Come, O Sisters, YUKTANAND SINGH
Let Us Sing Songs Of Our Beloved:
Letter & Spirit #54
Sant Naranjan Singh used to say that someone who comes to the gurdwara with any intention to say something, should say nothing at all.
The most dreadful state for a Sikh is to feel that he or she has something worthwhile to say, or write. In fact a gurmukh is averse to teach others. He or she speaks out of compassion when the hidden love overflows into words.
I am no gurmukh. My hesitation is due to laziness, time constraints, and knowing that I neither fully understand nor fully practice the topics that I write on, nor do I understand music very well.
These articles also keep getting longer. At the risk of boring the reader with links to videos, this instalment will be loaded with examples from the media. You may not need to watch each video. The goal is to move forward in doing kirtan properly, to discuss some details so that the neophytes understand why we do something, and to break free from ritualistic singing.
True spiritual wisdom is non-verbal. It is hidden in the spirit of gurbani. Gurbani says that true (sat) sangat is where only naam is being shared (without the presence of haumai). Thus, when we feel learned or when we criticise others, we are missing the art of being in the Guru’s sangat. Kirtan (singing of gurbani) rescues us from the deep pit of being self-righteous.
Guru Nanak taught us by example. He said, “I am just a lowly minstrel, all others are better than I am” [GGS:468.4]. Guru Nanak thus, sang gurbani as the preferred method of sharing naam.
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People ask, can kirtan (or naam simran) achieve world peace? Can it feed the hungry?
Doing kirtan does not exclude or replace feeding the hungry. It need not be practiced instead of working towards achieving world peace. We need balance. A significant portion of the grain that we feed to the poor and hungry must be sown into the ground so that it can multiply.
Similarly, when we ignore the inner (invisible) aspect of our life, we are then spiritually starved and empty inside. We then, unbeknownst to ourselves, become just the same as the walking-dead. A starved soul is handicapped, and regardless of good intentions, it cannot be truly efficient.
Most people go to the gurdwara or they practice some routine at home for various personal reasons. Most individuals do not do so to meet God. Gurbani and its music thus attracts and influences each person differently according to one’s own interest and own taste.
Gurbani says that our goal should be meeting God. It says that this can occur when we have the virtue, or when we have the wealth that God likes. We earn this commodity by connecting with gurbani. Singing and listening to gurbani, at all stages of our quest, make this acquisition easy.
Music prepares the ground so that the seed of shabad can sink in, germinate, and bear fruit. Singing gurbani from the heart softens our soul and makes it permeable to the message of the shabad. We only need to make ourselves available to the shabad.
We thus must sing and listen to gurbani with proper purpose. The purpose of kirtan is neither music appreciation nor mastery of some tradition, style, or a raag per se. Mere singing of the shabad in a raag does not help us meet God [GGS:654.19].
Preoccupation with traditional classical singing styles can in fact displace our spiritual connection with gurbani. Preoccupation with music needs to be avoided, except for academic reasons.
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In order to keep the haumai at bay, the gurdwara protocol was restricted to kirtan and kathaa (exposition of gurbani and the lives of the Gurus). These days we mix politics, criticism of others, criticism of scriptures, even house cleaning chores of fund raising, etc. with our kirtan and the katha.
They need to remain separate and separated.
Forgetting the purpose of gurdwara is the root cause of our disputes. It is about time that we brought the light of gurmat out of our so-called gurdwaras and presented it to the world.
Being humble does not mean being mediocre. We disregard finesse in our demeanor and particularly in our singing. Many also disregard critical thinking and analysis, assuming that gurbani belittles intellectual endeavors, when in fact gurbani also insists that we must analyze ourselves.
Ignoring finesse is acceptable if one was lost in divine love. One is inherently wise, then. Others must make a deliberate effort to be their best, to be world-class Sikhs, and even use a deodorant sometimes, for instance, when needed.
Simran (remembering God), Kirtan (singing of gurbani), sadh sangat (associating with illuminated souls), and seva (service of the sangat) are means to an end. Being busy with the means, we often lose sight of our destination. Our acts then turn into mere acts and rituals.
It is thus important to remember why we do kirtan.
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Waheguru’s hukam permeates everything but it is a rather delicate inner voice that is not heard by our physical ears. Guru Nanak says in the Japji that we need to develop the art of listening.
Gurmat thus requires that we develop our finer feelings of perception. One essential avenue is learning to appreciate fine art and fine music.
