by Tanu Kaur
December 2006 marked a turning point for the Khalsa Panth worldwide: after 300 years, the six Sikh instruments handed down by the Gurus were played together on one stage in its birthplace, India. Professor Surinder Singh, head of Raj Academy of Asian Music, along with his team of senior students, traveled to India during the month of December to revive a long forgotten heritage of the Sikh faith – Gurmat Sangeet, or Sikh Music. For 33 days, the team took part in over 50 performances, workshops and seminars in order to incite awareness and interest in Sikh Music. Professor Singh led the kirtan programs with a Saranda and was accompanied by Varinder Kaur on Rabab, Jasdeep Singh on Dilruba, Amrit Kaur on Sarangi, Daljit Singh on Jori, Anupe Singh on Taus, and Jasvir Kaur on Tanpura.
During this tour, Professor Surinder Singh was approached four different times, once directly by the Head Granthi of Harmandir Sahib, and once directly by the President of the Shiromani Gurduara Parbandhak Committee, to perform kirtan in the sanctum sanctorum of Darbar Sahib. This was a great opportunity to expose the beauty of Gurmat Sangeet to the world, as kirtan from Harmandir Sahib is broadcasted internationally. Despite this enormous prospect, Professor Singh respectfully turned it down the offers, due to the current rule that women are not allowed to perform kirtan in the central seat of Sikh spiritual authority. The Raj Academy team performing in India was made up of four males and three females; if they had agreed, half the team would be banned from performing.
“I felt we had to take a stand. We had to do what was right — not what was easy. Until women are given back their right to sing kirtan, we will not take part in any kirtan programs at Darbar Sahib,” said Professor Singh. “The Gurus themselves have given the same rights to our mothers, sisters and daughters as to any Sikh man. My pledge and the pledge of Raj Academy is to make sure that not only Sikh Music, but all Sikh values are upheld. We have a dream, like all Sikhs around the world, to perform kirtan in Harmandir Sahib, but we will not compromise our values for this dream.”
Over 500 years ago, Guru Nanak Sahib, founder of Sikhism, thrashed the prevalent view of the time that women were inferior to men.
“From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married.
Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come.
When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound.
So why call her bad? From her, kings are born.
From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.
O Nanak, only the True Master is without a woman.
That mouth which praises the Master continually is blessed and beautiful.
O Nanak, those faces shall be radiant in the Court of Vaheguru.”
~Asa Mehla Pehla, Ang 473
Guru Nanak and all his successors questioned both the Islamic Qazis and Hindu Brahmins who treated women as lesser beings. In Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Sahib often refers to himself as a woman or a bride to show the loving relationship between Vaheguru and the Sikh. Guru Gobind Singh, 10th Guru of the Sikhs, ordained that Sikh baptism would not be a ceremony for men alone, but for all children of the Khalsa. Unlike the tradition of the time period, where the Vedas and the Quran were restricted to higher-class males, the Guru’s message was meant for all – men, women, higher class, lower class, even illiterates and outcasts.
Raj Academy’s refusal to sing kirtan in Darbar Sahib reflects that Guru’s Kirtan cannot be restricted to males. As daughters of the Khalsa, we should not have to ask for this right: it is our birthright, and until we stand up for it, we will continue to be denied. Gurmat Sangeet is a gift from Guru Nanak to Guru Arjan, to Guru Gobind Singh. It is time to pick up our swords, in this case our instruments, and fight the battle for equality.
“We appeal the Panth to support us in our decision and our efforts to promote authentic Gurmat Sangeet. We do not mean to cause controversy and uproar; we simply seek to revive and uphold the heritage of the Gurus, and we ask the sangat around the world to support our mothers, sisters and daughters, who are our pride, to be able to sing kirtan as prescribed by the Gurus in the most sacred of places, Darbar Sahib,” said Professor Singh. “We ask Sikh women around the world – pick up your instruments, sing Guru’s Bani as prescribed in Guru Granth Sahib, and let your cries for equality be heard and answered.”