Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Flow and Pause in Gurbani & Keertan

Amardeep Singh, #01-04 Kentish Green, 20 Oxford Road, Singapore 218815
Phone :
63964710 (Res), 98326508 (Mobile)
Email :

It is important to understand a few terminologies before we proceed further.

Rahau - While reading through a Shabad in Guru Granth Sahib, we find that one line has a word RAHAU written at the end. Except for Raag Tukhari, we find the mention of Rahau in nearly all the other Bani. Depending on the type of Shabad (Chaupada - 4 liner, Ashtpadi - 8 liner, etc.) it has that many defined lines. Somewhere in the middle, or in the beginning of the Shabad one line has the word Rahau mentioned, with the numeral 1.

The word rahau means WAIT.... PAUSE....in Punjabi "Therau". Gurus have clearly indicated that while reading the Shabad, take a PAUSE on this line. Why Pause? Because the line with RAHAU has the central theme of the Shabad. This is the line in which Guru is conveying the topic discussed in the Shabad and it contains the Gurmat Vichar, the RIGHT THOUGHT. Therefore we are required to pause on this line and contemplate the message. The other lines in the Shabad are used to explain/extrapolate the contents of the Central Theme given in the line of Rahau. These other lines (the non-Rahau lines) talk about prevalent practices, arguments, reasoning, intention, etc. and are used for strengthening/explaining the Central Theme.

The point to note is that the numbering of lines is meanigful: the numbering conveys a definitive message. The message here is: Wait/Pause and contemplate on the message. In this line the Guru is telling us the theme of the Shabad. The number 1 of Rahau indicates ,read this line carefully. Now read the other (non-Rahau Line) line, and correlate it to the message in Rahau. Now proceed to other (Non-Rahau) line thereby keep proceeding with all the other lines in a sequential manner.

At times, if rarely, we find more than one rahau in a Shabad. All the Rahaus in that Shabad (usually 2,3 or 4) convey the same central theme: reflect on truth. Gurus thought it appropriate to explain the same central theme in different combination of words and therefore gave more than one Rahau.

Asthai - In Keertan (or any music) we find one line keeps getting repeated time and again. This common line, which is repeated each time after a different line, is known as Asthai in Indian Classical Music, or Chorus in the Western Music.

Antra - In Keertan (or any music) after singing the Asthai (the repetitive line) a different line is sung, and upon its completion the Asthai is sung again and then a second different line is sung, followed by Asthai. This changing line is known as Antra in Indian Classical Music.

The purpose of Keertan is to deliver the Gurus’ message sweetly to the listener. As Rahau has the central theme of the Shabad and contains the spiritual message, its usage, as an Asthai is repeated time and again after every Antra, which helps in the message getting drilled into the listener’s mind. The result is that the Guru’s message gets delivered many times while the Shabad is being sung. This increases the probability of retention of the central theme (Gurmat Vichar) by the listener’s mind.

Let me take a very popular Shabad from Siri Raag, Page 44, which is sung by Raagis during a happy occasion in the family. Most of the Sikhs will remember the shabad by its popularly known line:

Lakh khushiya patshahiya

jey satgur nadar karey ..........

It’s commonly found that Raagis make the above line as the Asthai while singing the shabad because of the word Khushiya (Happiness). This line is the second non-Rahau line in the Shabad and gets commonly used as the Asthai while singing.

The English translation of the Shabad is:

SRI RAAG, MEHLA V: All happiness is achieved only by Thy Grace. The precious gift of this human life becomes fruitful when one chants the True Word. One who has such destiny written on his forehead enters the Mansion of the Lord’s Presence through the Guru. || 1 || O my mind, focus your consciousness on the One. Without the One, all involvlements are worthless; emotional attachment to a mirage is verily false. || 1 || Pause || Hundreds of thousands of princely pleasures are yours to enjoy if the True Guru bestows His Glance of Grace. If He bestows the Name of the Lord, even for a moment, my mind and body are soothed. Those who have such pre-ordained destiny hold tight to the Feet of the True Guru. || 2 || Blessed is that moment, and fruitful is that time, when one is in love with the True Lord. Suffering and sorrow do not touch those who have the Support of the Name of the Lord. Grasping him by the arm, the Guru lifts them up and out, and carries them across to the other side. || 3 || Embellished and immaculate is that place where the Saints gather together. He alone finds shelter who has met the Perfect Guru. Nanak builds his house upon that site where there is no death, no birth, and no old age. || 4 || 6 || 76 ||

If we were to sing this Shabad in proper Keertan singing style by making Rahau (Mere man eikas sio chit laaye/eikas bin sabh dhund hai/sabh mithiya moh maye) as Asthai for repetition, then upon reaching second Antra, the message that will get repetitively get delivered to the mind will be that we need to first make an effort to get our mind to focus on One God, give up attachment to Maya and emotional entanglements. If we succeed in achieving this state of mind, then (as stated in the second Non-Rahau line) thousands of Pleasures will be attained (only if) if His Grace falls upon us.

