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


  1. 1)Bhagats( Those who loved God) wrote in Poetry - Music. We are VIBRATION as Physics says everything in the Universe Vibrates.
    2) Some raags are sung in the morning Raag Asa, some in the evening

    3) Music creates feelings in US. Some music is peaceful. divine, some creates Confidence in us - that which People played during War time - like Drums and Algoza etc
    I wanted to ADD some more Sikh instruments

    Algoza - Punjabi Old Music instrument

  2. One man plays 12 instruments

    Joban Sunami

  3. Shri Guru Nanak Dev ji's friend and companion Baba Mardana ji Rababi use to sing kirtan with him

    Here Famous Kwal Nusart Farteh Ali Khan singing Mitar Piyare Nu

    Mittar Pyare Noon (Shabads) - Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

  4. Mitr Pyaare Nu - Amrita Kaur & Yadvinder Singh

  5. His Ancestor was Bhai Mardana ji. Funny thing was the First woman president of the SGPC, who was later resigned disgracefully, did not let him sing at Harmindar Sahib ji

    Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand Rababi