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

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Stopping to smell the roses

Hopkinton, MA
March 30, 2005

It’s a little after 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning in the Milford Gurdwara. It’s early, but there are a handful of people in the Durbar Hall already. I am sitting in my customary spot, whenever we have an accomplished Ragi Jatha visiting the Boston area, my stuff around me, mike in position, MP3 recorder, digital camera. (This dear readers, is the field office of the Gurmat Sangeet Project!)

The singing of the Asa Ki Var has begun; several paudis in Raga Asa have already been sung. The atmosphere is serene. A new Shabad is begun. And then, I feel my ears playing tricks on me. I catch strains of Gunkali. Was that really Prabhati floating past? That sounded like Bhatiyar! And wait wasn’t that Ramkali? The Shabad only lasts a little over five minutes. My mind is in a whirl. Don’t believe me? Here…. Listen for yourself:

This article is really out of sequence! I should be writing about the Basant Kirtan Durbar in Toronto, which was perhaps one of the highlights of this year’s Gurmat Sangeet calendar. I most certainly will because that was indeed an event worth writing about!

For now, let’s go back to Sunday morning.

The rest of the Asa Ki Var is equally mesmerizing. Chhants sung in many Ragas and Talas. Soulful Alaaps. Beautiful shabads. Puratan (ancient) compositions:

The magnificent singing continues. On Monday and Tuesday in the evening, I am playing the Tanpura, enjoying every moment. The Shabad begins in Raga Malkauns. It morphs into Multani, Hamir, Bageshri, Durga, Jaijawanti and many other Ragas of the night. Seamlessly. Elegantly.

Gurmat Sangeet is a ‘Shabad Pardhan’ tradition in which the text is clearly and unequivocally the most important aspect of the music. Gurmat Sangeet is definitely not about the display of musical virtuosity. There is really not much of a place in Gurmat Sangeet for extensive Alaaps, Tankari and other pyrotechnics.

However, sometimes, it’s really nice to stop and smell the roses!

Whenever I hear Bhai Gurmeet Singh Shant in full flow, my heart swells with pride. It is wonderful to see a Guru Ka Kirtaniya who is so ‘Tayyar’. Clearly, someone who has spent his life perfecting his command over Raga and Tala. Every crystal clear note attests to years and years of rigorous Riyaz. Watching him sing, it is very obvious that this is more than a profession. It is love. It is passion.

I first met Bhai Gurmeet Singh Shant at the Gurdwara Sahib at Bridgewater, New Jersey. It was 1998. The turbulent times at Bridgewater had conspired to drag me back into serving in the management committee. It was my responsibility to organize the weekly Divans and to book Ragi Jathas. I had never heard of Gurmeet Singh Shant until Bhai Harbhajan Singh, who plays Tabla with Bhai Parkash Singh in New Jersey, gave me a scratchy tape. The Kirtan sounded decent, not exceptional. I decided to invite Gurmeet Singh Shant and his Jatha to sing at Bridgewater.

The next six or seven weeks, the Bridgewater Sangat was treated to a feast like they had never experienced before. Accompanied by his brothers, Kuldip Singh on harmonium and Manjit Singh on tabla, Gurmeet Singh Shant spun a magic web of some of the finest singing that I have experienced in the Gurmat Sangeet context. In one particular program, at our home in Neshanic, he sang two memorable shabads, one in Raga Bhairav and the other in Raga Asavari in Rudra Taal. Seven years have passed but I can hear each note clearly in my head to this day!

If Bridgewater was a feast, Boston mostly has been famine! The Sangat is small and we are unable to attract many ‘popular’ Ragis. Over the years I have had the pleasure of listening to Bhai Sahib Avtar Singh Ji, Bhai Dilbagh Singh Gulbagh Singh, Bhai Surjit Singh, Bhai Kanwarpal Singh and a few other stalwarts in Boston, mostly for very short durations.

The last few days however, we have been feasting again. Bhai Gurmeet Singh is here and it feels like those magical weeks in Bridgewater in the summer of ’98 again! An even more improved Manjit Singh is on the tabla. Kuldip Singh has settled down in the UK. Vocal accompaniment is being provided by the young Manjit Singh, older son of Bhai Amarjit Singh of North Carolina. (I first met this young man’s father in 1994, when he visited Bridgewater as part of Bhai Gurmej Singh’s Jatha; there is a poignant story that goes with that visit which I will share another time)

Manjit Singh is a very talented, if slightly diffident young fellow. His talent is obvious in the clean Alaaps that you can hear him sing, while accompanying Bhai Gurmeet Singh Shant. It is truly heartwarming to see Gurmeet Singh mentoring this young man and helping him grow. This is very atypical behavior! Traditionally, Ragis have been very secretive about and protective of their art. After all it is linked to their livelihood! Instruction, in the vaunted Guru-Sishya tradition is often reserved for students related closely by blood. The fact that Gurmeet Singh is willing to share his art so generously speaks to his maturity, confidence and dedication as a Kirtaniya.

