“Mardana play the rabab
Mardana played the rabab and Baba (Nanak) sang Gurbani
In Maru Raag
In Asa Raag
In Tilang Raag...”

This is how it was.

Guru Nanak’s words would be played on the rabab by Bhai Mardana, a Muslim minstrel, a childhood friend and attendant of the Guru. It’s an image evoked frequently in Sikh iconography – Mardana, devotedly sitting next to Nanak, strumming the bow stringed instruments, all three constant companions to each other.

It isn’t hard to explain the centrality of music in Sikhism, a religion where the Holy Book itself consists of 5,894 verses out of which about 2,500 were sung in 61 raags; where the very term for the Guru’s words, the Gurbani, is the name for sacred music. The very act of worship, every visit to the gurudwara, then, becomes an experience of Raag Sangeet – of listening to ragis and rababis sing Nanak, Farid, Kabir, Namdev.

The gurus themselves were all talented musicians, versed in classical music, and they conceived of new instruments for the Gurbani – Guru Amar Das the bowed saranda; Guru Hargobind the taus, another stringed instrument played with a bow; Guru Arjan Dev the jori, a percussion instrument. But of these, the rabab, the instrument favoured by Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith, along with pakhāwaj or mridanga, took pride of place.

And yet this association with the sacred could not prevent many of these instruments from dying out. Over the past century the rabab, like many other traditional Gurbani instruments had all but disappeared from Kirtan singing till Bhai Baldeep, a 13th-generation exponent of Gurbani Sangeet, Chantt, Var and Dhurpad, the Pagri Nashin (Head and Seal bearer) of the pakhawaj- and jori-playing tradition of Punjab, decided to revive many of them.


“Growing up whenever I was asked what I do, I would say I knock on graves, and ask my elders to speak to me. Some would give me a memory, some a bol, a fragment of a composition, others would send me on a quest. All this would make the Ranjha in me very happy.”

So Bhai Baldeep begins the story of his search for lost instruments, moving from history to theology from music to carpentry, evoking anecdotes of the legendary musicians from his own family – his grandfather, Gyani Bhagat Singh, his grand-uncles Bhai Avtar Singh, Bhai Gurcharan Singh – who passed on to him the legacy of the tradition inherited from Bhai Sardharan, among the closest aides and disciple of Guru Nanak.

“They would tell me stories of how the sounds of the rabab, the taus, the saranda, would resonate with the bani of the Guru, how these were dedicatedly practiced and played in Kirtan sessions,” he said. “These were heady stories for me. I wanted to savour this.”

As he spoke, Bhai Baldeep pointed to the instruments surrounding him. Among them the majestic taus named after its carved peacock head, the saranda, calligraphed by Bhai Baldeep, hand painted by an artist, the dilruba and Guru Nanak’s rabab.

I had first met Bhai Baldeep in 1996 when he was finishing work on a taus, which he had carved from the red-hued tun wood. The craftsmanship had left me stunned. I was returning 23 years later to interview him on his latest re-creation – the rabab.

“Kabir sahib played the rabab, Namdev played the rabab, as did Haridas, Tansen and the Bhakti-Sufi saints. Mardana played the rabab and it was dear to Guru Nanak for it came closest to the ineffable – anahat nada, created in the image of one pluck, one breath. Nanak’s ‘hum aadmi haan ik dami’ constantly reminding, as if, the opportunity to transcend is here and now. Yet we managed to lose it. I could not let the story end like this.”

The rabab

The rabab is a generic term for a plucked instrument of any size and shape with any number of strings, much like the veena is in Sanskrit. The rabab associated with Guru Nanak was distinct and colloquially often called the Nanaki rabab. Over the last hundred years or so, only a handful of musicians have known how to play this instrument.

In Sikh lore the story of how Mardana got his rabab is well known, and is evocatively captured in the tales of Guru Nanak’s life, termed the janamsakhis. One day Nanak asks Mardana to take Rs 20 from his sister, Nanaki, travel to Bharoana village (Kapurthala) to fetch a rabab from Bhai Firanda, a celebrated Muslim musician at the court of Nawab Daulat Khan Lodhi and a luthier. When Firanda sees Mardana he instantly realises that it is Guru Nanak who has sought the rabab. He refuses to take the money, and goes personally to deliver the instrument, walking barefoot for hours until he reaches the Guru, at whose feet he places the rabab.

