The Sikh Gurmat sangīt revival in post-partition India




Li, Wai Chung, Ph. D.

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Gurmat sangīt, literally sacred music of the Sikhs, is a religious marker of Sikhism. Sikh religious practice is oriented toward musical performance to worship God and evoke spiritual elevation. As a common religious practice at the Sikh temples, gurmat sangīt generally involves recitation of religious texts and devotional singing with instrumental accompaniment by professional musicians and/or the congregation. It also illustrates musical ways of uniting with God as found in Sikh scriptures. The major sacred text, the Guru Granth Sahib, contains a large number of verses in an arrangement organized by rāgas (musical modes). Gurmat sangīt has developed rapidly since the 1980s. The number of recordings, publications, and performances featuring Sikh religious music and/or musicians increased. Academic programs and organizations of gurmat sangīt were launched to train both professional and amateur musicians in India and abroad. At that time, a trend has developed to revive the authentic practice of Sikh devotional music with correct rendition of rāga performance and the re-introduction of stringed instruments such as the tāūs (a bowed-string instrument in peacock body sound box) and rabāb (a plucked-lute instrument). While exhibiting a tendency to standardize musical details and generate a historiography of Sikh music, contemporary practitioners also emphasize authenticity and tradition in re-imagining the devotional music performance at the time of the Sikh Gurūs. The revival is identified with not only professional Sikh musicians in Punjab but also overseas Sikh musicians and musicians of other religious and/or socio-cultural backgrounds. In this study, I adopt the case study approach to examine the phenomenon of the gurmat sangīt revival in 20th- and 21st-century Punjab. My research focuses on the annual performances of Sikh devotional music, and a Sikh religious institution in the city of Ludhiana, from where the trend of the music revival has been developed. For the revival’s aim to promote the “authentic” Sikh devotional music tradition, I argue that it involves a self-interpretation of combined authentic, invented, and westernized concepts in association with musical practice at the Sikh Gurūs’ times and Indian classical music, and being shown in the standardization, classicization, and hybridization of Sikh devotional music performance.




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