The Importance of Kirtan in Sikhism

For spiritual elevation and as an aid to communion with God, music plays a special role in almost all the religions of the world. It is intimately related to the heart of man and has little to do with his reasoning mind. The devotee of the music, that is evocative of emotions, thus enjoys intimate communion with God. He becomes one with God as he realises Brahma in nada. It is not, therefore, surprising that the Sikhs attach great importance to music and regard it as one of the means of communion with God. The Sikh Gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, gave music an honoured place in their religion.

Path to enlightenment

The Hindu devotees (of saguna worship) composed lyrics and sang them. These are included in the kirtan. But nowhere do we find an entire religious congregation singing this kirtan as one body. Sikhism established this new tradition. All those present in a congregation are entitled to participate in the kirtan. The absence of congregational kirtan in Hinduism was probably due to its rigid caste system. (The shudras were not allowed to enter the temple precincts, to study Sanskrit and to participate in rituals along with the higher castes).

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, believed that this kind of discrimination was a blot on religion. He also observed that when Muslims offer namaz in a mosque, there is no distinction between a prince and a pauper. Both worship God as equals. In the spiritual sphere, this absence of discrimination inspires self-respect among the humble and the lowly. Guru Nanak’s keen insight enabled him to discern this vital phenomenon and so he placed a ban on such discrimination in religion. Perhaps that was also the reason why he made kirtan congregational in character.

Hindustani music is the common heritage of Indians. Sikhism, inheriting this tradition, evolved a new system of kirtan. The kirtan performed at Kashi, Mathura, Ayodhya and other Hindu places of worship, used to be related to the worship of gods, idols, and the leelas of the incarnations of Vishnu. Tulsi and Surdas (in Uttar Pradesh), Meera (in Rajasthan), Chaitanya (in Bengal), Sankardev (in Assam), Namdev and Tukaram (in Maharashtra), Narsinh Mehta (in Gujarat) and the musician saint Purandara Dasa of the South are among the great singers of this tradition. The devadasis, too, sang in the temples in praise of the saguna form of God. The Sikh Gurus, combining the Gurvani (poetry) and raga, laid the basis for prayer and worship of the nirguna form of God. The kirtan rouses a deep desire for communion with God, and creates the appropriate spiritual atmosphere for realisation of the Supreme.

The significance of the kirtan, for Sikhism, lies in the belief that it alone helps a human to attain Brahma. Kirtan thus occupies an important place in all the rites (samskaras) of Sikhism. After the death of a person, kirtan by the survivors is the only way in which peace is attained by his soul. As Guru Arjan has said: Oh my tongue, do thou sing the glory of the Lord and the Saint! This alone shall lead thee to the Lord’s feet.

Kirtan is music which overflows with devotion for God, and sings his glory. In his Vani, Guru Arjan has called kirtan an invaluable gem that brings peace to the soul in this life and the Supreme State in the next. According to him, in kalyug, kirtan reigns supreme and it is only through it that one is able to attain salvation. Since music mirrors the deep feelings of a man’s heart and ministers to the thoughts of Divine Love, almost all the Sikh Gurus composed religious hymns and instructed Sikhs not to worship any man or the image of any prophet born on earth. They said, “Read these poems, recite them, and sing them and you will attain enlightenment.”

Hence Sikh worship consists chiefly of recitation and singing hymns in praise of God to the accompaniment of various musical instruments. During his travels, Guru Nanak sang these hymns to the accompaniment of the rabab played by Bhai Mardana, his Muslim companion.

Ragas lead the way

The kirtan is thus an integral part of Sikhism. According to the Gurus, singing the glory of the Lord in ragas is kirtan. It is a light that penetrates the hardest heart and renders it fit for love of God. The Guru exhorts the Sikh community thus: As long as there is life, remember the (Lord’s) name through kirtan.

From kirtan is derived the word kirtania, which means the singer of kirtans. The kirtania has received much praise in the Guru Granth. He who performs the kirtan of Gurvani is called a ragi. The ragi has been assigned an important place in the Sikh kirtan, because his duty is to sing kirtans in the ragas. In congregations, it is through raga-singing that the attention of the audience is directed towards God.

According to the Gurus, kirtan and raga are so closely related that they are inseparable. One of the lyrics of the Guru Granth says: The glory of Govinda is to be sung in raga-alap. Here, the raga has been personified as the priceless melody of God. In Sikhism, singing kirtans set to ragas has a special significance. The kirtan must always be in a raga. In actual fact, even a plain chant or a silent study of Gurvani is a path to heaven. But, in congregations, the kirtan must be sung in ragas.

