Creative journeys of the Divine Word

As a faculty at the Santiniketan, film actor Balraj Sahni once asked Guru Rabindranath Tagore to write an anthem for the world. Tagore replied that the 15th century Guru Nanak has already composed a world anthem echoing the ethos of humanitarianism, and the idea of inclusivity of all living beings under the sky.

Tagore alluded to the incident when Guru Nanak was denied entry for the aarti at the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha. The Guru, as resistance, is believed to have stood outside the temple and sang an aarti. Instead of a plate with lighted lamps, he created an allegory of the sky as a plate with lighted stars and celestial bodies – “the sky presents an invocatory platter (Gagan Thaal) that includes all living beings. A sky that holds a variety of jewelled celestial bodies and scented air... the destroyer of fear… The sound of your name is subtle goes unheard, resounds endlessly.” The aarti, in raga Dhanasri, without the plate and oil lamps is sung every evening in all gurudwaras.

Musicians at Sultanpur Lodhi

Musicians at Sultanpur Lodhi  

Like a bridge over troubled waters, the celebrations for Guru Nanak’s 550th anniversary opens with the inauguration of the Kartarpur corridor between India and Pakistan. The ceremonies that began on 1st November end on the full moon of the Hindu Month of Kartik – 12th November, marking the birthday of Guru Nanak. Five hundred fifty musicians opened the cultural programme at Sultanpur Lodhi, the city where the Guru lived and attained enlightenment.

The story of the enlightenment suggests the journey of Guru Nanak when he disappeared for three days in a river only to return with a describable experience of the formless truth. His first words - ‘There is no Hindu and no Musalman!’ was followed by a verse (Ik Onkar) – the central philosophy of the Sikh religion. Ik Onkar is the opening of the first composition of Guru Nanak. This seminal verse (mul mantra) is at the beginning of Japji Sahib, the prayer at the beginning of the holy scripture of Sikhs. It approximately translates as: “There is one reality for all. It is infinite, all-pervasive. The name of which is Truth, immortality and eternity. It is energy, the power for all creation. It is formless, fearless, all-inclusive represents love for all. It is timeless and formless, self-sustained, self-contained, self-evolved. The Guru is the supreme light that dispels ignorance. It is through the Guru that one acquires grace and blessings of that One.”

“Gagan Mein Thaal” by designer Amardeep Behl at Virasat-e-Khalsa in Anandpur Sahib

“Gagan Mein Thaal” by designer Amardeep Behl at Virasat-e-Khalsa in Anandpur Sahib  

The word ‘Sikh’ comes from shishya or disciple who commits to engage with the word of the Guru. Noted designer Amardeep Behl, the creator of the museum Virast-e-Khalsa (Anandpur Sahib), says, “Sikhism is a way of life, a journey of the divine word!” The sojourn is one of perpetual learning by hearing, reading, singing and reflecting the word (Shabad). The word speaks of existential comprehension, compassion, inclusion, and truth. The word which was poetically spoken, and sung by Baba Guru Nanak Devji is later given an alphabetical form ‘Gurumukhi’. The script as poetic verses composed in classical melodies (raga) and rhythmic cycles (tala) reflect the wisdom of all the ten Sikh gurus and other wise men. They are compiled in the supreme teacher – the book – “Guru Granth Sahib”.

The historical trajectory of the ecology of ‘The Word’ – Gurbani (guru’s voice) transcends artificial human divisions. Its history is reflective of tears, ravages of Partition and miserable solace for the marginalised human communities. It symbolises multiple streams and has sociological implications. It inspires journeys of creative expressions. The Niraakar (formless) becomes the sounds of percussion of instrumental music.

Fullness in the void

For several decades, Guru Nanak, the poet, and singer, with his fellow Muslim companion and musician Bhai Mardana travelled length and breadth of the subcontinent. They questioned social norms, explored metaphysical spheres by conversing with a large number of people. “The raga (melodic arrangement) Ramkali is frequently used in the Granth Sahib. The early morning melody evokes the mood of sweetness and wonder. As they converse with mendicants, the Guru and Bhai Mardana are in constant wonder vismaad,” says Bhai Baldeep Singh, a descendant of the Bhai Sadharan one of the important disciples of Guru Nanak. Baldeep’s engagement with the ‘word’ is an in-depth journey in reviving the Sikh musical heritage.

“I searched, spoke, learned and documented several elders – the tradition bearers of instruments, and musical genres. I handcrafted the string instruments of the rabab, the taus, and revived the percussion traditions such as that of the pakhawaj. Bhai Gurdas (the scribe who wrote the Granth Sahib) mentions that in the time of the Guru, Nanak Ji’s poetry resonated in every home in the accompaniment of the percussion mridang and the rabab. My journey is similar to the verse by Guru Nanak that says – plough the soul within before sowing the seed of the ‘word’ and nurture the seed with the water from the river of Truth,” adds Baldeep Singh.