During most small Divans, I sit behind the Jatha and exercise my newly developed Tanpura playing skills. The first time, last Sunday, in hindsight, I attacked the Tanpura with more gusto than skill, approaching it more like a jazzman playing his Bass ! The net result was that the poor instrument was hopelessly out of tune by the end of the Divan! The next day Bhai Sahib taught me how to caress the strings to produce a rich, vibrant sound and keep the instrument from going out of tune.
Manjit Singh, Gurmeet Singh Shant, Manjit Singh March 28,2005

Late in the evening after most of the Sangat has left, we hang out and chat. Gurmeet Singh Shant regales us with anecdotes from a childhood and adolescence spent in the company of legendary Ragis such as Gyan Singh Ji ‘Almast’, Bhai Bakshish Singh Ji, Bhai Devinder Singh Ji Gurdaspurwale and the redoubtable Bhai Balbir Singh Ji. We also hear apocryphal stories about Bhagwan Ji Kinnar (Gyani Harnam Singh Ji Kinnar), who taught Bhai Kishan Singh Ji Shant, Gurmeet Singh’s father. Invariably the stories are about the conjuring up of rain-clouds in the heat of summer by a particularly well executed Miyan Ki Malhar or white sheets changing color to Saffron under the onslaught of Bhagwan Ji’s Basant !

In the seven years that have passed since our first meeting at Bridgewater, I have had a few other unexpected meetings with Gurmeet Singh Shant. Towards the end of last year, on a whim, hearing that he was in the New York area, I invited him to Boston, where he participated in a couple of memorable Kirtan programs. In 1999 on a hurried trip to Darbar Sahib I chanced upon him, singing outside the Akal Takhat Sahib. We could barely exchange a Fateh ! as he was singing and I was in a rush. Another wintry day, a couple of years ago, I chanced upon him at the Harballabh music festival in Jalandhar, where we sat and listened to a dazzling young Kaushiki Chakraborty and other Hindustani musicans.

Over the years, we have developed a bond. I am greatly inspired by Bhai Gurmit Singh Shant. I often learn his compositions and teach them to my children. Every time his Kirtan moves me, I lavish heartfelt praise upon him. I know I will sound vain, saying this, but sometimes the artist is inspired by his audience as well ! When appreciation is genuine, nuanced and appropriate, it has a tangible impact on the performer and enables him to ascend to new heights.

The roses, at that point, smell particularly sweet.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A Journey

March 9, 2005

Last Saturday all of us piled into a car and drove down to New Jersey to attend a wedding reception. The wedding reception was like all other wedding receptions; that is not what this post is about. My first instinct was to head back early the next morning so that we could be back at the Boston Gurdwara for Sunday school classes.

However, that was not to be. This was the first time that we were returning to New Jersey after we moved to Boston in 1999. We decided to attend the Sunday Diwan at the Bridgewater Gurdwara and catch up with the New Jersey Sangat after our long absence. The organizers were kind enough to allow us some time for Kirtan Seva in the Diwan and we got to Bridgewater at 11:30 a.m. just as Bhai Parkash Singh Ji and his Jatha were starting the morning’s Kirtan Program.

We were a newlywed couple when we first started going to Bridgewater in 1991. At first we were not very regular visitors to the Gurdwara. Slowly we started getting to know some of the Sangat, particularly people close to our age. Some of the first friends I remember making were Inderpal Singh and Gurparkash Singh, both of whom inspired me to begin working with children in the Sunday School program, what was being run by Mrs. Surinder Kaur Puar and Mrs. Veronica Sidhu.

We also met several other Gursikhs who influenced us in profound ways. Gurmat Sangeet is undoubtedly one of the most important things in my life today and has been for many years. The years in Bridgewater played a very significant role in my learning and growth in the context of Gurmat Sangeet.

