Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Sikh Saaj (Instruments)

“Singing the Kirtan of the Lord's Praises in the Saadh Sangat, the Company of the Holy, is the highest of all actions." (SGGSJi Ang 642)

I saw a kirtan video on facebook the other day and noticed that on the distant end, there was someone playing an instrument other than the harmonium. I asked and it turned out to be a Rabab. It was exciting to see this instrument, which had been played in the times of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, now being used in the present day. It brought me back to thinking about wanting to play a traditional kirtan instrument except I realized that I don’t know exactly which instruments these are… or how they sound. I distinctly remember the first time I saw something other than a harmonium being played was when there were youth from Baru Sahib who came to our Gurdwara. I was captured by the beauty of the Taus (pronounced tau-oos), shaped like a peacock. This sat in the back of my mind for years, and then a few months ago I had decided it would be one of my life goals to learn one of these traditional instruments. Yet still this was a distant idea which was not properly formulated. Seeing this rabab being played ignited a light within me to pursue this now. 

What are Saaj, Raags, and Gurmat Sangeet? 
Baru Sahib Akal Academy
As I just learned, our instruments are called Saaj in Punjabi, and thus these are our “Sikh Saaj.” Kirtan is also called “Gurmat Sangeet.” When we read Gurbani you will have noticed at the beginning it will say for example “Gond Mahalla 4.” Gond is the Raag, Mahalla is the Guru Ji who wrote the shabad (4 here would be Guru Ram Das Ji). Then sometimes it will say Ghar which means the tone/taal. A raag is a “framework” used to make a melody, that tells us which notes to use and which not to use, and conveys an emotion. For example, Raag Vadhans is sung at funerals since it is for loss. Raags also allow us to be flexible in creating new melodies. Raags also have associated timings and are meant for different times of the day depending on what they convey. They are thus very important in kirtan and expressing the feelings and understanding of the shabads. When I started playing kirtan as a child, my first teacher used to teach me by just showing me different keys and not in Raags. During my teens, Bhai Gurcharan Singh Ji came from Singapore and taught me starting from Sa-re-ga-ma-pa-da-ni-sa and all the associated exercises. It was from there that I developed a strong emotional connection to the shabads and realized the depth to the kirtan. I am forever thankful to him for teaching me because playing kirtan on the vaja has become a huge part of my life and that connection came from learning in raags. 

Kirtan History
Bhai Mardana Ji
When Guru Nanak Dev Ji would sing Gurbani in Raags, he was accompanied by his Muslim friend Bhai Mardana Ji who was playing the Rabab (more history below on the rabab). The rabab helped to deliver the message of the composition. Once they were done travelling and stayed in Kartarpur, the Rabab was then accompanied by the Pakhawaj or Mardang for setting the taal. The tradition of kirtan continued with each Guru Ji. Guru Arjan Dev Ji designed the Saranda, and called upon all Sikhs to learn kirtan rather than depending on professionals. Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji went on to create the Dadhis and introduced the Dadh and Sarangi to inspire the soldiers. Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji is also said to have designed the Taus (although some say this was Guru Gobind Singh Ji). Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s Sikhs went on to design the dilruba to carry with them during times of battle. Sikhs such as Bhai Mani Singh Ji and Bhai Taru Singh Ji who are remembered as martyrs were also great musicians and played the Saranda. Then there was a time period during which the Sikhs were on the move, living in the deserts and the hills, and not able to perform Gurmat Sangeet in Gurdwaras. Finally during Maharaja Ranjit Singh Ji’s rule, it became possible for Rababis once again to return to perform kirtan. Unfortunately after the partition in 1947 many Rababis left to Pakistan and there were less people around to also make the Rababs. Over time, this tradition of singing kirtan with the Rabab started to die off. Thankfully, this has now been revived. The work of many including Dr. Gurnam Singh Ji (Punjabi University, Patiala), Prof. Surinder Singh Ji (Raj Academy) and Bhai Baldeep Singh (Anad Conservatory) have been key in helping to keep the traditional Saaj alive. These instruments are being taught around the world in places like Akal Academy Baru Sahib and Gurmat Sangeet Darbar. I got this history from the references at the bottom, which is a history that in itself was preserved through these efforts. 