Gurbani says that someone who cannot appreciate music -- someone, for example, who cannot learn how to tell a ‘kalyan’ from a ‘kanra’ -- will have difficulty in grasping the voice of the hukam [1423.18].
Just like taking a vitamin, music possesses a multitude of benefits, too many to discuss here. Children who learn music do better overall in school. Proper music is also in tune with nature.
Guru Gobind Singh wrote in his mythological composition, ‘Krishnavtar‘:
“When Krishna played the music, the juice began to drip from the trees, the streams became calm, the deer stopped grazing, and the birds were fascinated … gods gathered to watch this fascination with the raags … The river Yamuna stopped to listen, the elephants, lions and rabbits of the forest, all were enticed ... The gods left their heavenly abode and were ensnared by the tunes, while the birds listened, relaxing their wings on the tree branches in the forest” ||650-651||.
All music is not the same. Music is also a matter of personal taste that is acquired through exposure, particularly during childhood. Some genres that pass for music today are not spiritually uplifting at all and they cannot be called the music that we are discussing here.
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The bulk of gurbani is arranged under various raags (melodic modes). Some compositions are not assigned any raag while some shabads were assigned more than one raag. For example, GGS: 330.15. The purpose thus appears to be to prevent confusion and controversy by indicating that gurbani is to be sung in raags. But we must not obsess over singing a particular raag.
One may also ask if a shabad was sung in dhrupad or in khayal style of singing. To most listeners it would not matter. It is best to sing in the style that one is comfortable with. For example, Bhai Avtar Singh was a natural in dhrupad style.
Most shabads (excluding the vaar, salok, pauri, etc.) were written for singing in dhrupad. But these days the two styles are becoming mixed and they overlap.
For example, in dhrupad one must return to the refrain after each stanza while a khayal generally has no refrain at all. The alaap (the slow melodic rendering of raag at the opening) must include some syllables (words of obeisance in gurmat sangeet) in dhrupad, but in a khayal the alaap is purely vocal. Similarly, the taan (fast weaving of musical notes) must include words in the dhrupad style while in khayal the taan is vocalized without words … and so on.
Singing a shabad in the same raag takes us closer to the way Guru Sahiban sang it. But I am sure that they would rather see us sing gurbani in tunes that are easy for us than not sing it at all.
Every Sikh must practice singing of gurbani. Children sing in the gurdwara even when they are learning. We do so to encourage them. But as adults we should practice at home until we can comfortably concentrate on the shabad that we sing. Sangat is not the place to practice singing.
Personally, I simply try to copy someone else's tune. This way I can concentrate on gurbani rather than on composing the tune.
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Each raag contains a fixed set of notes and a fixed pattern of ascent and descent. The singer must sing within that pattern. The concept of raag is quite easy to understand from the video below explaining Raag Yaman (Kalyan). [Video A - Kalyan]
(‘Yaman’ and ‘kalyan’ are the same raag. The difference lies in style, the notes a singer dwells on).
Singing of a raag does not have to be difficult or convoluted. Singing in a raag mandates neither the alaap nor the various styles of taan. For example, the popular song by Mukesh, “bhooli hui yaadon” was in Raag Yaman. It contains neither alaap nor taan.
So is it in the shabad in Video B [please see below, at the end of the essay].
There is an example of another shabad sung melodiously without alaap or taan, also in Raag Kalyan, in Video C (please see below).
And a video worth watching in this respect, Principal Sukhwant Singh (Video D below).
Thus, we will see that it is possible to sing a shabad in a raag simply and melodiously without employing the complexity of alaap nor taan, and definitely without being noisy or distorting the voice in any manner. The word ‘saras’ (melodiously) occurs several times in the ‘raagmala’ (a tribute to the raags) that we read at the conclusion of Guru Granth Sahib.
Similarly, many Sikh singers endeavor to use traditional musical instruments. This should not be an issue at home. One can train the voice better with a string instrument; the strings allow greater freedom to express the nuances of musical notes.
String instruments are preferable. Now we also have a variety of western instruments available, the violin being one example. We must also not cause distractions with elaborate or exotic instrumentation. The emphasis needs to be on singing of gurbani, not the instruments.
Thus, kirtan in a raag can be quite simple. There were court singers or bards who sang gurbani professionally. They exhibited their expertise with the alaap and taan, etc. The court-singer style singing holds a very important place today in the Guru’s court. Connoisseurs of music truly enjoy quality classical music and any mistake in such singing is truly painful to their ears.