Guru Nanak endows it to Mardana, along with the art of playing it. Whenever inspiration struck him, the Guru would ask Mardana to play it, “Mardanea! Rabab ched, bani aayee hai.” Mardana was ever-ready to capture the sacred words of his guru.

“These stories, the verses, the instruments all reflect the cross-cultural influences in Sikhism, the fluidity with which the Gurus moved between Hindu and Islamic imagery,” said Bhai Baldeep. “What was seamless once is underlined today and your generation keeps using words like syncretic.”

He went on to evoke a verse from a Vaar to illustrate his point: “gaṅga banāras hiñdūã musalmāṇã makā kāb,ghari ghari bābā gāvīai vajani tāla mridañga rabābā” (Ganges-Benāras are sacred to Hindus, Mecca-Kabba to Musalmans but in each household Baba’s Bāṇī is sung accompanied with rabāba and mridañga).

Bhai Baldeep points to a more academic reference to this rabab in Sadiq Ali Khan’s 1874 manuscript, in Urdu, Qanoon-e-Mausiqui. Sadiq first mentions a rabab with four metal strings , describes three players from the Rampur school who play it and then goes on to relate, “There is a different kind of rabab which looks similar but has six strings, all made of silk. The maestros remember it to be the instrument created by Guru Nanak Shah Fakir.”

Based on such references, Bhai Baldeep set out to recreate this rabab. Extensive research took him to museums in cities across India and to London as well as journeys to places and people who possess rababs with a historic legacy. In Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, he studied a rabab of Guru Gobind Singh belonging to the royal family. In Kolkatta, he examined a nomadic rabab, one he felt was closer to the dimensions of Guru Nanak’s rabab, easier to carry on his journeys.

He then began worked on refashioning it. It took him more than five years.

One of Bhai Baldeep’s deepest desires was to create a ceremonial rabab, with an inlay of precious stones, an offer to the Guru on his 550th birth anniversary. The rabab was almost complete when Bhai Baldeep suffered a setback. “On May 13, 2018, the local Punjab Police station cops stormed Anad Conservatory site inside Qila Sarai, Sultanpur Lodhi, harassed the students and destroyed the instruments,” he said. “It was all politics.” Bhai Baldeep alleged that this was vendetta aimed at his forays into politics. (He had joined the Aam Aadmi Party, contesting the 2014 elections from Khadoor Sahib.)

The damage to the heritage he had built at Sultanpur Lodhi was immense. The ceremonial rabab was destroyed but Bhai Baldeep’s quest to revive instruments and the original style of raga sangeet was undeterred.

Bhai Baldeep uses the term revival quite extraordinarily. When I tell him I don’t know of any other classical musician or singer who actually makes their own instruments, he chuckled before telling me that the skill of woodwork and carpentry came to him from his years of air modelling in the National Cadet Corps. In 1985 he won an award for the best aero-modeller, at 16 he started a company called Hawks that supplied aero-modelling kits.

“I had become an ustad of woodwork but what I needed was a master luthier, one who had the memory and skill to create the old instruments authentically,” he said. “For with the dying out of each instrument an entire musical tradition is lost, many compositions die out, certain ways of playing music goes, so does the art knowledge and skill of making instruments.”

In the autumn of 1992, Bhai Baldeep found the man he was looking for, in Jethuwal, a village near the Punjab border. Bhai Harbhajan Singh Mistri, a World War II veteran, was an accomplished luthier who represented the instrument making tradition associated with Gurbani Sangeet. It took some convincing before Mistry agreed to work with Bhai Baldeep. Now, the rabab has finally been brought back to life.

A visit to his flat in Delhi is like entering a mini-museum. Instruments, photos and endless recordings of music of the old gyanis, combined with his own extensive knowledge of Dhrupad and raga sangeet. “I want you to be able to savour the bani of the Gurus in the way it was once heard,” he said.

He recently carried his music to the sanctum of Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan, where he sang at the ceremony to mark the opening of a corridor giving Sikhs direct access to one of their holiest shrines. “I chose to sing one original composition from each Guru,” said Bhai Baldeep. “Next time I will go back to Kartarpur Sahib with the rabab.”

Kartarpur is where the Guru settled down after his travels with Bhai Mardana. It is where the early Sikh congregations would have first heard the strains of the Gurbani. When the rabab travels with Bhai Baldeep to Kartarpur, it will be returning home.

Bhai Baldeep in Kartarpur.

The video and photos accompanying this article were shot by members of the Karwan e Mohabbat project.