Mini Essays

This series of mini essays offer tiny vignettes on Sacred Sounds.  The essays give an idea of the central role music plays within Sikhism.  There are brief glimpses into the experiences of Indian soldiers during the First World War – further vivified by award-winning poet Imtiaz Dharker’s powerful poems written in response to Sacred Sounds.  Three sketches of costumes designed by Keranjeet Kaur Virdee for the production gives you a ‘behind the scenes’ look.  We intend to add to this series as the project develops further.

The Ten Gurus

The Gurus Dates Guruship Chronology
Guru Nanak 1469-1539
Guru Angad 1504-1552 1539-1552
Guru Amar Das 1479-1574 1552-1574
Guru Ram Das 1534-1581 1574-1581
Guru Arjan Dev 1563-1606 1581-1606
Guru Har Gobind 1595-1644 1606-1644
Guru Har Rai Sahib 1630-1661 1644-1661
Guru Har Krishan 1656-1664 1661-1664
Guru Tegh Bahadur 1621-1675 1664-1675
Guru Gobind Singh 1666-1708 1675-1708

Sikhism was founded in the mid-16th century by Guru Nanak.  It is firmly based on the belief that there is only one God. Sikhism rejects caste distinctions, idolatry, and asceticism.   Its teachings were shaped and reinforced by the ten Gurus – its Blessed Preceptors – in an unbroken chain from the birth of Sikhism in the 1500s until Guru Gobind’s death in 1708.   Sikhism stresses the importance not only of righteous living but also of family life.

The Mool Mantar composed by Guru Nanak, is the very first composition in the Guru Granth Sahib; it encapsulates the very essence of Sikhism.

 

Mool Mantar

Ek Onkar There is only One Pervading Universal Entity
Sat Naam Whose name is Truth
Karta Purkh  The Creator
Nir Bhau Without Fear
Nir Vair Without Hatred
Akaal Moorat Immortal Beyond Time  
Ajooni Beyond birth and death
Saibhang Self-existent 
Gur Parsaad Realised through the Grace of the True Guru

 

The Guru Granth Sahib

The Guru Granth Sahib, the Eternal Living Guru for Sikhs, is the fountainhead of Sikh sacred music. Its distinctiveness lies in the fact that every verse, set to a specific raag,[1] is composed to be sung, forging a direct connection with the Creator.  First compiled by Guru Arjan Dev, (1581 -1606) the fifth Guru, it includes his compositions and that of the four preceding Gurus starting with Guru Nanak (1469 – 1539) – the founder of the Sikh faith. Guru Gobind Singh, (1666 -1708) the tenth Guru, added the Shabads of the preceding Guru Tegh Bahadur (1665-75)[2] and invested all of the spiritual power in the Guru Granth Sahib. Probably for reasons of humility, he did not include his own hymns in the Guru Granth Sahib.  They are instead contained in The Dasam Granth – a religious text also honoured by the Sikhs.

Uniquely, the Guru Granth Sahib includes devotional ballads by Hindu and Muslim poet saints such as Kabir, Namdev and Baba Farid.  Guru Arjan Dev selected those ballads that further helped illuminate the core moral and ethical values that were the cornerstone of Sikhism.

[1] A raag is a complex structure of musical melody in classical Indian music.

[2] All of the dates shown against Sikh Gurus in this essay refers purely to the period of their Guruship.

The French Barn

  • BL3311680 Sikhs singing religious chants in a French barn [Le Sart]. A seated group of men of the 15th Sikhs, 24th July 1915; British Library, London, UK; (add.info.: Record of the Indian Army in Europe during the First World War. Illustrator: Girdwood, H.D 20th century, 24th July 1915 Source/Shelfmark: Photo 24/(70) Gelatin silver prints.); © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved; PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR NON EDITORIAL USAGE; it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories

Sacred Sounds was inspired by this single image.  Sikh soldiers sat in a barn in Le Sart, France in 1915, performing Kirtan.  The picture was taken by the Canadian-born professional photographer Charles Hilton DeWitt Girdwood (1878-1964).  Girdwood had an early connection with India, photographing the Delhi Durbar of 1903, the royal tour of 1905-06 and the Delhi Durbar of 1911. Girdwood returned was given permission by the India Office to photograph the work of the Indian military hospitals in Bournemouth and Brighton. From July to September 1915 he worked in France as an official photographer to record Indian and later British troops in the field.  Some of his photographs are believed to have been staged for propaganda purposes.  This photograph, however, seems without artifice.  The soldiers are genuinely involved in the act of worship.  Their devotion is all the more poignant because they are so clearly so very far from home.