The Guru Granth Sahib Ji itself tells us about the importance of singing kirtan. In addition from our history now we can realize how important these instruments are to the Sikhs and to singing kirtan. It is important for us to learn our traditional saaj and singing in raags just like its important to maintain our language, shastar Vidhya, Simran, and katha. The website Sikh Saaj describes this perfectly: “These instruments are used to tame and conquer our emotions. Just as we use tools (ex. weights, machines) to build our physical body, Guru has given us these tools to use in our psychological workout…The sounds produced by these instruments have the power to create a wide range of moods, from ‘self-evaluation,’ and ‘courage,’ to ‘insane amounts of determination.’ These instruments were given to humans for the very purpose of helping us in our journey to bring balance and order between our mind, body, and soul.” When I think about how much unbalance and stress we face today, I wonder how much of that is because we don’t live our lives using these tools that the Guru Jis provided us with. The strong male warriors we look up in our history were also balanced out as poets and musicians; saint-soldiers. The kirtan allows the healthy expression of emotions which we nowadays seem to want to suppress, or otherwise comes out in other unhealthy ways. This gift has been bestowed upon us and let us use it- let us start singing kirtan. Also when someone else reads a shabad at the Gurdwara Sahib, listen, engage, understand and most importantly, experience the shabad. 

Below is a list of instruments used in kirtan, with some further history provided. I also added a video of most of the instruments, so you would get to hear what they sounded like, then videos of kirtan with multiple instruments combined to get the total effect. Later on I have written resources for buying these instruments and taking classes. Personally, I have been so inspired by watching these videos and learning about this, that I just ordered a rabab. I figured there would be no better reminder of my graduation than this. Eventually I would like to at least own all of these instruments as a reminder of our history, and so that anyone who does come to visit and knows how to play them can share/teach the beauty of the kirtan. (It would be great if our Gurdwara Sahibs nowadays also kept these instruments to inspire the next generation to learn these Sikh Saaj. Picking up something that is so deeply rooted in our history and fabric of who we are will surely inspire some). I will post a picture when it arrives.  

Vaja (Harmonium): 
The harmonium was made in Europe and brought to India by Christian missionaries who wanted something portable compared to large church organs. Even though this is the instrument most of us think of when we think of kirtan, it is not a traditional Sikh instrument used for kirtan and was not used anywhere near the time of the Guru Jis. It was adopted for kirtan in the early 1900s since it was easy to carry, easy to learn, and the instrument does not require any preparation/tuning so it is easy to handle. Unfortunately, the harmonium does not have the flexibility to play in raag the same as a string instrument does. 

Gurmat Sangeet Toronto singing to vaja in Raags

Firandia Rabab
There are two main types of Rababs, the Afghani (Kabuli) Rabab and the Firandia (Dhrupati) Rabab. Bhai Mardana Ji was the Muslim friend of Guru Nanak Dev Ji who accompanied him on his Udaasis. At first he played the Afghani rabab however this didn’t make the sound that was needed for kirtan, so Bibi Nanaki Ji gave 7 rupees to Bhai Firanda Ji to make a new Rabab as a gift to her brother. He declined the money and made it for free for Guru Ji, which was then further gifted to Bhai Mardana Ji. This rabab has extra strings and has no frets or need for constant retuning making it easier to sing in any Raag. Guru Angad Dev Ji also played the rabab. According to, Bhai Mardana Ji’s original rabab was destroyed in the fire during the attack on Harmandir Sahib Ji in 1984.
Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s rabab was found by Chris Mooney Singh from Australia in 1999. Amazingly, he worked for ten years to track the history so we could preserve this part of our history. Many people now play both types of Rabab with kirtan as it is being revived. 

Raag on Afghani Rabab

Tanpura: Sets the drone sound in the background during kirtan.  

Taus (peacock in Persian)
This instrument looks like a peacock and is said by some to have been developed by Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji while others say it was Guru Gobind Singh Ji. 

