Originated in the Hindu tradition as loving songs sung to God. It is also one of the pillars of Sikhism and in that context refers to the singing of the Sacred Hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib to music. The Sikh place huge value on this type of singing and a Sikh is duty bound to listen and/or sing Guru-Kirtan as frequently as possible.
The Music traditionally has been Indian Classical Music, which is based on Ragas and taal (rhythmic beat patterns). Traditionally the Indian musical instruments the Harmonium and Tabla were used for this type of music. The Sikh Scripture contain 31 Ragas and 17 talas which form the basis for Kirtan music compositions.
While most Hindus and Sikhs devoutly sing Kirtan in its more traditional form, there are smaller groups that experiment with incorporation of non-Indian instruments like the guitar and interspersing Western themes like jazz into the fold.
The Holy Sikh Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib (“SGGS”) is the main spiritual authority for the Sikhs. The Sikhs hold unique high regards for their Granth (Literally “scripture”), which is treated as a living Guru (“religious master”). When Kirtan is sung, the lyrics are normally lines from the SGGS. The Shabads (“Hymns”) of the Sikh Scriptures are primarily arranged in Chapters, which are names of musical Ragas (“ musical theme”). So the main Sikh Holy Scripture is arranged in chapters that bear names of musical ragas. Each of these Ragas is unique and all the Shabads in that Chapter have to be sung in that particular Raga. The title of the Shabad also has a numeric notation, which many believe gives the singers a clear idea of the Tala or musical rhythm or beat that needs to be used for that hymn.
Below is the English Translation from page 14 of SGGS:
- raag sireeraag mehlaa pahilaa 1 ghar 1. (Raag Siree Raag, First Section, First House:)
- If I had a palace made of pearls, inlaid with jewels,
- Scented with musk, saffron and sandalwood, a sheer delight to behold
- Seeing this, I might go astray and forget You, and Your Name would not enter into my mind. ||1||
You will notice that the Shabad begins with “Raag Sireeraag” – Siree Raga is an important raga in Indian Classical Music. Further you will notice that the first line ends with ‘ghar 1’ – this conveys to musicians, the Tala or musical beat or rhythms that needs to be used for that Shabad.