The Gurus sang gurbani themselves in a rather simple and melodious manner and they were well versed in the raags. They even created several new raags for gurbani, and they composed gurbani in various styles for a variety of occasions and preferences.
The vaars were assigned popular folk tunes that were used to sing tales of bravery and virtue. For example, the vaar in Raag Aasa was assigned the melody that was used to sing the tale of a king named ‘Asraj’ who was ‘tunda’ (missing a hand).
Sadly, these folk traditions are now extinct and most Sikh singers do not know them any longer. An example of the melody of the “Tale of Tunda Asraj” sung in Raag Aasa is in Video E below.
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The Tabla is the most common percussion instrument used in kirtan today. It is played in set patterns of cycles of beats with distinct sounds. The number of beats per cycle is fixed for each pattern. The singer stays in sync with the cycle. This is why we will see that a singer often abruptly maneuvers the singing to be in sync with each cycle of the tabla. In the video (Video F below), Pandit Ravi Shankar introduces the tabla.
We will notice in this video that Ravi Shankar keeps count of the beats during improvisation of tabla and, particularly at 5:40, he demonstrates his keeping track of the cycle. Expert musicians take pride in being accurate in keeping up with the tabla, and vice versa.
The tabla should not be too loud. Its volume should be below the singer’s voice. Proficient tabla players improvise often and they interact with the music, as shown in Video G below.
An eminent singer once came to Nabha. But no tabla player in Nabha was able to play with him. The problem was that sometimes the singer would gesture the tabla to be muted (but not to stop). The player would stop. Finally, my grandfather played the tabla. He mentally kept count even when he was not playing, and resumed the correct sound each time the singer expected him to. The singer applauded with admiration.
Raja Hira Singh, witnessing the performance, was elated. He took off his own turban -- in the ultimate gesture of reverence -- and put it on my grandfather’s head. My grandfather wore the same style turban after that day.
Similarly, a tabla player can interact and add character to the kirtan, as we can see in Video H below.
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Gurbani reveals its secrets to us in sadh sangat. Some people describe kirtan as collective “vibrating” of the souls. But such terminology implies that we were accomplishing something when in fact, on this path, gurbani does everything.
People also engage in hair-splitting arguments. This is fine but we must ask ourselves at each step whether the item being discussed was relevant to us. Would it help us at our level.
Guru Nanak says, “shabad guru surat dhun chela” [GGS:943], meaning that the shabad is the Guru and inner attention imbued with that shabad’s melody is its disciple. The scholars interpret the ‘shabad’ here as the spiritual sound and the spiritual ‘dhun’, the unstruck melody (‘anhat shabad’) that is heard only with our spiritual ears, not with the physical ears.
Can we really hear the spiritual shabad if we were unable to be absorbed in the music of kirtan that we hear with our physical ears? Gurbani teaches us to simply do what the Guru says, and to do it as if we were ignorant fools, not as someone who can hear the unstruck melody, even when we could hear the unstruck melody. Only when we do this, we can abandon the haumai and we can be imbued with the non-verbal wisdom of the shabad.
Often we are eager to label as a “metaphor” whatever we cannot comprehend in gurbani. Scholars take pride in revealing some meaning “hidden” in gurbani. But gurbani is straightforward and it mostly means exactly what it says.
Let us remember this much: whenever an item is frequently repeated in gurbani, it must not be a metaphor. One of my greatest surprises was to see that, even after having acquired all the education and learning, Sant Naranjan Singh interpreted every word of gurbani exactly as is!
Kirtan of gurbani (not homespun songs and bhajans) is the supreme yoga, but only when we trust each word of gurbani as absolutely true. We read in Anand Sahib that families of the angels come to sing the shabads in the jewels of raag with us when we take the Guru’s sanctuary.
Guru Arjan says: “In the melody lies the bliss of the scriptures. The silent sages come and join the holy saints to express it and to listen to it. They savor the nectar of naam. They reap the rewards of knowledge, meditation, honor, and charity. All the sins are destroyed there. With their attention imbedded in the shabad, its revelation being their diet, they grasp the essence of reality. They gain the fruit of having done all jupp and all tupp and all yoga. The Light mingles through and through. They suffer no more penalty or pain” [GGS:1322.7-10].
