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Bhai Avtar Singh Raagi


Gurbani Kirtan & Dhrupad





Dhrupad is sound of meditation – worship of naad (sound) – Onkar Saadhnaa. Through the practice and learning of dhrupad, the goal is to achieve Onkaar (Creator). Alaap during dhurpad is the worship of Nirankaar (formless Creator) which is followed by worship of Saakaar (Creation) through words. There is no existence of Nirankaar without Saakaar and no existence of Saakaar without Nirankaar. They both exist together and cannot be separated. 

“The raag is a unique manifestation of our heritage ... Every raag has its own character and discipline and it is achieved by meditation. A raag is not just a tune or a dhun, its an experience of sound.”  [Pandit Ramkant Gundecha]



The relationship between Gurbani and Dhrupad goes back to Guru Nanak (1469-1539). He travelled extensively in all four directions and made five major journeys of the world to share the divine message with humanity. During all his journeys he was accompanied by Bhai Mardana (1459–1534), a rabaab player. Bhai Mardana was a close friend of Guru Nanak and a highly accomplished musician of his time.

Swaami Haridaas (1480 -1575), mentor of legendary Taansen and Baiju Baawaraa, was a reputed saint-singer of dhrupad and developed the pada prabandha style of sung poetry. A contemporary of Guru Nanak, he composed many four part dhrupad compositions as sthai, antara, sanchari and abhogi. According to some online sources, Swami Haridas was a student of Bhai Mardana. Pandit Ramakant Gundecha mentioned that Taansen has referred to Lord in his compositions with words like ‘Kartar’, which are used by Guru Nanak.

The first five Sikh Gurus (1469-1606) were also great singers and musicologists. It was in 1604 that for the first time, the largest ever collection of sacred hymns of the first five Gurus, fifteen saints and fifteen bards was compiled and named Adi Granth.

The Adi Granth, with further additions by the later Gurus, was then given the status of Guru Granth Sahib by the tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh, in 1708. Since then, Guru Granth Sahib has been retained unaltered and is considered the greatest repository of divine words with associated musical genres of the era. The majority of shabads in Guru Granth Sahib are categorized according to raags.

Out of 60 ragas in Guru Granth Sahib, 32 were created by the Sikh Gurus. In additional to classical raags, many other musical genres, like chhant, vaar, padey, sohelay, ghorian, are also used in Guru Granth Sahib. Among the repertoire surviving from times of the Gurus, one can observe that all the genres were sung differently.

Dhrupad has been the music of the devotees of the subcontinent’s many spiritual traditions. The Gurus also expressed deep spiritual mysteries through musical compositions in the dhrupad style.

A typical dhrupad composition has four parts: asthai, antara, sanchari and abhog. Majority of shabads in Guru Granth Sahib have asthai (defined as rahao) which is used as verses to start from and return to after singing each pada in a shabad. During kirtan, the utmost importance is given to the clarity of the words in a shabad which is to be sung in the prescribed raag.

In dhrupad practice too, emphasis is given to correct and clear placement of words and swars. In his analysis of Sikh music, Dr. Gurnam Singh (Professor, Department of Gurmat Sangeet, Punjabi University, Patiala, Punjab) comments that a large percentage of Sikh hymns were composed and rendered in dhrupad.

Bhai Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh are considered prime practitioners of dhrupad style gurbani kirtan in the 20th century. Bhai Jawala Singh (father of Bhai Avtar Singh, Gurcharan Singh) was recognized as the leading dhrupad style kirtaniya in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bhai Avtar Singh was a prominent supporter of dhrupad and used to mention that all kirtaniyas in the past used to sing at least the opening shabad in dhrupad style. They also used to sing the first shabad in dhrupad during their kirtan performance.

In their remarkable book,  ‘Gurbani Sangeet: Pracheen Reet Ratnavali,’ they have given notations of medieval and pre-medieval dhrupad compositions in more than 24 taals. During their 2005 visit to Boston, USA, they sang “gun naad dhun anad bhed” in dhrupad and chaar-taal.

As part of a week long dhrupad celebration in Seattle - “Dhrupad Days 2014”, the Gundecha brothers performed kirtan of the same shabad “gun naad dhun anad bhed” in a similar dhrupad composition.

Bhai Baldeep Singh, founder of the Anad Conservatory, has also been mentored in the dhrupad genre by his grand-uncles, Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh as well as Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar. Excerpts from one of his papers provides a nice closing to this short exploration of the relationship between Gurbani  and Dhrupad:

“Gurbani will prove to be a treasure-chest of information not only in relation to dhrupad and the preceding genres, such as chhant and varaan, but also with regard to defining who is a dhrupadiya or a kirtaniya.”


To hear the Gundecha version of the shabad “gun naad dhun anad bhed”, please CLICK here. 

[Courtesy: Dhrupad. Edited for]

July 12, 2014





Conversation about this article

1: Harinder Singh (Bridgewater, New Jersey, USA), July 12, 2014, 11:35 AM.

One of the many geniuses of the Gurus was to integrate things. And that is visible in sangeet (music) as well: margi and desi fuse together in Guru Granth Sahib via classical and folk elements of dhrupad and dhunis. I am equally impressed by feelings evoked by the whole range, from the Dagar Brothers and Sharif Uddu to Bhai Avtar Singh and Daya Singh Dilbar. Looking forward to Manjit Singh's workshops at Sidak 2014.

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