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Gurbani Kirtan: The Unique Role of Spiritual Song & Music in Sikhi





You could argue that for all religious traditions which have scriptures, their scriptures are a source of pride and point for affirming uniqueness from other traditions.

Sikhs are proud of their scripture, just like adherents of other religious traditions, but their ennoblement of the Adi Granth as the Guru Granth Sahib, the Living Guru, along with the performative aspects of their relationship with the Guru Granth Sahib, add additional dimensions to this pride.

In my interviews with a cross-section of Sikhs, it has been common to hear both the young and old gush with enthusiasm about the beauty of gurbani kirtan and its positive powers over one's consciousness.


Kirtan is some of the most beautiful music you'll ever hear in your life, because it puts you in that blissful state of mind.

For Punjabis, there's a big symbol with your soul, your heart, your hick, your inside, and the only language, the only communication with your soul is music ... the music puts you in a beautiful state of mind. The words themselves are saying their love for God, and if you know those words, you have to say it like you mean it.

In addition to praising the beauty of kirtan, many of those I talked with affirmed what they saw as the uniqueness of the Sikh tradition's relationship with music:

"Music is a big part of Sikhism, the Sikh tradition. It's beautiful music too. Music is everywhere, there isn't a culture that doesn't have music, but Sikhs love their music. We love our music ...."


The performance of kirtan itself can be viewed as a form of continuous self-commemoration for Sikh communities: it is the continuing collective commemoration of the connection and relationship between Guru Granth and Guru Panth, the scripture as Living Guru, and the community blessed as the performers and interpreters of gurbani.

In addition to the 'usual' cycle of performing gurbani kirtan, gurdwara communities organise special events which centre on the musical and oral or aural performance of gurbani.

These events serve as a form of self-commemoration for these communities across the Sikh diaspora; a time of celebrating the unique features of Sikh identity, perhaps especially as they set Sikhs and Sikh social times apart from their local surroundings. As already mentioned, gurdwara communities sponsor special events, bringing raagis and granthis from Punjab to perform kirtan ...

Several of those who answered my questions spoke of the necessity for young Sikhs to continue to learn Punjabi/ Gurmukhi, and to be able to play kirtan and recite gurbani. Many spoke of the continued ability among young Sikhs to perform gurbani kirtan as being integral for maintaining Sikh identity.

"Hearing kirtan, you're glad to hear it, you're glad someone's singing it, because it's keeping the faith alive ... If I hear a man singing kirtan I'm like, 'Yeah man, keep the faith alive', simple as that. Because through music, through song, is how Sikhs, everyone of them has kept their histories alive ...

"I think for the community as a whole, kirtan is totally necessary to be able to recognise the Sikh faith as a collective group. I think that it's really important for Sikhism to continue - for it to really live as long as it should. I think we really need kirtan. We need people to go to groupware regularly.

"It's very important to listen to kirtan, and to encourage others to listen to it. It's extremely important for the younger generation of Sikhs to learn the roots of our Sikh identity and to be able to maintain it and eventually pass it on."

With my interviewees affirming the centrality of gurbani kirtan in their religious practice, it is perhaps unsurprising that many also see the continuance of this religio-cultural performance as vital to the continued transmission of Sikhism to new generations. If such central practices of a religion and markers of distinctions from the 'host culture' are forgotten, the religio-cultural group 'in the diaspora' could be 'homogenised' or 'assimilated' and cease to be 'in the diaspora'.

The desire to resist such 'assimilation' and loss of religio-cultural continuity and uniqueness was voiced by some of my Sikh interlocutors, who framed it as their 'duty' to make sure that performance of gurbani kirtan continued on to subsequent generations. Others spoke of their 'duty' to listen.


"When a man sings kirtan, it goes back in my head, it goes in my friends' heads, it's keeping the faith alive and out of respect you sit there and you hear them out, it's almost your duty as a Sikh ... you stop and listen ..."

Among the Sikhs I have spoken to, kirtan is seen as an important locus for identity transmission. This stands to reason if one accepts the centrality of gurbani kirtan and the musical and oral/aural dimension which is apparent within these communities. Without members of the community continuing the performance of gurbani kirtan, the practices and ethos of the community could change greatly.


The author, a Ph.D. student in Sikh Studies, University of California, is researching the role of Gurbani Kirtan in the process of identity formation among Sikhs in America .

[Courtesy: Times of India]
January 9, 2012







Conversation about this article

1: Harnam Singh (9 years old) (London, United Kingdom), January 11, 2012, 11:44 AM.

I am in the top right photo. I enjoyed the lesson very much. Thanks for putting me up.

2: Pashaura Singh (Riverside, California, U.S.A.), January 11, 2012, 7:28 PM.

Charles Townsend is my doctoral student who is deeply involved in understanding the role of Gurbani Kirtan in preserving Sikh identity in the diaspora. In the summer he visited the Darbar Sahib, Anandpur Sahib, and many other places in India. He interviewed top Sikh musicians as part of his field work. He is indeed a promising young scholar.

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