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The Hermeneutics of Sikh Music (rāg) and Word (shabad)


Paper Abstracts

Gathering of International SpeakersPaper Abstracts
Bhai Baldeep Singh (Anād Foundation, Delhi, India) Gurbānī Kīrtan: What is Kīrtan?
Dr. Raja Mrigendra Singh (Yale University and Guru Nanak Dev University) Guru-Sikh Sacred Music's Hermeneutics
Dr. Francesca Cassio (Vicenza Conservatory, Italy) Learning shabad reets in western contexts. An approach to cultural rules and universal experience of sound.
Dr. Madan Gopal Singh (Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, Delhi, India) On the Margins of the Stylized Word: Meanings and their Aural Surplus
Dr. Inderjit Nilu Kaur (University of California, Santa Cruz) Musical Meaning in Gurū Granth Sāhib
Jan Protopapas (University of Maryland, Maryland) Kīrtan Chaunki: Affect, Embodiment and Memory
Dr. Arvind Mandair (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) Gurmat Sangeet, Aesthetics and Subaltern Subjectivities
Prabhsharandeep Singh (Independent Scholar) Shabad Kirtan, the Sikh Space and Violence of Translation
Prabhsharanbir Singh (University of British Columbia, Vanc) Sikh Sacred Music in the Age of Nihilism
Dr. Navtej Purewal (University of Manchester) Performing Kīrtan Across Text, Tradition and Boundaries:A Social History of the Rababi Tradition
Dr. Bob Linden (University of Amsterdam) Sikh Music, Empire and the Study of World Music
Dr. Judith Becker (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

Gurbānī Kīrtan: What is Kīrtan?
Bhai Baldeep Singh (Anād Foundation, Delhi, India)

In this paper I attempt to answer a fundamental question – what is kirtan? To this aim, I will analyse two major sources:
a) The audio recordings of kirtan including those of the rababis and members of various ascetic traditions including udasi, namdhari and nirmal panthis. I will also look at some of the manuscripts, published articles and interviews.
b) The textual references to kirtan by the Sikh gurus and other authors of gurbani, who actually initiated this major tradition and analysis of the remaining musical repertoire from gurus' time.

I will argue that there are four major elements (raga, tala, shabd and avadhanu or surat), which are essential factors in the performance of kirtan and I will substantiate my reasons why.

I will compare the evidences about the original kirtan with the contemporary kirtan, analyzing the various historical, social, political and religious reasons for change.
Due to the various social and political upheavals that Punjab went through in the last hundred and fifty years, so much of the tangible and intangible wealth has been lost. The loss of many pedagogical streams has lead to an apparent hermeneutic chaos. The research done so far in this field in the last three decades sorely lacks academic integrity and has yet to be responded academically. At a time when the 'contemporary' is being equated with the 'original', historicity and the veracity of the traditions of singing of gurbani among the Sikhs has been trivialized, and when speculations and assumptions have been appropriated as facts and at a moment when to sift the real from the spurious become near impossible, I would like to address some of the assumptions which are being touted as the 'actual'.

It was clearly evident from the views of some of the important exponents of gurbani kirtan such as Bhai Arjan Singh Tarangar, Gyani Harbhajan Singh, Gyani Darshan Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh Bhai Avtar Singh, that this hoary tradition of sacred music of the Gur-Sikhs had very high social value and its exponents regarded as the intelligentsia and the depositories of the cultural traditions. These bearers only chose the finest talent as students. I am going to research the relevance of kirtan in the current social order and about the institutions presently offering education in this field. I will also consider the changes that have occurred in kirtan due to the methodological changes in the teaching of gurbani. I will also make suggestions for future research.


Guru-Sikh Sacred Music's Hermeneutics
Dr. Raja Mrigendra Singh (Yale University and Guru Nanak Dev University)

Guru-Sikh musicians (Kiirtaniie) are required through their sacred music to evince mystically the Holy Guru's Word (sabd) in appropriate season and occasion as prescribed by the particular raag. The sacred Word therefore occurs within a specific context that requires knowledge of eternal time, religious history, ethics and morals, psychology, spiritual signs and wonders, mysticism and God as the focus. The music is not performed for its own sake but is tied to the improvement and transformation of life through the recitation of the sabd in prayer, the singing of prayers in prescribed raags, sermons and exegesis (via gurgam convention 5+6+3=13).

