Kirtan, also known as Gurbani Kirtan or Shabad Kirtan, is Sikh devotional music sung in praise to God. Kirtan is a central aspect of the Sikh religion. These sacred hymns are derived from the Sikh holy book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (abbreviated as SGGS from here on in) which is effectively the bible of Sikhism. The songs themselves are traditionally set to Indian classical music which is based on ragas (compositions) and taal (rhythmic beat patterns). The traditional instruments used in Kirtan are the harmonium (a small, manually-pumped musical instrument using fixed reeds to create sounds) and the tabla (a percussion instrument). The portable version of the harmonium folds up and is easy to transport and therefore, is very commonly used. Another traditional instrument is the tabla (a percussion instrument played by hand consisting of two drums, a small one and a larger one). In some Gurdwaras (Sikh temples of worship), such as in The Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, the sitar (a long necked multiple stringed instrument, effectively the Indian equivalent of the guitar) may also be used.
The people who perform Kirtan are known as Jathas or Raagis. These Raagis are generally seated on the right side of the palki (seat) of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib in the Gurdwara. It is important to note that although Kirtan is mostly performed based on the Sacred Hymns from the SGGS, hymns from the following compositions are also permitted to be used in Kirtan: Dasam Granth, Vaars and Kabits of Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Nand Lal’s poems.
There are many Raagis who perform Kirtan worldwide. Some of the kirtan popular artists in India today include: Bhai Surinder Singh Jodhpuri, Bhai Davinder Singh Sodhi and Bhai Joginder Singh Riar among others. The Raagis are known to travel to different countries and continents playing Kirtan at different Gurdwaras.
Furthermore, Kirtan is so important to the Sikh religion that the Guru has proclaimed that: “Kirtan is the magical formula to keep the human soul afloat in the dark era of Kaljug provided the devotee sings the pure melodies with his or her heart closely focused on the meaning and true spirit of the Gurbani.” In fact, all ten Gurus were big lovers of Kirtan, starting with the first Guru, Baba Nanak. The Sikh tradition of Kirtan was started by Guru Nanak at Kartarpur in 1521 and was strengthened by his successors and particularly by the fifth Guru, Sri Guru Arjan Dev Ji of Amritsar. The sixth Guru, Sri Guru Hargobind Sahib, would love listening to Kirtan and afterwards would give discourses about the meaning of the sacred hymns being sung. This same tradition carried on to the tenth Guru, Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji.
In addition to Kirtan, there is also “Katha Kirtan”, which are discourses accompanying Kirtan. The Gurus would give Katha (or discourses), also known as “Veechar” or “Updesh” on the Kirtan being performed. One of the most revered men in Sikh history was Giani Sant Singh Ji Maskeen Ji because of his in-depth, broad knowledge of the SGGS and his ability to make difficult concepts in Sikhism easily understood by the Sadh Sangat (congregation). There are many Raagis who perform Kirtan while accompanying it with various Katha. One of the most well known Raagis who performs Katha Kirtan is Bhai Guriqbal Singh Ji who is held as a gifted performer by the Sikh community.