KĪRTAN (from Skt. kīrti, i.e. to praise, celebrate or glorify), a commonly accepted mode of rendering devotion to God by singing His praises, is a necessary part of Sikh worship. Music plays a significant role in most religious traditions. In Sikhism it is valued as the highest form of expression of adoration and counts as the most efficacious means of linking the soul to the Divine Essence. Kīrtan in the Indian tradition can be traced back to the Vedic chant in the second millennium B.C., the impulse behind it being the realization of the effect on the individual of joining the sound of music to the religious text. In Vedic rites, recitation was employed emphatically to bring out the meaning of the verses. Kīrtan as we now understand it was popularized in medieval India by Vaiṣṇava bhaktas and Sūfī saints who sang usually their own compositions which not only produced in them a feeling of spiritual ecstasy but also led their followers into a mood of fervour. Jayadeva, a twelfthcentury Bengali poet who composed the famous Gītā Govinda, is generally considered to be the first in line, although centuries earlier Vaiṣṇava poetsaints of South India, the Ālvārs, had earned much popularity with their devotional songs, called Nālāyiradivyaprabandham. Along with the Vaiṣṇavites of the Bhakti cult who sang lyrics about the sacred love of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā, appeared holy men of the Sant tradition like Jñānadeva (12751296) and Nāmdev (1270-1350), who addressed their songs and adoration to the Formless God. In Islam in India, Sūfī mystics such as Shaikh Farīd (11731265) composed and sang songs to express their longing for the Divine Being. The Vaiṣṇavite saint Chaitanya (14851533) and his contemporary Sūfī saints also popularized saṅkīrtana and qawwālī, respectively, as forms of group singing.

         Gurū Nānak, founder of the Sikh faith, and the succeeding Gurūs promulgated, besides repetition and contemplation of the Divine Name, kīrtan as a form of worship. Gurū Nānak in one of his verses thus figured forth the ecstasy of kīrtan : "Rāg ratan parīā parvār, tisu vichi upajai amritu sār --- music is a jewal born of the (supernatural) fairy family; from it rises the essence of nectar" (GG, 351). But warning men against the voluptuous indulgence in music, he said, "Gīt rāg ghan tāl si kūre, trihu guṇ upjai binsai dūre, dūji durmati dardu na jāi, chhūṭai gurmukhi dārū guṇ gāi --- false are such songs, musical measures and the many rhythmic beats as bind one to the three modes of Māyā, resulting in one's alienation from God. By wilfulness one does not annul suffering. They who follow the Gurū's instruction are saved. The remedy lies in chanting God's praises" (GG, 832). Likewise, Gurū Amar Dās, Nānak III: "Singing of Rāga Bilāval will become acceptable only when through it the holy Word finds utterance. Music and melody excel as they by the holy Word lead to concentration and serenity. Were one to devote oneself to serving the Divine, one would attain honour at the Lord's court even without having recourse to melody and music" (GG, 849). In Sikh kīrtan, music, though an essential element, is subordinate to the holy Word. Musical embellishment and ornamentation are permitted, but what is of real essence is gurbāṇī or the scriptural text. Technical virtuosity for its own sake will have little meaning.

         Contents of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, the Holy Book of the Sikhs, can alone be sung in Sikh kīrtan, more accurately śabda-kīrtan. The only other approved canon for this purpose is the compositions of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh which do not form part of the Gurū Granth Sāhib but are anthologized in a separate book, the Dasam Granth, and of Bhāī Gurdās and Bhāī Nand Lāl. The text comprising the Gurū Granth Sāhib is organized according to rāgas or musical measures, 31 in number, with further variants in many of them, to which the hymns were composed. The Gurūs themselves were well versed in music. At places in their hymns they have described themselves as "bards of the Lord." Gurū Nānak kept with him as a constant companion a Muslim musician, Mardānā, who played the rabāb or rebeck as the Gurū rendered the hymns composed by himself. Gurū Arjan, who compiled the Gurū Granth Sāhib, was an accomplished musicologist, who is said to have designed a new string instrument, sarandā, for use by rāgīs or performers of kīrtan. The Gurūs employed professional rabābīs (rebeck-players) and rāgīs (musicians) to perform kīrtan in their presence. Ḍhāḍīs, using small hand-drums called ḍhaḍs and a stringed instrument sang vārs or ballads. Gurū Arjan encouraged lay Sikhs to train as kīrtan-singers. Rabābīs as a class of hereditary musicians were almost exclusively Muslims and groups of them continued to recite the sacred hymns inside Harimandar, the Golden Temple, until the partition of 1947 when they migrated to Pakistan. Ḍhāḍī-singers specialize in heroic balladry rather than in śabda kīrtan.

