Kirtan is an intricate combination of sound, mantras, 'shabads', music, rhythm and breath used to create a state of inner meditative awareness. Through devotional and expressive song, the singer and listener transcend, experiencing a state of mindfulness, creating a space of open heartedness toward humanity.
Baba Nanak was the greatest proponent of Kirtan. He used Kirtan to bridge the gap of religious division and to unite mankind. With his two companions, Mardana and Bala, he journeyed the East for several years singing Kirtan to audiences of various religious and spiritual paths. Baba Nanak chose Kirtan as his primary form of communication, expressing his love for the Universe; he spoke in song. His original writings (over 5 centuries old) or 'Shabads' were composed in specific 'Ragas', readily available today in the purest text form in the Adi Granth.
Kirtan has taken many turns in its expressive form over the centuries and today the style and format continues to evolve with the "trends" of the time. Nevertheless, Kirtan sung from the heart will penetrate any soul when the singer has connected with their inner self.
Where is Kirtan Sung?
Kirtan is usually sung in the presence of the Adi Granth, but not always. It can be recited in Gurudwaras (Sikh Shrines), Temples, homes or the outdoors, in nature. Kirtan can be sung by an individual or in group situations, commonly called a 'Satsang'.
When is Kirtan Performed?
Kirtan is performed continuously (day and night) at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India - the worldwide, musical hub for the Sikhs. Typically before sunrise, 'Asa-Di-War' is sung. On Sunday mornings, at most Gurudwaras, there is a special celebration of Kirtan, commonly called a 'Diwan'. There is also an evening of Kirtan at most Gurudwaras. Weddings, funerals and special events like 'Sangrand', 'Aarti' and 'Puranmashi' (full moon celebrations) emphasize Kirtan. All Kirtans conclude with the singing of a traditional rendition of 'Anand Sahib'. All social and religious activities revolve around the singing of Kirtan.
Styles of Kirtan?
The are several styles of Kirtan which have evolved in time. These include: classical, semi-classical, traditional, folk, contemporary, 'jotia' (a call-and-response type) and the repetitive chant style. The ultimate goal of all these styles is to connect the sound with the breath and awaken the mind to inner stillness with the soul.
Who can Sing Kirtan?
Kirtan is a birthright and privilege for all humanity. There is no restriction on age, religion or gender. Although there are 'ragis' (professional singers) who lead the congregation, traditionally anyone can lead Kirtan. It is helpful to know the scales, melodies, and traditional tunes to keep the focus and interest of the congregation. Like any other form of singing it is also helpful to develop the voice and the self, prior to leading Kirtans. One should make singing or participating in Kirtan a daily routine, like eating.
How to Study Kirtan?
Kirtan is a combination of sound, breath and music. These three components must be fully balanced to create the serene tranquility of Kirtan and inner journeying.
A study in the proper pronunciation, phrasing, sounding of mantras, 'Shabads' and lyrics is paramount. The words must not only be pronounced phonetically correct, but one should also memorize and understand the lyrics prior to singing.
Singing requires that the body and mind be fully relaxed so the true feeling of the individual may project the essence and mood of the words. An understanding of proper breathing techniques along with a meditative mind state is helpful. Proper breathing techniques are very beneficial in producing a clear and full vocal quality. Breathing must be deep and diaphragmatic. It is recommended that a study with a vocal instructor, proficient in voice and sound training, be undertaken.
The last and final aspect is the incorporation of word and breath to music. Most individuals make this the first step and do not receive a strong foundation in the basics of Kirtan, failing to have a deep soul experience. One should begin with the study of rhythm prior to melodies. This begins a study in timing and consistency. Whether one is going to play the harmonium or sing exclusively, it is necessary to know the basics of timing and rhythmic patterns, known as 'taals'. Here it is absolutely necessary to study with the assistance of a METRONOME. The metronome is a fixed timer, which assists in regulating the breath and sound in a consistent rhythm. Next begins the study of vocal technique. This is the study of pitch, scales and 'ragas'. As one progresses; the voice, sound and shabads are coordinated with melodies and rhythms; creating a smooth blend of music, known as Kirtan. When all these components are harmoniously projected with a relaxed mind and open heart, the true effect of Kirtan is experienced. The most often asked question is, "How long will it take to learn to sing Kirtan?" Kirtan is a life-long experience. The more you sing, the more you learn and experience. However, with regular practice of 1 - 2 hours daily, under the guided instruction of a dedicated and reputable instructor, one can become proficient in a couple of years. The practice of learning Kirtan is a subtle combination of inspiration, dedication, relaxation and devotion. The time and energy utilized in developing the art of performing Kirtan will result in positive spiritual and mental progress.
Why is Kirtan Sung?
Baba Nanak, the greatest proponent of Kirtan, emphasized the strength and mystical powers of Kirtan. Through Kirtan, using sound and music, he devotionally expressed his relationship and gratitude to the greatness of the 'Unknown'. Like mindful meditation, yoga, affirmations, visualization and other ancient traditions; Kirtan is a unique blend of sound, breath, music and devotion; which exhilarates and transcends the singer and listener into a state of peace and bliss.
Common Instruments in Gurbani Kirtan
Today, the Harmonium is the instrument of choice for vocal accompaniment, while the Tablas are the main rhythmic drums used in Kirtan.
About the Harmonium
The Harmonium is a European reed instrument, which was brought to India by the British for preaching Christianity. The Harmonium was originally a foot-pump organ. To conform to the Eastern tradition of sitting on the floor while singing devotional music, the Harmonium was modified to a hand-held pump. The Harmonium keys are set similarly to those of the piano with only a 2 1/2 to 3 octave range. The keys are usually thinner and not fully spring loaded. Some professional Harmoniums have a special feature called a 'scale changer', which allows one to transpose the entire scale of the Harmonium up seven pitches.
Special notes when purchasing and maintaining a Harmonium:
If buying a matching set of two Harmoniums, play them both to make sure that the middle "C" or the "Sa" pitch matches identically in both. The number of pumps or bellows will determine the amount of air used to produce sound. There should be around 3 bellows and the air should flow freely.
There are two types of Harmoniums: standard and portable (folding). Generally, the portable does not produce a rich sound, but is excellent for travelling. An exception is the 'scale changer' which is usually the portable type. The type of wood the Harmonium is composed of will determine the richness of the sound. Harmoniums made of teak will weigh more and have a distinct rich sound.
The reeds used will also determine the quality of sound. Some create a high pitch sound, which many females prefer to use. When possible, buy a Harmonium, which has been used and played with for 4 - 6 months, it will be worked in and the true sound will be evident. Keep the Harmonium covered and in a dry place when not in use. Moisture and dust will cause it to lose its tuning. When closing the pump, press the keys until all sound is diminished. This empties all the air, keeping the chamber void of moisture when not in use.
Most Harmoniums today are made in Calcutta, Bombay and Punjab. When possible, go to the source or purchase an instrument from a trusted musician, to obtain an instrument of correct value and quality.
Tablas are the most common percussive and rhythmic instruments used in Kirtan in North India. The quality of these instruments varies from place to place. In general, the "heavier" the instrument, the better the quality of sound. Tablas are very sensitive to temperature change and should be kept well covered at room temperature. Keeping the Tablas properly tuned is of utmost importance in producing a consistent, resonating sound. It is best to purchase hand drums that have been played for a couple of months.
Online and Various Music Schools Offering Harmonium, Vocal and Tabla Lessons
Sites to Order Instruments: Retailers, Manufacturers and Exporters