Music is such an essential component of gurdwaras that the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee has an exclusive Ragi Department and runs a music school that not only teaches kirtan singing but is also attempting to revivetraditional instruments like the rabab in Gurbani, writes Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

It is mid-morning when you walk through the gate of Mata Sundri Gurdwara near ITO, but the awful Delhi summer sun is already beginning to get crisp on your back. Still, the freshness of the morning hours is somewhere in the air. Also wafting in the air is some music faintly floating from a string of rooms adjacent to the gurdwara.

Taking you eagerly towards the direction of the music is the man you have come to meet — Bhai Harjeet Singh Ragi, a well-known name among the ragis of Delhi gurdwaras. The rooms from where the soothing music is drifting out comprise Gurmat Sangeet Academy, the only music school housed within a Delhi gurdwara. A veritable nursery set up many summers ago by the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee to contribute to a vital feature of the gurdwaras — its music.

Packed with eager learners and busy teachers, you find the mood in the music school — a part of Gurmat College affiliated to The Punjabi University, Patiala — as much hectic as it is soothing. Sitting on the floor, surrounded by a circle of students, there is young Manjeet Kaur, a post-graduate student of Sikh Studies in Gurmat College and a tabla teacher in the morning hours. In the next room is Kawaljeet Kaur, associated with the music school for over a decade now, teaching a clutch of young boys how to sing kirtan. Also, how to accompany themselves on the harmonium simultaneously. Her soulful singing — also a Basant bani sung specially for your ears — nearly mesmerises you.

Next to Kawaljeet is another teacher, Sukhchain Singh, tuning a string instrument which you later learn is taus, a traditional instrument used in singing banis from the Guru Granth Sahib.

Bhai Harjeet Singh is in a mood to take you to the early days of Sikh music, “when the custom of ragis began.” Over a cup of kadak chai from the gurdwara langar, he states, “The practice of having ragis began during the time of Guru Arjan Dev ji. Before that we had only rababis. While Guru Nanak ji sang the banis, it was Bhai Mardana, a Muslim bard, who accompanied him on the rabab, from where came the tradition of rababis.”

The Partition wiped out the tradition in India. “Being Muslims, they left for Pakistan. Today, there is none this side.” In Pakistan, due to lack of Sikh patronage, the rababi tradition is also said to be on its last legs.

Bhai Harjeet learnt kirtan singing from his uncle, the well-known Bhai Santa Singh Ragi, but he has never sung with the rabab and taus as accompanying instruments. That very morning, he has sung “Asa di War” at the crack of dawn at Gurdwara Rakabganj along with his two brothers for nearly two hours, using only the harmonium and the tabla.

“DSGPC has 51 ragis on its rolls who are assigned singing hours at all the important gurdwaras in Delhi. In the historic gurdwaras like the Bangla Sahib and Sishganj, kirtan is sung the whole day. But the instruments ragis use typically are the harmonium and the tabla. I would say, it is the harmonium that killed many a traditional instrument used in Sikh music, like the rabab, the taus, the dilruba,” he says.

To counter the tide, a little over a year ago, Gurmat Sangeet Academy began teaching the rabab, the taus and the dilruba to those interested. “We hired a Muslim musician to help teach these instruments to our teachers so that they can teach the students,” says Harinder Pal Singh, chairman of Gurmat College. The teachers are now “ready” but “there is hardly any youngster interested in them.” Singh puts the blame on “today’s western culture and reality shows.”

The saviour of Sikh music from the changing times is in the Guru Granth Sahib itself, underlines Bhai Harjeet. “Though the times have changed, what can’t change is the make-up of the banis. Every bani in Guru Granth Sahib is composed in a raga, which is sacrosanct. There are 31 main ragas used in them, besides 31 prakaar of these raags. As the day progresses, the ragas in the banis also change.” Though both use the ragamala, there is a difference between singing classical music and Gurbani, he explains. “While in classical music, ragas and their delineation are more important than the words, in Gurbani, it is bani pradhan. A devotee will have to hear the words, the shabad, that you are singing.”

In the Durbar Sahib at The Golden Temple in Amritsar, it is mandatory now to sing kirtan along with traditional instruments like the rabab. “It is a tall order, difficult to achieve, will take a lot of time,” states Harinder Singh, also a member of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee which runs the shrine.

Singh’s ground experience at Gurmat Sangeet Academy is certainly speaking here!