Tradition, Transmission and Change

(An ethnomusicological study of Sikh Shabad Kirtan in Sikh Diaspora )

 Jan Protopapas

 University of Maryland


An Awakening into Resonance  

The experience of Sikh Shabad Kirtan (Sikh hymn singing) is thick with resonance. The vibrant chords in the harmonium and the syncopated tablas, shrill cymbals and the melodious and sweet voice singing the sweet words of Guru Ram Das…  “Suhavee” showering the congregation with drops of amrita rasa (celestial nectar), creating a harmony between revelation and raga. When asked the effected of singing kirtan, Bhai Jag Mohan Singh responded : “Ananda. I feel great joy and bliss.”  

This moment of musical immersion occurred at the annual Akhanda Kirtan festival (2 days of continuous hymn singing) at the Guru Nanak Foundation in Silver Springs, Maryland. Shabad Kirtan is the essential part of Sikh worship and a tradition, which binds and unites the Sikh communities worldwide.

Purpose and Intention  

This paper seeks to understand the role of shabad-kirtan (Sikh hymn singing) within Sikh diaspora. What role does it take in imparting spirituality, in promoting equality, Sikh historical and cultural identity?  The purpose of this local research is to investigate how shabad kirtan is transmitted and performed locally and assess the effects of hymn singing on community identity. Congregational hymn singing coupled with a strong emphasis on music education are effective methods of teaching language and instilling values.  

I have observed that these communities in the US are cohesive, active and progressive. All of the services I attended involved multi-age interaction with youth leading hymns and various congregation members doing so also. One of the beauties of the Shabad kirtan is that music is open to all. One rarely receives compliments for his/her good singing as the fact is that the singing is a form of prayer; and how odd to receive compliments for “good prayer, bad prayer”. The communities are also interconnected by many Sikh educational and organizational activities such as youth camps, social-activist camps, competitions and conferences. All of these events promote and enculturate the young and novice Sikhs alike. Music is the sweet resonance that underlies and supports this strong revolutionary nature. It is the sweet, vital course, the drop of love, bliss.

Theoretical considerations  

My struggle as a researcher and writer is that of representation. I am faced with the crisis of representation as if I am looking at a broken mirror, with all the pieces intact. How to make sense of the whole? How to make sure that I am not mistaking a single broken piece for the whole mirror? I plunge deep into the meta-level, meta-cognition, the inner core, that which moves me, the shabads (words) themselves. As my understanding grows, it fills the circle of my awareness with more connections, evoking meaning from center to periphery. Just like the performance of a kirtan, which works in cycles. I do know several conflicts amongst the Sikh community that exist, however, regarding gender equality and political allegiances. Yet I am continually drawn back into the musical experience, the source, as a way to simran, (remember) the powerful words of Guru Granth Sahib. The shabad kirtans themselves run in musical cycles of 6, 8, 10, 16. Touching words to tones to meaning to resonance into the heart of the devotee. I believe that the music is the bridge which bonds together the community and reorients them, re-identified their underlying unity, sense of being and purpose. Perhaps the music is a place were duality and conflict falls away. Such as Jeff Todd Rice describes in Shadows in the Field:  “We seek to know one another through lived experience. Through common, intersubjective experience we enter the world of interpretation. Interpretation turns sound into music, being into meaning” (p.94)  

A Road Traveled Before: framing the researcher and the research  

I walked into this experience coming from a musical background in Christian Hymn singing and western-classical music. As a child, I was a regular congregation member of a protestant church where my father was the minister of music. I grew up singing Christian hymns alongside my mother during the Sunday services… I also studied Western Classical Music on piano for most of my childhood  years. In my early twenties I went to India on a study-abroad program and unknowingly encountered a parallel world of a classical music system from North India and now a whole new hymn-singing tradition to me shabad kirtan, Sikh hymn-singing. There is a feeling of synchronicity in the air; of feeling of the essential experience, “samarasa” as it is called in Sanskrit ‘the same taste’. Just as the sweetness of sugar is a universal experience. Barbara Tedlock in The Beautiful and the Dangerous, comments on research as a process, a journey, searching for an alternative life. I see it as a self-exploration and growth through “the other” -and perhaps the “other” which we seek outside is within us all along, only we see a reflection of the other in our research informants. Kabir, mystic poet whose poetry is included in the Guru Granth Sahib, questions: “Friend,  what are you searching for, the Beloved is within you.”  

