The Modernisation of Kirtan: The Disappearance of Medieval Performance

The modern performance of Shabad Kirtan which was initiated during the religious reform period that took place from the mid-1920s onwards has been streamlined to fit within a narrowing definition of Sikh practice. Referring explicitly to the 1920s Sikh reform (Singh Sabha) movement, the Rehat Maryada provides specifications around conventions which resulted in a sidelining of non-Sikhs from roles within ritual performance.

One of the guidelines which has most affected the Rababis is Chapter V, Article VI of the Code of Sikh Conduct and Conventions (Rehat Maryada):

  • Only a Sikh may perform Kirtan in a congregation.
  • Kirtan means singing the scriptural compositions in traditional musical measures.
  • It is improper, while singing hymns to rhythmic folk tunes or to traditional musical  measures, or in team singing, to induct into them improvised and extraneous refrains. Only a line from the hymn should be made a refrain.

The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) which manages Gurdwaras in Punjab, enforces the code of conduct (Rehat Maryada) which was first written in the 1920s with instructions and guidelines about ‘correct practice’. Within such rigid guidelines, the ‘tradition’ of Rababi kirtan became excluded from the Golden Temple due to the Rehat Maryada’s restrictions on style and requirements for approved performers to be baptized Sikhs. This immediately erased the rich Rababi tradition with its own distinctive style and form from the most iconic of Sikh historical shrines, the Golden Temple. The Rababi style of kirtan is known for its exponential style, using improvisation and textual, interpretive sermon (katha). These features of Rababi kirtan are in direct violation of the Rehat Maryada’s conventions, not least with the first criteria being that performers of kirtan must be ‘Sikh.’ The symbolic presence of Rababi performers in historical gurdwaras was a feature of kirtan which has now been lost to the institutionalizing and modernizing influences of the Rehat Maryada.

The partition in 1947 created a physical separation based upon religious distinction which detached the Rababi tradition from its performance base. National boundaries which separated newly created India and Pakistan relied upon the erection and accentuation of religious boundaries. Music and ritual are areas which cannot so easily be defined (Kalra 2014), despite attempts of the Sikh Rehat Maryada to define that which is Sikh and non-Sikh. The Rababi tradition comes out of the origins of the Sikh tradition, and should as a result not be viewed as an anomaly. The medium of music provides a strong foundation for the Rababi tradition to reflect the same quality of openness and unboundedness that underpinned the companionship of Nanak with Mardana.  It provides us with one alternative view of the development of the tradition; alternative, that is, to the idea of South Asia religions being defined by the linear development of strongly bounded and separate traditions (Suthren Hirst and Zavos 2011: 16-17, 202-204).

Find out more about the life of one contemporary Rababi, Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand.


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