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Sacred texts in music

Nanak’s close friend Bhai Mardana and his descendents were entrusted with the task of composing the text of Nanak and later gurus to music

Sacred texts in music

One of the essential rituals of Sikh religion, as was also observed on the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in Nankana Sahib last week, is Gurbani — the singing of the sacred text that consists of shabadas and kirtans. Music is sung at Darbar Sahib in Amritsar almost all the time which points to the significance of music, song or chanting as being integral to their religious ritual, or probably to their religion in its most spiritual sense as well.

These singers are usually divided into raagis and rababis, the former are Sikhs while the latter are Muslims and said to be the descendents of Bhai Mardana.

Nanak was the product of the era when two different faiths — Islam and Hinduism — had come to terms with the reality of each other’s presence. They were striking adjustments to a peaceful coexistence — both physical and ideological — as one polity.

In the sacred texts of the Sikh many raags are prescribed for the singing and chanting of the shabads and kirtans.

A movement, generically called Bhakti, was the answer to the iron-clad distinctions between the various creeds. The Sufis wanting consolidation of Muslim rule played a major part in bridging the differences. They promoted what was common among faiths, calling for a broad-based humanism, almost making a new religious or quasi-religious order out of it.

Nanak was one of the foremost proponents of this commonality and resting it on shared values of humanity. The contradictions among the creeds were not perceived as etched in stone and hence unbridgeable, but only as reference points of a possible negotiated settlement.

Nanak did not shy away from quoting profusely from the poetry and sayings of Baba Fareed, the first major Punjabi poet and one of the leading Chishtia sufia. The kalam of Baba Fareed was not all lost to history because it is incorporated by Nanak in his Granth Sahib. One of the closest friends of Nanak was also a Muslim, called Bhai Mardana in the manner of respect that the Sikhs afford and express.

It is said that Mardana used to play the rabab and sing. His descendents known as rababis were entrusted with the task of composing the text of Nanak to music, and possibly also the other liturgical texts of the later gurus. Very little is known about the exact details of the life of Bhai Mardana but that he was a very close associate and also accompanied him to the many epic journeys that Nanak undertook to parts of the civilized world. It is said that Nanak visited Mekkah twice, besides places in Central Asia, Iran, Iraq and also Sri Lanka. Some say that he may have even visited China.

But like in all religions, music plays a part and the text and rituals are put to music or recited for a deeper impact or to facilitate the carrying out of the rituals. Even religions that do not as a canon espouse music cannot avoid it and have a side to it that relies on the note, call it recitation or chanting, that probably fulfils the same function as more formal organised music does. Like the qawwals or the qawwals bachhas who have been singing the text or chanting the kalam for hundreds of years in the subcontinent, Amir Khusro being their mentor. Similarly kaafi and wai is sung or chanted and marsia recited as indeed the quran in qirat and above all the saying of the azaan.

Bhai Mardana, since he was a musician, must have set the poetry of Nanak to music, and his descendents continued to do so and became the officials minstrels for the Sikhs for hundred of years. Another name mentioned in history is that of Bhai Farinda as being very close to Nanak and also being a minstrel. He too was responsible for setting the text to music or chanting the shabads and kirtans.

It is said Bhai Mardana played rabab or that he is supposed to have mastered it. But what shape it took and what was the tuning system in place then, is open to debate. It is generally assumed, keeping today’s music practice and understanding, that rabab is a Central Asian, Persian or at best an Afghan instrument that did not have the capacity to enunciate the micro tones, the shrutis, which have been considered the very epitome of musical expression in the subcontinent.

It is more understandable if it was something like the aiktara which is an instrument usually associated with the roving minstrels and also used as an accompaniment to singing or chanting. It is also very simple in construction and can be easily carried which was why the minstrels preferred it. Or was the rabab different and sounded different, more like an Indian instrument rather than being a Persian or Central Asian or Afghan, so many centuries ago.

In the sacred texts of the Sikh many raags are prescribed for the singing and chanting of the shabads and kirtans. Some have been more designated for particular compositions of the text while others are not so formalised in their description. Soohi, Bilaaval, Gaund, Sri, Maajh, Gauri, Asa, Gujri, Devgandhari, Bihaagra, Sorath, Dhanasari, Jaitsree, Todi, Bhairaagi, Tilang, Raamkali, Nat Narayan, Maali Gaura, Maaru, Tukhari, Kedara, Bhairav, Basant, Sarang, Malaar Jaijaiwanti, Kalyaan, Vadhans, Parbhati and Kaanra, all thirty one in number are the designated raags.

The descendants of Mardana must have been outstanding musicians but the records have not been maintained to say with certainty which ones were truly great. But if the twentieth century is any indication to go by, then many reached that pinnacle like Master Ghulam Hiader, Bhai Deesa, Bhai Lal Muhammed, Rashed Attre, Wajahat Attre, Sain Akhter Hussain, Tufail Niazi, Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan, Wazir Afzal, Hamid Ali Bela and Munir Hussain.

Nearly all the rababis migrated to Pakistan at the time of partition and, mostly from the Punjab and few from Bombay and Calcutta where the theatre/film world had attracted them.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • Many thanks for writing this piece on Rababi tradition and sacred music of the Sikhs. I was just wondering about your preference for putting the Suhi raga first inmentioning the ragas of the Guru Granth Sahib. The Sikh scripture begins with Siri Raga and ends with Jaijswanti Raga. Although you have counted all the thirty-one ragas in your numeration but your sequence is different. I just want to understand your logic. I must admire your article. Pashaura Singh (professor), university of California, Riverside.

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