Imtiaz Dharker was moved to respond to this image with her poem Sacred Sounds 2

Sacred Sounds 2

At the threshold someone is standing
in sunlight. His outlines are blurred
as if too much radiance has blown him apart.

Your steps are hushed.
One war does not avert another.
One death does not illuminate another.

Light falls aslant on these men, gathered
in a barn in France, with instruments
carried all the way from home,

from Ludhiana, Sialkot, Jhelum,
dholki, cymbals, harmonium,
and they are singing.

If they had come in another time
there would have been cattle
lowing in sweet grass, a land flowing

with milk, bees deep in lavender,
not the bloom of smoke
on the horizon.

In the farmhouse a woman
lifts her head from pouring milk
to listen.

Even the sun has come
to stand outside the door
where the men are singing.

You know them like this,

not muddied, not bloodied
or thrown in a field,

but cross-legged on the straw,
in this barn, bathed
in gold.

Their breath is writing
scripture on to sunlight.
In its stir and spin

is the speaking grain,
the language of birds,
the living word,

and the air is cleansed
with sacred sounds.

Gurh and Ghee

The food Indian soldiers ate while at the front during the First World War was the subject of much discussion and correspondence.  The soldiers, on the whole, disliked tinned goods.  The Indian Soldiers’ Fund was set up to enable people to contribute to the comfort of the soldiers. Spices, boiled sweets, chutney, curry, pickles, papad, gurh,ghee (traditional,unrefined sugar and clarified butter respectively), chappatis, rice and sweets made of semolina were always welcome.  Sikh soldiers, for instance, while grateful for Indian sweets were eager to have Punjabi sweets such as pinnis since the ingredients of flour, ghee and nuts were more nourishing.  Poet Imtiaz Dharker has written a moving poem for Sacred Sounds entitled Gurh and Ghee:

 

Gurh and ghee

Would he have had a son
who looked like him,
who had his manner
and his ways?
Would he have had the same
unflinching gaze?

No-one can stop these things happening.
A clay cup will smash on the station platform,
a bucket will break in the well,
a bullet will find a body, and explode,

but is there anyone
here to say that he
was some mother’s son,
who remembers that I fed him
gurh and ghee?

Is there anyone?

Imtiaz Dharker, 2017
©Imtiaz Dharker

Recruitment songs and posters

Recruitment songs and posters were commissioned by the British in order to encourage young men to enlist.  Indian recruitment posters were usually produced with a blank strip at the bottom, so that each region could add text in their own language.  This meant that posters could be adapted to meet the requirements of the area in which it was being used.  The posters always stressed the material benefits that would result from enlisting.  The Urdu text of this poster reads:

‘Who will take this uniform, money and rifle? The one who will join the army.’

English translation of Recruitment Song performed in villages of the Punjab

The recruits are at your door step
The recruits are at your door step
Here you eat dried roti
There you’ll eat fruit…
Here you are in tatters
There you’ll wear a suit…
Here you wear worn out shoes
There you’ll wear boots.

Letters

During the First World War soldiers wrote and received hundreds of thousands of letters.  Although many soldiers and their families had to use scribes because they were either semi-literate or illiterate, the letters still manage to capture their emotions and inner most thoughts. The censors certainly found the letters valuable indicators of morale, loyalty and potential discontent as well as deeply moving personal insights.  The soldiers clearly disliked the notion of letters written to them by female relatives being read by other men.  Equally, the women were shy of expressing their true feelings, filtered through the letter writer – something Imtiaz Dharker poignantly captures in another Sacred Sounds poem Letter.

 

 

Letter

 

I am well.

I sleep on a charpoy

and think of you in the rain.

 

I go to the station

and wait for the train

that will bring you back.

 

When you bathed,

the sunlight trickled

down your face.

 

Stripped to the waist,

you poured water over

the snake of black hair.

 

If you were here

I would write my message

with fingers on your skin.

 

We have been too long apart.

How can I tell my heart

to the letter-writer?

 

Imtiaz Dharker, 2017

©Imtiaz Dharker

 

The Trenches

Indian soldiers found trench warfare difficult and bewildering.  This involved shell fire and bombs erupting from the air or ground,  not face to face encounters with the enemy, using swords and rifles.  The cold, the rain that turned everything to slush, the dirt, the stench and the vermin horrified them and left many demoralised.  The Indian Soldiers’ Fund set up by Lord Roberts, former Commander–in-Chief of the Indian Army in London tried their best to alleviate the acute suffering of the soldiers.  Sterilisers and casks of formaldehyde were sent to deal with vermin, oil stoves to provide some warmth and rubber boots for use in the flooded trenches.