In ancient India, the saints and sages recited the mantras or the Vedas musically, in addition to singing other varieties of devotional songs which existed at the time. In time, as the concept of raga evolved, devotional songs came to be sung in different ragas. Our modern ragas are sung differently from the ancient ragas, but the fact remains that in Hinduism the relation between kirtan and raga is very old.

The support lent to classical music, its subsequent adoption by the Sikhs and the acceptance of the kirtan in ragassignified an important development. It provided an impetus to classical music. The Sikh Gurus made classical music an integral part of the hymns they composed for singing. Had the Sikhs not made classical music a vital part of the kirtan, classical music would possibly have not enjoyed the status it does today, particularly in the Punjab. Guru Nanak used classical music in Gurvani and enhanced its significance. Classical music and poetry were thus revived and also preserved by being introduced in the Gurvani. In a way, they regained the esteem they had lost due to various historical reasons.

The spiritual renaissance, which commenced in the 14th century and lasted till the 16th century, encouraged the bhajan form of worship. Different parts of India produced eminent bhaktas, who enriched Indian sacred music with compositions of outstanding merit. During this period, Guru Nanak did the same for Punjab. With the help of Bhai Mardana, he propagated his Vani set to music, and the tradition was followed by the other Sikh Gurus. In time, this particular form of Sikh devotional music came to be known as Shabad Kirtan.

During his travels throughout India, Guru Nanak observed the different ways in which kirtan was performed by the followers of various sects. Perhaps he was impressed by the form and absorbed some of its positive features. Kirtan used to be performed at the time in the temples of Kashi, Ayodhya, Mathura and Vrindavan by traditional musicians (kirtankars). They used to set the devotional compositions of Vaishnava bhaktas to the prevalent dhrupad and dhamarstyles of Hindustani music.

Guru Nanak visited almost all these holy places and closely studied different forms of music. With the help of his rababi minstrel, he may have set his own compositions in the dhrupad and dhamar styles as well as in the simple kirtan style. After Guru Nanak, the same tradition was followed by the various Sikh Gurus. Even today, one can listen to those old kirtan compositions rendered by the Sikh ragis who learnt them from the traditional rababis and Sikh kirtanias.

Sacred compositions

The Sikh religion was founded in the 15th century and the Sikh system of kirtan was strongly influenced by the various kirtan traditions prevalent at that time. The Sikh Gurus adopted only the more vital elements of music in their kirtan, but they completely eschewed the dance performed by Vaishnava and Shaiva devotees and by the Sufis in their Samagatherings. The Sikh Gurus also rejected the rhythmical clapping of hands with which the Sufis accompanied their singing

Thus, Sikh sacred music has a tradition dating from the times of Guru Nanak when he composed his Shabads in the various ragas. Composing Shabads in ragas was the need of the time. All the Sikh Gurus were well versed in music, understood its importance and a new kirtan tradition was born in the form of Sikh devotional music. This music was based entirely on the traditions of classical music as is proved by both the Guru Granth Sahib and the Dasham Granth, the two main scriptures of the Sikh religion.

In all, 31 ragas have been mentioned in the Guru Granth. They are: Shri, Majh, Gauri, Asa, Gujri, Devgandhari, Bihagra, Vadhans, Sorath, Dhanashri, Jaitshri, Todi, Bairari, Tilang, Suhi, Bilawal, Gaund, Ramkali, Nat-Narain, Maligaura, Maru, Tukhari, Kedara, Bhairo, Basant, Sarang, Malhar, Kanara, Kalyan, Parbhati and Jaijaiwanti. The 19 ragas mentioned in the Dasham Granth are: Ramkali, Sorath, Kalian, Bilawal, Devgandhari, Khial, Tilangkafi, Paraj, Kafi, Suhi, Sarang, Gauri, Dhanashri, Tilang, Kedara, Maru, Bhairo, Adan and Basant.

Various forms of kirtan were incorporated into Sikh devotional music. During the time of the various Sikh Gurus, the form of Sikh devotional music was based purely on the dhrupad style of Hindustani classical music which was then popular in the country. Sikh rababis and ragis also adopted this style of singing and composed innumerable Shabads from the Guru Granth based on the dhrupad style. This was a period when, in most of the Hindu temples of Dwarka, Ayodhya, Mathura, Vrindavan, Pashupatinath (Kashi) and Nathdwara (Udaipur), the temple musicians employed the same style and sang Vishnu Padas based on dhrupad. From the 15th to the end of the 17th century, the dhrupad style of kirtan became popular in the Sikh gurudwaras and the ragis and the rababis used to perform kirtan to the accompaniment of the mridanga or pakhawaj, as was the case with musicians when they sang in the dhrupad style of the classical style. Later, when the tabla became popular in the Punjab, it took the place of the mridanga, but the pakhawaj style was adapted (khule-hath-ka-baj) for playing it. That is why the Punjab style of playing the tabla is quite different from the styles in other parts of India. When, in the course of time, khayal became popular, the Sikh rababis imbibed this style and composed many Shabads of the Guru Granth in the khayal style.

