Gurbani and Rubabis

November 17, 2019

The Sikhs and Muslims of South Asia have always played an important role in each other’s ritual, literature and music

Gurbani recitation. — photo by Rahat Dar

Due to the current socio-religious politics surrounding Sikh pilgrims and the Kartarpur Gurdawara, various rituals associated with the Sikh faith have come in the spotlight. As celebrations for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak were highlighted by the mainstream media, the musical aspects of Sikh rituals and the Gurbani have also come to surface. This compels those outside the faith, to consider the aesthetic merit of these musical renderings.

It must be stated, with some reservation, that when music or other artistic expressions become integral to a religion, one is in a quandary on whether to assess and consider it as art, or only as religious ritual. Despite, a fearful apprehension of appearing to be an intruder on another faith, one should be able to talk about artistic merit and assess the work as such.

Gurbani, the singing of sacred texts, is an essential ritual in Sikhism. It consists of shabads and kirtans, and is always sung at Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, underlining the significance of music, song and chant to ritual and spirituality. The singers are usually divided by the religious establishment into raagis and rubabis; the former are Sikhs, while the latter are Muslims, said to be the descendants of Bhai Mardana.

For South Asian Muslims, music has not been an integral part of a religious ritual. The closest example is the azaan. Again, the act of being critical of its delivery, may seem as an unwanted advance of a sacrilegious nature. While most Muslims consider azaan as essential, few give sufficient weight to its correct delivery. It is treated mostly as a religious duty, rather than an aesthetic expression which moves a believer to submit and pray.

In Urdu for azaan words like dena are used, –Azaan is dena and qirat is karna. When religious expression is ascribed in qawwali even, it is parhna or karna rather than the musical verbs like gana, bajana, ada karna, as these expressions, do not fall under the strict definitions of musiqi, huda or ghina.

After all is said and done, one must say the azaan with great care and respect, which includes it being given in sur by a muezzin who is properly trained to do so. We all know, that when done properly it has tremendous appeal, rather than merely being an instrument of delivering a call for prayer.

Returning to the subject at hand. Bhai Mardana, a Muslim and one of Guru Sahib’s closest friends, used to play the rubab and sing. His descendants known as rubabis were entrusted with the task of composing Guru Sahib’s texts to music, and possibly other liturgical texts of later gurus. Little is known about Bhai Mardana’s life, except that he was a close associate of and accompanied Guru Sahib on many epic journeys that he took around the world.

Another name mentioned in history, is that of Bhai Farinda, a close friend of Guru Nanak, and minstrel, who also helped set text to music, and chant tunes to shabads and kirtan.

Nanak was on the forefront of those who emphasised bringing out the commonality of human values and part of the Bhakti movement. For him the differences amongst creeds were not etched in stone and hence irreconcilable, rather they were merely reference points for a possible negotiated settlement. He never shied away from quoting Baba Fareed, the first major Punjabi poet, and leader of the Chisti Sufis. Some of Baba Fareed’s kalam has even been incorporated by Guru Sahib in his Grandth Sahib.

In sacred Sikh rituals, many ragas are prescribed for the singing and chanting of the shabad and kirtan. Some are preferred for particular textual compositions, while others are not as formalised in their description.Soohi, Bilaaval, Gaund, Sri, Maajh, Gauri, Asa, Gujri, Devgandhari, Bihaagra, Sorath, Dhanasari, Jaitsree, Todi, Bhairaagi, Tilang, Raamkali, Nat Narayan, Maali Gaura, Maaru, Tukhari, Kedara, Bhairav, Basant, Sarang, Malaar Jaijawanti, Kalyaan, Vadhans, Parbhati and Kaanra, all thirty one in number, are the designated ragas.

The descendants of Bhai Mardana, have been outstanding musicians, whilst proper records have not been maintained to say with certainty who was the greatest, his twentieth century successors have indicated the pinnacle of their success. They include Master Nisar, Master Ghulam Hiader, Bhai Deesa, Bai Lal Muhammed, Rashed Attre, Wajahat Attre, Sain Akhter Hussain, Tufail Niazi, Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan, Wazir Afzal, Hamid Ali Bela and Munir Hussain to name a few.

Nearly all the rubabis migrated to Pakistan at the time of partition, mostly from the Punjab, while a few came from Bombay and Calcutta. The rubabis have continued to perform this function despite theological misunderstandings and disputes over the 500 years. Now that, cross-border religious harmony is being encouraged, we hope that the Gurbani tradition may once more be enriched by musicians and devotees who had for hundreds of years, supported and worked for its proliferation.

Gurbani and Rubabis: How South Asian Sikhs and Muslims influence each other’s ritual, literature and music