This ethnographic research is part of a journey, a process of deepening, a self-awareness, self-reflexive process of sweet synchronicity through musical experience creating a parallel space. Michael Fischer in Writing Culture, refers to this process as “dual-tracking” between the self and other generating a “rich, sympathetic curiosity for detail and cultural logic.” (p. 201). This is a current trend in post-modern ethnography, which seeks to marry the path of the self and the other.  

Stephen Tyler in Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture, deepens this epistemological view by adding a metaphysical perspective when he compares the traditional orientalist approach of “documenting the occult” with the post-modern approach of an “occult document of transformation” where the ethnography is “an enigmatic, paradoxical and esoteric conjunction of reality and fantasy” (p. 134) He further expresses that ethnographic writing is not an object, rather it is a “means; the meditative vehicle for a transcended of time and place that is not just transcendental but a transcendental return to time and place.” (p. 129). The author becomes himself the product of the writing as a continuous self-reflexive process. These sentiments run so deeply with my own approach to Shabad kirtan, for I see in this musical style a complete juncture where music of different modes and expressions merge back into the essential emotional experience or “rasa”…samarasa. pulsing back and forth from pure resonance -“nad. “…to manifestation and back to the formless. Mansukhani describes kirtan “as a harmony of revelation and raga/musical modes.” (p. 107). Raga, is both a system of musical modes and also a term that means ” to color the mind”, provoking universal emotional states of being. When united with the sacred revealed words of the Sikh Scripture, the listener is elevated to higher states  of awareness. This elevation of consciousness has been discussed in many fields and is becoming a fertile area for current studies. Richard Condon’s work on entrainment reveals that when single-pointed and conscious listening occurs in communication, a physiological change occurs where brain waves align. In such a state of communion, a physic-psycho-emotional intercourse occurs and a profound knowledge is transmitted.

A Brief Historical Context  

Guru Nanak was a visionary, mystic and revolutionary in human’s eternal spiritual and materially at a time there was great turbulence between the Hindu majority and the Muslim ruling class. The founder, Guru Nanak, Hindu by birth, despaired over the great social atrocities between the Hindu communities due to the Brahmanical hierarchy, caste system, oppression of the poor and inequalities towards woman. Drawing from the Hindu devotional (Bhakti) tradition and Sufism, Guru Nanak propounded a vision of love, humility and brother / sisterhood for all, regardless of caste, creed, religion or gender. He traveled extensively throughout the subcontinent of India and the Middle East, composing hymns in Gurbani, drawing from local melodies and motifs. His theology was one of social solidarity rooted in a spiritual center, referred to by religious scholars as social mysticism.  

His revolutionary approach to a musical religion that embraced diversity of musical styles, languages and ethnicities would ignite the hearts of the inflicted and those who sought equality. His ideology of love, liberty and servitude created a movement often coined as “social mysticism”. He drew from local music and textual idioms and symbols, traveling the subcontinent to share his vision of peace and love to all. Beginning with Guru Nanak and continuing through nine other Gurus, culminating with the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, the main Sikh Scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib are the principle doctrine which are shared through music. Sung Scriptures set in prescribed musical modes.  

The Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture is the poetic and musical out-pouring of this divine love. It is a collection of over 7,000 poems, a compilation of spiritual poetry from Guru Nanak and nine other Guru’s who proceeded him along with selections by other mystical poets. All of the hymns are set to prescribed musical modes social/ethical themes. To this day, Shabad kirtan is the primary form of congregational worship typically followed by a langar (communal meal). As the Sikh community migrated and spread globally, it carried with it a rich historical and spiritual tradition through these hymns.  

Over the course of the past 150 years, many Sikhs have immigrated across the globe. Currently this population is well over 2.5 million. There are an estimated 20,000 Sikhs living in the states of Pennsylvania and Maryland alone attending one of 20 gurdwaras that serve this area. Most attend the local Gurdwara (Sikh temple) once a week to participate in a service (divan) of hymn singing (shabad kirtan) followed by a communal meal (langar). The gurudwar also provides language, music and Sikh theology classes along with interfaith and youth camps. Trained ragis, “ministers of music”, direct the divan, kirtan service. Usually there is a group (jatha) of three ragis, one on tabla (hand drums), and two who alternate singing, accompanying themselves on a harmonium. There is no priest or presiding spiritual director as Sikhism strictly forbids a clergy class. Consequently, these ministers of music are the primary and integral source of the service.  