Note that the CONDITION (Rahau line to be used as Asthai) is that we make the effort to rid our mind of attachment/Maya, then the RESULT (Non-Rahau line to be used as Antra) is - if Satguru deems it worth then he provides hundreds of pleasures to the devotee.

Unfortunately, this Shabad is commonly sung by Raagis by making the non-Rahau Line No.2 as the Asthai (Lakh khushiya patshahiya jey satgur nadar karey....), which gets repeated many a times during the Shabad singing. Now see the change in deliverability of the message to our mind. We are seeking from our Guru thousands of pleasures, by His Grace and, upon getting them, we will then strive towards ridding our mind of attachment/Maya! Note that by using the non-Rahau line as Asthai, the CONDITION has changed to: if Satguru deems it worth, then He provides hundreds of pleasures to us and the RESULT (Rahau line being used as Antra) is that we will make the effort to rid our mind of attachment/Maya!

By using the non-Rahau line in this Shabad as Asthai, our mind is subconsciously being told to live on HOPE, rather than make the EFFORT, which is the reverse of what the Guru is telling us in this Shabad, viz.- Devotee first makes the EFFORT and then HOPE should arise for His Grace.

Interesting....isn’t it? We tend to ignore the finer details of Gurus’ message, which is so clear.................Probably that’s the reason why Sikhs of today lack the spirit/spiritual discipline for which our forefathers were known. I hope people will start making an effort of getting the Sikhs in their immediate contact to understand the importance of Rahau in Keertan singing, and strive towards singing Keertan in the correct manner.

Those who are active in Gurudwara Management/teaching Keertan should make it a point to teach to the youth only those Shabads in which Rahau is made the Asthai. For a teacher to correct what he has already learnt in so many years is a tough proposition, but he can definitely make an effort to select those Shabads from his Keertan bank for teaching the youth/children, in which the Rahau is made the Asthai. In this way, we may be able to slowly steer in the direction of true deliverance.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Musical Framework of Guru Granth Sahib

Amardeep Singh*

*01-04 Kentish Green, 20 Oxford Road, Singapore 218815. Email: amardeepsinghranghar@yahoo.com.sg

Gurbani Keertan today has been commercialized to such an extent that, barring a few, most singers are only concerned with making quick money. Their limitations to experiment within the prescribed vastness of Guru Granth Sahib is camouflaged in the excuse that the Sangat does not prefer to listen to Keertan in Raags as prescribed by the Gurus and thus it is easier to convey the message of Gurbani in catchy tunes. This shallow argument poses questions, like: "What does Guru Granth Sahib, our eternal Guru command us on the subject of Keertan? Why is it that the Gurus chose raags to classify Gurbani? What is the relation between Shabad and raag? Do we need the aid of experimental music to propagate the message of Guru Granth Sahib? Have our Keertanias experimented with the vastness of raags and taals as prescribed by Gurus? What impact will experimentation have on the future generation of Sikhs?

Hymns in Guru Granth Sahib are in poetical-metric forms; associated with them raags and ghars (beats/taals). Does this mean that Gurus have left no scope for experimentation with the music to accompany the Shabads? The indication of raag and ghar (beat) with every Shabad implies that Gurus had a definite motive behind fixing a framework. This framework was not set to limit the ability of the human mind to experiment with music but to act as an aid in spiritual development. A simple mathematical permutation and combination on notes of any raag will indicate that each raag offers thousands of tunes to experiment with.


