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Why attempts to revive traditional Sikh instruments at gurdwaras have failed for 90 years


In West Delhi’s Uttam Nagar, Bhai Baljit Singh Namdhari, an exponent of gurmat sangeet, the sacred music of the Sikhs, has been teaching youngsters for decades. He has trained around 2,000 students in the rendering of shabad kirtan in prescribed ragas as well as the string instruments of the tradition, the tanti saaz. Listening to the ragi, whose immersion in the Hindustani classical tradition is inseparable from his passion for gurbani, is a deeply moving experience.

Propped up in his drawing room, which doubles up as a teaching space after his academy folded up during the pandemic, are the taus, sarinda, dilruba and rabab – all instruments that are rarely seen in gurdwaras and almost never on the Hindustani concert stage.

A masterly singer, Bhai Baljit Singh is also a player of the dilruba and the tar shehnai, which along with the esraj, is often included in the tanti saaz category. Last week, the raagi was requested by the Delhi Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which manages gurdwaras across Delhi, to bring these instruments back into the devotional music of Gurdwara Bangla Sahib near Connaught Place. The request is part of a larger revivalist push from the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhs, to exorcise from the tradition the harmonium, a “colonial” instrument that has been fully absorbed into Indian musical systems.

Bhai Baljit Singh Namdhari on a tar shehnai. Courtesy: Bhai Baljit Singh Namdhari.

Bhai Baljit Singh, a keen classicist himself, understands the impulse behind the campaign but believes it cannot be hastened or forced. “My own guru, Sadguru Jagjit Singhji, said it took him 29 days just to learn to hold the gaz [bow] against the dilruba,” he said. “I was already a trained vocalist when I took up the dilruba and then the tar shehnai. It would take a year for a prodigiously talented musician to learn them in a year but three to four years is the least it normally takes.”

The impossibility of the mission seems to have dawned on the Akal Takht too. In recent statements it has clarified that it has set a three-year deadline to introduce more tanti saaz in the Golden Temple and that too without rooting out the harmonium.

March of time

This is not the first time a diktat to revive tanti saaz has been passed. Similar campaigns were launched in the 1930s-’40s, ’70s, ’90s and earlier in this millennium to pull the instruments back from the brink of near extinction. And to an extent, they helped. In traditional gurmat sangeet circles in India and other countries with a large diaspora, these instruments are taught and played with devout passion. But the numbers still make only for a niche.

One reason why successive revivalist attempts over nearly nine decades failed is the limited talent pool for these beautiful but rare instruments. The other, bigger reason is the inexorable tendency of all arts, including the sacred, to change with time.

Strictly raga-based music has lost much of its place in contemporary gurbani rendering, which often tips into what purists would call semi-classical, light, light, folk or even filmy. Also rare are some of the unique systems of this music, such as singing the partal with a complex array of taals in a single composition. Cajoling and readying an entire generation of practising musicians who perform as jathas (teams) in gurdwaras to suddenly take to pure classicism and become skilled performers could be an impossible ask.

Sandeep Singh, a remarkably talented taus player in Jalandhar, believes that, with few raagis having mastery over raga music, a radical shift would be a tall order. “We would need to work on that before we start insisting that traditional tants be brought back,” he said.

Sandeep Singh plays Raag Ahir Bhairav on the Taus.

Path to devotion

Music is considered the primary path to devotion in Sikhism. And as is usually the case with Indian music traditions, history and myth mingle inextricably in the origin stories of these instruments and their place in gurmat sangeet.

The Sikh gurus, the spiritual masters of the religion, are said to have ordained that music be used as a means of worship, with 31 ragas specified for different verses of the Guru Granth Sahib, the central holy scripture of Sikhism. Every one of the tanti saaz is traced back to a guru. Most of these ragas are common to the Hindustani system too but some are specific to Gurbani.

When the first guru, Guru Nanak, an ascetic and composer, started on his spiritual journey in the 15th century, the dominant music form was the dhrupad dhamar and it predictably informed the early forms of Sikh musical tradition. As time went by, and other forms came to dominate, the tradition absorbed some of their elements too – like from khayal, tappa and qawwali, according to the late musician-scholar Ajit Singh Paintal. The harmonium and other instruments outside the tradition, such as the violin and mandolin, and more recently, the electronic keyboard, too came to be used.


A folio from a Janamsakhi published in the 19th century depicting Guru Nanak (second from left) meeting Prahlad, a mythical Hindu devoteee of Vishnu. On the far right is Bhai Mardana holding a rabab. Credit: Asian Art Museum, San Francisco/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.]

These changes meant that there were waves of “standardization, classicization, and hybridization”, says ethnomusicologist Wai Chung Li in her research work ‘The Sikh Gurmat Sangīt Revival in Post-Partition India’. The first back-to-the-roots campaign was in the 1930s-’40s, with the Sikh Reht Maryada movement emphasising unwavering adherence to the basic tenets of the faith, including “singing the scriptural compositions in traditional musical measures”.