         It is the rāgī ensemble which now performs kīrtan in gurdwārās and at congregations held on religious and festival occasions. Gurdwārā music begins in the early hours of the morning. In the Harimandar at Amritsar, kīrtan starts around 2 in the morning in summer months and around 3 in winter and is continued by a relay of rāgī jathās or choirs till late in the evening. At other places, it may be intermittant or limited to morning and evening hours. Traditionally, there are four chaukīs or services of kīrtan. They are : (1) Āsā kī Vār at early morning; (2) Charan Kamal or Bilāval chaukī in the forenoon (for 4 hours after sunrise); (3) Sodar chaukī at sunset; and (4) Kalyān chaukī in the evening about an hour and a half after sunset. A rāgī jathā commonly comprises three members --- a lead singer nowadays usually playing the harmonium, a companion also at harmonium, and a tablā player (tablā, a pair of drums). The more elaborate ensembles may have one or more additional singers playing traditional string instruments such as tāūs, tānpūrā or sarandā. The rāgīs sit on the ground or on a platform but always lower than, and usually to the left of where the Holy Book is seated. Smaller localities depend on local talent and simpler instruments such as a, ḍholakī, a harmonium, cymbals and chimṭā (tongs fitted with jingling metallic discs). The performance follows the basic design of the classical tradition. Only permissible texts are rendered, with no extra words or syllables added. Every hymn is sung, as far as possible, in its correct rāga and performed in appropriate lai (tempo), sur (melody), tān (tune) and tāl (rhythm). The kīrtan commences with an alāp (long-drawn vocal tune) setting the pattern and tone of the music. The tempo is slow and words are pronounced in a mood of reverence and devotion. The refrain is presented in the first place by the lead singer and is repeated in chorus by the other rāgīs. Then the harmoniums and/or string instruments repeat the tune to be followed by a vocal recitation. rāga phrases may be presented in their entirety or divided to suit the text and the tune. In either case, the phrase will end with a chorus. Interludes in the development section, i.e. melodic material from both sthāī (refrain) and antarā (crescendo), may occasionally be done by tablā alone or sung with a vowel sound to the same melody instead of a repetition by a reed or string instrument. If a full classical development of a rāga is not attempted, a lighter classical style may be employed, especially for ślokas and pauṛīs of a vār. Explanatory or amplificatory passages, again out of permissible texts alone, may be inserted in the main composition and presented in a related rāga or in a recitative musical style. The lead singer generally introduces all new texts and musical material but the others may join in during the latter part of the phrase.

         Śabda -kīrtan has some limitations placed upon it traditionally in order that the religious structure of the performance is not compromised. In no case must the holy text be garbled, not even for musical effect. Every single word must be accurately pronounced. The message must reach the listener through clearly enunciated words. Hymns should be sung with affirmation in a full voice. Gamaks or musical ornaments should be limited to those essential to the correct performance of a rāga such as glides between notes to maintain a connected melodic line. However, creative faculties of the performers should not be inhibited. Hand gestures, clapping and dancing are prohibited. No appreciation may be shown to the rāgīs during the performance.

         The Sikh Rahit Maryādā or code of conduct published under the authority of the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee, statutorily elected religious body of the Sikhs, defines kīrtan as rendition of gurbāṇī or Scriptural texts in (appropriate) rāgas. For illustration, verses from Bhāī Gurdās and Bhāī Nand Lāl could be used. Even when singing the hymns in open religious tunes, i.e. when they are not being rendered by the rāgī ensemble in prescribed rāgas, with the entire congregation participating or forming an alternate chorus, the purity of line and phrase has to be maintained, eschewing additional words or syllables. Only a line from the hymn in question may be used as the refrain.

         Combining discourse with kīrtan is sometimes resorted to generally by the lead rāgī, but it is not favoured by connoisseurs of music, or by lovers of gurbāṇī who prefer nirol, i.e. unadulterated śabda-kīrtan. Lately, kīrtan darbārs, continuous sessions in which several choir groups take turns at singing Sikh hymns, akhaṇḍ (uninterrupted) kīrtan or rāiṇ sabāī (night-long) kīrtan have come into vogue. They not only cater to the aesthetic and spiritual needs of the devotees, but also help widen the scope and appeal of Sikh kīrtan.


  1. Deva, B.C., Indian Music. Delhi, 1974
  2. Avtār Siṅgh and Gurcharan Siṅgh, Gurbāṇī Saṅgīt. Patiala, 1979
  3. Sundar Siṅgh, Bhāī, Gurmat Saṅgīt. Amritsar, n.d.
  4. Siṅgh Sabhā Patrīkā. February-March 1978

Gurbachan Siṅgh Tālib