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Women are right-brain dominant. They can grasp the spirit better than men can. During difficult times, men lost their faith and abandoned the Guru. But their wives felt the spirit. They forced their husbands to go back, to face death in the battles and to ask for the Guru’s forgiveness.
Appreciation of art and music is acquired through cultivation. For example, very few individuals can enjoy ‘Violin Concerto in D’ the first time they hear it. Thus, it helps if we were exposed to and practiced the singing of gurbani raags during our childhood.
Additionally, we can taste and feel the emotion expressed in song when we know its tale, even if it was fiction or a movie that we saw. When we are in love, we resonate with love in a love song, or with a sad song when we are sad, and so on.
Tale of gurbani is a true tale, not fiction. Taste of gurbani is acquired from associating with those who live this tale. Singing of gurbani in a holy association can carry us above the level of thought and above our haumai. Then our soul can resonate with the spirit of gurbani.
Singing of gurbani from the heart is the only act that is completely free of haumai and this is why it is the supreme path. In fact a gurmukh never abandons the kirtan of gurbani, because a gurmukh never feels that he or she is ever above the need to sing kirtan.
We read in our history how Guru Gobind Singh did not give up the morning kirtan while in battle mode, even when the enemy was camped just across the river.
We could write an essay on each item above. One of the shabads I referred you to earlier was in Raag Kalyan. It was sung in the khayal style. The same shabad in Raag Yaman Kalyan, sung in dhrupad style, can be heard in Video J below.
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February 2, 2016
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 03, 2016, 5:38 PM.
Yuktanand ji, how to thank you enough for putting these scattered pearls in one place. I just picked one at random and it was 'Video J' at the tail end, and suddenly Guru Sahib's prayer came to mind: "dhunn jun-nee jin jaa-i-aa dhunn pita pardhaan" [GGS:32.12] - "Blessed is the mother who gives birth and blessed is the father." What a wonderful family!
2: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), February 03, 2016, 10:05 PM.
Sangat Singh ji, this is one reason it took me so long to write this article. I have listened to this video, and other such videos innumerable times (and still do, almost every night), with my eyes moist with joy and heartfelt gratitude towards such an exemplary family! I feel like putting my head at their feet.
3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 09, 2016, 3:42 PM.
Yuktanand jio, your love-soaked piece keeps haunting me and will not leave. You have Guru's Grace. I don't have enough words to thank Waheguru enough. Reading it starts the simran. A hollow bamboo becomes a flute and the song is not of the bamboo. Bless you.
4: Dya Singh (Melbourne, Australia), February 10, 2016, 12:43 AM.
Yuktanand ji: So refreshing to read your views. I am 'phoren' born and bred and have always had an affinity with Sikh classical, semi-classical and Punjabi folk. By Punjabi folk I mean Punjabi folk of old. I have dabbled in what I call 'gursangeet' because, as you pointed out, rendition of true kirtan is to reach the delicate inner ear, but one can only reach that delicate inner ear through the outer ear, hence gursangeet which perhaps pleases the outer ear but with the hope and desire of reaching the delicate inner ear. In our annual Sikh family camp held by the Sikh Youth Australia (SYA) we have a so-called kirtan competition. So-called because a 'competition' is held to show general excellence in pitch correctness (sur) and correct rhythm (taal). So we call it a 'gursangeet' competition because it is to see if it pleases the outer ear, which hopefully leads to kirtan which reaches the inner ear. Thank you for your insights. I can perhaps explain kirtan a little better now and perhaps keep the detractors who keep harping on singing only in raags and some even insist that the proper taal (qar) should be used for kirtan, at bay.
5: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), February 11, 2016, 6:13 PM.
Dya Singh ji, I am glad that a prolific singer and teacher has appreciated this article. This will help spread its message. Kirtan is a never-ending topic ... and as you must know, singing can be compared to cooking. In this respect, doing kirtan is a seva. Each chef is unique and it is difficult to please everyone. Kirtan is like talking to our Guru. Some day we are granted the insight, as Sangat Singh ji has said, that we are just a hollow bamboo. How can a worm sing, or talk to the Guru? Whenever it pleases, due to no effort of our own gurbani, out of sheer mercy Guru Sahib talks to us and plays on us as His musical instruments, disregarding our faults or virtues. We then do real kirtan. Our heart often chokes us and the tears keep flowing but we then learn how to bear this unbearable pleasure-pain.