Poetry (the form in which Gurbani is written) and music (raags) are two sides of the same coin. They are independent and yet complement each other. Music versifies and provides melody, uniformity and cadence to poetry. The factor that binds music and poetry is their metrical-form (ghar or beat). Music (Raag) is based on sound (swar - notes) and a combination of notes produce distinct musical effects. Poetry is determined by Word (Shabad), which communicates a message to the mind. Music (Raag) on the other hand conveys a feeling to the heart and is therefore universal. Spirituality, after all, is striking the right balance between mind and heart. Therefore, when the poetic Gurbani is complemented with raag (music) and bound by ghar (beat), the resulting effect on mind and heart can become a catalyst for spiritual transformation. The raag conveys a feeling and Shabad a message. Every raag is capable of touching the heart with feelings like joy, sorrow, detachment, etc. Upon studying the structure of Guru Granth Sahib it can be seen that Shabads relating to common themes are generally placed under each raag. When the broad themes of Shabads are overlaid with feelings conveyed by these raags, there emerges a reason behind grouping of Shabads under a broad classification of thirty-one raags.

Common Themes of Shabads placed under Raags of Guru Granth Sahib

1. Soohi - Being away from home. The soul being away from the House of Lord and the joy of meeting the true ‘husband.’

2. Bilaaval - beautification of soul, happiness.

3. Gaund - Separation, union, surprise.

4. Sri - Maya and detachment

5. Maajh - yearning to merge with Lord, giving up of negative values.

6. Gauri - Principles, serious, thoughtfulness, composed

7. Aasa - Hope

8. Gujri - Prayer (Pooja)

9. Devgandhari - Merging with spouse, self - realization

10. Bihaagra - Yearning due to separation of soul and happiness due to meeting the Lord.

11. Sorath - Merits of God

12. Dhanasari - Mixed theme

13. Jaitsree - Stability

14. Todi - Maya, separation

15. Bairagi - motivation to sing praises of Lord

16. Tilang - many words from the vocabulary of Islamic origin are used, sadness, beautification.

17. Raamkali - to give up the life of a wandering Jogi.

18. Nat Narayan - Joy of meeting the Lord

19. Maali Gaura - Happiness

20. Maaru - Bravery, profound philosophy.

21. Tukhari - Separation and union with Lord

22. Kedara - Love

23. Bhairav - Man’s state of hell

24. Basant - Happiness

25. Sarang - Thirst to meet God

26. Malaar - State of separated and united soul

27. Jaijawanti - Vairaag (Detachment)

28. Kalyaan - Bhakti (Prayer) Ras

29. Vadhans - Vairaag (Detachment)

30. Prabhati - Bhakti (Prayer)

31. Kaanra - Bhakti (Prayer)

Feelings communicated by the music of Raags:

1. Soohi - joy and separation

2. Bilaaval - happiness

3. Gaund - strangeness, surprise, beauty

4. Sri - satisfaction and balance

5. Maajh - separation, beautification

6. Gauri - seriousness

7. Aasa - making effort

8. Gujri - satisfaction, softness of heart, sadness

9. Devgandhari - no specific feeling but the Raag has a softness

10. Bihaagra - beautification

11. Sorath - motivation

12. Dhanasari - inspiration, motivation

13. Jaitsree - softness, satisfaction, sadness

14, Todi - this being a flexible Raag it is apt for communicating many feelings

15. Bhairaavi - sadness, (Gurus have, however, used it for the message of Bhakti)

16. Tilang - this is a favourite Raag of Sufi Muslims. It denotes feeling of beautification and yearning.

17. Raamkali - calmness

18. Nat Narayan - happiness

19. Maali Gaura - happiness

20. Maaru - giving up of cowardice

21. Tukhari - beautification

22. Kedara - love and beautification

23. Bhairav - seriousness, brings stability of mind

24. Basant - happiness

25. Sarang - sadness

26. Malaar - separation

27. Jaijawanti – Victory (Detachment indicates a victory of spiritual plane)

28. Kalyaan - Bhakti Ras

29. Vadhans - vairaag, loss (that is why Alahniya is sung in this Raag when someone passes away)

30. Prabhati - Bhakti and seriousness

31. Kaanra - Bhakti and seriousness

It’s clear that the Gurus used raags to increase the delivery power of shabad to our mind by invoking complementary feelings in our hearts through usage of the prescribed raags.

Another interesting aspect of raag and Gurbani classification is understood by studying daily time-cycles. A raag has a preferred timing associated with it. There are some morning raags, evening raags, afternoon raags, etc. The timings of raags also complement the changes in human moods and heart during a twenty-four hour time cycle.

Upon classification of thirty-one main raags used in Guru Granth Sahib based on the prescribed raag timings, we find that no raags fall under the time zone 12 AM - 3 AM. It is interesting that the Gurus chose not to use any raag with a time cycle of 12AM – 3 AM, because one would normally sleep between 10PM - 4AM.

