written tradition. Western Classical music, in contrast has benefited from a long written tradition that has provided the tools for the precise documentation of its nuances, which have guaranteed its preservation.

Further, as we are all aware, the Panth was in a constant state of turmoil after the passing of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji in the early eighteenth century. Our focus was on preserving our very existence, rather than thoughtfully documenting our musical traditions and preserving them for posterity ! The net result was that the preservation and transmission of the Gurmat Sangeet was left to the Rababis and Kirtaniyas who survived. The method was one on one instruction, typically father to son. The tradition was completely oral.

You will be surprised to learn that the first viable notational systems for the documentation of Hindustani Classical music are no more than a century old ! Both Hindustani Classical music and Gurmat Sangeet, of course, are much older ! Two visionary scholars and musicians, Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande and Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, were responsible for building these systems of musical notation. Bhatkande’s system, simpler and arguably more intuitive survived and thrived. As an aside, the story of Bhatkande’s tribulations, over a lifetime of hard work and hustling to extract and document pristine compositions from the un-cooperative guardians of an ancient oral tradition, is absolutely fascinating, and well worth digging into !

In case you are wondering Gentle Reader, what the doings of two Pandits who lived a Century ago, could possibly have to do with Gurmat Sangeet, hang in there! There is a point to all this.

Let us go back to the problem of understanding and recreating Gurmat Sangeet in its pristine form. The famous Sikh philosopher and savant, Bhai Vir Singh Ji emphasizes the importance of ancient compositions or ‘Dharnavan’ in an essay titled Shabad De Bhav Te Raag Di Taseer, which appeared in Gurmat Sangeet Par Hun Tak Mili Khoj, a seminal work on Gurmat Sangeet published by the Chief Khalsa Diwan in 1958 . An excerpt from the essay :

"Guru Arjan paid particular attention to the tunes in which Shabads were sung; 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 Ji goes on to state that when Guru Arjan started the tradition of Ragis singing Gurmat Sangeet, he instructed them in this unique way of singing to ensure that Gurmat Sangeet would always be aligned with the Gurbani that it served as a vehicle. The specific Raga based tunes that have been prevalent since the time of Guru Arjan essentially embody the essence of Gurmat Sangeet.

Aha ! A ray of light ! But wait ! Where are these seminal tunes and melodies ? Where is one to find them ? Can we find them on the inexpensive, well produced cassettes by ‘popular’ Ragis that flood the stalls outside major Gurdwaras ? Is there an connection between these seminal melodies and the toe tapping, over instrumented commercial music that masquerades as Gurmat Sangeet today ? (That by the way was a short rant disguised as a rhetorical question !)

The good news is that all is not lost ! The rich oral tradition that was the torch bearer for traditional Gurmat Sangeet in the last three centuries comes to our rescue here. This tradition however was not sufficient to preserve Gurmat Sangeet because it had essentially started to fall apart in the last century, under the onslaught of ‘popular’ or ‘commercial’ Kirtan. The decline was accelerated by the proliferation of inexpensive cassette players and dirt cheap cassettes and a never ending supply of tacky film and popular music influenced melodies, marketed as Gurbani Kirtan or Gurmat Sangeet.

This is where the work of Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande intersects with the oral Gurmat Sangeet tradition, and in fact renders it a great service !

In 1961, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee published two volumes titled Gurbani Sangeet by Gian Singh Ji (Abbotabad). Gian Singh Ji was born in 1897 in Abbotabad, now in Pakistan, into an affluent family. His father, Sardar Bhagwan Singh Ji, was fond of Kirtan and started teaching his young son to sing. By the time he was thirteen, Gian Singh Ji was quite adept at singing Gurbani Kirtan. He would seek out Ragis and Rababis and with their help master the old Gurmat Sangeet melodies that their families had preserved over the years. Gian Singh Ji was an enthusiastic participant in the Gurdwara Reform movement and a member of the early Shiromani Committee.

After the partition of India in 1947, Gian Singh Ji left Abbotabad and came to Delhi, where he quickly re-established himself as a businessman. In Delhi he embarked upon the task of documenting the seminal melodies that he had learned over his lifetime. While Gian Singh Ji had colleted a large repertoire of shabad compositions, he was no musicologist. He engaged the services of a Rababi called Bhai Taba Ji and a young Dilruba player, who used to accompany Bhai Samund Singh Ji and had served at Sri Harmandir Sahib as well. Employing the notational system created by Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, with the help of Bhai Taba ji and the young Dilruba player and musicologist, Gian Singh Ji completed the monumental task of documenting 309 Shabads, that embody the essence of Gurmat Sangeet.

Volume 1 of Gurbani Sangeet contains 192 shabads in 60 Ragas of the Sri Guri Granth Sahib. (Yes indeed, that is not a mistake; the Guru Granth Sahib has more than 31 Ragas, but that is a subject for another article). Volume 2 contains 117 shabads in 59 additional Ragas, which have traditionally been used for Gurmat Sangeet compositions.