The Holy Sikh Gurus never overlooked, nor discarded their Indic heritage. Much can be learned from the connections, continuities and transformations within Indic traditions from the Vedas on, as well as with comparison with western contexts. The contemporary Guru-Sikh Kirtaniie performed Dhrupad style as of Turk Lodi Mughal court musicians. But since the last century the Guru-Sikh kirtaniie neither learnt nor knew this ancient heritage of five types of Dhruv that comes in seven stages as scribed in the Holy Guru Canon – which culminates in a mystic immediate experience (anubhav) – the object of the singing: this mystic merger into divine knowledge is a lived conscious-trance state (sahaj samaadh). This is the ultimate objective of the Divine Music and Word of the Holy Guru Granth Sahib.


Learning shabad reets in western contexts.
An approach to cultural rules and universal experience of sound
Dr. Francesca Cassio (Vicenza Conservatory, Italy)

One of the main questions in Ethnomusicology is whether a traditional music can be understood and taught in a foreign cultural context, where not only the perception and vocalization of the sounds refer to different parameters, but the entire message goes back to a specific culture.

If we see the study of the shabads reets from the point of view of a non Indian student, there are several aspects that must be considered, and -in their whole- they might create a difficult task for experiencing the message of Gurubani tradition out of the original context.
Learning kirtan in a Western context is not a matter of translating the texts from the Shri Guru Granth Sahib in a western language, neither transcribing in scores the melodies and the rhythms. It rather involves a wide view of Sikhism in terms of anthropological, linguistic, philosophical and spiritual approach, as well as an understanding of the rules of Indian music.
As for languages, music can be fully understood only when it is taught in its grammatical and syntattical fundamentals.

In the case of shabads reets the fact that they are set 31 rag-s and in several tal-s, according to the Indian system of music, makes this repertoire as a part of the Hindusthani sangeet. Such concept involves two directions for further researches:

  1. In order to approach the practice of shabad reets, a western disciple should learn the fundamentals of Indian music, especially the rules of Dhrupad which is the base of most of the compositions from Shri Guru Granth, as well as voice culture.
  2. A deep musicological study of the shabad reets, in which it is proved that Gurbani tradition as relevant part of the history of Indian music.

Beyond the pronunciation of Gurumukhi, as well as an introduction to the spiritual contents, for a Western student the understanding of shabads goes through a deep study of musical language, which includes not only the study of scales, melodies, microtones but mostly a different intonation that requires a proper 'ear training'.
In this sense we might say that music is not a universal language thought the practice of shabad reets has a powerful appeal on the Western audience.
I believe that this appeal might be researched also at a deeper level, where the power of sound touches the consciousness of the human beings beyond the cultural and linguistic differences.

The root of this powerful use of sound (and words) can be traced back to the ancient vedic science of nada yoga. According to this discipline the Universe is made of sonic vibrations, to which the human beings can be 'tuned' following a proper system.The Gurubani tradition wisely combines the knowledge of nada yoga, the rag system and the poetry in order to create at a conscious and unconscious level a deep impact on listener's mind.
The aim of this paper is to show how music is not a universal language (in terms of grammar and syntax), but the only universal element is the power of sound and its effect on the listeners, beyond cultural barriers. Through both ways (linguistic/cultural rules) and 'sonic-ization' the Gurubani tradition can be understood, learnt and experienced in a western context.


