In the last few months work has led me to the Golden Temple in Amritsar and allowed me to interact with those who are intimately connected with the space.
The gurudwara itself has gradually become one of my favourite places – a fact that surprises me no end, given my almost primal distaste for religious hot spots. But there is something about the Sri Harmandar Sahib (the Golden Temple) that evokes a deep sense of calm in me. Perhaps it is the languid pace of activity, perhaps the gentle, restorative effect of the water, perhaps the brilliance of the gilded Darbar Sahib itself.
But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the effect of the kirtan that echoes throughout the temple complex, reflecting off the walls, skimming the sarovar‘s waters straight into the hearts of the sangat.
Music is intricately woven into the fabric of Sikhism, a religion that takes its cues from the 11th guru – the Guru Granth Sahib. This holy book is comprised of shabads – lyrical gems encoding the core beliefs of the Sikh philosophy. Each shabad is composed in specific raags which the Gurus themselves prescribed. (The Granth Sahib is a surprisingly secular text. Besides the 10 Sikh gurus, contributers have included seers from all religions & communities, such as Namdev, Kabir, Farid, Mardana and many more.)
My colleague & I had heard of a senior raagi of the Golden Temple, who might be able to tell us more. We located him easily enough when one of the sevadaars cocked his ear in the direction of the sanctum sanctorum and said, “Arey! Waheguru ki kripa se woh abhi issi waqt Darbar Sahib me kirtan kar rahein hain.“
And so we met Narender Singh Benarsi – one of the last few raagis to adhere strictly to the original raags of the Guru Granth Sahib.
“Guru Sahib (Guru Nanak) devised kirtan so that human beings could aspire for more than just survival, more than just eating 3 meals and getting by from one day to the next. What is, then, the difference between animals & us, human beings? We have the ability to meditate & reflect on higher truths. And that is the purpose of the kirtan…”
“Kirtan“, he says, “is not simple entertainment. These sounds are the hotline to Waheguru (The Almighty)…Just like your mobile phones have a unique combination of numerals that I need to dial to reach you, gurbani has the unique combination of musical notations (of the original raags) to meet the Timeless One..seedha Bhagwan se connection!”
In recent years a lot has changed in the music of the Golden Temple. Original compositions of the gurus have taken a serious hit in the face of more popular musical styles. Many of the raagis have fallen prey to the temptation of entertaining the public, which seems to have no patience for traditional kirtan. It is a tragedy of great proportions, one that saddens Bhai Benarsi greatly.
(Listen to how Benarsi sets up a shabad in its original form then contrasts it with the corrupted version. )
The many hours I have spent sitting along the banks of the sarovar, drawn in by the magical strains of kirtan have only reaffirmed my faith in the creed of music. There is no greater way to tune out of the chaos outside and zone into that inner chamber of solace than to soak in the original raags of the gurbani. You may not know the language, as I don’t, or like me, have no understanding of Hindustani classical music. But discussions of genres & preferences become immaterial when one is in presence of the music.
Right now, things look bleak for the future of Golden Temple’s music. Nanak’s rebab has already been banished, associated as it was with his Muslim follower, Bhai Mardana. The unidimensional harmonium now holds court in the Darbar Sahib, eating up subtle microtones that once made the Guru’s shabads come alive. The younger lot is consumed with pleasing crowds, the way Govinda’s pelvic thrusts get the front row on their feet.
For Bhai Benarsi, this corruption is symptomatic of a deeper malaise : “Bhagwan ko jaanana dur ki baat hai…Insaan ne itney daayre banaa liye hain – jaat ke, paat ke. Granth Sahibji toh yeh daayre todthey hain.” – Forget knowing the Lord, man has become consumed with building fences of religion & caste. The Guru Granth Sahib actually breaks down these fences.
“Yeh toh baaddh hai. Hum kitni der issey bach ke rah saktein hain?” – This is a flood. How long can we withstand the deluge?