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close-up of hands playing the Rabab string instrument, showing ornate carving on the headstock

The Sacred Strings of the Sikhs

By Rupinder Kaur Johal

The stringed instruments created and adopted by the Sikh Gurus are slowly returning to their rightful place in Guru's court, as more people take up learning Gurmat Sangeet and 'tanti saaj'. But what is all the fuss about?

If it is possible to learn Kirtan on a harmonium, why go through all that effort to learn an ancient instrument and spend years trying to master it? The harmonium is simple, easy to pack and carry around and most of all, easy to learn. Its creator, Alexandre Debain, never imagined that an entire race would use it as their main instrument for expressing their love for God. The harmonium has become an institution in the homes of all those who want Sikhi to grow fruitfully in their lives and within their family. And it has allowed millions of people to sing and express Gurbani without much difficulty.

The harmonium has become the defining feature of Sikh Kirtan in the modern age, since the early 20th century. Gurdwaras worldwide hire two harmonium players and an accompanying percussionist to sing hymns from the Holy Guru Granth Sahib with ease and precision. Their advantage is speed. There is no prior tuning involved, nor do their instruments require warming up or any intensive treatment. Harmonium players can just sit on stage and start singing before the sangat begin to rustle around and get bored.

Listeners to 'tanti saaj' are slightly different. They sit calmly and listen while the raagis tune their instruments and align them in unison with each other, taking in the tanpura's constant drone and each sympathetic string one by one until they hear sheer melody from the resonating strings. The sangat join in by tuning their own minds to the drone and blocking out all other sounds and senses, feeling at one with the timeless Creator. They watch the raagis lovingly apply resin to their bows and prepare their fingers for the next hour of blissful sounds of Gurmat Sangeet with an application of powder or oil, which makes the fingers glide across the strings.

Then the listeners prepare their ears for the instrumental shaan; the instruments salute their Guru and introduce the raag and flavour of the Kirtan. The sangat are woken from their dreamy haze by the booming jori pounding its chest; the dilruba, stealing the heart with its sweetness; the hundred colours of the sarangi that brings with it the ancient stories of India; the graceful sounds of the peacock emanating from the glorious taus; the humble melody of Guru Arjan's saranda; and the gentleness of Bhai Mardana's rabab, that so humbly accompanied the father of the Sikhs, Guru Nanak, on his journeys to spread truth. With this mesmerising array of sounds and stories to share, it is difficult to believe that the Gurus' companions are today forgotten relics, replaced by a German organ.

This neglect is a result of our own actions as 21st century citizens. As our lives become faster and busier, speed has taken control of our day. We make no time for contemplation; no time for meditating on the truth; we struggle to sit cross-legged on the Gurdwara floor because we are too used to our desk jobs and swivel chairs; we fail to appreciate Mother Nature for her glorious theatrical displays, but curse her for delaying our trains; we forget our duties as human beings whilst busy earning a dollar to feed our families.

We lose ourselves. So we need quick fixes of prayer, meditation, Kirtan and inspiration. We need something that will fit into our 9-5 lives and not keep us too long from our worldly duties; hence the harmonium. It allows us to learn quickly and produce shabads without too much hard work. Harmonium classes across the world mass-produce kirtanis and shabads like furniture in Ikea. Just pick what shabad you like from the shelf and you can put it together yourself. These instruments are simple and easy to manage, and hey, they are trendy! But is this what Kirtan is about? Why are Sikhs frustrated and preoccupied?

We are born from generations of leaders yet we cannot devote time to our amazing heritage; we cannot invest in the future of our children, or give them the strength of the forefathers and martyrs from our past. These saints are commonly referred to as the people from 'that time back then', a phrase by which we immediately segregate ourselves from Sikhi's diamonds.

However, the strength of those masters came from their lifestyles and choices. And we too can choose to live a saintly life. By choosing a path of speed and ease, we open our lives to impatience and ignorance. But we can decide to take control of our lives by opting to live in the light of our Gurus’ wisdom, by making the right choices and being awake to hear what is going on. Gurmat Sangeet is one way to live an enlightened life.

By choosing to pick up the Gurus' instruments, you choose to take a route of Sehaj (balance), where you will continue learning your entire life and surrender to the Guru's hukam. As you learn how to care for your instrument you will gain respect for your Guru and the Sadh Sangat. Hearing the sacred sounds of the blessed instruments and reciprocating them, you will learn to understand your neighbours’ musicology and how to reply to their emotions. While balancing your bow and controlling your rhythm, you will learn to love and respect Mother Earth and will walk in harmony with her heartbeat. As you sing the Gurus' own words, you will want to speak only sweetness and goodness with your blessed tongue. You will be overcome with empathy and will care for those less fortunate than yourself, nourishing their minds, bodies and souls with your own hands and hard work. You will gain the attributes of a Sikh and will radiate Vaheguru to all you meet.

To be able to hold one of the instruments that the Gurus carried is such a privilege. Gurmat Sangeet is not about learning as many shabads as you can; it is about daily practice, discipline and living a life of Kirtan, where you learn how to learn, and how to understand Gurbani. It’s about following the Guru's order, through music and Gurbani, and trying to live in the Guru's light. Gurmat Sangeet is more than just a way to sing and play music; Gurmat Sangeet is a way to live.