One of the people who inspired me greatly was S.Hardev Singh Sahota. A Sehajdhari Sikh, he poured great effort into the study of Gurmat Sangeet. He was an absolute and ardent admirer of Gyani Dyal Singh Ji and Bhai Dharm Singh Zakhmi Ji, who I will easily count among my key influences as well! Hardev Singh Ji painstakingly studied Gyani Dyal Singh Ji’s books and spent a lot of time teaching his two young children, who developed in to fine Kirtaniyas. The children are all grown up now and I have lost touch with them; the last I had heard they had got into top notch universities and were doing very well. May the gift of Gurmat Sangeet that their father gave them always stay with them. All those who enjoy Bhai Dharm Singh Zakhmi’s Kirtan on the http://www.gurmatsangeetproject/ website have S.Hardev Singh Ji to thank as he was the one who gifted to me a set of 30+ ninety minute tapes of Kirtan by Dharam Singh Zakhmi Ji’s Jatha.

As I talk about my journey into Gurmat Sangeet, I would be remiss in not mentioning several other individuals. S. Harjap Singh Aujla, a connoisseur of Gurmat Sangeet was always a significant figure in Bridgewater. Whenever a particularly good Ragi Jatha would visit Bridgewater, Aujla Sahib could be found sitting by the Jatha, endlessly tweaking the positioning and recording levels of the mics and very visibly having a whale of a time listening to the Kirtan. In the years I spent at Bridgewater, growing up in many profound ways, Aujla Sahib was one of the individuals who always provided me with a lot of affection, support and encouragement.

S.Manjit Singh Ji and S.Manjit Singh Deeoray Ji also deserve special mention. They have always been uncompromising in their standards where Gurmat Sangeet was concerned. They would never hesitate to confront Ragi Jathas who blatantly plagiarized film tunes and used them for Kirtan and keep a constant pressure on successive management committees to invite only the best Kirtaniyas to Bridgewater.

I have to mention my good friend Dr.Gurparkash Singh Ji, who I admire for many different reasons including his uncompromising steadfastness. When Bhai Prakash Singh and his Jatha visited Bridgewater in the mid 90s, Gurparkash Singh immediately realized the tremendous value that they could add by instructing children in Gurmat Sangeet. Without much support from the managing committee, but with the support of parents and a small portion of the Sangat, he instituted a Gurmat Sangeet teaching program, funded in part by the parents of the children who were interested in learning. The net result is that 7-8 years later a large group of young men and women in New Jersey have developed into fine Kirtaniyas, comparable to fine Ragis in their musical sophistication, in their ability to sing Dhrupads, Partaals and Guldastas.

My friend Dr.Inderpal Singh, who several years ago moved to Dallas, I remember for similar reasons, including the principled stands he took on many different issues. Recognizing in me a fellow lover of Gurmat Sangeet, I remember Inderpal painstakingly recording literally hundreds of hours of Kirtan for me, cassette by cassette and then patiently writing down each shabad and the page it appeared in, in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the Amrit Kirtan Pothi on the jacket of each cassette.

As my interest in Gurmat Sangeet and its study deepened, all of these individuals encouraged me to get more involved in managing the Gurdwara, which I did, with some trepidation. Despite the somewhat turbulent times that the Gurdwara went through in the late 90s (in fact in 1998, I was brought in playing the role of peacemaker) it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I was constantly humbled by the tremendous love and support that I got from the Sangat at large and the individuals I have mentioned above.

During those years at Bridgewater, with the grace of the Guru there were several positive things that happened, relating to Gurmat Sangeet. We had several memorable Kirtan Durbars graced by the finest Kirtaniyas in the Panth, such as Bhai Avtar Singh Ji, Gyani Dyal Singh Ji, Bhai Gian Singh Jogi, Bhai Gurmej Singh, Bhai Gurmel Singh, Bhai Surjit Singh, Bhai Chhatter Singh, Bhai Dilbagh Singh Gulbagh Singh, Bhai Sarbjit Singh Rangila, Bhai Sant Singh, Bhai Ajit Singh Alankari, S. Pargat Singh Ji Matharu, Bhai Surjit Singh (Amritsar), Bhai Nirmal Singh, Bhai Gurmit Singh Shant, Bhai Kanwarpal Singh and numerous others. In fact a lot of the recordings on the site were made during this period.

Bridgewater slowly acquired the reputation of a Gurdwara, where the ‘Shrot’ of the Sangat was very much aligned with Gurmat Sangeet as opposed to the normal film and popular music inspired fare that most Ragis dish out today, masquerading as Gurbani Kirtan. In several Kirtan Durbars, Ragis vied with each other to present Dhrupads, Dhamars, Partaals, Guldastas and Puratam Reets, knowing that the Sangat would appreciate their hard work and their efforts to preserve the noble traditions of Gurmat Sangeet.