Dilruba (heart-stealer)
At the time of Guru Gobind Singh Ji the Sikh warriors had trouble carrying the Taus as it was large and heavy. Guru Ji allowed the Sikhs to make a smaller instrument, the dilruba, which was easier for the warriors to travel with. This also shows us how important kirtan was to the Sikhs as they carried and sang with these instruments even during times of battle.  

Tar shenai is typically played at Harmandir Sahib. I learned during the researching for this post that now there is always a minimum of one person playing a traditional saaj at Harmandir Sahib. This is usually the fourth person sitting to the right. I just learned about this instrument for the first time. 

The Saranda was created by Guru Arjan Dev Ji in Goindwal and used for kirtan. Guru Ji made this instrument at age 13! Just like the Rabab, there are similar instruments called Saranda but they are not the same as Sikh Saranda. 

Sarangi (“one-hundred colors”)
Most of us know this as the instrument used by Dhadhi Jathas although the Dhadd Sarangi is a smaller version than the full size. This was invented in 5000 BC to sing kirtan however its purpose was lost over time and revived by Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji for singing kirtan. 

Sitar: Widely used for music in India. 

Swarmandal(aka Surmandal): has a very magical quality of sound and is harp-like

Chimta: a chime instrument used typically at the Gurdwara Sahib. 

Dhadd:two sided drumlike instrument also played as part of the Dhadhi Jatha. Watching the video below you will see how skillful it is. 

Tabla (Arabic for Drum): used to set the taal for the kirtan, such as teentaal (16 beats). When learning the tabla, I realized was how much coordination and forearm strength it takes. 

Dholaki:normally we see this at festivals and weddings but also the Gurdwara


I thought the Jori was the same as the Tabla but actually it is its own instrument made in the court of Guru Arjan Dev Ji by Bhai Satta and Bhai Balwand (musicians). It is taller, with a louder sound than the tabla which helped to amplify its sound in the sangat. It is also played differently than the Tabla, and has no ink (black circle) on the larger drum. 

Kirtan with traditional instruments:
Baru Sahib children playing Mitr Pyare Nu  Bhai Siripal Singh Ji Barsai Amrit Dhaar Boondh Suhavani  Dr. Gurnam Singh Ji Amrit Baani Har Har Teri  Prof Kartar Singh Ji 1991  Jawaddi Taksal Students  Gurmat Sangeet Darbar Ghol Ghumaee Laalanaa  Surtaal Music School Children

Purchasing these instruments: 
After making phone calls in Brampton and Surrey, I had a hard time finding a real store who sells these in Canada. This in itself speaks to how few people are buying them. All stores seem exclusively to sell harmoniums and tabla now. If anyone knows of a store, please share in the comments below. Online, I found www.kalakendar.comsells them from their Canadian location (and can be delivered to your house or picked up in Toronto warehouse), and then www.tablasitar.comand www.buyraagini.comwhich are both owned by the same company deliver from the US (where I ordered my Rabab from). also sells (more expensive) instruments which I wasn’t sure if they delivered to Canada. delivers to Canada, and so does https://www.musiciansmallusa.comwhich is based in the US. delivers to Canada. Some websites have certain instruments and others don’t carry them so you have to look around at the sites. I noticed amazon even sells some of these instruments but they are a lot more expensive than these other sites. You also have to keep in mind extra duties/customs charges. 

Taking Lessons:
There are lots of lessons on youtube for harmonium, like my own channel and many others, but it can be harder to find lessons for the traditional Sikh saaj. It is especially hard to find a real teacher in a small location like our city, however online lessons can be helpful until you find a real teacher. Here are some links below (noting that mostly these are paid lessons). Sometimes we do have Raagi Jathas at the Gurdwara Sahib who are familiar with some of these instruments (for example, a member of the jatha who left last summer knew 5 instruments) and we can learn from them when the opportunity arises. The other option is to visit and attend camps or lessons at other locations in bigger cities like Surrey and Brampton. I think that the biggest step is to make the commitment to learn because then God helps us automatically in being able to find a method to fulfill that. 