The young Dilruba player and musicologist was none other than Gyani Dyal Singh Ji, who runs the Gurmat Vidyalaya at Gurdwara Rakabjanj Sahib. (The first article in this series is about the Gurmat Vidyalaya).

Gian Singh Ji (Abbotabad)

Thus did the task of documenting a rich, centuries old oral tradition, begin. Several other works followed. Among the most notable are the four volume Gurmat Sangeet Sagar by Gyani Dyal Singh Ji and the two volume Gurbani Sangeet Prachin Reet Ratnavali by Bhai Avtar Singh, Bhai Gurcharan Singh Ji. We will discuss these and other excellent works in subsequent articles.

On a very personal note, as a Kirtaniya (albeit, not a particularly good one!), I feel a tremendous debt of gratitude to Sardar Gian Singh Ji (Abbotabad), Gyani Dyal Singh Ji and Bhai Taba Ji. The compositions they so painstakingly documented and preserved, have a quality that is impossible to describe in words. You have to learn them, sing them or hear them to understand what I am talking about ! I get goose bumps just thinking about some of the beautiful Kirtan that is alive today, only because of these books. At this very moment, I am grappling with a glorious Partal in Basant Bahar that I am trying to teach to a couple of my students.

To all of you Kirtaniyas out there: seek out these books ! Learn Pandit Bhatkhande’s system of notation. Start working on some of these fabulous melodies that link us to the pristine Kirtan that our Gurus gave us. Enjoy them and ask Waheguru to bless all of these wonderful souls that have contributed to the preservation of our heritage !


My friend, Sardar Amardeep Singh, currently from Singapore, a Kirtaniya and a Gurmat Sangeet Premi was kind enough to end me this comprehensive list of Books on Gurmat Sangeet. Enjoy ………
  1. Sur Simran Sangeet (7 Volumes) – Sarvan Singh Gandharv - Not readily available. Try Nahal Global Trading on the Net or then Amritsar shops.
  2. Gurbani Sangeet Pracheen Reet Ratnavali (2 Volumes) – Bhai Avtar & Gurcharan Singh
  3. Gurbani Sangeet – Gian Singh (Abbotabad) – Published SGPC
    Sangeet Sagar – Ragi Jaswant Singh Tibar – Publisher Damdami Taksal
  4. Guru Gobind Singh Rag Ratnavali – Prof. Tara Singh – Publisher Amrit Keertan Trust, 422 Sector 15A, Chandigarh
  5. Partal Gaiki – Prof. Tara Singh – You can only get it from his wife Surjit Kaur, 34A, Khalsa College Colony, Patiala Phone 0175-200878)
  6. Guru Angad Dev Rag Ratnavali - Prof. Tara Singh – You can only get it from his wife Surjit Kaur, 34A, Khalsa College Colony, Patiala Phone 0175-200878)
  7. Bhagat Raag Ratnavali - Prof. Tara Singh – You can only get it from his wife Surjit Kaur, 34A, Khalsa College Colony, Patiala Phone 0175-200878)
  8. Sri Guru Granth Sahib Rag Ratnavali – Prof. Tara Singh – Publisher Punjabi University, Patiala
  9. Sangeet Sikhya Gavo Saachi Bani – Raghbir Singh – Publisher Arsi Publishers, Chandni Chowk, New Delhi
  10. Gurmat Sangeet Sagar (4 Volumes) – Principle Dyal Singh
  11. Gurmat Sangeet Sikhya – Principle Dyal Singh
  12. Tabla Mridang Sagar - Principle Dyal Singh
  13. Kirtan Reets of Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh by Kanwar Jit Singh, 139 Vikas Kunj, Vikas Puri, New Delhi
  14. Ishar Sangeet sagar – Ustad Sham Singh – Publisher Chattar Singh Jiwan Singh, Amritsar
  15. Gurmat Sangeet – Charan Singh Ji
  16. Guru Tegh Bahadur Rag Ratnavali – Prof. Tara Singh – Publisher Punjabi University, Patiala
  17. Guru Arjan Dev Rag Ratnavali - Prof. Tara Singh – Publisher Punjabi University, Patiala
  18. Guru Ramdas Rag Ratnavali - Prof. Tara Singh – Publisher Punjabi University, Patiala
    Indian Classical Music – GS Mansukhani
  19. Gyan Bandshavli – Dr. Gurnam Singh – Publisher Punjabi University, Patiala
  20. Vismad Naad (Gurmat Sangeet Vishesh Ank) – Gurudwara Jawadi Taksal, Ludhiana
  21. Swar Samund (Jeevani of Bhai Samund Singh) – Professor Paramjot Singh, Guru Gobind Singh Study Circle, Ludhiana
  22. Sahaj Dhun - Professor Paramjot Singh, Guru Gobind Singh Study Circle
  23. Saral Kirtan Parnali (2 Volumes) – Joginder Singh Saral
  24. Guru Nanak Sangeet Padhati Granth (Gives notations of all the shabads sung in 1991 Aduti Gurmat Sangeet Sammelan at Jawadi Taksal) - Gurudwara Jawadi Taksal, Ludhiana
  25. Hindustani Sangeet Padati (Punjabi) Volume 1 only in Punjabi – Kramik Pustak Malika – Vishnu Narayan Bhathkandey – Published by Amrit Keertan Trust, 422 Sector 15A, Chandigarh
  26. Gurbani Sangeet Darpan – Prof. Kartar Singh – Published by SGPC
  27. Gurmat Sangeet Sagar – Asa Di Vaar Tey Shabad - Principle Dyal Singh
  28. Gurmat Sangeet Prabandh Tey Pasar – dr. Gurnam Singh, Punjabi University, Patiala
  29. Gurmat Sangeet Rag Ratnavali (in HINDI Language) – Dr. Gurnam Singh & Dr. Yashpal Sharma


