What is the place of sacred music – Kirtan – in Sikhism?
Sacred music, Kirtan, means “singing the praises of God”. It is devotional music. Generally in the Gurdwara, musicians either sing alone or request the Sangat to repeat after them the lines of the hymn in chorus. This is congregational hymn singing and has a soothing effect on the mind. The Sikh sacred music – Gurmat Sangeet – falls into two categories; classical music and folk music. Classical music pruned of ornamentation becomes devotional music. Folk music includes those vaars in the ballad from which enshrine the praise of God.
The Sikh Gurus revealed sacred hymns which were sung according to certain musical scores. The scores were suited to the spirit and the content of the sacred hymn. The best way to sing a hymn is to do so in its own Raag and according to its own musical notation. The Sikh Gurus harmonized the contents of poetry with the characteristics of the Raag. 31 different main (Shud) Raags have been used in Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji.
Guru Nanak Sahib Ji encouraged his followers to practice hymn-singing at dawn, because at that period of the day, all is quiet and the mind is receptive to the soft strains of music and the surrounding atmosphere of stillness. This helps in the absorption of the healing power of Naam. According to the Gurus, Kirtan is food for the soul. It is a permanent treasure which can never be depleted. Whoever performs Kirtan or listens to it, comes nearer to God. Their troubles and miseries lessen and their minds gain peace and equipoise.
Guru Nanak Sahib Ji encouraged his companion – Baba Mardana Ji – to do Kirtan at all times. Guru Amardas Sahib Ji wanted the Sangat to join in group-singing. Though there are professional singers, the best Kirtan is one in which the entire Sangat sings in chorus, then all can partake of this divine food as every one needs it. Sikhs pray for the strength to sing God’s praises.
For Sikhs the slow and deep strains of their devotional music please the soul like the gentle drops of rain please the dried out earth. The soul drinks the musical nectar and immerses itself in the divine Name. The devotional music in India would never have reached its present height, but for the impact of the sacred hymns of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji.