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Indian Classical Music And Sikh Kirtan
by Gobind Singh Mansukhani (M.A., LL.B, Ph.D.) 1982

What is Kirtan?
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What is Kirtan?
Kirtan has been defined in various ways. It means “laudatory recital, verbal and literary, of the name and qualities of a person. But its technical meaning consists in the repeated utterance of the name and description of the qualities of the divine being or beings,”[4]. According to Sikh religion, kirtan is the devotional singing of the praises of God in melody and rhythm. The composition is generally sung is classical raga with the appropriate tala. Though the appeal of sacred music is generally directed to one’s feelings, the element of intellect is not ignored. The meaning and the significance of the words of the songs need to be understood in all its ramifications. For Guru Tegh Bahadur, kirtan is the singing of “the glory of God with words, mind and action,”[5]. According to the Adi Granth, the praises of God can be sung, tuned lilted, contemplated, uttered, intoned, listened to, discoursed on or played on instruments. The main aim of kirtan is to hymn the glory of God and to get spiritually closer to Him, because the goal in merger in Him. The Gurus commended it as the easiest and most effective way of spiritual fulfilment.
In kirtan, more important than the musical element is the feeling of love and devotion of the disciple. Even the best and perfect melody, unless accompanied by true belief and sincere feeling for God, may be of no avail. According to the Gurus, mere technical perfection of musical rendering and vocal skill is not kirtan. Guru Ramdas says:
“Some sing of God through vocal music, musical instruments and chanting in various ways, but the Master is not pleased thereby.
What can crying (crocodile tears) accomplish for those who are full of fraud and sin within.” [6]
So also the singing of secular or uninspired verses so-called holy men bring neither benefit nor solace. The Gurus disapproved the singing of geets or kachi bani composed by fake preceptors and poetasters. Guru Amardas says:
“When a person sings and you do not feel uplifted,
It is because his singing, arising, from his ego, falls flat,” [7] Elsewhere he affirms:
“ Duality can give no delight; the ego-centered finds no refuge.
Devotion cannot be produced through hypocrisy and as such the Lord is not attained.” [8]
Guru Ramdas says:
“The Lord is beyond the melodies and airs.
Merely through these, His will cannot be realised.” [9]
Pure, secular, sensual or festive type of music-even one connected with the love-stories of gods and goddesses or prophets-is not kirtan. Devotional music is that which promotes equipoise of mind or meditation on Divinity. Kirtan is an aid or a catalyst to enable the individual to attune himself with the Infinite. Music which is prostituted or profaned by catering to the satisfaction of lower instincts or someone’s ego or for mercenary motives is known as ‘fake’ music.
The love of God is not won by music, chanting or dance. Even if the quality of music is inferior, He is won by the longing and love of the heart. Those songs are beautiful which tame the mind and link the soul with the Lord. Therefore he who truly loves God is capable of doing justice to sacred music. His singing produces the appropriate feeling and helps his listeners and evoke parallel feelings among the congregation. The singer gets stability of mind and imparts a feeling of equipoise to the audience.
Nowadays there is a tendency among the Sikhs and on the part on some Gurdwaras relaying kirtan through tapes and loud-speakers so that the people living in the neighbourhood may listen to the sacred music. Though this activity is inspired by a good movie, it has often proved counter-productive and created a lot of hostility between Sikhs and non-Sikhs, and also discouraged the Sikhs from visiting the temples or joining the congregation. Similarly routine singing of a part of the Asa-di-var every morning by professionals (ragis) or granthis, in the absence of the congregation is hardly conducive to the devotion which kirtan by singers lacking character and piety has often led to friction and protest. Besides, the mercenary motives of ragis often produce antipathy towards kirtan. The Gurus discouraged the performance of kirtan as means of amassing wealth. On the other hand, they said that kirtan is meant to “cut the chain of maya or attachment to wordly goods and possessions”[10]. The aim of kirtan is to bring peace and joy to the mind and to attain to the stage of sahaj (bliss). It has been observed that sometimes the singers sing the hymns in films tunes which distract the mind and bring to the listener’s memory a recollection of the scenes in which the original film was sung. That is why religious organisations like the Shiromani Committee have rightly banned the singing of Shabads in film tunes in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib.

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