Friday, March 23, 2007

Guru Gobind Singh Ji's Rabab

If asked what is the greatest Sikh relic in existence today, few people would suggest a musical instrument. Yet, the Rebab of Guru Gobind Singh qualifies strongly for this title. To start, the musical tradition of gurbani (religious writing) ties the instrument directly to the center of the faith -- Sikh prayers are done as vocal music and written in standard musical modes (scales) of North Indian classical music.

Further, this particular item is the only known musical instrument from the time of the Gurus that is still intact. We know that Guru Gobind Singh himself played this rebab, making this a particularly valuable and rare find. The Guru gave the instrument to Maharaja Sidh Sen of Suket Mandi (located in today’s Himachal Pradesh) as a gift. The rebab was later donated to the Sikh community and is currently housed at the Sri Guru Gobind Singh Gurdwara of Mandi. Unfortunately, none of this information is available on site and most of the visitors are local residednts. Fortunately, the Gurudwara is only a short walk from the main bus station and easy for outsiders to find.

The instrument connects us with a past that is quickly being forgotten. Less than a hundred years ago the rebab was in common use in Gurdwaras (place of worship). But today, few Sikhs have ever heard kirtan (musical religious recitation) performed on one. Kirtan is now performed on the harmonium, a British instrument. The single-stringed rebab (also known as a rebec or rebek in the West) is referred to in literature of India, Persia and even in Arabic poetry. It is still in use today in derivative forms from the Middle East to South East Asia. It may even be the predecessor of the modern violin.

But even without its legendary past, this rebab is also a priceless piece of Punjabi art given its history and significance to the community of its time. Sikh religious music has inspired its followers for 500 years, featuring the rebab since the beginning. Currently, the few efforts to revive the rebab’s legacy have gone slowly because very few musicians still use one.

Today’s rebab players search hard for the motivation to pursue their craft. They must dedicate the expense and time needed to master a complex and largely unknown art form. They also face hard competition with India’s film industry. The media conglomerates have learned that movies form an effective marketing platform for music products, allowing them to lower the quality while still generating sales. Modern Indian music has become little more than a generically produced pop song dubbed into a popular actor’s soliloquy.

Traditional and classical music still exist, but the high cost of training musicians results in a much higher ticket price than the movies and therefore, a much smaller audience. As a result, music students usually abandon their studies before long. The small classes that remain consist mostly of dedicated foreign students who work hard and have won critical praise. Ironically, they are educating Indians about their own musical heritage.

(Courtesy of Punjab Heritage & Muhafiz of SPo)


Gman said...

Any recordings of the Rabab? I don't think that i have heard any. Who are the major proponents or Gurus of the Rabab today?

I wonder if the Namdhari Sangat has kept the tradition.

As with the passing of time so do some of the traditions. Sad but a reality that perhaps is a good reflection of what many people consider the more 'interesting' music. Sure it takes years of dedication to learn and perhaps there is no reward but that could be said of any endeavor in life. It just comes down to what 'we' feel is important and what needs to be preserved/cherished. Unfortunately not everyone shares the same thoughts and feelings.

Thanks for the Post.

H said...

I have not quite heard any recordings of the rebab/rabab that is in question here, but have heard a few recordings of the Afghani Rabab.

I am not really sure who are the major proponets or Gurus of the Rabab today.

I doubt if the Namdhari Sangat have kept the tradition as it is not in their mainstream circles of kirtan. The closest that will come to the rabab is probably the Sarod which is Ustad Gurdev Singh ji's main instrument.

Thank you for the post and wise words of wisdom.

Gman said...

I actually saw something similar, check out the link. I was looking from the tabla side when I found it. I did think that the instrument did remind me of the sarod.

I liked it.

H said...

Thank you for that post. I just found out that there is a Rababi in Singapore. Someone by the name of Chris Mooney.

Anonymous said...

John Baily from Goldsmiths College (University of London) is someone worth hearing on the rebab.

Has brought some in-depth research of the rebab into current ethomusicological study, and is widely revered as both a performer and musicologist...

Nowadays, you can find him tucked away in a little house opposite goldsmiths college where he indulges in his rebab and teaches others alike.

For me, it has been an honour to know him. An inspirational man. Get in touch!


H said...

Thank you Anonymous for your input on this subject. If I am not mistaken, are you Harman?

I hope he does a concert so I can hear the beautiful instrument live.

Thanks again.