On the Margins of the Stylized Word: Meanings and their Aural Surplus
Dr. Madan Gopal Singh (Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, Delhi, India)

  1. As one broaches the threshold of music and its hermeneutics especially with regard to the sacred, one has to necessarily charter one's way through a duel register of stylization – of the written and received word and of that which is melodically recreated and returned.
  2. This then is the dialectic between what I call the 'deferent' – referring as much to deference as to the actual act of deferring (or deferer as in French) or 'avoiding' – and the 'referent' where one explores the Other through strategies of obsessively naming or of giving the Other a name and virtually recreating it. The text may exist in the domain of the 'monad' where one is in a state of exclusive interiority. The melodic utterance may revel in 'nomadic' fluidity where one is like an all inclusive open house. The two could however be reversed – but not always.
  3. The metaphor and the narrative of Guru Nanak's long, reflective journeys – lasting close to 25 years – along with his rababi friend and musician, Mardana, is crucial to our understanding of this double conjunction of the nomadic and monadic drives. The idea of a travel through a cross-cultural topography is in a definitive sense critical to our understanding of the as yet inchoate hermeneutic of the sacred music.
  4. Whereas the former may be largely governed by an ethic of textual strategies of saying (or non- saying) that which is embarrassingly difficult to say, the latter need not necessarily conform to such severity of self-censorship. However, it is possible to style the written word itself as an incantation that presupposes sound – especially, the vowel and nasal sounds and their stylized repetitions. Likewise, the choice of the musical scale – the octaves for one – as the locus of enunciation would determine how close a sound is to a conceptual process and in what way it weaves an aura through its own styles of orality. It is important to address why one chooses a certain octave in preference to another.
  5. The reception of the word, to borrow a concept from the Sufis, is still in the domain of remembrance. Its melodic return constitutes the creation of a community of participants engaged in the joyous enterprise of the lived. The stylized text longs to move beyond time, the stylized sound – or melodic return/ recreation – is rooted first in the duration of its own production. But the stylized written word can be recited as a whisper – almost under one's breath where the trajectories of being become at once individually resonant and communally deflected.
  6. However, this transaction across the written word and melodic utterance is not merely explainable as an exchange between an exoteric mystery lying primarily beyond the human ethical ken and a profound human desire to existentially bind things within a moral order in which the human emotions rise in an excessive, meaning defying surplus. This is a transaction that necessarily takes place through a series of creative paradoxes.
  7. The contained pragmatism of the text pulls one towards the enclosures of 'submission', 'patience', 'interiority' and the promise of an eventual encounter with the ineffable. The other register – the musical one – appears structurally contained but is more often than not emotionally excessive if not, at times, transgressive.
  8. During the course of the presentation, it would be my endeavour to explicate some of these points with particular reference to Sri Guru Granth Sahib – the quintessential book of connectivity – and the musical references available to us of Gurshabd kirtan.

Musical Meaning in Gurū Granth Sāhib
Dr. Inderjit Nilu Kaur (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Musical Meaning in Gurū Granth Sāhib

Music is a multidimensional phenomenon expressed in myriad metaphors. It can be art, emotion, entertainment, symbol (social, political, religious), social behavior, or simply commercial commodity. Musical meaning is varied and complex; not reducible to a single perspective. It can be embodied, referential, interpretive, relating to intent or to significance (artistic, scholarly, cultural, social, religious, political). Musical meaning can differ between performer and listener, between individuals, and between individual and institution or society. Multiple metaphors can be commingled in a single experience, and metaphoric shifts can occur between space and over time.

In this paper I explore the nature of music and musical meaning in Gurū Granth Sāhib. The paper first proposes that while recognizing diverse musical meanings, Gurū Granth Sāhib holds specific metaphor and intent. This musical meaning is discussed against the backdrop of the rasa theory of North Indian rāg music. Next the paper analyzes the implications of this particular intent for musical forms of the shabad in Gurū Granth Sāhib. This analysis includes interpretation of musical signs and designations in Gurū Granth Sāhib. The paper presents results of research relating to three specific designations - ghar, padey and partāl, offering conclusions with respect to the use of rāg music and the dhrupad genre. The paper also presents implications of musical signification for the form of instrumental accompaniment for the shabad in Gurū Granth Sāhib. Finally, the paper offers some reflections on the fixing of musical meaning, metaphor and structure in Gurū Granth Sāhib.


