13 Components of Classic Kirtan

What Does Gurbani Say About the Spiritual Elements of Devotional Singing?

The sacred hymns of Sikhism scripture are composed in classic raga measures. Raga kirtan sung in classic style incorporates 13 components with spiritual elements important to the concept of devotional music. The authors of Guru Granth Sahib and 52 hukams of Guru Gobind Singh address the importance of singing to express adoration and praise of the divine during daily life. The gurdwara worship service centers around both singing and listening to hymns of Gurbani being performed by ragis and kirtanis who have an understanding of these 13 components of classic kirtan.

  • "Gur duaarai har keertan suneeai ||
    At the gurdwara (the guru's door), the Lord's adoration is heard." SGGS||1075

Gurbani scripture emphasizes the deeper experience of classic kirtan and its spiritual components. Phonetic spelling and interpretation of Gurbani featured is my own rendition with attribution given to the original reference.

01
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Abhiaas - Practice and Perfection

Kirtan Practice Abhiaas
Kirtan Practice Abhiaas. Photo © [Courtesy S Khalsa]

Abhiaas is the practice essential to perfection of performance. Guru Gobind Singh stressed the deeper application of kirtan practice:

  • "Shabad da abhiaas karnaa|
    Practice applying the sacred hymns of scripture to life." 52 Hukams: 8

02
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Avaz - Voice and Vocals

Ragis Sing Gurbani Kirtan
Ragis Sing Gurbani Kirtan. Photo © [S Khalsa]

The voice is the vehicle of expression. The best vocal training is the practice of singing daily. Notes sung on a lower scale warms up vocal chords and helps to prevent straining of the voice. High notes of an upper octave may then be sung spontaneously with ease.

  • "Bin kanthai kaisae gavanharee ||
    What is a musician without a melodious voice to sing? " SGGS||1140

03
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Gurbani Projected on Wall
Gurbani Projected on Wall. Photo © [S Khalsa]

Bani is the message conveyed by the word and instruction of the Guru, imparted in the hymns of Gurbani scripture. For a Sikh, understanding, applying, sharing, and perpetuating bani is the primary reason for performing kirtan. Guru Gobind Singh emphasized the importance of studying and memorizing bani, and incorporating it into all aspects of life.

  • "Gurbanee kantth karnee |
    Learn the Guru's bani by heart." 52 Hukams: 3
  • "Gurbanee de arth Sikh vidhvanaa tuo parrhnae |"
    Study the Guru's bani with Sikhs learned in its essence." 52 Hukams: 6
  • "Gurbanee dee kathaa tae keertan roaz sunanaa atae karnaa |
    Take part in discussions of the Guru's bani and listen to kirtan every day." 52 Hukams: 20

04
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Devotional Kirtan
Devotional Kirtan. Photo © [S Khalsa]

Bhagti is, the element most necessary to praise. The devotee dedicated to devotional singing of hymns from Gurbani is capable of experiencing the most exalted of spiritual states. Without devotion singing is but empty ritual.

Third Guru Amar Das emphasized:

  • "Gurmukh bhagat jit sehaj dhun oupajai bin bhagtee mail na jaa-ae ||
    Through the Enlightener's devotional worship is the highest spiritual state obtained and the celestial music wells up, but without devotion filth is not removed. SGGS||245
  • "Sur sidh gan gandharab mun jan gun anik bhagtee gaaiaa ||
    The gods, the adepts, the angels, the heavenly singers, the silent sages, and the devotees, Your countless praises sing." SGGS||249

05
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Concentration of Conciousness on Shabad
Concentration of Conciousness on Shabad. Photo © [S Khalsa]

Chit is conscious comprehension. Focusing the consciousness with an attitude of devotion is essential to inner understanding. Comprehension of bani and raga comes with practice. Making an effort to learn and understand the deeper meaning of what is being sung, is an experience unsurpassed.

  • "Man rae sabad tarhu chit laa-e ||
    O my Soul, focused on the shabad, the swimmer crosses deep waters with rapt attention." SGGS||19

06
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Bhai Baldeep Singh Kirtan Concert
Bhai Baldeep Singh Kirtan Concert. Photo © [S Khalsa]

Singing is essential to kirtan as it employs the tongue in praise. The singer enters an indescribable exalted state when the hymns of Gurbani are sung upon the palate.