References used to prepare this post including pics of Sikhi Intro to Kirtan/Raags

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Raising Funds

It is with a heavy heart that I share this post. A Sikh college student who had come from India was a pedestrian struck by a vehicle today in our community and died. Her family has already been notified in India. May God give her family and friends strength during this time of mourning. Her family, like many who send their children abroad to build a better future, had spent all their money to being able to send her here to study. We are raising money to be able to send her body back to India for her funeral. Please donate what you can to this cause because every dollar counts. The link is below. 

"Sandeep Kaur moved to Canada two moths ago to further pursue her post secondary education. She was involved in a serious car accident today and unfortunately passed away. It was extremely difficult to phone her parents in India and tell them the heartbreaking news. We hope to raise money to send Sandeep's body back to India. Her father is a truck driver and had put every last penny he had earned to help his daughter fulfill her dream of living in Canada."

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Our Ithaas (History)

This weekend at the Gurdwara Sahib we are holding an Akhand Paath in remembrance of the Shaheeds who were martyred in the atrocities of 1984. 

I have shared a lot of history on this blog because I know how important it is for our future to remember the past. Yet 1984 has been the history that I have for so long held back from researching in depth. Deep down I think it was because I thought it would be too painful to bear. Even though it was before I was born, it is still a sensitive topic that carries fresh pain for many. I didn’t think I could withstand the depth of emotion of immersing myself in hearing the stories of what happened. On Sunday Veer Ji said on the stage to make sure you do your research on our history. His words stuck with me. I needed to know what happened with our people. To honour those that lost their lives we must bear witness to their story and not only remember but teach our children too. 

There is a lot to understand about 1984; not only about the attacks on Sikhs that had gathered to remember the Shaheedi of Guru Arjan Dev Ji in June, but also the genocide which occurred in November (some people call these riots but our Parliament has recognized this as a genocide). I cannot do this topic justice in one post. To understand 1984, we in fact need to go back to at least 1947 when the partition of India and Pakistan happened in order to understand the backdrop and conditions that the Sikhs faced at the time. 

During our research, I think it is important to have a questioning and open mind to understand why there are conflicting stories being told. I found it interesting that I had a very hard time finding the Sikh story including the eyewitness accounts. I kept typing in different search terms only to get the same results- the government story, the army story, but not the Sikh experience. It reminded me that there is a bias in the way search engines are run too. I also learned that there was a media ban at the time. Even though it was dangerous, there did manage to be some limited photos and media publications from the time. Eventually I did find the resources I was looking for, so I want to share those for you to make them more easily accessible. I encourage you also to get educated. 

Reading and watching hours of footage over the last couple of days shocked me and changed me forever. It made me ask a lot of questions, and I’m sure it will do the same for you- questions about our direction and future as Sikhs and personal questions about yourself. It stirred many conversations with my parents too which was great. I was especially inspired at the story of Jaswant Singh Khalra (see links below), a human rights activist who uncovered that thousands of missing youth from Punjab (up to 25,000) between 1984 and 1994 were cremated by police and took his case to Canadian Parliament. Knowing this work put him at risk, he continued to uncover the truth. He was then murdered by the police, and 6 officers were sentenced to life in prison for his murder. He awakened those around him to speak the truth and do courageous work of uncovering the truth. 

Let us remember those Sikhs who lost their lives in 1984. It was during these days that Sikhs suffered in the stifling 40 degree heat hiding for their lives in the Harmandir Sahib complex. Our Sikhi survived and is still alive. It is our responsibility to honour those lives by not only educating ourselves, but also holding onto our Sikhi. May we learn and grow in our spiritual path. May we stand for the 3 pillars of Naam Japna, Vand Shakna, and Kirat karni. As Bhai Jagraj Singh Ji (from Basics of Sikhi) reminded us, things like learning our language are key aspects to keeping Sikhi alive as Punjabi allows us to read and understand Gurbani which allows us to get Naam. He reminded us that it is important to change our mindsets. We can make a huge difference in the world doing sewa (as a job and in our free time); we should dream big and set achievable goals along the way. 

