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

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

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!


Blogger inderpreet singh said...

dear sarabpreet singh
Mr. Sardool Singh plays the Sarod during keertan and he performs for the sangat here in sydney. We are quite lucky to hear it.
there might me more throughout the world who want to preserve this unique heritage of us sikhs through music.
Inderpreet Singh, Sydney

March 29, 2006 at 6:09 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Bhai Sahib I am at a loss for words to praise/describe your dauntless efforts and dedication towards Gurmat Sangeet.

May 18, 2015 at 9:17 PM


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