The Rababi Tradition of Kirtan

Bhai Mardana, a Muslim minstrel, accompanied Guru Nanak (1469-1539) for some 30 years during his travels across South and Central Asia, providing the aural musical expression of Nanak’s compositions. Mardana sang and played the rabab, a stringed instrument originating from Greater Persia/Afghanistan, to Nanak’s poetry and prose during their travels.

Bhai Mardana is widely acknowledged as Nanak’s first disciple. Mardana’s relatively low social status as a traditional musician (mirasi) was elevated through this partnership, which saw musical recitation and text become intrinsically embedded within the founding of the tradition of kirtan performance. There are references to Mardana in the actual Sikh scripture of the Ad Granth, though there is some debate as to whether they are his compositions or Guru Nanak’s. Go to this page for further discussion of Mardana’s presence in the Ad Granth.  Regardless of this ambiguity of Mardana’s role in the compositions, Bhai Mardana features within Nanak’s voice in scripture as well as in the Janam Sakhis.

The tradition of the Rababis became instituted through the subsequent Muslim family lineages, beginning with Mardana, Guru Nanak’s hand-picked Muslim ‘bhai’ or brother. The Rababi tradition subsequently branched into a tree of family lineages.

Rababi lineages and the 10 Sikh Gurus

Rababi lineages and the 10 Sikh Gurus

Thus, to call oneself a Rababi is to claim an authenticity in relation to the lineages stemming from those Rababis who had accompanied the Sikh Gurus. The story of Bhai Mardana exists as one which highlights a non-conflictual, shared spiritual path in which the distinctions of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu do not feature.

The example of the Rababi tradition tells us much about how the boundaries between religions were viewed in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. This was the period of the Mughal Empire, and many popular narratives explain the development of Sikh identity by reference to the antagonistic attitudes of the Muslim rulers of this Empire.  The Rababi tradition, however, indicates that the social, cultural and indeed religious landscape of that time was far more complex than such narrative suggest. Local belief systems and practices continued,  alongside and sometimes in spite of the particular attitudes and policies of the Mughal rulers.  The Rababi tradition of kirtan highlights the complexities that underlie religious categories. Attention to such underlying stories which do not ‘fit’ histories of religious difference help us to understand the social context which religious histories are attempting to reflect (Kalra 2014).

The Golden Temple in Amritsar is a site of pilgrimage which has come to have an iconic status for Sikhs (Purewal and Kalra 2014).

A view of the Golden Temple in Amritsar

A view of the Golden Temple in Amritsar

The holy book, the Ad Granth, installed at the centre of the shrine complex, contains 3384 hymns and is the focal point of not only the Golden Temple, but all Gurdwaras, as it is considered the ‘living guru’ for all Sikhs, containing the writings of Gurus and other saints and bhagats. Its status is sacred, and thus the recitation of the hymns is also considered a sacred practice. The Rababis were known as highly accomplished performers of kirtan, possessing an authentic knowledge passed down through their families from the times of the Gurus. Thus, they held a sacred status within kirtan performance. Even colonial observers noticed the presence of the Rababis:

All through the day the worshippers flock to the Granth…the musicians are constantly in attendance, singing hymns to the rebeck and the lute.

These are the Rababis, the descendants of the Muhammadan fakir, Mardana Mirasi of Merawat, who loved Nanak, and set his hymns to music nearly five hundred years ago. As Mardana sat by Nanak’s side and ministered to him, yet kept his own faith, so his family have made music for the Gurus or for their deputy, the Book, these five hundred years, and served the Khalsa and held to Islam through generations, when to be a Sikh meant to slay “a Toork” at sight or be slain by him.

What were these Muhammadans doing in the shrine? I asked. When I was told they were the children of Mardana, I understood (Candler 1910, pp. 112-113).

Until 1947, Rababis were one of the distinguished groups of kirtaniyas (accomplished performers of kirtan) at the Golden Temple.  They performed there by official appointment by the management committee. However, with the partition in 1947, most Rababis were compelled to migrate to Pakistan along with most other Muslims of the region, though some overtly converted to Sikhism and have continued to perform kirtan on the newly demarcated Indian side of the border. For those who went to Pakistan, however, Rababis suffered a tremendous loss to their livelihood and status as sacred musicians. Within a few decades, a centuries old tradition was under threat. However, it is precisely the nature of musical knowledge being passed down through ‘blood’ or lineage which has perhaps preserved the rababi tradition from the wider modernising influences of kirtan that have taken place since then.

Find out more about the modernisation of kirtan after 1947.

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