References Great well-researched publication, highly recommended for reading** Short but powerful English video about 1984* In this amazing well-researched multi-part series from Basics of Sikhi, Bhai Jagraj Singh goes back to 1925 to explain the backdrop leading up to 1984, the events of 1984 itself, and where we are today** 

Presentations Punjabi and English: Bhai Manvir Singh Ji’s well-researched presentation on June 1984 presentation by Bhai Manvir Singh Ji about Nov 1984 Presentation by Bhai Harinder Singh Ji  similar to the above A documentary showing various footage of Sikhs in the days after the attacks  
Like me, you may find this BBC documentary ( as one of the first things that comes up about 1984. I watched it then realized it’s not meant to be a journalist uncovering the truth but rather her own personal journey (not really a documentary) and we should take it as that. In fact afterwards there was a debate in response to this documentary and the link is below. I don’t think you should make any conclusions based off of this about the events since she left out pretty much the whole history, but I wanted to mention it because I kept seeing it over and over and will likely come up in your searches as well. Debate about the BBC documentary Presentation about November 1984 by Bhai Harjinder Singh Ji recognizing genocide in Canadian Parliament 

Other websites: Documentary about Jaswant Singh Khalra’s stand for the truth Pamphlet of the above myth vs truth This website in itself is a resource list including books on 1984 Gyani Sant Singh Maskeen Ji  Gen. Brar’s interview, who was leading the attack in order for us to understand the government and army position, which is mostly the side that gets presented and is ingrained into the psyche of many, as they were given this side of the story through the media at the time. You can search up the official government White Paper and Brar’s other interviews on this too. 

Eye witness accounts: 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Lessons from Bibi Santi

A couple of weeks ago, the dhadhi jatha told the inspirational story of Bibi Santi. She was born into a Sikh family but married into a family that followed a Muslim Pir. She was kicked out since her in-laws did not support her reading Gurbanii. She lived in a hut with her husband, who died soon after the birth of their son, Palla. Bhai Palla Ji was raised as a Sikh. He grew up with a strong desire to meet Guru Ji and would do Ardas for the Darshan of Guru Ji. One day, Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji did indeed pass through their village accompanied by some Sikhs. Bhai Palla Ji immediately recognized Guru Ji, with his two swords representing Miri and Piri. Bhai Palla Ji had spent many years carrying around gur (solid piece of sugar) which he wrapped in a cloth as an offering for Guru Ji, but was having trouble opening the knot. Guru Ji opened the knot, and at the same time, also spiritually liberated Bhai Palla Ji. The Sikhs went to Bhai Palla Ji’s home for langar. The villagers all agreed that it would be very humiliating for Bibi Santi and Bhai Palla Ji if they had no langar to feed Guru Ji. Bibi Santi and Bhai Palla Ji already used to have barely enough food, how would they be able to feed langar to Guru Ji and the Sikhs? The villagers refused to lend any flour. When Bhai Palla Ji came home Bibi Santi was overjoyed and started to prepare langar. Guru Ji watched the scene as the villagers wanted to see the humiliation of Bhai Palla Ji and asked asked Bhai Palla Ji to invite the villagers to join! The villagers agreed, thinking that this would be even more humiliating. Guru Ji asked Bhai Palla Ji to put two kerchiefs- one over the flour, and one over the dhal, and then Bibi Ji prepared the langar. The langar was limitless! The villagers continued to eat until they were full. At this miracle, they fell at the feet of the Guru Ji who had protected the honor of his Sikhs. These villagers became followers of Guru Ji and just one woman, Bibi Santi, was able to transform the whole village to Sikhs. 

This Sakhi teaches us many things. Bibi Santi and Bhai Palla Ji may have lived in a hut, but they were rich in love for their Guru. Although the whole village including her in-laws discouraged her, she continued to walk her path and in fact helped to guide them to their paths as well. Individuals like Bhagat Kabir (people tried to drown him), Namdev (people tried to crush him with a drunk elephant) and Prehlad (Harnakash tried to kill him) were also similarly discouraged by others but continued on their path and were protected by God. 