Singers of the Beloved – Ragis and Kirtaniyas  

Over the course of 8 months, I have spoken with various Ragis, both professional and amateur who contributed to my growing picture of Shabad kirtan. Their diverse voices were an essential impact on understanding the tapestry of this musical phenomena. Multivocality or multi-valence adds not only greater and essential depth to understanding but contributed to the connectedness of parts and core. These I worked with provided me with a transmission of the different  “faces” of a ragi. Together they collectively created a mosaic of the life around shabad kirtan, each person contributing an essential strand, seed to my deepening understanding. The use of Spradley’s ethnographic method of domain analysis, facilitated my understanding of the significant elements of qualities of a ragi: A Ragi: (a) imbibes “bhakti”, devotion  (b) is an educator of cultural, spiritual and ethnic values (c) supports or upholds a history and doctrine  (d) is a good orator  (e) can evoke altered states (f) can act as a bridge between material and spiritual, individual and collective, gender and genderless ness.  

Figure 1 illustrates the multi-dimensionality of a Ragi represented in the below domain analysis worksheet, A Ragi is “X”:


  Included terms
Cover Terms  

 Semantic Relationship

  A Ragi is   

A historian
A social figure
A musician
A spiritual preceptor
A social commentator
A devotee
An educator
A bridge between

Mundane world
Material                   And

Sacred world
Genderless ness

Interestingly, each of the three main Ragis I spoke with offered a different perspective and imbibed a different quality of being. From Manmeet Singh, India-born and raised and educated in Saudi-Arabia and USA, I gained valuable insights into early Sikh history, theology and the fundamentals of Shabad kirtan. Manmeet is an aspiring and inspiring Ragi whose passion and creativity in kirtan are captivating. His knowledge on different musical styles and lineages of kirtan expanded my vision of  what kirtan is. He had the patience to walk me through the technical steps of a kirtan and provided articulate interpretation of the songs and their deeper metaphysical renderings. While his classical training was minimal, his natural ear and inclination lend to his deeply emotional style and presentation of kirtan. From his expressed interest in Sufi quawali music and its shared sentiments in shabad kirtan, I also understood the parallels and cross-overs with Sikhism. I attended several divans, services that Manmeet led along with his mother, Jasvinder wife, Harpreet, brother, Satpreet and father. These were held at private homes usually in honor of a new house, or an initiation ceremony. He sings passionately and deeply accompanied by his brother on tabla and his wife on harmonium.  

I had the opportunity to attend a Sunday service at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation of Rockville, MD where Bhai Gurudarshan Singh is the presiding ragi and granthi (pastor, or priest). Following the service, I had a chance to speak with Gurdarshan about his role and life as a ragi. Gurudarshan, born and raised in a village in Punjab, was trained from a young age as a ragi and granthi (priest or one who recites the Scriptures). He followed in his elder brother’s footsteps who fled home only to be found after years of rigorous training as a Ragi in a Gurdwara (Sikh church) . Gurudarshan received many years of rigorous training as a Granthi, learned in Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic along with local languages while  his musical training was minimal. He immigrated to US in early 1990’s and several years later was established as ragi / granthi of this Gurudwara. Gurudarshan shared intimately some of the social stigmas and negative social perceptions about Ragis experienced both in and out of India. Lack of respect by the community, antiquated ways of thinking and an association of granthis with the corrupt Brahmanical scene have made it challenging for him to spread the integrity of his role with others. He also expressed the importance of contemporizing scriptural interpretations to make them meaningful to the generation of Sikh youth.  

In late Winter, I met Ragi Bhai Jagmohan Singh and his brothers, Bhai Harminder, and Bhai Harmohan who serve as the Ragis for the Washington Metropolitan Sikh Association. These three brothers are carrying on several generations of the Ragi tradition which stems from their ancestors in what is now Pakistan and Kashmir. They all received formal training in Indian Classical Music following the guru-shishya parampara (oral method of learning under an esteemed teacher). They conduct all the services at the gurudwara and also teach privately. When in India, they regularly sing in Sikh services at well-known Gurdwaras. They are knowledgeable of many India Ragas, compositions and rhythms. I had the opportunity to take several lessons with Bhai Jagmohan who taught me two shabad kirtans in familiar ragas. Following the traditional attitude towards compensation, Jagmohan refused any money from me saying that this music is prayer; and one shouldn’t receive money for prayer. For Bhai Jagmohan I received the “rasa”  (taste) of devotional singing. Congregation members had expressed his fine ability to transmit the musical tradition.  