In the mid-1970s, Bhai Baljit Singh’s guru Sadguru Jagjit Singhji embarked on a similar mission to return to classicism in gurmat sangeet. A classical musician skilled at the taus and dilruba, the Namdhari sect’s former head enjoyed immense goodwill and admiration in the Hindustani circuit. It is he who put many young Sikhs under the tutelage of masters such as Vilayat Khan and Bismillah Khan. One of them was Bhai Baljit Singh.

“At congregations across Punjab, Sadguruji would encourage youngsters like me to take the stage, arrange gurus to teach us at Bhaini Sahib [headquarters of the Namdhari sect where traditional gurmat sangeet is taught], ensure that we got legends to teach us,” he said. “He was keen to revive the tant saaz but there were few takers at the time.”

Amandeep Singh with students of the gurmat sangeet department of Panjab University.

In the early 1970s, when Bhai Baljit Singh started learning the tar shehnai, he could not find one in Delhi and his first instrument was assembled at a welding workshop where a family friend soldered a second-hand sound box from Meena Bazaar onto the youngster’s dilbruba. The tar shehnai has a resonator attached to it that gives it an incredible mix of sounds – of the shehnai and the dilruba.

The next big call for the “authentic” in devotional music came in 1991 at the Adutti Gurmat Sangeet Sammellan (a unique gurmat music congregation) at Ludhiana’s Gurdwara Gur Gian Prakash, or the Jawwadi Taksal, in 1991, according to Li. The taksal sought, through multiple workshops and publications, to ensure that the tants replaced the harmonium and raagis sang shabads per prescribed ragas.

Then around 15 years ago, the head of the Delhi Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Paramjit Singh Sarna, initiated a small campaign to eliminate the harmonium in its gurdwaras, recalls Bhai Baljit Singh, who was roped in, along with Paintal and the musical duo Singh Bandhu for the mission. But it turned out to be a non-starter. “After three-four classes, the ragis threw their hands up and said no, it was too difficult,” recalled Bhai Baljit Singh.

A tanti saaz ensemble.

Ease and accessibility

Of the four tant saaz instruments, only the rabab is a plucked instrument. The rest are bowed and sound like variants of the sarangi. Today, there are few exponents of these instruments outside the Sikh community in India. The taus and dilruba can be traced to Persian roots, with the former crafted into a distinct peacock shape and brought into gurmat music by Guru Hargobind and the later by Guru Gobind Singh. The saranda is linked back to Guru Amar Das and Guru Arjun. The tanpura is often included as a tant saaz.

The rabab, believed to have been brought to India by Afghan traders and soldiers, can be described as the first instrument of the Sikh faith: sacred and historic texts as well as miniatures tell us that Guru Nanak’s beloved follower and companion was a rababia, Bhai Mardana. The guru’s exhortation “Mardaneya! Rabab chhed, bani aayee hai [Mardana, play the rabab, bani (composition/verse) has occurred to me],” is cited often by the devout.

But while the instrument occupies a place of great reverence in the faith, it has almost disappeared from both the sacred and performative spaces, replaced by the sarod. The rabab, with its more stertorous notes, has limited capability to produce the glides that are so integral to the Hindustani system. A major setback for it was the Partition, which drove many Muslim rababis out of the country or onto the margins. The result is that the number of rababis in India has dwindled down to a bare handful. And, among the tant saaz, the rabab is least visible today.

Saranda and gurbani by Shaminder Pal Singh.

Taus artist Sandeep Singh counts no more than a dozen really skilled players of the instrument today. Trained by sarangi player Shaminder Pal Singh and later the dilruba masters Kartar Singh and Piara Singh Padam, Sandeep Singh straddles both worlds – gurmat sangeet and Hindustani. Like most tant saaz artists, he plays solo as well as an accompanist to raagis.

“The reason why the harmonium is ubiquitous in Gurbani is because it is easy to use, accessible and for this reason it would be hard to replace,” he pointed out. “But the trouble with using light, filmy dhuns is that it tends to distract the sangat [congregation], whereas the aim of gurmat sangeet is to create a meditative experience.”

Dilruba musician Amandeep Singh is also a beneficiary of Sadguru Jagjit Singh’s constant talent search. In the early 1990s, his family found for him an old dilruba at an auction of second-hand household goods. Under Sardar Chatur Singh’s discipleship he became a polished dilruba player by his mid-teens. “There has been a leher [wave] in favour of old instruments since early 2000s especially among the young,” he said. “Even then there are few good and mature artists playing these. With this order, the jathas have no option but to train and rethink their approach to music.”

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.



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