Kaljug meh kirtan pardhana, “In this Dark Age of Kali Yuga, the Kirtan of the Lord’s Praises are the most sublime and exalted.” (Ang 1075)

I have always gotten the same words from Gyani Jis who come to visit- “don’t stop.” They say, “never stop doing kirtan, praying, or doing Simran.” I kind of wondered why this message was being delivered to me again and again. Why would I ever desire to stop? Singing kirtan is what I love and enjoy. It is during these last couple of weeks, coincidentally around the time of hearing Bibi Santi’s sakhi that I came to understand how this all came together. They were reminding me that just like in Bibi Santi’s story, there is also adversity from the outside (not just the internal challenge of continuing this path). It is a feature of Kaljug. Gurbani tells us “Those who act like tyrants are accepted and approved - recognize that this is the sign of the Dark Age of Kali Yuga… If someone chants the Lord’s name, he is scorned. These are the signs of Kali Yuga.” (Ang 902). Since they had also faced this, they were reminding me that even though others will try to stop you, just keep walking the same path. I used to think that it just my perception that people were sweet to your face and were gossiping jealously behind your back. Now I was directly faced with the fact that It was happening and exists as a part of life no matter how you treat or think of other people. Even if you don’t have enmity against anyone, they may still have enmity towards you. Our history shows us that the Guru Jis had no enmity against people, but there were still many people who had enmity against them like Chandu Shah and Aurangzeb. This is especially true for powerful figures who speak up on important issues of truth and justice; the more vocal they are, they end up having lots of people rise against them. Malala Yousafzai comes to mind, as she was shot for standing up for female rights. It is not just these figures though, its present in the daily lives of people like you and me, and even Gyani Jis. The gossip and slandering come in the face of a person’s ego being faced with someone else’s success whether it is spiritual, social, physical or otherwise.  

Jealousy and competition are dividing forces that bring us further away from each other. Combined with people’s insecurities, they fuel gossip that makes assumptions about other people’s thoughts, intentions, and actions. It’s more important we create an environment of collaboration. My dad was telling me about how when his uncle came to Canada, there used to be Sikh families hosting newer immigrants for free in their homes. They would feed them, offer them support and shelter until they got on their own feet. Then those people would go on to do the same for others when they had the chance. This collaboration is in the spirit of the Khalsa as we are brothers and sisters and meant to work together. At the Gurdwara Sahib we can use the loving inclusiveness of the environment to grow and learn together, and it can inspire others to do the same.   

Hearing discouraging things about yourself isn’t pleasant (and kind of surprised me) but I think it’s also important to always have compassion for where other people are in their journeys. The observer’s criticisms speak about where they are on their own path and their ability to see you. I recently met some Gurmukhs who were able to understand, within moments of meeting, what it had seemed to take others a lifetime to know. I have rarely seen so much love overflowing from an individual and I almost cried. It is overjoying to meet the servants of Waheguru even if it is for a short time. It reminded me that when people are connected to God they are really able to dig deep into the experiences of others too and see them. When they are struggling in superficialities of maya, that’s the level at which they deal with the world and see others as well. That is why it’s important for us to stop looking at others and what they say or don’t say, what they want, and what their opinions are and rather look into our own path and journey. When I started recording shabads, I used to want everything to look right, and not want to move around. The more I sang kirtan with the Gyani Jis in the evenings, I moved beyond my body and stopped singing for others. Who was watching and whether anyone at all was watching didn't matter. I started singing from my heart to God, the shabads that resonated with my mind. When the shabad addressed my mind, I listened to the words of Guru Ji with my eyes closed as I sang. I think it is the process of bringing everything from other people to inside myself that allowed me to experience kirtan and is something I wish to pass on as a message about life. People talk, the chatter continues but our journey is fruitful when we stop worrying about others and walk our path as Bibi Santi taught us. I’ll pass on the same words I was given- don’t stop.