Jagmohan and his brothers are highly respected in their community and have gained reputation of being fine musicians and people. During the annual Vaisakhi service (Sikh New Year), Sunjit Singh, congregation member, presented Bhai Jagmohan Singh with a token of the congregation’s gratitude for his service stating that they were so fortunate to have such fine and humble ragis at their service. They have produced many highly gifted young ragis who have competed and won many awards at kirtan competitions. Their simplicity and commitment to kirtan as worship has also kept them free from the political scandals which have created a schism in their community. Here religious poetry and politics have clashed. This break-away community used to be part of the Guru Nanak Foundation Gurudwara of Silver Springs. Due to changes in the administrative board and a new political leaning, the brothers were asked to leave the Gurudwara because they weren’t willing to bring the desired political views into this musical service. When I asked Bhai Jagmohan Singh, why he sings? He stated that it is his duty, his dharma, his purpose on earth. What does he get out of singing? “Ananda, Amrita ras”. Bliss.  

Metaphor and Meaning in the Shri Guru Granth  

In the most recent issue of the Ethnomusicology Journal, Timothy Rice discusses the importance of metaphor in music. He quotes from Lakoff and Johnson: “no account of meaning and truth can be adequate unless it recognizes the way in which conventional metaphors structure our conceptual system” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980b: p. 486). In the following section, I will be attempting to highlight certain key metaphors, which underlie the hymns that are sung.  

Shabad – Words of the Beloved  

Mansukhani beautifully describes kirtan as “devotional singing of praises of god in melody and rhythm, in which the Divine can be sung, tuned, lifted, contemplated, uttered, intoned, listened to, discoursed on or played on with instruments. It should instill a feeling of love and devotion.” (p. 75). He further goes on to suggest that of that kirtan has 3 – fold effect: by listening, aesthetic senses are satisfied; by feeling “rasa”, the inner consciousness is delighted and one feels spiritual nourishment and thirdly, one is transported to an ecstasy of spirit.  

Shabad kirtan draws from several textual sources including the Guru Granth Sahib, the Dasam Granth, poetry of Bhai Gurdas Lal and Bhai Nanda Lal. Only a portion of Sikh doctrine, these hymns are all set to prescribed ragas (musical modes).  


Nam Simran  –  Congregational Remembrance  

The outpouring of Gurbani and adherence to words is expressed though several forms including simran, (Sank. remembering) repetition of words of syllables to invoke a state of ecstasy and single-pointed concentration. This is similar to zikr in quawali “Allah Hu” (God is) and in Jewish tradition in which words are repeated in an exclamatory fashion to invoke an altered state. The words and sounds themselves are the vehicle for intoxication and exhilaration and transcendence “devekuth”  through which one experiences (simha), joy and (hithahuvat) ecstasy. Ellen Koskoff in Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspectives explores this premise with Lubavitcher Hasdim, a group of ultra-orthodox Jews who believe that altered states are best achieved through vocal performance.  

During an akhanda kirtan gathering at the Guru Nanak Foundation in Silver Springs, MD, I witnessed an evangelical non-stop out-pouring of songs from numerous groups of kirtan singers each sharing hymns in a state of collective remembrance-group chanting and simran. Singing groups, called jatha, from Canada, UK and NE USA gather for this event, which occurs annually and involves continuous hymn- singing for 48 hours. The purpose, to invoke a state of unity and harmony. The timing this year was in my opinion occurred at a desperately need moment in world history, as the onset of the war with Iraq. Listening to the kirtans and reading the translations projected on a screen, enabled me to make direct meaning out of the words the ragis sang. I couldn’t help but see many parallels between the songs of praise, unity and supplication and the concurrent chaos and uncertainty in the world. These shabads, words from Guru Nanak and other Gurus, composed well over 500 years ago echoed the perennial crisis that mankind bears. Struggle between unity and discord. The lyrics of one of the shabad kirtans read : “Men are divided in this worldly warn. Listen to the words of the Guru”.  