Kīrtan Chaunki: Affect, Embodiment and Memory
Jan Protopapas (PhD Candidate, University of Maryland)

This paper explores the role of shabad kirtan in a Sikh musical religious ceremony, (a kirtan chaunki) and how it acts as both crucible were the recollection of suffering and oppression and spiritual yearning ignite a deep emotional energy (rasa) and as a powerful vehicle to forge a sense of identification between the individual and the group. Examined through an ethnomusicological lens which blending historical musicology and anthropology, stresses the importance of human meanings and human evaluation in the musical process, shabad kirtan is not exclusively an object to be analyzed but a process to be experienced. Furthermore, this musical process, understood phenomenologically, is dependent on time and place, unfolding as a series of social interactions and psycho-emotional experiences that both guide and are guided by the musical process.

Based on current, on-going research of Sikh music tradition, this paper examines shabad kirtan as it unfolds through fifteen kirtan chaunkis performed daily at the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar with special emphasis placed on the Asa Di Var di chaunki and the Sodar di chaunki which both engage congregational participation. An investigation of these services, of how shabad kirtan unfolds over a period from 2 a.m., when the darshan deorhi is open to the sukhasana at 11 p.m., is vital in developing a hermeneutics of Sikh music. Such a hermeneutics should consider the hermeneutical process, the hermeneutic circle, suggesting that understanding that the part and the whole are co-dependent.

To understand the role of shabad kirtan on the psyche of the listener, this paper examines it as musical idiom (as a unique system of sound including the meaning behind sound, the grammar, and structure and sequence in Sikh music) and its musical context and role in Sikh ritual that includes looking at the musical and extra-musical components. The extra-musical components may be compared with the "deep structure" of an iceberg, the underlying ways in which one is habituated to react and response to sound thus forming a "habitus of listening."1 Participation in a habitus of listening includes accepted and often, prescribed psycho-emotional behaviors and responses to music encoded through liturgies. Liturgies are embodiments of these expressive acts, scripted performances infusing the participants in the liturgy with affective responses. Because shabads are typically sung within the framework of the religious ceremony, which involves a variety of congregational participation, observing the ways and behaviors of acting associated with the listening environment is key to understanding the musical experience. The importance of affect, of embodying the Gurus' messages is continuously expounded in the hymns of the Guru Granth Sahib. Through deep participatory listening, the devotee is aroused to a state of devotion (bhakti rasa), religious ecstasy (amrita rasa) or exhilaration (vir rasa). The Guru Granth Sahib abounds with shabads which urge the devotee to embody the messages by listening to, tasting, smelling, touching and singing the words and becoming emotionally intoxicated by them such as in Guru Arjan Dev's shabad in Rag Asa: "Har ras pivat sad hi raata, aan rasaa kina mah lah jaata" – He, who drinks God's elixir, ever remains imbued. All other relishes wear off in a moment. Asa 5th Guru, Tipade 2 )2 and also to become saturated with the Divine Name as in the twentieth Shalok of Asa Di Var, "Ballad of Hope", in which Guru Nanak explains that when one becomes dyed in God's love, they sometimes laugh, sometimes weep or become silent (Rang haseh rang roveh chup bhi kar jaah)3. Thus, musical meaning is entirely tied to affect, embodiment and memory.

Sociologist, Simon Frith, in Music and Identity, comments: "performance produces people, it creates and constructs the experience both as a musical experience and aesthetic experience, a subjective within the collective."4 Performance of shabad kirtan puts into play an emotional effect between the performer and the audience where identity is both constructed and reconstructed.

A kirtan chaunki may be understood as a narrative of life, the presentation of a reoccurring belief, a personal, communal coherence renewed in the musical events of the service.