Timings of Raags:

6 AM - 9AM: Bhairaagi, Devgandhari
9 AM - 12 PM: Saarang, Suhi, Bilaaval, Gujri, Gond, Todi

12 PM - 3 PM: Vadhans, Maru, Dhanasari

3 PM - 6 PM: Maanjh, Gauri, Tilang, Tukhari

6 PM - 9 PM: Sri, Basant, Maali Gaura, Jaitsree, Kedara, Kalyaan

9 PM - 12 AM: Bihaagra, Nat Narayan, Sorath, Malaar, Kaanra, Jaijawanti

12 AM - 3 AM: No Raags from Guru Granth Sahib

3AM - 6AM: Aasa, Raamkali, Bhairav, Parbhati

Some raags also have seasons associated with them as seasons also denote feelings.

Seasonality of Raags:

1. Basant raag can be sung at any time in Basant season. Shabads with the theme of happiness are clustered under this raag in Guru Granth Sahib.

2. Malaar raag can be sung at any time in the rainy season. Shabads with the theme of separation are clustered under this raag in Guru Granth Sahib.

The Gurus have also indicated the beats associated with the poetry of every Shabad. In Guru Granth Sahib seventeen ghars (taal - beat) are mentioned. These seventeen ghars denote the following beats:

GHAR 1 - DADRA TAAL (There are 1 Taalis and the Beat has 6 Maatraas)

GHAR 2 - RUPAK TAAL (There are 2 Taalis and the Beat has 7 Maatraas)

GHAR 3 - TEEN TAAL (There 3 Taalis and the Beat has 16 Maatraas)

GHAR 4 - CHAAR TAAL (There are 4 Taalis and the Beat has 12 Maatraas)

GHAR 5 - PUNJ TAAL (There are 5 Taalis and the Beat has 15 Maatraas)

GHAR 6 - KHUT TAAL (There are 6 Taalis and the Beat has 18 Maatraas)

GHAR 7 - MUT TAAL (There are 7 Taalis and the Beat has 21 Maatraas)

GHAR 8 - ASHT MANGAL TAAL (There are 8 Taalis and the Beat has 22 Maatraas)

GHAR 9 - MOHINI TAAL (There are 9 Taalis and the Beat has 23 Maatraas)

GHAR 10 - BRAHAM TAAL (There are 10 Taalis and the Beat has 28 Maatraas)

GHAR 11 - RUDRA TAAL (There are 11 Taalis and the Beat has 32 Maatraas)

GHAR 12 - VISHNU TAAL (There are 12 Taalis and the Beat has 36 Maatraas)

GHAR 13 - MUCHKUND TAAL (There are 13 Taalis and the Beat has 34 Maatraas)

GHAR 14 - MAHASHANI TAAL (There are 14 Taalis and the Beat has 42 Maatraas)

GHAR 15 - MISHR BARAN TAAL (There are 15 Taalis and the Beat has 47 Maatraas)

GHAR 16 - KUL TAAL (There are 16 Taalis and the Beat has 42 Maatraas)

GHAR 17 - CHRCHARI TAAL (There are 17 Taalis and the Beat has 40 Maatraas)

Within the rules of Indian Classical Music, uncountable raags can be created. In fact, any form of music (non-Indian and non-classical) can be classified under some form of raag. Hence it is a misconception that raags are something highly classical and beyond the realm of the common man’s understanding. In fact, any form of music can be classified into a raag. But in Guru Granth Sahib, the Gurus have gone into depths of poetry, music and metrical forms to lay the framework that is best suited to convey the feeling and message of the Shabad simultaneously to the human mind and heart.

When each of the prescribed raags offers uncountable permutations and combinations of musical compositions, then why is it that modern Keertanias are not experimenting within the prescribed framework of the Gurus?

Are they camouflaging their limitations in the excuse that Sangat prefers only catchy tunes?

Gurbani says:

"Among all raags, that one is sublime, O Siblings of Destiny, by which God comes to abide in the mind." (Page 1423)

Clearly, only that raag is prescribed by which a feeling of spirituality is aroused.

The Gurus have not prescribed catchy musical tunes that may dominate the Shabad. The essence of Keertan lies in effective delivery of the inherent message of the Shabad, using raag and taal as a medium.

The medium must not dominate the essence.

This is where our modern day keertanias are making the mistake of experimenting beyond the prescribed framework of Guru Granth Sahib and singing shabads in catchy tunes. At the end it’s the tune that remains in the mind and not the message.