Besides the dhrupad and khayal styles, the Sikhs also adapted various other styles of North Indian music to their kirtan. Qawwali, tappa and ghazal were among the styles of music adopted in the Sikh kirtan.

Now, Sikh devotional music also abounds in various folk tunes. The Jhotiyan-de-Shabad, for instance, was deliberately composed for congregational singing. The Shabads based on various folk tunes known as Dharna and Varas are included in this category. These tunes, being quite easy to sing, are the most popular and appealing style of kirtan of Sikh devotional music.

The Shabads composed in the dhrupad, dhamar or khayal styles are known as Shabad-Reets. These Shabad-Reets are a treasure house of Sikh devotional music and more finished in their musical style. They are also the most important among the melodic group of compositions. The two essential parts of a Shabad-Reet are sthai and antara. They may have one or more antaras, and most of the antaras are sung to the notes (swaras) of the first antara. These Shabad-Reets are also known by the ragis as Taksali-Reet, traditional compositions, whose training is imparted by a teacher to his pupil. A Shabad-Reet, set in Charta (Chautal), may be compared to the dhrupad form of North Indian music which, in the words of a well-known English musicologist, “has a free masculine character; its words are religious, but not exclusively so. It is in slow time, and in select talas, the ionic and anapaestic metres in fact; and since to perform it requires a good command of the breath, there is a saying: ‘The man who has the strength of five buffaloes, let that man sing dhrupad.’ Shabad-Reets are also masculine in character and the words are exclusively devotional. Most of the Shabad-Reets are rendered in select talas, such as Chautal, Dhamar, Sulphakta, Jhaptal, Chanchal (Dipchandi), Ada (Arachautal), etc.

Special compositions

Often in the kirtan, the ragis, in order to astonish the audience, render a special composition known as the Raga Sagar or Guldasta (nosegay). In Hindustani music, this particular composition is known as Ragamalika. In this composition, a lengthy Shabad is composed in various ragas and talas. The raga as well as the tala go on changing as the rendering proceeds. The change to a new mode at each stage sustains the interest of the listener from start to finish. Only expert ragis can render such a composition, because the simultaneous changing of ragas and talas, at every step and without any break, requires a high degree of knowledge of theory and practice. Sometimes at the end of the special kirtan diwans, the ragis sing another Shabad composition simulating the tarana of Hindustani classical music. Such compositions are found in the Dasham Granth under the title Musical Metres. The words used in compositions reproduce the sound of the drum.

In the day-to-day kirtan diwans, many of the kirtans performed by the ragis are based on light music and various folk tunes. As explained earlier, in Sikh devotional music, the term for the folk tunes is Dharna. It is also called tarz. The kirtans based on the styles of Dharnas are most appealing and are meant for mass-singing in the congregations. When the Shabad is recited in any particular Dharna, the sthai (Rahau-di-Tuk) of the Shabad is repeated from time to time in the course of the singing by the sangat (congregation), and the rest of the phrases are sung by the ragi jatha (party) alone. Sometimes folk tunes, other than the particular Dharna, are also introduced. Some expert ragis also impart the touches of appropriate ragas.

There is yet another style of performing Shabad kirtan, in which the sangat alone manages the kirtan. This particular style of kirtan known as Jhotiyan-de-Shabad is based on a traditional plainsong style. These Shabads are sung in simple notes and have been standardised by the usage over the centuries. This tradition of singing the Shabad kirtan can be compared to other congregational kirtan traditions prevalent in various regions of the country, namely the kirtan performed by the Kali-bhaktas in Bengal, or the Vaishnava devotees of Northern India. It is the common heritage of kirtan which every Sikh possesses today.

Here, however, we must make a distinction between the two major styles of kirtan, one based on the pure classical music tradition, that is Shabad-Reet and the other based on Dharnas (folk tunes). The first is an individual style of kirtan performed by the ragi jatha alone, whereas the other is meant for the congregation. The term Shabad-Reet refers to the composition whose importance lies principally in its music. In the Dharna, the Vani (sahitya) is of primary importance. A Shabad-Reet is remembered and valued primarily for its aesthetic content while a kirtan, based on Dharna, is significant mainly for the devotional content of its Vani. The portrayal of the raga-bhava is the main feature of a Shabad-Reet, whereas in the plain kirtan it is only incidental. The kirtans based on Dharnas are older than Shabad-Reet. Reet is, in fact, a development of the kirtan.