Hymn singing is truly the key to understanding the collective, communal and egalitarian nature of Sikhism. A kirtan is never to be performed, but rather as a prayer, its value only in as much as a congregation can share in creating the ecstasy. Guru Arjan (5th Guru, 16c), explained: “Individual recitation is like irrigation by water from a well which only benefit’s a small field, whole group kirtan singing is like rainfall which covers a large area and benefits many people at the same time”.  


Simran  –  Remembering the Beloved  

The fact that the Scriptures are sung lends one to connect music to memory and the power of music as a mnemonic aid. This is actualized, exploited amongst the Sikh communities where youth are generously rewarded for memorizing and singing massive collections of hymns. I was at an event, Vaisakhi, sort of a Sikh New Year celebration in March in which several youth received monetary awards of  $ 1,000 for singing of Suhayeea, (mystical poetry by the last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh) by memory. Simran, the act of repetition, memory and remembrance is a unique style of singing, which is performed by Akhanda kirtaniyas, who perform ecstatic-style chanting for a period of 2 uninterrupted days. Charging the air with a “devekuth” experience. While most of these ragis are not professional, they feel an evangelical zeal and calling to share hymns.  

Anahat Nad  –  sonic theology
Sikh music is intimately linked to a deep, underlying epistemology regarding the nature of sound and creation. As such, Revealed and shared in the sacred script Gurumukhi, the primordial sound, Anahat Nad, musical speaking resonance is shaped and married to Divine words (Shabads)  bearing forth songs of Divine Love – kirtan. Ragi Bhai Harminder eloquently drew this imagery linking sound to words. “Nad, primordial sound or resonance of consciousness exists everywhere, Divine vibration. When it is given a musical shape and joined to hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib, it manifests as kirtan, the outpouring of love. Guy Beck in Sonic Theology writes the this is primal metaphysical source of all in Indian philosophy.”  

“Amrita Ras”  –  State of Bliss
This takes us to another facet of Shabad kirtan, namely the unspoken essence, as one plunges deeply into this mystical, musical tradition, they find a deep epistemology; a taste and a scent, which pervades all the hymns and Scriptures. Rice in Writing Culture talks about the world- views that are embedded in native language musical concepts. These views underlie music, as unspoken ancestors, archetypes that guide us. Stephen Feld in Sound and Sentiment discovers the preponderance of sound – oriented epistemology working with the Kalauli of Australia.  

Through a hermeneutical approach, I have come to understand the essential “taste” of Shabad kirtan. The compounding beauty of shabad kirtan is that one experiences both music, words and meanings. Unlike Indian Classical Music (the musical base for kirtan), where technical expertise is the objective. In Shabad kirtan, the music is only a means, a vehicle or vessel through which the words pour out. For this reason, little attention is put on intricate musical elaboration or virtuosity, which would be interpreted, as egoistic. As Ragi Harminder put it, the music carries the words and should never take the lead. The words, in Gurbani, draw from Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic sharing imagery from Hinduism and Sufism. The poetic sentiments draw heavily from sensory medium. Love and unity is an act of  tasting (rasa), hearing (sunia) smelling, touching, seeing, remembering (simran). These words and imaged are all progressive verbs indicating that the Divine is experienced through the passive senses. In other words, the Divine is all around us waiting to be sucked in. When I asked Ragi Harminder if he had experienced amrita ras, he said has, yet, he doesn’t know what it  “tastes like”, meaning the Divine is ineffable, unexplainable, yet, eternally experiential.  

Sunia  –  ethnographic listening
Metaphorical language is used to entice the devotee into this experiential state of  being. Much attention is placed on the taste and smell of the Divine: Being so, expressions such as “fountain of bliss”, Divine Nectar, Nam Nectar, Rasa  of Immortality and such actions as: “sipping, drinking ” and “sucking” are found in the poetry. Mansukhani writes: “Kirtan of Gurbani is regarded as nectar of the water of immortality which liberates man from the bondage of materialism”  (p. 82) and  “Showing Divine Mercy, The Divine gives the Name-nectar to the virtuous and pours it in their mouth ” (p. 86). Other such actions as drinking the elixir, sucking the name-elixir and being perfumed with the Name’s fragrance, the nectar rains and the soul drinks and hears the Holy Name are yet more examples that reveal the connection to sensory stimuli.  

