While attending a sermon at any Sikh temple throughout the world, one will bare witness to the tradition of ragas while listening to kirtan (the singing of the Guru’s sacred hymns). Ragas specifically set the guidelines and rules as to what directions notes should be taken and whether they should be bent, etc. The scale according to the ragas consists of five, six, or seven tones. And during a normal day of Sikh congregation at any gurdwara, there will often be a specific raga for the morning, afternoon, and evening kirtans. In total, there are thirty one ragas each with their own title such as: Asa, Bairari, Basant, Gauri, Tilang etc. Those who perform the ragas during the kirtan are called Sikh ragis.
Upon entering any Sikh gurdwara and while listening to the recital of the Guru’s hymns through the kirtan, one will notice the use of a variety of instruments. These instruments in Punjabi are called saaj. The types of instruments which are often used during kirtan can be divided into two categories: there are the svaravad, or note instruments, and then there are the tal vad, or rhythm instruments. The svaravad category includes such instruments as the sitar (a seven stringed instrument), sarod, bansari and harmonium. Instruments under the tal vad category include the tabla (two small drums which stand upright and are played mostly by each palm and fingers), mridanga (a longer, single drum, much like the tabla), and cymbals.
Part of the lute family of instruments, the rabab is utilized primarily in Northern India. With its origins tracing back to 950 CE, the rabab is often played during classical dance performances, or in partnership with the tabla. Much like the violin, the rabab can be played two ways, either by plucking the strings, or by bowing the strings.
In terms of its physical appearance, the rabab consists of a dense body, a longer neck, with a metal fingerboard, followed by four melody strings, as well as a number of vibrating strings.
Said to have been created by the great grandson of the fifth Sikh Guru, the taus, which is Persian for peacock, is a combination of two Sikh instruments- the sarangi and the sitar. Painted in order to reflect its namesake, the taus is often displayed in the same extravagant and vibrant colours of the peacock. Upon its fingerboard, there consist nineteen metal frets, which are elliptically shaped and tied with a cord made of cotton or silk.
In order to play the taus, a person must be seated, accompanied by the bow which is made of a round wooden stick, the hair of a horse’s tail, a wooden bridge and screw. The taus is used during the recitations of the kirtan as it projects sound very much like the human voice. As will be seen with the next instrument, because the taus was so large in size and thus heavy to carry for his troops, Guru Gobind Singh Ji created a scaled down version of the taus called the dilruba.
A 200 year old instrument which is most popular in the North West region of Punjab, Uttar Pardesh and Maharashtra, the dilruba (or esraj as it sometimes called) so closely resembles both the sitar and sarangi that instrumentalists can easily intertwine to play all three. Literally translating as a “robber of the heart,” the Dilruba has a neck consisting of 18 strings in whole, and the process of tuning the dilruba is similar to how the sitar is tuned. In addition to the 18 strings, the dilruba also consists of metallic frets, which can be moved to form unique sounds.
Though the dilruba can be found in areas such as Bengal, within the Sikh context, the instrument’s origins have been attributed to the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh Ji. It was said that in creating the dilruba, the Guru wanted to make a lighter weight instrument than the Taus, which was a much heavier instrument at the time, and thus, too heavy for the Sikh Khalsa army to carry.
When saying tabla, what is referred to are two separate drums, which are both played alongside each other by the tabla player. The pair of drums consists of the small right hand drum, or dayan, whereas the left handed drum is the bayan. The different size of each respective drum is reflective of the unique qualities which each instrument shares. For example, whereas the dayan is made of wood, the bayan is always made of iron, aluminium, copper, steel or clay.
Irrespective of the differences, the one similarity which each drum shares is the large black circle in the very centre which is made of a mixture containing gum and soot. Within the Sikh context, the tabla is often used during the musical hymns called kirtan in a Sikh temple.
The sarangi is another instrument which falls under the svaravad category. The instrument’s name can refer to two aspects, either “sau rang,” meaning 100 colours or “sa rang,” colours whatever it touches. Either way, the terms are befitting as the sixth Sikh guru, Har Gobind Singh Ji, promoted the use of the instruments especially for dhadee’s, who were heroic ballad singers.
Because of the difficulties in playing the instruments effectively (it is played with the fingernails, and not the fingers), the dhadee’s role should not be underestimated, as their tales of heroism are regaled through amazing, and difficult to play, instrumental aids.
Another instrument which is often used during the kirtan performances in any Sikh gurdwara, is the harmonium, which is a keyboard instrument resembling the reed or pipe organ. First invented in the mid 19th century by the Frenchman Alexandre Debain, the harmonium did not reach its full popularity until the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it became a common presence in the churches.
With a sound similar to that of an accordion, the sound from the harmonium is produced as the air is blown out through the individual reeds. In the Indian tradition of playing the harmonium, the player will use one hand to pump the bellows of the harmonium, and the other hand to play the keys on the keyboard. Within the Sikh tradition, as played to perform the kirtan, the harmonium is almost always accompanied by the tabla.