The singing of hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib (kirtan) is an intrinsic part of the Sikh faith. Be it holy days, a birth, a death, a wedding, the Sikh holy book has appropriate "shabads" for all occasions. "Kalyug mein kirtan pardhana" (Guru Arjan Dev - Raag Maru) It is not just in "Kalyug" that kirtan helps attain salvation. Music as a vehicle to attain communion with the Almighty was not new even at the dawn of Sikhism. The spiritual renaissance of the 14th century led to the "bhajan" form of devotion. Bhaktas, Sufi saints and even seats of Sanatan Dharam like Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi had begun to focus on music as a means to realise the Supreme Being.
Starting with Guru Nanak, all the Sikh gurus were well versed in music and propagated the singing of Gurbani (hymns of the gurus) in professional kirtaniyas. Raagis and Dhadis sang to the accompaniment of Rabaabs, Sirandas, Taaus, and Tanpuras, Mridangas and the Pakhawaj in Guru Darbars. Guru Nanak's dependence on the strains of his Muslim companion Mardana's rabaab (Rebeck) is considered to be the beginning of the relationship between music and Guru poetry. And the significance of kirtan in Sikhism, is that it alone can help a human being to attain Brahma. Guru Arjan Dev says in Raag Kaanra "Keerat prabh ke gaau..." "Oh my tongue, do thou sing the glory of the Lord and the saint, this alone shall lead thee to the Lord's feet."
The central role that the Sikh Gurus assigned to music made the Sikh scriptures and Sikh worship unique. Except for the first 13 pages, the holy book is divided into 31 musical measures (raags). Guru Arjan Dev compiled the hymns of the first four gurus to these raags. Poetry was of the highest order and the writings were structured and accented so as to make any alteration difficult without going against its rhythm and musical setting. These hymns, along with the vast contribution of Guru Arjan Dev are called the Adi Granth. To this, Guru Gobind Singh added his own hymns and those of his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, creating the holy book of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib. Unique in its musical setting, the other outstanding feature of the Guru Granth Sahib is the inclusion of the hymns of Muslim and Hindu saints. The Bhagat Banis of Farid, Kabir, Namdev and Ravidas make the Granth the only religious scriptures to include the writings of people belonging to other religions.
The intention was to inculcate a balanced outlook in the sangats (congregations). The choice of raags and placement of the hymns was clearly aimed at this. Those raags arousing extreme passion of any kind were omitted. Megh and Hindol were too jubilant, while Jog and Dipak were rejected for being too melancholy. In Gurbani, not only raag ras, but other properties like bhav, and dhyan are adhered to for the presentation of "shabads". Raags were used in their pure form, as well as along with shades of other raags. For instance, Raag Gauri could be sung on its own, or as Gauri-Purabi, Gauri-Dipaki, or Gauri-Purabi-Dipaki.
The use of southern varieties of raags like Vadhans, Ramkali, Maru and Prabhati are a distinct feature of Gurbani. Desi raags based on folk music are another unique feature. Asa, Majh, Bihagra, Suhi and Tilang are some examples. Singing the glory of the Lord in a raag was likened to a light that could penetrate the hardest of hearts. At the same time, the Granth is firm in instructing that the Holy Word and not music should predominate. Says Khushwant Singh, "The singers were to avoid the expositions of the intricacies of raags, and to sing shabads in a way that the meaning of the word was conveyed to the listener".
This dichotomy has resulted in two distinct musical styles for the presentation of Gurbani. The classical and the day-to-day kirtan which takes the form of congregational singing. The first, "Shabad Reets" consist of hymns in Dhrupad-Dhamar or Khayal. These are rendered in select taals like Jhaptal, Chancal and Arachutal, Chautal and Soolaphakta. In fact, it is argued that Gurbani is a distinctive musical discipline. Says Dr Ajit Singh Paintal of Delhi University, "A peculiar style has been adopted by raagis. Full throated, powerful singing embellised by murki, gamak, and sapat distinguish it from any other." A similar peculiarity is the way raagis play the table. Though the pakhawaj is no longer used, they have adapted the pakhawaj style (khule-haath-ke-bol).
The second method, Jyotian-de-Shabad, based on folk music (dharnas and vars) rely on simple notes, standardised over centuries of use. They can be picked up easily by the lay congregation in no time. Sometimes the sthai (ra-hau-di-tuk) of the shabad is sung by the congregation (sangat) while the Raagi-Jatha sings the verses imparting shades of the appropriate raag. While Jyotian-de-Shabad are respected as proud descendents of a rich folk tradition, the drift away from raags causes considerable concern among purists. In particular, traditionalists like Singh Bandhu disapprove of the use of "filmy" music for shabad compositions. While they agree that the music should not supersede the Holy Word, lightness and frivolity is not the route to salvation. Singh Bandhu point out "The scriptures can even be recited or chanted for spiritual bliss. They don't have to be sung. So some discipline is called for in the tradition of the reets when shabads are sung."
Today, there is a move to return back to the rich musical tradition of Gurbani. To extern the frivolous, the "filmy". Efforts are being made to encourage the raags and "reetan" of Gurmat Sangeet. Suggestions include schools for young aspirants and refresher courses for raagis. Singh Bandhu conclude, "Music is an exacting art. It demands devotion, mental discipline and creativity. But the rich music and poetry on Gurbani cannot but enthuse 'sangats', and help them commune with God." Which was the intention of the Gurus, and which is why the Guru Granth Sahib is structured the way it is.