The act of listening and remembering and equally stated as essential approaches to Divine Grace. Guru Ramdas emphasises nam-simaran – remembrance of the Divine and says: “Read of god, write of God, repeat God’s name and sing God’s praise. With their tongues the saints sing God’s praise” (Mansukhani: p. 99). In Sufism that act of listening “sama”  is the pathway to the Divine. In shabad kirtan, which shares many linguistic and poetic links with Sufism, the act of listening “sunia” is also important as I had mentioned early. These words then are the means of Divine revelation shared musically. A Ragi must commit over 3,000 verses and hymns to memory and be prepared to share shabads and interpolations.  

This type of listening can be understood in a research context also, where one seeks through highly attentive listening to find the resonant chords between ourselves and the subjects we study.  


The Musical Format  

As mentioned early, Shabad kirtan follows a musical format based on North Indian Classical Music. All hymns are written in a prescribed raga (musical mode), which should be adhered to in all performance. However, my observations show that most ragis don’t follow this rule to a “T”, rather they will freely compose melodies in Rags which they are familiar with and feel the freedom to combine ragas to create their own “mishra” mixed varieties. They will, however singsongs in ragas appropriate with the times of day. There are 31 Ragas in which the hymns are composed. While some of these draw from the Hindustani  (North Indian classical) tradition, others were newly- created or hybrids of two or three recognized ragas. There are several styles in which shabad kirtan is presented as Shabads, Chants, Pauries, Shaloks and Vars (heroic songs). Along with these poetic and melodic styles, there are many rhythm cycles that are used mostly in cycles of 6 or 16.  

A Ragi jatha or musical ensemble is composed of 2 vocalists who accompanying themselves on harmoniums and 1 percussionist on tabla. While the vocalists often sing in unison, they take turns embellishing the hymn with differing types of ornamentation typical to Hindustani vocal music.  


A typical divan (service) follows this musical format:  

An instrumental prelude-shan
Invocation – Mangala – charan
Main shabad kirtan in classical raga
Other shabad-kirtan with parmans (paralleled quotations from other hymns)
Ananda Sahib
Ardas – supplication and
Reading of the Hukam (reading from the Scriptures)  

There are also prescribed Hymns that the presented during specified parts of the day. A system of five musical sessions (chowkies) was initiated in the 1600’s and are still performed on a daily basis:  

 a.m. to 6 a.m. – Asa Di Var to be sung in morning ragas. Excerpts from Asa Di Var (Verses of Hope) are included in the accompanying video and also discussed below.

6 a.m. to 10 a.m. – Anand Di chowki in which the entire Anand Sahib of forty pauris is sung, followed by hymns in Ragas appropriate to this time frame.

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. – Charan Kamal Di Chowki in which hymns of various Ragas appropriate to this time are performed.

4 p. m. -7 p.m. – Sodar Di Choki also known as Sandhi-prakash (sunset). Hymns of this time period are sung.

7 p. m. – 10 p. m. –  Sukh Asan or Kalyan Di Chowki in which hymns in evening ragas will be performed concluding with the Kirtan Sohila, a praise song which is recited  

Asa Di Var
I had the opportunity to observe a morning service in which Ragis Bhai Jagmohan Singh and Bhai Harminder Singh performed the Asa Di Var. This Sikh Scripture meaning “Verses of Hope” consists of 24 sections comprising Shlokas, Mahals and Paurhees are recited, the Chants are to be sung in ragas. Bhai Manmeet Singh emailed this response to me regarding the nature of Asa Di Var. “Guru Nanak composed Asa Di Vaar. It used to be called Asa Ki Vaar but it got Punjabi-ized to Di. This prayed has become common because of the varying issues the bani (words) addresses from spiritual, natural, hypocrisy and society. It is more often sung in Gurudwaras than done by individuals as a part of the daily prayer. There a few who do it daily. Vaar is a ballad and is always sung. So this Vaar is sung in Raag Asa. And yes is always sung in the Gurudwaras.”   