 

In her poem Underground Imtiaz Dharker demonstrates an empathetic understanding of how alien and unsettling this kind of warfare must have felt to Indian soldiers.

 

 

Underground

We have dug out this space

and buried ourselves here

before we die.

 

We lie in this trench

in a field in France

under the bullying guns,

 

impatient for the chance

to rise up and charge, roaring

Waheguruji! Waheguruji!

 

How can they call this battle,

when warriors are forced to hide

in burrows and scrabble in the dark

 

like tethered goats or mice?

Caged, we watch the moon

prowling through a mist of rain

 

and we are muttering underground.

Even down here, Punjabi

kicks us back to life.

 

Hira Singh slaps his thigh

or where his thigh once was,

and tells us the joke from Lyallpur.

 

Bhaga Singh is thinking of his wife

or her sarson da saag

at home in Ferozepur.

 

In his dreams,

Gurdit Singh is playing kabbadi

with the other boys in Gurdaspur

 

kabbadi kabbadi

kabbadi kabbadi

kabbaddi kabbadi

 

and we remember the crunch

between our teeth of sugar-cane,

the juice in our throats,

 

we hear the koels sing

before the monsoon

in Sargodha, Gujranwala, Multan.

 

We say the names

of our villages and towns

and know what we mean,

 

but not why we speak them here

in this frozen ground.

Only the rain

 

can hear what we are saying.

Sometimes it sounds like swearing.

Sometimes it sounds like praying.

 

Imtiaz Dharker, 2017

©Imtiaz Dharker

 

Costume Sketches for Sacred Sounds

The costumes for the cast of Sacred Sounds were designed by Keeranjeet Kaur Virdee, Chief Executive of SAA-uk and Producer and Rehearsal Director of Sacred Sounds.  Trained in Fashion and Textile Design at Manchester Metropolitan University, Keeran came up with a cool yet luminous palette of whites and greens.  Indian textiles have many shades of white, ivory, cream and off white – something that has been richly used in these costumes.  The delicate yet vivid green and white trim of the dupattas as well as the tunics, using braid, ribbon and buttons create an effect of restrained elegance.  Each of the costumes worn by the women artists are different from one another.  They all involve kameezes or tunics, albeit differently designed.  One costume is paired with a lehanga or flowing, long skirt, another with tight fitting churidars or leggings and the third is paired with the shalwar – loose fitting trousers, cuffed at the ankle.

 

Keeran’s design concepts were realised by Kirn Jutlla who has considerable expertise in tailoring and costume embellishment.  Her eye for detail is evident in all of the costumes.

The French Barn

  • BL3311680 Sikhs singing religious chants in a French barn [Le Sart]. A seated group of men of the 15th Sikhs, 24th July 1915; British Library, London, UK; (add.info.: Record of the Indian Army in Europe during the First World War. Illustrator: Girdwood, H.D 20th century, 24th July 1915 Source/Shelfmark: Photo 24/(70) Gelatin silver prints.); © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved; PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR NON EDITORIAL USAGE; it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories

Sacred Sounds was inspired by this single image.  Sikh soldiers sat in a barn in Le Sart, France in 1915, performing Kirtan.  The picture was taken by the Canadian-born professional photographer Charles Hilton DeWitt Girdwood (1878-1964).  Girdwood had an early connection with India, photographing the Delhi Durbar of 1903, the royal tour of 1905-06 and the Delhi Durbar of 1911. Girdwood returned was given permission by the India Office to photograph the work of the Indian military hospitals in Bournemouth and Brighton. From July to September 1915 he worked in France as an official photographer to record Indian and later British troops in the field.  Some of his photographs are believed to have been staged for propaganda purposes.  This photograph, however, seems without artifice.  The soldiers are genuinely involved in the act of worship.  Their devotion is all the more poignant because they are so clearly so very far from home.

 

Imtiaz Dharker was moved to respond to this image with her poem Sacred Sounds 2

 

Sacred Sounds 2

 

At the threshold someone is standing

in sunlight. His outlines are blurred

as if too much radiance has blown him apart.

 

Your steps are hushed.

One war does not avert another.

One death does not illuminate another.