In this paper, I explore shabad kirtan as a "lived musical experience," embracing a more reflexive and dialogical approach that South Asian musical specialist, Guy Beck, refers to as a "new hermeneutical paradigm in which the impact of the researcher on the researched and vice versa is considered worthy of exploration and analysis." (Beck, 2006. 20)5. Interwoven with musical samples (in western notation form), along with context-rich description and words from participants themselves, this paper attempts to present a hermeneutics of Sikh music, which considers the embodiment of the experience as it unfolds sonically on levels of social and emotional interaction.


Gurmat Sangeet, Aesthetics and Subaltern Subjectivities
Dr. Arvind Mandair (University of Michigan)

One of the common eulogies that one encounters in regard to the Guru Granth Sahib is that it is unique amongst 'world scriptures' – a uniqueness that owes in part to the fact that this text combines into its very infrastructure aspects of the musical and the literary. It can be considered both as a sonic and literary icon. Apart from such eulogizing about its uniqueness, however, few scholars bother to ask how and why the key modes of experiencing the teachings of the Sikh Gurus contained within this 'scripture' – namely the musical traditions of kirtan or gurmat sangeet and the literary traditions of reading/exegesis gurmat vichar/viakhia - have succumbed so easily to the institutionalized dichotomy between the performative and the theoretical (or the arts and the humanities/social sciences). Thus in university, one studies text history and meaning in a department of religion, history, literature etc, but gurmat sangeet can only be studied in a department of music.

Surprisingly, though, this dichotomy is not only operative in 'public' institutions such as the western university, it has also become, at least implicitly and particularly in regard to pedagogy, part of the receptive and transmissive experience of the Guru Granth in the modern Gurdwara. Recent research has established that that this dichotomizing began in the colonial period with a rationalization and concomitant separation of the literary and musical aspects of the Guru Granth. This rationalization gave rise on the one hand to a systematic theology and belief system based around a new relationship to the text as primarily a literary and 'religious' object to be understood through a proper grasp of grammar, and on the other hand, to a systematization of its musical notion systems in which raga and taal structure of the Granth was codified according to Western staff notion. The unequivocal result of these two rationalizing trends (both implemented by Sikh elites in the late 19th and early 20th century) was to produce a standardized consciousness of Sikh identity as a specifically religious identity and of Sikhism as a 'world religion'. Though rarely recognized, this dichotomization and separation of music from the literary runs parallel to, and appears to be foreshadowed by, key debates in European philosophy, religion, culture about the relationship between the literary and the musical, all of which ultimately helped to shape the modern secular consciousness and particularly the construction of a universal privatized category of religion.

In this paper I want to relate what has happened to the relationship between the musical tradition of gurmat sangeet and the literary exegetical tradition of gurmat vichar (i.e. the production of what is called 'Sikh theology') more closely to the debates in European thinking on the one hand about 'absolute music' ( i.e. music without a text), and on the other hand about reflections on the relationship between aesthetic production and self-consciousness. Such reflections often reveal an excess in subjectivity which cannot be theorized in terms of a representational subject i.e. a subject that knows itself as an object. As the form of art most distant from representation, music (specifically in this case gurmat sangeet) may provide a means for both articulating and understanding subjectivity of a non-representational type. If music can thus be related to the production of sub-altern subjectivities (those that in every way conform to self-consciousness but do not conform to the demands of representation), I will finish by speculating on the possibility of new perspectives on familiar themes in the study of religion, such as mysticism, transcendence and immanence, religion and the secular, postcoloniality etc…. In this way it may be possible to bridge the current impasse between performative and the theoretical, and thus to bring Sikh musicologists closer into conversation with a variety of debates in the humanities.


Shabad Kirtan, the Sikh Space and Violence of Translation
Prabhsharandeep Singh (Independent Scholar, California)

Recent trends in Shabad kirtan are based on certain presuppositions that take kirtan to be either merely a mode of singing or a religious exercise in a ritualistic sense. I argue that, in contradiction to those trends, kirtan is an existential concern of a Sikh, which is not just a spiritual exercise but a space in which to exist. The attempt to translate this space is a violent attempt to replace that space with a universalist idea of the world.