The string instrument rabab played by Mardana is a metaphor for the idea of the journey. The instrument travelled from Central Asia, Afghanistan. Polymath scholar and senior artist Madan Gopal Singh explains, “the sound-wave length of the rabab is short and serves to highlight the essence of the poetic verse. Once the sound of rabab ends, the verse aligns itself to a rhythmic cycle. The word and the music symbolise the process of becoming. The sung word gradually moves in the silence the story of the reflective word.”

Women’s engagement

Madan Gopal Singh

Madan Gopal Singh  

Madan Gopal critiques that the ‘word’ has yielded various categories of Sikh musical traditions. “There is the continuous classical music tradition linked with the formal space of the gurudwaras. The category of the folk balladic traditions, and then the tradition of women’s engagement with the singing of the divine word away from the male gaze. As a child, I recall the early hours of the morning (Amrit Vela), hearing the meditative rhythmic chanting by my mother and grandmother. The hummed blended incantation closest to the breath represented cosmic proximity that formed a spiritual cocoon and granted an iconic stature to the women.”

All over Punjab, it was a common sight in the afternoon, when household chores concluded, women got together to spin on the charkha and sing. This ceremony called Trijan cut across religion, spoke of daily life such as rites of passage. The Shabad soon followed. “Earlier, the melodies were simple, later percussion (dholak) and khartal (castanets) became part of the women community singing which could be seen as a space of their expressional empowerment. Another modality is when women groups gather to sing 40-50 Shabad verses as relay singing.” Ah! Nanak’s poetic verse says, “In the realm of grace, spiritual power prevail…there are powerful warriors and heroes with Ram inscribed in their heart, there dwells Sita wedded to the Divine word.” (Japji Sahib, pauri 37)

In the post-Partition India, the Divine word psychologically provided solace to the millions swept in the violence of fractured communities. Special gatherings called diwans in Gurudwaras had Ragis (specialists of sacred Sikh music) come to perform.

Idea of contemplation

Tarundeep Singh, noted environmentalist, and musician, says, “My engagement with the divine word addresses environmental issues under my organisation Fateh – ‘Fraternity of Active citizens Tending Environment Holistically’ I work to create community ownership of ‘Green Amritsar’ using Baba Nanak’s poetry like Pawan Guru, Pani pita. Mata Dharat mahat,’... the air is the guru, water the father and earth, the mother of all….”

The journey becomes an image in the paintings of seasoned artist Arpana Caur. “The brush creates the word on canvas in silence with colour and images. Nanak’s poetry asserts the unified world within. My work titled ‘Gagan thaal’ (sky as a platter) has Guru Nanak above the clouds. The idea of contemplation augmented by the prayer beads in his hand. Abstract map of lines, pearls, and stars mark the journey conveying evolving consciousness.”

Behl, known for hi-tech storytelling in the basement of the Golden Temple plaza, says, “As a designer, I work to recreate the ‘word’ in spatial and metaphoric representation that will embrace the visitor in an immersive and sensory experience of an inward journey. For instance, I designed the drum building as a meditative space for visitors to become one with the essence of Ek Onkar. The delicate crystals hung by fiber optics reflect the guiding light of the faith and the programmed LED lights enhance calmness that offers a holistic experience. Creating the multi-sensory experiential design of the ‘Gagan Mein Thaal’ involved dramatic visuals and stirring audio effects.”

The award-winning sound designer Kanwaljit Singh Sawhney (KJ Singh) worked with Behl, both in Anandpur Sahib and Amritsar. He used articulatory phonetics to create the soundscape of the word as an aural world with the effects of sonic textures and an array of creative-technical skills. Referring to the sound-design of Gagan Thaal, KJ says, “The first internalisation of the divine word led to an ode to the vastness of the universe that is played in the sacred vicinity of the Shri Harmandir Sahib. The Brahmand (universe) comprises the khartal (castanets) variety of percussion and string instruments like the rabab and the dilruba that reverberates in the accompaniment of human chorus voices creating a sense of community.”

The sung poetry of Baba Guru Nanak and the music of Bhai Mardana provides for artists layered experiences of existence, nature, and humanity. The creative community is stimulated with hope to bridge fractured imaginations. Each artistic impulse recalls Nanak’s verse on ‘Vismaad’ or wonder: “Wonderful is the sound current of the Naad, wonderful is the knowledge of the Vedas. Wonderful are the beings, wonderful is the species. Wonderful are the forms, wonderful are the colours. ….Wonderful is His Praise, wonderful is His adoration. Wonderful is the wilderness and wonderful is the path.”

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 10:04:02 PM |

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