So as I stepped into the Bridgewater Gurdwara last Sunday, you can perhaps imagine the wellspring of emotions in my heart. It felt like a homecoming! Within a few seconds of entering the Gurdwara, I was crushed by the weight of the debt that I owed this Guru Ghar and this Sangat.

It was uplifting to see the familiar smiling faces that reflected heartfelt joy at our return as they welcomed us. The dignified and scholarly Gyani Bachitter Singh Ji, the truly Nimaana Sevadar Kehar Singh, the young Tabla player Binod Singh and the wonderful Bhai Parkash Singh and Harbhajan Singh.

All of a sudden, it was as if we had never left. The Kirtan, as always was magnificent! Bhai Parkash Singh started out with a beautiful Shabad in Bilaskhani Todi followed by a Shabad in Basant Hindol. At the end the Jatha sang a beautiful shabad in Raga Basant Bahar.

Bhai Parkash Singh and his Jatha

The Kirtan from the Sunday Program on March 6 can be heard at:

A particularly emotional moment for both me and my wife was when our ten year old daughter, Mehr, got up to sing a shabad in Raga Basant. We could remember the day when we first brought our newborn to Bridgewater to receive the Guru’s blessing. And here she was, singing a shabad in that very Guru Ghar, ten years later. The warmth, appreciation and the blessings the Sangat poured upon her were humbling. In particular, I was moved by the reaction of Bhai Harbhajan Singh, who played Table when she was singing.

Mehr Kaur, accompanied by Harbhajan Singh

Dear Readers, until now I have never put any of my own shabads on the Gurmat Sangeet website for two reasons; I thought it presumptuous and I deemed my singing unworthy. While none of that has changed, I felt impelled to include the shabad I sang on Sunday at Bridgewater, on the page referenced above. Please accept it as a personal tribute to a place I still call Home.

A tribute to Bridgewater and its Sangat, accompanied by Harbhajan Singh

With my good friend Dr.Gurparkash Singh

Gurmat Sangeet and Stringed Instruments (Tanti Saaz)

30,000 feet above the Atlantic
March 3, 2005

At the risk of appearing self indulgent, I do feel the need to explain my radio silence for more than a month. (The last post announcing the Gurmat Sangeet Durbar in Toronto really doesn’t count!) Even though I generally have no clue if anyone reads the Gurmat Sangeet Blog (hint hint Gentle Reader! it would be nice to know that you are out there!), I have had a couple of polite – ‘Bade Dinan Ton Kuch Post Nahin Kita’s.

From the fact that being trapped in a metal capsule with hours of leisure at my disposal is what it took to get this post out, you might naturally assume that I have been very busy. Perhaps spending hours adding new content to the website? Or maybe dedicating myself to Riyaz (practice) or teaching? Perhaps burning the midnight oil in service to the company that helps keep body and soul together? Alas no! While all of these would usually be plausible explanations, this time I have to confess that I had surrendered to the guilty pleasures of watching the first season of the TV series ‘24’. I would definitely not recommend it to those of you who value your time. To the rest, it’s really entertaining and I am thinking hard about how to pre-empt a creative drought when I get my hands on the second season, which apparently is even better than the first!

Well! Now that the confession of my foibles is out of the way, let’s talk about Gurmat Sangeet and Tanti Saaz or string instruments.

The only instrument that most of us have been exposed to, in the context of Gurmat Sangeet, is the harmonium. It will come as a great surprise to many of you that the ubiquitous harmonium is actually a European instrument, derived from the accordion and introduced into Gurmat Sangeet and indeed into Indian classical music, roughly about a century ago!

There are many things to be said about the harmonium, both positive and negative. The harmonium undoubtedly is an extremely easy instrument to master. This has made music and Gurmat Sangeet very accessible to the Sangat at large. It has helped de-mystify music and has enabled many aspiring kirtaniyas by greatly flattening the learning curve, which on string instruments is incredibly steep.

But there is a flip side to the de-mystification as well! When string instruments ruled the world of Gurmat Sangeet, music was a rigorous discipline that required dedication and years of study. Ragis and Rababis literally dedicated their lives to the study of music. This resulted in the traditions of Gurmat Sangeet being faithfully preserved, generation to generation, in the hands of a few dedicated individuals who dedicated themselves completely to the art.

