Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Rebab of Guru Gobind Singh

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
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