Music is twice blessed, yet one must guard against misuse of its inherent power. For while it can be effectively used for constructive Keertan by operating within the prescribed framework of Guru Granth Sahib, on the other hand it can also be used for arousing destructive feelings by use of catchy tunes. (as explained earlier, any form of music can be classified into a raag).

It is interesting to note that the main object that has caused the current day deterioration in quality of Keertan is the most widely used musical instrument called ‘Harmonium’. But harmonium is not an Indian instrument. Over one hundred years ago, Europeans brought the harmonica to India. The air box of this European instrument was experimented by Indian musicians to develop a new instrument that was named harmonium. This instrument is not best suited for Indian classical music.

According to Indian classical music, the human ear can recognize twenty-two musical notes in an octave. The harmonium only offers twelve discrete keys in an octave. Only string instruments offer the ability to play all twenty-two notes in an octave, by pressing the string at midpoints. It is for this reason that earlier Indian Music was always played with the accompaniment of only string instruments. In fact if one sees the old pictures of Harmandir Sahib, one only finds string instruments being used by the Keertanias.


Although the harmonium offered a compromise to Indian classical music and should never have been used in the Indian system, it gained rapid acceptance because it was very easy to learn and use. Learning a string instrument requires close to four to five years professional training but the harmonium can be learnt in less than two months.

This was a great blessing to aspiring Sikhs who also wanted to be able to do Keertan. While there is no harm in using a harmonium ,and we must also accept its contribution in making it easier for the masses to learn Keertan, thereby helping them start their spiritual journey. However it also caused the biggest deterioration in the tradition of Keertan singing.

The professional Keertanias were now finding it hard to keep pace with the rapid generation of new breed of amateur Keertanias, who did not go through the years of rigorous training, using the string instruments. Materialistic desires lead them to shorten their classical training period by quickly moving to the harmonium. Over generations this trend lead to complete elimination of string instruments from the Gurudwaras. Lack of dedication that crept in because of the ability to learn Keertan in just two months also lead Keertanias to soon start doing Keertan in catchy filmy tunes.

Arguably, our modern day Keertanias should be given a one hundred percent score for having the ability to experiment with music. But unfortunately, this experimentation with catchy tunes is causing more harm than good to Keertan tradition as they have stopped experimenting within the prescribed framework of Guru Granth Sahib.

An instrument that was supposed to attract Sikhs to Gurbani has now become the very reason for the downfall in present day standards of Keertan. It would have been fine for the harmonium to be adopted, but not at the expense of compromising on string instruments. The harmonium should have acted as a stepping-stone for budding Sikh Keertanias to quickly acquire musical sense and move forward to experimenting within the prescribed framework of Guru Granth Sahib. Instead they have chosen the short cut.

The reason for citing the above example is to show the long term pitfalls associated with un-checked experimentation. Modern day experimentalist keertanias need to be cautious and introspect. The first question that needs to be answered is:

What is attracting the youth to this new style of Keertan?

In all probability, it is the music that is attracting them because Keertan is being done in a modern day, highly dramatized form.


I have heard a shabad "Mittar Pyarae Noon…" in which thunder, lightning and sounds of wild animals complement the shabad to project the scene of Machiwara jungle. The only reason one would get attracted to such style of Keertan is because of music. Like any MTV Top of the Charts, such music can’t last long in the minds of the youth, nor can the message get effectively delivered to their mind.

On the other hand, maybe the youth is getting attracted to this style of Keertan because effective English/local language translations are being provided. If that is the case, then the translations can also be provided while doing Keertan in the prescribed framework of Guru Granth Sahib. After all, there are thousands of tunes that can be created from each of the prescribed raags and these tunes need not be highly classical in order to cater to popular tastes of the youth. Even the Gurus did not allow the dominance of classical music over the Shabad.

Our Gurus support forwardness, but where should we draw the line?

Who knows, next there could be an experiment with Jaap Sahib being sung in the Rap style! Will Jaap Sahib in Rap style lead to feelings of spirituality?

The future of Keertan lies in the hands of present day Keertanias. They definitely need to look at ways of improvising and attracting the youth, but not at the cost of further deterioration of Keertan. Our Keertanias should first make the effort to acquire full knowledge of the musical framework of Guru Granth Sahib and then adapt from within it, to attract the youth - not on a short-term basis but on a long-term basis. I believe that if our Keertanias make an earnest efforts to implement the commands of Guru Granth Sahib in their singing style, then the ‘pied pipers’ of pop music will not need to walk the streets to attract the youth, they will automatically get attracted to the Gurudwara.