The advent of the harmonium, suddenly enabled numerous individuals to learn the basics of music and quickly establish themselves as ‘Ragis’ despite the fact that they often lacked the discipline and commitment required for the study of Gurmat Sangeet. The proliferation of cheap radios and later cassette players provided a huge body of popular music for this new generation of Ragis to imitate. The grandeur of Gurmat Sangeet slowly began to give way to a cheapened, film and popular music inspired style of Kirtan, which slowly and insidiously almost became the norm in the Sikh world.

Perhaps it behooves us to ponder the practice of Gurmat Sangeet before the advent of the harmonium. What instruments were used in the times of the Gurus? How did the practice of Gurmat Sangeet evolve from the fifteenth century to the twentieth?

Most of us carry in our heads, images of Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji accompanied by Bhai Mardana, traveling the world, conducting sat sang, singing his Bani while Bhai Mardana played the Rabab.

Bhai Gurads Ji’s words reinforce this picture:

Gang Banaras Hindua, Mussalman Mecca Kabba
Ghar Ghar Baba Gaviye, Vajjan Taal Mridang Rababa

We clearly learn that accompaniment to Gurmat Sangeet was provided by the Mridang (also called the Pakhawaj), a percussive instrument believed to be the precursor to the Tabla, and the Rabab, a string instrument (a Tanti Saaz). The very word Rababi, which came to describe the descendents of Bhai Mardana and the keepers of the traditions of Gurmat Sangeet, literally means – one who plays the Rabab.

As a side-note, the Rabab, despite a few attempts to revive it, is largely extinct in the Gurmat Sangeet context. One of its descendants, the Sarod is alive and well, in the world of Hindustani Classical Music, popularized by masters such as Ali Akbar Khan and Buddhadeb Dasgupta. I have never come across a Kirtani Jatha that uses the Sarod, though Gurdev Singh, a Namdhari, is adept at playing the instrument. Many years ago at a Kirtan Durbar organized by IIGS in California, I remember Bhai Sohan Singh Rasia; wistfully talk about the demise of the Rabab, an attempting to capture its ethos, in part at least by playing the mandolin. Bhai Sarbjit Singh Rangila, a fine contemporary kirtaniya also uses the Mandolin for accompaniment as did Bhai Parkash Singh, until Shivcharan Singh left his Jatha.

But I digress.

It is said that Guru Amardas Ji invented a new instrument called the Sarinda for use in Gurmat Sangeet. This instrument too, sadly is extinct. Gyani Dyal Singh Ji, used to play the Sarinda but there are not any Sarinda players today that I know of. The Sarinda is a string instrument, which is played with a bow, somewhat similar to the Sarangi. The Sarangi is a beautiful, melodious instrument, particularly suitable for vocal accompaniment. One might then wonder –why did Guru Sahib feel the need to invent a new instrument, the Sarinda?

I have heard some speculate that the Sarangi was considered a ‘low class’ instrument, often used in mehfils frequented by admirers of women of ill repute! This would render it unsuitable for use in Gurmat Sangeet. This argument however does not hold water; by its logical extension the Tabla and the Harmonium would have to be banned as well! The best answer I could find came again from the redoubtable Gyani Dyal Singh Ji.

Gyaniji is fond of recounting an incident that occurred during one of his visits to the Harballabh music festival in Jalandhar. The Harballabh music festival is organized every year in late December at the Devi Talao Mandir in Jalandhar. This event has been in existence for more than a hundred and fifty years, is completely free and attracts some of the greatest Classical musicians in the land. (More on my visit to Harballabh in a separate post!)

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, arguably one of the greatest living Hindustani Classical vocalists was singing at Harballabh in full flow. The audience was in rhapsody. Panditji was accompanied by an extremely adept Sarangiya, whose name Gyaniji unfortunately did not remember. So beautiful was the Sarangiya’s playing that soon, he eclipsed the great Pandit and started eliciting greater applause from the audience!

Gurmat Sangeet is undoubtedly an art form, but one which is Bani-Pardhan rather than Sangeet-Pardhan. The music should never overpower the message! The Sarangi, being a beautiful, sonorous instrument, capable of mimicking the human voice and its graces such as Gamak (attacking or rapidly repeating a note using its neighboring upper or lower note) and Meend (sliding from one note to another) faithfully, can easily overwhelm the singer! Hence it is not suitable for accompanying Gurmat Sangeet. The Sarinda in a certain sense is limited in its capability and thus cannot overwhelm the Kirtaniya.