  • "Man ratae jihvaa ratee har gun sachae gaa-o ||
    With mind and soul so imbued, and tongue also imbued, the Lord's true praises sing. SGGS|| 39
  • "Sa rasnaa dhan dhann hai meree jindurreeae gunn gavai har prabh kerae raam ||
    The tongue is blessedly blessed which gives praises while singing of the Masterful Lord God." SGGS||540

07
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Gurbani Kirtan Quotes
Gurbani Kirtan Quotes. Photo © [Courtesy Cosmic Dust]

Adoration expressed in singing hymns of Gurbani Kirtan is the most exalted form of praise and is considered as divine nourishment of the soul of the devotee. Fifth Guru Arjun Dev advised that ceaseless praises be sung throughout the day.

  • "Akhandd keertan tin bhojan chooraa ||
    Unbroken adoration is their food and nourishment." SGGS||236
  • "Att pehar keertan gun gaaoo ||
    Throughout the eight watches of the day (24 hours) give praise while singing." SGGS||1149

08
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Professor Surinder Singh
Professor Surinder Singh. Photo © [S Khalsa]

Naad isthe vibration frequency of sound heard by the ear and felt by the soul. Naad may be produced by the tongue on the palate, the resonance of strings plucked when playing an instrument, or a particular mood invoked by a specific raag.

  • "Raag naad sabh sach hai keemat kehee na jaa-e ||
    Ragas in which the celestial sound-current resounds all express truth, their value cannot be told." SGGS||1423

09
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Raga Scale
Raga Scale Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Da Ni Sa. Photo © [Nihal Kaur]

Raag is both the measure in which a melody is composed and the mood created by musical expression. Nearly all the hymns of Guru Granth are composed in raag meant to evoke a subtle spiritual influence upon the soul of the listener.

  • "Sabhnaa raagaan vich so bhalaa bhaaee jit vasiaa man aa-e ||
    Among all musical measures that alone is sublime O brother by which the Lord comes to abide in the mind." SGGS||1423

10
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Shabad in Amrit Kirtan Hymnal
Shabad in Amrit Kirtan Hymnal. Photo © [S Khalsa]

Shabad is considered to be the guide to enlightenment in word form. Living in accordance with words and message of the sacred hymns of Gurbani kirtan, salvation and emancipation are obtained.

  • "Gur sabdi man bedhia prabh miliaa aap hadoor ||2||
    The Enlightening Guru's hymns pierce the mind and the soul is ushered into the divine presence by God himself." SGGS||37
  • "Aapae satigur aap sabd jeeo jug jug bhagat piaarae ||
    He Himself is true Enlightener, He Himself the words of sacred hymns, in each and every age the devotees are His beloved." SGGS||246
  • "Satigur sev padaarath paaveh chhootteh sabad kamaaee ||4||
    Through the True Enlightener's service is the rare treasure obtained, by living according to the word of the sacred hymns emancipation is earned." SGGS||597

11
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Tabla
Tabla. Photo © [Khalsa Panth]

Taal defines the rhythmic cycle of beats, setting musical tempo and tone for performance of classic kirtan. Musicians strive for perfection of taal. In the truest spiritual sense taal is achieved when the entire being is immersed in a tempo that effortlessly expresses divine praise. 

  • "Poorae taal jaanai saalaah ||
    Deem the perfect beat to be Praise of the Lord." SGGS||350

12
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Sunai - Listen and Hear Within

Sangat Listening to Kirtan
Sangat Listening to Kirtan. Photo © [S Khalsa]

Sunai is to listen and hear with the entire being. The supreme experience of sound is the absolute ecstasy felt by the ears of the soul when shabads are sung.

  • "Pir reesaaloo taa milai jaa gur kaa sabad sunee ||2||
    The beloved is met when the sacred hymns are heard." SGGS||17
  • Tae sravan bhalae sobhaneek heh meree jindurreeae har keertan suneh har tere raam ||
    Those ears are splendidly sublime O my soul which hear the
    Lord's adoration while listening to your praise sung O Lord God." SGGS||540
  • "Mehaa anand keertan har suneeaa ||3||
    Ecstatic bliss is experienced while hearing sacred hymns sung." SGGS|| 715

13
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Girls Play Dilruba in Rain Sabaee
Girls Play Dilruba in Rain Sabaee. Photo © [S Khalsa]

Vaja may refer to a variety of instruments, but most commonly the harmonium introduced to India in the 1800's. Prior to that time, classic raga kirtan was performed with traditional musical Instruments of the stringed variety. The Gurmat Sangeet movement focuses on reintroducing classic string instruments to Gurbani kirtan.

  • "Vaajae naad anaek asankhaa kaetae vaavanhaarae ||
    Countless musical instruments of various kinds resound and many musicians play upon them there." SGGS||6