While this Scripture is to be performed uninterrupted, I noticed that Bhai Jagmohan Singh did insert other shabad kirtan hymns (not part of the Asa Di Var) on several occasions. During a post-interview, I did feed-back analysis on this program which I had video-taped to find out how this scriptural performance is framed. While the sung portions would originally been have all been sung in the morning raga Asa, Bhai Jagmohan and his brother performed them in various morning ragas such as  Todi ( s r q m p d n s ) equivalent to “do, re (flattened ) mi (flattened ) fa so la (flattened) ti do” and Bhairavi (same as Todi but with a flattened  ti as well). Jagmohan was the lead singer with Harminder singing in unison on the same octave or singing an octave higher or echoing his words or elaborating a phrase with higher lilting voice. Their brother, Harmohan accompanied them on tabla, however he didn’t sing with them. All three brothers shared the recitation of the Asa Di Var. Portions of the recitation were joined in by the congregation. The Scripture was broken up on several occasions by other appropriate hymns in which the congregation was urged to join in. Multi-lingual song sheets were handed out with the Gurmukhi script, transliteration into English and finally, the English translation. During the song: “Suhavee”, I noticed many people joining on especially on the refrain. While Jagmohan and Harminder would alternate singing the verses in such a deeply sweet and joyful manner. Occasionally they would take turns carrying a phrase into pure ornamental mode. Harminder especially enjoyed reaching higher embellishments. I could tell that this might be his trade-mark. Bhai Jagmohan later shared with me that they perform Asa daily at their home and take their religious and musical responsibilities seriously.  


Shabad Kirtan and Asa Di Var as Metaphor  

Timothy Rice introduces a model of the 3-dimensionality of musical experience as time, location and metaphor. He demonstrates the depth, complexity and Pluralistic nature of music and its complex associations indicating the inherent truths underlying musical utterances. He concludes that “metaphoric process is an omnipresent principle of cognition…all experience has an ‘as’ structure.” (p. 164). Asa Di Var is a perfect example of how cognition is channeled through the singing of these Scriptures which have multi-layers: spiritual, social and political. A simple and appropriate way to approach metaphor in the Asa Di Var may be to see it like this:

                                           a political vehicle

Shabad kirtan           is         a social agent of change

                                           a spiritual nourishment

For each of these characteristics, metaphors of Asa Di Var ellicit a transformation in the listener on several levels of being. Below are textual examples below to illustrate these semantic categories:

As a political vehicle:
From Salok Mahala 1 Section 15:

“Oh Brahmin ! If you have a sacred thread that may be beneficial to my soul, please do put that around my neck; a thread in which the cotton is the “compassion”, the yam/fiber the “contentment”, the knots in the are the “self-control” and whose twists, the “high moral character”.  

A brief interpretation of this Salok speaks against the Brahmanical upper-caste practice and entitlement of wearing a sacred thread as a symbol of the privileged priestly class. It also hints at the obsession of senseless outer forms worship which only enforce divisiveness and oppression.  

As a social agent of change:
From Mahala 2, Section 22:  

Whatever prevails in our minds emerges out of us, as a natural consequence. People receive benefits according to their inner intentions. ”  

Here the poet teaches the reader the power of our inner intentions to effect our environment.  

As Spiritual Nourishment:  

From Asa Mahal 4 Chant Ghar 4, Section 1:  

“My eyes are drenched in the Waheguru’s nectar, and my soul is immersed totally in His Namm and devotion.”  

Here the poet speaks of the intoxicating experience when one merges with the Divine.  

Shabad Kirtan and Suhavee
I have chosen the Shabad “Suhavee” to transcribe into a simple and modest form as I find it a beautiful and truly moving piece of music. The lyrics, composed by Guru Ram Das, come from the Guru Granth Sahib while the melody is, as Jagmohan informed me a popular shabad kirtan in a mixed rag. I was not able to find a correlation between this raga and any of the well-known Hindustani Ragas nor find it in any of the 31 prescribed ragas used in Shabad Kirtan. It is not uncommon for Ragis to invent their own  “mishra” (mixed) ragas, taking musical elements and notes from several well known ragas to create their own. Later, in speaking with Jagmohan, I came to learn that this shabad was in a mishra rag.  