Over time other string instruments were introduced into Gurmat Sangeet. The Dilruba, also known as the Esraj became quite common. To this day there are Jathas that use the Dilruba for accompaniment. Examples can be found on the following pages:

Here is a picture of Bhai Pal Singh, playing the Dilruba.

Later other string instruments such as the Taus were introduced. I have heard claims that Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji played the Taus and in fact was credited with inventing it! I have never been able to substantiate these, particularly the latter and would love to hear other views and opinions. The Taus in Gurmat Sangeet is also largely extinct. The one player I do know of is Ranvir Singh, a Namdhari.

A picture of Ranvir Singh, playing the Taus

So what is the big deal about String instruments vs. the Harmonium anyway?

To understand this, we need to get theoretical for a couple of minutes. The Harmonium is built around the Western Musical scale, which is evenly tempered. This means that the scale is divided into notes with equal intervals between successive notes. These divisions yield the twelve notes in an Octave that we are familiar with on the Harmonium. The basic scale of Hindustani music is similar to the western 12-note scale. The main difference is that the Hindustani scale is not evenly tempered. Thus, the intervals between consecutive notes are not equal. Indeed, they can be varied slightly to suit the particular raga that is being performed. The same note, in different ragas, may have slightly differing positions.

While this subtlety can be reproduced on a string instrument, it is impossible to do so on the Harmonium. As an example, the Komal or Flat Ga, that is used in Todi is flatter than the Komal Ga that a Harmonium can produce. Thus it is impossible to recreate Todi perfectly on the Harmonium, as there is no key that corresponds to ‘Very Komal Ga’!

What then is an aspiring Kirtaniya to do? Should the harmonium be avoided completely? Should we all plunge whole-heartedly into the study of Stringed instruments and never touch a Harmonium again?

While there a quixotic part of my brain which says YES, pragmatism has to prevail. By all means we should study Stringed instruments, but it would be insane to give up the access and de-mystification that the Harmonium provides in a quest for musical purity. In fact it could be argued that the imperfections of the Harmonium, such as the inability to reproduce a Meend make it particularly suitable as an instrument to accompany our Bani-Pardhan genre of music!

Playing Stringed instruments is incredibly hard. A couple of years ago, I enthusiastically brought back a Dilruba from India. It sits in a corner, gathering dust, partly because of the lack of a teacher, partly because of the tremendously steep learning curve. I would like to suggest that Kirtaniyas make some attempt to master a stringed instrument. In the very least it behooves us all to get comfortable with a Tanpura.

So what is a Tanpura?

A Tanpura is a drone instrument. It resembles a sitar except it has no frets. It has four strings and is known for its very rich sound. It typically is between 3 to 5 feet in length. It is characterized by a pear shaped, well rounded resonator face and a non-tapering neck. It usually has a resonator made of a gourd. The drone is an essential part of traditional Indian music and Gurmat Sangeet as well. The function of the drone is to provide a firm harmonic base for the music. A Tanpura usually has four strings; the middle two are tuned to the Sa, the third string may be tuned to the low or high Sa and the fourth is usually tuned to the Pa.

Old time Ragis and Rababis would always sing, accompanied by a Tanpura; today the Tanpura has all but vanished from Gurmat Sangeet. Tuning a Tanpura is not a task for the faint of heart! It is an art more than a science and requires a tremendous amount of patience. In the case of a Tanpura, however, technology does come to our rescue; for around a hundred dollars, one can buy an electronic version which does not have to be tuned and acts as a reasonable substitute for the real thing!

‘Playing’ with a Tanpura and learning to tune it, while frustrating is also tremendously rewarding. On my last trip to India in January, I picked up a real Tanpura. (I have had an electronic Tanpura for years and use it regularly). My Ustad, Shri Warren Senders, was kind enough to introduce me to the intricacies of tuning one. I have spent hours messing with my Tanpura, trying to tune it. The rich sound of a Tanpura has to experienced to be believed! Singing with one is a joy that I cannot really describe. I do not know if my Tanpura is tuned correctly! Often times, even to my relatively unsophisticated ears, my Pa sounds a little flat. However I manfully press on, close my eyes and sing. Flat Pa notwithstanding, for one brief moment, I am transported and feel like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan!

So, to all you Kirtaniyas out there! Don’t burn your Harmoniums just yet, but do try to find a Tanpura! And if you are really fortunate you will find someone willing to teach you how to play the Dilruba. Then we would be talking about a real Renaissance!