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The Musical Bridge – Indus Valley: Saintly Music – Sufis & Sikhs

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Sikh Gurdwara

The Indian subcontinent has a diverse range of musical styles, instruments, and genres. The different cultural, lingual, and religious influences shape how music in different areas of the region sound. For this edition of The Musical Bridge, we will explore the music of the Indus Valley – the music of the Sufis and Sikhs. The featured image is of a Sikh Gurdwara or Lord’s Door (Temple) in India. In a future post, we will explore Classical Indian music, including Hindustani (Northern Indian) and Carnatic (Southern Indian) musical styles and various folk instruments, such as that of the Punjab region.

The area known as the Indus Valley Civilizations exists in today’s Southern Pakistan and Northwestern India. This region is largely populated Muslims and Sikhs. The Islamic mystical tradition, known as Sufism, influenced the historic music traditions of this region. There are also many elements that the music of this region has in common with Classical Indian music. This article,, beautifully demonstrates the relationship between these two different religious groups.

Two Examples of Indus Valley Genres

Sufi - Mystical Islam

Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music popular in South Asia. This musical tradition has roots from over 700 years ago. The word “qawwali” means “utterance of the prophet.” Sufi Sain Amir Khusro Dehlavi is said to have fused together musical traditions from Persia, Arabia, Turkey, and India in the late 13thcentury to create the music still practiced today.

Qawwali music was originally performed at shrines to Sufi saints and was part of a mehfil-e samaor gathering that was held on the anniversary of the particular saint’s death. Although it is a popular genre today, it is still reglious in nature.

A qawwal is a person who performs Qawwali music. A Qawwali ensemble, called a Qawwali Party consists of eight or nine musicians (traditionally men,) including a lead singers, one or two additional singers, one or two harmoniums (see below,) and percussion.

Vocalists are a central part of Qawwali music, and the poetry is spiritual in its meaning, even when the lyrics may sometimes seem secular. Sufi singing is a means of spreading the central Sufi ideas of unity and harmony. The major themes of Qawwali music are love, devotion, and the longing. Songs are sung very loudly and with force. Singers often push their chest voices into a higher range than Western singers do. The result gives them a more strained timbre or tonecolor than is usually acceptable in the West.

This video offers a glimpse of a Qawwal Party performing today.

The Rich Sikh Musical Tradition

Shabad Kirtan is Sikh devotional music, which features singing the text of the Guru Granth Sahib, the central book of the Sikh religion. It began in the late 16th century by Bhai Mardana, an early follower of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak. Mardana used the rubab (see below) to create musical expressions of mystical poetry.

This video shows an example of a Shabad Kirtan.