Blogger Kulbir Singh said...

Dear Sarbpreet Singh Ji,
Thanks for this beautiful article.
Yes, Pandit Bhatkande's notations are also being used by our Kirtan Teachers in Sydney Bhai Gurjit Singh Ji and Bhai Gurdev Singh Ji.
You have raised an interesting point of singing kirtan in Dharnavan as the tradition from Guru's time.
Currently, we have a Kirtan Jatha of Sant Baba Ranjodh Singh Ji from Patiala and they sing Dharnawa. Many Sangat members objected to this saying that it is Katchee Bani.
We also have another visitor from USA, Bhai Manga Singh Ji who also sings Dharnavan and many people say the same thing that Dharnavan's are Katchee Bani.
Can you help me trace the history of these Dharvanas? I am very much interested in this subject.
I salute you and thank you for giving the detailed list of the books. I will try to procure them for the used of our children (Gurmat sangeet students in Sydney).
By the way how do you consider the Kirtan of Devinder Pratap Singh Ji of Niagra Fall? I have several recordings of him singing in traditional and classical ragas. I recorded them on Video tape when he visited Sydney couple of years ago.
Kulbir Singh

February 1, 2005 at 6:07 PM

Blogger Navroop Singh said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

February 24, 2005 at 8:04 AM

Blogger Navroop Singh said...


I’ve been following your Gurmat Sangeet blogs and am very pleased to have found someone interested in the preservation of the traditions of Gurmat Sangeet – please continue!

Thank you very much for the list, most useful, now I’ve got to start hunting – looks like a trip to India is in order!

With regards to old traditional Gurmat Sangeet compositions also see Max Arthur Macauliffe’s magnum opus, “The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors Vol1-6”. In volumes 5 or 6 it contains traditional Raag compositions which were provided by the famous Taus-playing Mahant Gajjar Singh, admired as being the best kirtanee of his time (late 1800s).

These compositions however are shown in Western Classical Music notation and I’m looking for someone to translate it to the Bhatkande notation – if you know anyone who could help, please let me know.

Gajjar Singh also started compiling a book containing all the traditional compositions he had learnt and also a musical composition of own for singing Rehraas Sahib. Unfortunately, he passed away before it’s completion and the work was never continued. Have you heard of this work or know if any of it still exists?


February 24, 2005 at 9:19 AM

Blogger Editor Choice said...

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October 11, 2005 at 6:11 PM

Blogger Bibiji said...

Dear kulbir singh ji
Ur article on Gurmat sangeet was good Ijust want to add a line of infoemation .By Guruji mehar alot is being done on gurmat sangeet. Punjabi uni Patiala has now full fledge deptt. of gurmat sangeet and also Gurmat sangeet chair. a beautiful gurat sangeet bhawan is being constructed .U can contact me for further info.God bless u

March 21, 2007 at 4:33 AM

Blogger Bibiji said...

dear sarabpreet singh ji
wjkk wjkf
a lot is being done on gurmat sangeet in pbi uni patiala . u can always contat me for details. there is very good news for u in this regard. jasbir kaur khalsa

March 21, 2007 at 4:38 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

dear sarbjeet veer g my name is gurpreet iam thankfull to u for ur artiucal on this site.veer g a lots of changes we got in the area of gurmat sangeet after sant baba sucha singh g. i am nothing but u know veer g every buddy wants to use this music foe commercial use .i knoe veer g u get my ponit so plz veer g make an artical against that kaind of people who use this tradition only for money i am very very thank full to you

November 22, 2007 at 10:34 PM

Blogger Raj Sodhi said...

In a seemingly unassuming strip mall in Mississauga, Canada I went with my cousins to "the Gutka Store," where I almost randomly picked out the 2 volume set of Gurbani Sangeet by Gian Singh. Since I do not read Punjabi very well having been brought up in the US, I asked my cousin Gita to help decrypt the notational symbols. Based on the decoder key on the page titled "svar lipian de chinn" we were able to figure out a lot, but there are still some notations that are foreign to me. Is there a page or web resource that lays out all the notations clearly?

One thing I found particularly interesting is how they represent a slide into a note. For example, one might be inclined to hit "re" from "ga", and this is notated by writing "ga" over "re".

thanks for writing this article!



October 1, 2008 at 10:33 PM


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