Rababi

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The three types of Sikh musicians - rababis, ragis, and dhadhis continued to flourish during the period of the Gurus. Guru Nanak started the rababi tradition by engaging Bhai Mardana as his accompanist-musician. Formerly the Muslim singers were called mirasis, but Guru Nanak gave them a new name - rababis, because they played on the rabab (rebec) and adopted the Sikh way of life in food, dress and manners. Some of the notable rababis after Mardana were his son Shahjada. Balwand and Satta, Babak - son of Satta, Chatra - the son of Babak, and Saddu and Baddu - the rababis used to perform kirtan regularly at Amritsar before the Partition in 1947. The last of the line of rababis was Bhai Chand whose kirtan the author had the privilege of listening to, before 1947. After the Partition of Punjab, the rababis migrated to Pakistan, the line of rababis is almost dying out without Sikh patronage. Although the rababi tradition itself is extinct, efforts have been made by the likes of Bhai Baldeep Singh and Sikhs by tracing surviving students of Rababis such as Bhai Chand, Bhai Taba, Bhai Lal, and the pakhawaj player, Bhai Nasira.

Even during the time of the Chief Khalsa Diwan, the Ragi and Rababi tradition saw a decline. In the essay "ਸ਼ਬਦ ਦੇ ਭਾਵ ਤੇ ਰਾਗ ਦੀ ਤਾਸੀਰ" (Shabad De Bhav Te Raag Di Taseer), a work on Gurmat Sangeet published by the Chief Khalsa Diwan in 1958, the famous Sikh scholar Bhai Vir Singh states :

"ਰਾਗੀਆਂ ਨੇ ਅਕਸਰ ਸੰਗੀਤ ਨਾਲ ਪਿਆਰ ਛਡਿਆ ਹੈ, ਤੇ ਰਬਾਬੀਆਂ ਨੇ ਬੀ ਨਾਟਕਾਂ ਵਲ ਰ੝ਖ਼ ਫੜਿਆ ਹੈ ਤੇ ਅਕਸਰ ਸੰਗੀਤ ਵਲ ਝਸਾ ਰ੝ਖ਼ ਕੀਤਾ ਹੈ ਕਈ ਵੇਰ ਸ਼ਬਦ ਦੇ ਅੱਖਰ ਹੀ ਸਮਝ ਨਹੀ ਪੈੰਦੇ, ...; ਅਜੇ ਕ੝ਵੇਲਾ ਨਹੀ ਹੋਇਆ, ਪ੝ਰਾਣੀਆਂ ਧਾਰਨਾਂ ਚੰਗੇ ਰਬਾਬੀਆਂ ਤੇ ਵਿਰਲੇ ਰਾਗੀਆਂ ਪਾਸ ਹਨ"
"Ragis have often abandoned the nuances of music and Rababis have embraced the musical traditions of contemporary theater; music has been emphasized over Shabad to the point where the very words of the shabad are often unintelligible...; However, all is not completely lost yet, some Rababis and a very few Ragis still retain some of the seminal tunes [that are the essence of Gurmat Sangeet]''" - Bhai Vir Singh

Interestingly, although they were still classified as rababis, the use of the rabab instrument had stopped during the pre-partition era. The musicians used harmoniums, and no stringed instruments. The rababi name was largely indicative of their mirasi background.

It is also said that the rababis had lost their Sikh rehat overtime, and were unlike the original rababis. A writer quotes Gyani Dyal Singh, a raagi who had known the pre-partition rababis very well:

According to him [Gyani Dyal Singh], Bhai Lal, the cream of the crop of the Rababis of his day, after singing Gurbani, would quietly rinse his mouth, to cleanse it, having sung the unclean verses of the infidels. Depressing for sure ! Perhaps it was just a quirk of one Rababi’s personality!

Today, as per original maryada, only Sikhs are allowed to do the seva of Kirtan at Gurdwaras like Sri Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, while the seva of Kirtan is open to anyone regardless of background privately and anywhere else.

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