My paper will explore how the Shabad (Guru) provides a space that is sovereign and self-existent, independent of centers of authority such as the religious, the political, and the social. These centers of authority are metaphysical centers grounding themselves on some sort of presence, on an unchangeable reality of the nature of ultimate truth. Gurbani not only strongly refutes such claims of authenticity as they are rooted in haumai (a flawed sense of self), but, on the other hand, advocates a more fluid subjectivity that is inclined towards developing a unity with the musical flow. Despite a strong refutation of the centers of authority, Shabad (Guru) provides with a very specific space. Given the particular nature of this space, it does not advocate any alternate metaphysical superstructure.

Gurbani constructs a space in which Shabad kirtan is a mode of realization. Kirtan is the celebration of the subjectivity that is there due to a specific mode of relationality, a new socio-politico-religious space, which is part of the realm of the Shabad. Sangat, by listening to Shabad kirtan, connects with Shabad by elevating itself to a particular state. This elevation is not the result of a long spirtiual journey, but exists as a part of the nature of the space that has been defined by the Guru. The space exists first due to the presence of the Shabad (Guru), and then due to its particular modality (specific Raag for a specific Baani.) The space can be kept alive by maintaining kirtan in its original nature, because the space is an exit that liberates colonized subjectivities. The secularist judgments which term such space as an alternate metaphysical realm not only lack actual engagement with the process, but also, has yet to establish its sincerity since it is on its way to constantly refine orientalist discourse (Mandair, Ahluwalia).

If anything is changed in the modality of the Shabad, it is an act of translation. Translation is not only a shift from one language to another, it is an act of reducing the text into meaning and then locating that meaning in a very specific context, which always relies upon a metaphysical center. In the case of kirtan, this is often done by separating a particular Baani from its raag and locating it within a cultural space, such as singing it in popular cultural conventions. This trend is either part of an obsession with cultural space and signifies a larger obsession with a cultural center of authority, or an expression of the subaltern subjectivity that is struggling to justify its existence in some given superstructure. The obsession with the cultural metaphysical center is based upon the presupposition that there is something absolute/unchangeable which can not be compromised, which, in this context, is one or another mode of singing.

This paper is an effort to translate not only a mode of singing, but also a particular experience of listening to this singing, into writing. I consider this to be an impossible project, due to logocentric locatedness of the language we are provided with, however, there are always spaces in between in any language that can be explored. The present paper is a humble effort in this direction, a belief that silent spaces always exist in a language, which might provide me with a space to "translate" my experience of listening to Shabad kirtan, as well as its specific mode of singing.


Sikh Sacred Music in the Age of Nihilism
Prabhsharanbir Singh (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada)

I will be seeking to explore the significance of Sikh sacred music as a response and challenge to the Nihilistic tendencies of our own (post)modern age. The positing of such a relationship might seem a little odd, but the following verse from SGGS justifies such an endeavor:

Keertan (Sikh Sacred music) is the most significant thing/activity in Kaljug

Roughly translated, it means Keertan (Sikh Sacred music) is the most significant thing/activity in Kaljug, which I translate as the age of nihilism. Kaljug, literally corresponds to the fourth stage of creation according to traditional Indian mythology, and usually means the Dark Age when time is seems to be out of joint and all values devalue themselves.

Nietzsche defines nihilism as the devaluation of all values. This process of devaluation is not only an objective, historical and external phenomenon occurring in the world before our very eyes, it is also a subjective phenomenon, a shift in the perspective of how human beings perceive world around themselves and even life itself. Nietzsche writes:
A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist (1968, 318).