“Suhavee” – written by the fourth Guru, Guru Ram Das

Mishra Raga (Mixed Raga with elements of Asavari)

performance Time: Morning 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Ascending Scale: Sa Re Ga Pa Dha Ni Sa

Descending Scale: Sa Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa

1st, 2nd, 3rd, fifth, flattened sixth, seventh

Rhythm: “Tintal” 16-beat cycle broken into measures of 4 beats  

I have studied Hindustani vocal music through Indian notation. This system, while incomparable to the sophistication of Western notation, is very practical in laying an outline for a melody. Any serious Indian Classical musician knows that notation is only a very general reference and never meant to be “read” as we understand in the Western musical notation. Below, in figure 2, I have provided you with both notation of the song and also Western notation.  

Figure 2:


Below is an example of the scale as written in Indian notation:  

sa re ga pa dha ni sa*         sa* ni dha pa ga re sa  

               * indicates higher octave  

Below is an example of the ascending and descending scale using G # as the tonic (Sa):

The refrain, or rahao as it is called in Shabad Kirtan is also were the song commences from and returns to at the end of the hymn. In figure  3, the musical refrain is notated. Here the words:  

Suhavee, kaun so vayla/jita prabhu mayla” – What is that auspicious moment, when God is met?  

Figure 3


Suhave contains four verses which may be repeated and followed by the refrain. There are musical interludes between verses on the harmonium and improvised ornamental elaboration of phrases by the singers. I will transcribe the first verse in Figure  4 to show the melodic line and an example of the poetry:  

at oocha at ka darbara, ant nahin kichh paravara, kot kot kot lakh dhavai, ik til at ka mahal na pavai

The Divine’s court is most lofty and exalted. It has no end or limitations. Millions, tens of millions seek, but they cannot find even a tiny bit of the Beloved’s Mansion.”  

Figure 4


This Shabad kirtan lasted for approximately 8 minutes during which Bhai Jagmohan and Bhai Harminder each took turns improvising on verse phrases. Jagmohan chose to improvise and ornament the phrase “mera uccha” (God is) lofty and exalted. Harminder rendered a lilting improvisation towards the close of the piece, using complex ornamentation in a higher octave. The song closed with a return to the rahao: “Suhave”. During the whole piece, Harmohan, on tabla, maintained a simple 16 beat, which he lightly ornamented.  

The Paradox of Poesy and Politics
Poesy, the dance of meaning presents a state of elasticity where bhakti, devotion can be blurred by political agendas. Throughout the Sikh history, there has been a perennial mix of transcendence and turmoil, bravery with bloodshed, martyrs and murderers. The sweet (mitha) and the sour (kaccha) The immortal amrita and the perishable (mrita). I find no other religion whose pure, innocent and truly benign inception was so short-lived. Early Sikh history was wrought with devastating persecution. The sweet words of universal love and solidarity from the first Guru, Guru Nanak were by the Guruship of the last Guru, Guru Govind Singh, supplemented with a physical attire of military strength and might possessing a solid defense mechanism. Many of the sweet words and hymns themselves speak much of this bittersweet aspect of Sikh history. Transcendence and turmoil still reigns strong in the hearts of many Sikhs who still struggle to this day for their autonomy. The controversy at the Guru Nanak Foundation is linked to this very revolt for a separate country for Sikh’s called Khalistan. While sweet shabad kirtan is the musical stronghold for this congregation, political allegiance is the divide.  

One closing metaphor to complete this paper would be that of kirtan as “wrapping” and “unwrapping”. A daily practice amongst Sikhs is the wrapping of the turban and the wrapping of the Guru Granth Sahib (the Scripture is covered with beautiful silken tapestries that are routinely unwrapped during a service when the book is read from and wrapped at the closure of the service). Wrapping suggests to me protection of the head and of the sacred word. While, unwrapping (when the turban is unwrapped at night) and unwrapping the Granth during which time the reveal Scriptures are read represents revelation and release. These words have the capacity to bring about transformation and change both within the individual and outward in the world. The Ragis sing songs of freedom, supplication and determination. Their music may very well be considered the greatest impetus of change. For some, this change occurs on a spiritual level, for others social or political.  

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Namdharis – Video performance of traditional Ragis. Producer unknown.  

The Golden Temple – Video – documentary of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India.  

Singing Songs of Divine Love. excepts from Akhand Kirtan at Guru Nanak Foundation, Silver Springs. April 2003 and Sunday Divans at the Washington Metro Sikh Association. March-April. Available on I-Movie.