Preserving forms

The kirtan is, strictly speaking, a sacred form. Its Vani is purely devotional in character. The music and the rhythm of a kirtan are simple in character and the music is used here only as a vehicle for singing the glories of God. Thus, in the kirtan, music is subordinate to the Vani. The range of its music is small and the pieces can easily be learnt by heart even by a layman. In the Shabad-Reet, however, the Vani is sacred in form, the music comparatively complex and rich in technical beauty. The kirtans can be sung even by persons with average skill and training, whereas Shabad-Reet can be sung only by those who are thoroughly versed in music. The kirtans are meant for congregational singing, but not so the Shabad-Reets. Kirtans are composed in familiar ragas but Reets can be sung in both the familiar and the more difficult ragas. It is only through the Shabad-Reets that many rare ragas have been preserved.

It is, therefore, clear that to preserve Sikh devotional music, particularly the Shabad-Reets and the various Dhunis, the Sikh Gurus employed professional kirtan singers (rababis, ragis and dhadis). The pupil received the traditional kind of training from the teacher (ustad) and this pattern continues to this day. This has enabled the Sikhs to preserve the traditional Shabad compositions for posterity. Mention should also be made of the peculiar style of singing adopted by the rababis and the ragis. Their voice is cultivated and trained in a special way. The characteristic features of the style are that they display all the graces with lively combinations of swaras which are rendered in a slightly rounded form. This has a wonderful effect. The use of murki is a special trait of their singing style. Their full-throated, powerful singing may perhaps be ascribed to the robust health of the people of the Punjab. The songs are long but ornamental in nature. The rhythm is very marked and the music is generally in a medium tempo. The alap is followed by short tans. The powerful and complicated tans sometimes bewilder the audience, for the effect is one of fireworks of musical notes. In order to create an element of wonder, the artiste often digresses into allied ragas. Quite often the singer alternates these ragas, presenting the swaras of one raga followed by those of the other, returning again to the original raga. This process provides freedom to the artiste for variations and lively improvisation. In this style, the sapat (notes of fast ascent and descent), the gamak (grace notes), the varieties of tans and murkis are of a special kind, which immediately distinguish it from other styles. The beauty of the singing lies in the quick display of various permutations and combinations of notes. This peculiar style of the Sikhs is usually described by Indian musicians as the Punjab style of singing.

Since the talas used for the kirtan are based on the purely classical style, the Sikh kirtan occupies a higher position than the relatively simple bhajan. The Sikh kirtan can be regarded as an independent branch of classical music since it is mainly concerned with the purity of the ragas and tanas. The Gurus laid great emphasis on the correct pronunciation of the Vani and accuracy in singing the various notes of a raga. The Gurus, it may be remembered, were well-versed both in music and poetry.

It is true that the compositions of the Gurus are not meant to be sung on a public platform other than the Gurudwara, nor can the Gurudwara be regarded as a public stage. The object of music in the Gurudwara is to produce a serene atmosphere. Therefore, no ragi can ignore the ancient laws of classical music. We need not regard only the music at mehfils as classical in character. Devotional songs, which follow the laws of classical music, can also be placed in the category of classical music. The fact that Sikh devotional music is entirely based on the tradition of Indian classical music cannot be ignored.

Gift of the Gurus

Thus, we find that from the earliest days of Guru Nanak, music has played a great part in the Sikh religion. The first Guru, with his never-failing companion Bhai Mardana, and the succeeding Sikh Gurus following in the footsteps of Guru Nanak in this regard, retained the members of Mardana’s family as professional kirtanias in their courts. Nearly all the Gurus’ compositions were set to various ragas of Indian classical music and were intended to be sung in those ragas to which they were set. Some of the ragas used by the Gurus were new to Indian classical music (for instance, Asa and Tukhari). The Sikh Gurus introduced the use of the rabab, sarinda, taoos, pakhawaj, mridanga, etc. in their kirtan. They also established the two classes of musicians—the rababis and the ragis, whose vocation was to sing the Gurvani in classical music. It is entirely due to these two classes of musicians that the Shabads of the Gurus have been preserved for us in their original musical form. These Shabad compositions (Shabad-Reets) can stand the test of classical music.

By basing the kirtan on classical music, Sikh Gurus made a very significant contribution to the propagation of classical music in the Punjab. The kirtania was first trained in regular classical music (dhrupad, dhamar, khayal, etc.) and only then was he allowed to turn his attention to the kirtan, which was also sung in the traditional style. It may be noted that apart from the tradition in South India, nowhere has religious music made any conscious effort to incorporate classical music as in the Punjab.


This article first appeared in the NCPA Quarterly Journal in June 1982 (Vol 11, Issue 2).