To The Sounds Of Anandpur By Bahadur Singh Sunday, February 22, 2004 - 01:31 PM EST There is this somehow strange idea going through peoples' minds that keertan with harmonium or vaja is allowed and that it is the normal form of keertan. There is also this other idea that devotion is more important than the music itself and that the music is just there to carry the message. Keertan performed with classical Hindustani Sangeet instruments, such as the sitar, sarod, rabab, santur, taus, dilruba, pakhawaj, is a rare experience. It is indeed sad to see how people have become engrossed in keertan played in the most vulgar forms, now even with cheap electronic keyboards. People who complain about this state of things and who demand, and it is their right as Sikhs, to have keertan performed according to Keertan Maryada are viewed as elitists who want to impose their aesthetics on Gurmat. If devotion is the only important aspect of keertan, why then did the Gurus compose the bani in raags? If the message is more important than the form, then why use music? Can't people get the message just by reading Gurbani? The reason that keertan is important is that the genius of our Gurus recognised the importance and spiritual value of raags. Raags are the musical scales of classical Hindustani Sangeet. There are a few thousand of them. Raag means colour - it colours the mind. The Shri Guru Granth Sahib contains thirty-one raags, some of which can only be found in the compositions of our Gurus. To each raag is ascribed an aesthetic emotion, called rus, juice or essence, which itself is linked to a set of basic emotions, bhaav. The aim of the raag is to lead the listener to a very sublime emotion and become one with it. The genius of Gurbani keertan lies exactly here. One may find two banis that look similar when it comes to the text but are completely different from each other because of the individual raag they are set in. It is the raag that distinguishes one bani from another. More, the music is not just there to carry the message, it is part of the message. Without the raag the bani has no soul. It is only text. The raag enables the soul to grasp the very emotion of the bani where words can't go; the raag is the key to the bani enabling intuitive communion with it. It is, therefore, a fatal error to disrespect the raags of the Shri Guru Granth Sahib. In fact, Gurbani can be viewed as the result of innumerable permutations between japji Sahib, which is pure text and is never sung, and Raagmala (a purely aesthetic composition). Ignoring this fact is an insult to the mystical and aesthetic genius of our Gurus. Our Gurus had elitist taste but they wanted even the farmer to enjoy elitist culture as well! One needs to understand that raags can only be properly played with classical Hindustani instruments. Western wind or string instruments may be added, but with reservations. Why? Because the Indian musical scale has twenty-four shrutis or ¼ tones - very subtle musical units - whereas the Western scale only has 12 ½ tones. Because of the way they are built, Western instruments are not able to fit into Hindustani Sangeet with the exception of the violin, the guitar and the flute. The other criteria for an instrument, even Indian, to be accepted into classical Hindustani Sangeet is that the instrument be able to imitate the alamkaars, or ornaments, of the voice - such as meend (a type of glissando). The violin, guitar and flute can do this to some extent but the harmonium is totally incapable of it. The harmonium is a keyboard and cannot play shrutis, or, therefore, alamkaars. It's monotonous sound and lack of legato makes it the most unsuitable instrument for shabad keertan. How did we Sikhs start using the harmonium? Christian missionaries brought the harmonium to India and made its use popular amongst the masses. Classical Hindustani Sangeet demands years of devoted training for someone to be a good performer whereas the harmonium can be played very easily by anyone within a few hours. Out of laziness, a growing number of raagis started using the harmonium with the disastrous consequence that proper keertan has become rare. Raags themselves have started to be ignored by people. The idea that only devotion counts in keertan is an influence of Protestant Christianity in Sikhi. It is about time we Sikhs wake up and realise that our Gurus gave us a distinctive musical system for Gurbani. We should educate our children in classical Hindustani Sangeet without the use of harmonium. So that every sangat in every Gurudwara resounds like the Darbar of Guru Gobind Singh in Anandpur where keertan was played only in raags. It then filled the Sikhs' heart with joy and brought them nearer to Vaheguru, the Beloved One. May it do so now.