Heidegger, coming after Nietzsche, traces the roots of nihilism not in the development of Christian morality, as Nietzsche does, but in a particular metaphysical shift in the western philosophic tradition which occurred in Ancient Greece around 2500 years ago. He argues that since then a certain 'technological mode of thinking' has dominated western philosophy, resulting in what he calls "a forgetting of the question of being". He maintains that this forgetting gives birth to nihilism and its subsequent sedimentation through rational/modern ways of organizing social structures (1977, 1978). Bernard Stiegler, a student of Derrida's, has developed the connection between what he calls technics and the contemporary age. He argues, contra Heidegger, that the roots of technical evolution are in originary prosthesis of human beings, rather than in a later metaphysical shift. He maintains that human beings are originarily prosthetic beings and they try to supplement their originary lack through technical evolution. This technical evolution, in turn, renders other systems that structure social cohesion null and void resulting in a disorientation, which is a distinguishing characteristic of the modern age (2009). I will argue that through Keertan, we sing a cure of disorientation:

This mind awakens while doing Hari's Keertan. Whoever has sung Keertan in the company of sacred collective, Oh Nanak, he does is liberated.

I will interpret Keertan or Sikh sacred music as not only a singing of sacred verses of Gurbani, but also as a keerat (an originary reverence or adulation) of all creation and the One who animates it (cf. Nietzschean defition of nihilism as the experience of originary insufficiency of the world). Keerat takes place not only after a paradigmatic shift in perspective, but also after a subjective transformation. The Sikh Sacred music is produced on and in turn produces an aesthetic site where the subject not only creatively carves out the way of her emancipation but also experiences a metamorphosis. The emancipation and transformation of subjectivity is a leitmotif in Guru Granth Sahib. In an age of nihilism, nothing is more urgent than these twin themes of emancipation and transformation.

Recently, scholars like Dabashi and Ranciere have noted the significance of aesthetics for political action. Dabashi argues that a creative reconstitution of the post-colonial subject can occur only on an aesthetic site. He cites Shiite ritual of Ta'ziyeh and Iranian cinema as such examples (2008). I will argue that instead of being a re-enactment of a historic tragedy in the life of a community (as is the case with Ta'ziyeh) or aesthetic response to oppressive political conditions (the case of Iranian Cinema), the Sikh sacred music does not come into being as a response or resistance. It occurs on the plane where relations with the sacred supersede every other concern. But it does not mean that political or other concerns are brushed aside. Instead, the subject emerges from this aesthetic activity as completely transformed, ready to confront any political oppression. This enables her resistance to remain outside the pale of structures of oppression.


Performing Kīrtan Across Text, Tradition and Boundaries:
A Social History of the Rababi Tradition
Dr. Navtej Purewal (University of Manchester, England)

The musical recitation of Sikh sacred hymns through 'kirtan,' was formally instituted by Guru Nanak, in the 15th century and became an integral part of how the writings and teachings of the Sikh Gurus would be performed in an accessible form to the public. During his lifetime Guru Nanak appointed a Muslim minstrel, Bhai Mardana, who sang and played the rabab to Nanak's poetry. Mardana accompanied Guru Nanak for thirty-some years during his travels across South and Central Asia in providing the aural musical expression of Nanak?s compositions. The tradition of the rababis became instituted through these Muslim family lineages, though there were also non-Muslim rababis stemming from other lineages. As part of the musical performance of kirtan the Muslim rababis in particular came to represent an embodiment of spiritual cohesion and cohabitation in the region. Movement and travel by these minstrels became part of the musical form. The 1925 Sikh Maryada Act began a process of?disciplining? the performance of kirtan and subsequently the partition of India in 1947 presented an unprecedented barrier to the performance and access to kirtan for both listeners and performers. Most obviously, the politicized physical separation of Muslims in newly created Pakistan from Hindus and Sikhs in India saw the forced estrangement of the rababis from their Sikh patrons and audiences. Despite symbolically being identified with the Sikh religious tradition, these families, given only the choice of a religious identity to choose from, came to view themselves as Muslim and thus either stayed or migrated to what became Pakistan. In contemporary Pakistan which is formally an Islamic Republic, the rababis have been forced out of economic necessity to find other means of earning a living, thus largely abandoning the tradition to go into other professions or to perform other musical styles such as qawaali which are more popular in contemporary Pakistan. However, there are a few rababi families who remember the kirtan compositions passed down through the generations and retain a consciousness of this as their identity, despite there being little audience for this as the Sikh community had left in 1947. The rababi history of kirtan (though there are indeed other histories of kirtan) is near to becoming a lost and forgotten tradition. This paper will chart out certain aspects of this history of the Muslim Rababis and, by focusing upon oral history and visual and audio recordings, will highlight the rababi tradition's evolution within the changing political backdrop of the region of Punjab which now cuts across Pakistan and India.