 

Light falls aslant on these men, gathered

in a barn in France, with instruments

carried all the way from home,

 

from Ludhiana, Sialkot, Jhelum,

dholki, cymbals, harmonium,

and they are singing.

 

If they had come in another time

there would have been cattle

lowing in sweet grass, a land flowing

 

with milk, bees deep in lavender,

not the bloom of smoke

on the horizon.

 

In the farmhouse a woman

lifts her head from pouring milk

to listen.

 

Even the sun has come

to stand outside the door

where the men are singing.

 

You know them like this,

 

not muddied, not bloodied

or thrown in a field,

 

but cross-legged on the straw,

in this barn, bathed

in gold.

 

Their breath is writing

scripture on to sunlight.

In its stir and spin

 

is the speaking grain,

the language of birds,

the living word,

 

and the air is cleansed

with sacred sounds.

Musical Instruments and Sacred Sounds

A variety of musical instruments have been used In Sacred Sounds.  These include stringed and bowed instruments such as esraj, tar shehnai, violin and viola, keyboard instruments such as piano and harmonium and percussion instruments such as tabla, dholki and when we could obtain it, the nagara.  Traditionally, Sikh shabads were accompanied by stringed and bowed instruments such as the rebab, saranda, sarangi, taus and dilruba.  Other stringed instruments, such as the esraj and sitar, are now popularly used as accompanying instruments when Shabads or Kirtans are being performed.  The harmonium was introduced to India in the 1870s and it has now become an important part of Sikh instrumentation.  A percussion instrument called Jori, believed to be the precursor of the tabla, is also believed to have been used quite early on in the history of Sikh music.

Sikhs in World War One

India contributed just over one million combatants and non-combatants to the First World War.  Approximately 97,000 of these were Sikh, a disproportionately high number for a community that represented a tiny percentage of India’s population.  We do not have the exact figures of the young men who were killed.  Overall, India is supposed to have lost between 60,000 – 70,000 young men.  It was said, however, that there were many bereaved families in villages of the Punjab – Sikh, Hindu and Muslim.

In Sacred Sounds 1, Imtiaz Dharker captures the desolation, devastation and bewilderment felt by the families of the soldiers left behind.  The names of a number of the soldiers are given utterance – forcing the world to recognise their individuality.

 

Sacred Sounds 1

 

Say this mark is a seed of mustard

in a Punjabi field,

 

this a paper kite, held

against the tugging wind,

 

this one a village on a map,

a boy washing buffaloes in a pond,

 

a woman drawing water from a well,

in the womb, a child.

 

Say all these rise together

like a flock of birds at dawn,

 

to become one face

before it blows apart.

 

Don’t leave, there is nothing

for you there, where you are going.

See, the purple jamun are ripening.

Wait for spring, wait for the unopened words

to start blossoming, the scent of things

becoming.

 

Birds swoop through the sky to find you

but the tehsildar came for you

 

and you are gone

to the other country.

 

In this country it rains.

Day and night it rains.

 

You are gone away to war,

and in the war the rain

 

washes off your face,

washes away your name.

 

Kabul Singh, Hushyar Singh, Jai Singh,

Sher Singh, Tara Singh, Gurmukh Singh.

 

Under the stuttering guns,

you lose your tongue.

 

To the mortar,

star shells, searching lights,

 

you are nothing

but a mark.

 

A devils’ war, and when will it end?

In your father’s fields there is food enough

for you, long grass for you to lie in

and look up at endless sky. Why

did you leave? Come back.

 

Say this mark is the first word

of your letter, your voice in ink

 

put down on paper

in the hand of the letter-writer.

 

Ships sail the sky like kites.

Wherever you look, machine-guns,

cannon, bombs. They fight in the air,

on the sea, under the ground.

Men are dying like maggots.

No one can count them.

 

All mothers’ sons,

raining down like the jamun fruit

 

shaken out of a tree

by careless children

 

to lie where they have fallen,

in the mud, in the rain,

 

and where they fall

they leave a purple stain.

 

If I live I will write again.

 

Your words have blown

into a sigh, last gasp, last breath

 

that twists

and lifts away

 

and leaves your body

with all the others on the ground.

 

Prem Singh, Sundar Singh, Santa Singh.

Ram Rakha Singh, Kartar Singh, Bir Singh.

 

Say this mark

is a man thrown down

 

in a field in France,

no poppies for him, but a distant bell.

 

Say a woman bends down where he fell

and leaves a blessing.

 

Say the words become a flock of birds

blown off the ground at dawn,

 

a blur of wings that could be names.

These too are sacred sounds.