Sikh Music, Empire and the Study of World Music
Dr. Bob van der Linden (University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

At present, all music essentially is "world music"; no music is "exotic" or "authentic" anymore. Non-Western music traditions are increasingly taught at Western music schools and conservatories. As a result, there now are Western maestros of Indian music and Western audiences that sometimes are better informed about Indian music than those in the subcontinent. Conversely, there are an incredible number of non-Westerners, though indeed comparatively few South Asians, who play Western (classical) music. In this context, then, what remains of the cultural, if not transcendental, meaning of kirtan, the collective singing or listening to the Guru's Word that lies at the heart of the Sikh tradition?

For Sikhs, in absence of a living human Guru (preceptor), the sacred scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, is the eternal embodiment of the Guru, a divine living guide, and the prime focus of worship. It further is the world's largest original collection of sacred hymns, arranged according to the musical mode (rāg) in which they are to be sung. The founder of the Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak, and his successors composed these hymns (shabad) to express their teachings. Ever since, kirtan for Sikhs is a "spiritual" experience, whereby all present supposedly are steeped in the vibration of the Guru's utterance (gurbani). Over the centuries, kirtan was obviously sung and played in variable tone pitches and in accordance with changing musical styles. Above all, it was much influenced by empire in terms of institutionalization, canonization, commodification, and instrumentation (the harmonium!) as part of modern Sikh identity politics, whereby Western Orientalist theories specifically had a great impact on its musicological study. At the same time, since the Singh Sabha reformation (c. 1880-1920), the "authenticity" of the performance of this oral music tradition has been morally guarded by orthodox Sikhs. Yet, have Sikh musical aesthetics not changed over time and especially in the diaspora? Can the contemporary Sikh performer and listener still recall the sound of "authentic" kirtan?

The aim of this article is twofold. First, it explores the moral language around Sikh kirtan that emerged in the wake of the Singh Sabha movement. Second, it investigates the possibilities for the study of Sikh kirtan as "world music". Is a cultural, linguistic, and historical knowledge of the Sikh other, besides a pair of good ears and musical technique, enough for a Westerner to give a correct musical interpretation? Is it possible at all to study the music of kirtan separately from its sacred words when the two together provide Sikhs a glimpse at the transcendent? Is it necessary for Western students of kirtan to learn about abstract, if not esoteric, Orientalist theories about the meaning of raga, (sacred) sound vibrations, and so on? Indeed, what is cultural and what is "universal" in the study of kirtan practice and what is part of the Sikh Singh Sabha identity politics of "difference"? In particular, this article discusses to what extent the latter as well as Western Orientalist musicological theories pose ideological limits to the study of kirtan as "world music". Moreover, to what degree these are comparable to the discussion among Sikhs concerning the "translation" of the Guru Granth Sahib into English


1 This term, borrowed from sociology, refers to learned perceptions of musical emotion and interactions with our surroundings. Ethnomusicologist, Judith Becker explains it nicely as: a disposition to listen with a particular focus and to interpret the meaning of the sounds and one's emotional responses to the musical event. Judith Becker. 2004. Deep Listeners. (Indiana University Press) 70.

2 Harbans Singh Doabia. The Sacred Asa di Var. (Amritsar: Singh Brothers. 1988).

3 Manmohan Singh, trans. 1981-3. Shri Guru Granth Sahib, English and Punjabi translation of the Adi Granth. 2nd ed. 8 vols. (Amritsar: SGPC).

4 Simon Frith. "Music and Identity" in Stuart Hall, Paul Du Gay, ed. Questions of Cultural Identity. (London: Thousand Oaks) 108

5 Guy Beck. 2006. Sacred Sound. Experiencing Music in World Religions. (Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press). 20.