Of the Harmonium Ban in the Golden Temple and What it Tells Us About SGPC


Ragi Jatha Performing Kirtan (courtesy: Live Hindustan)

Very recently, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) has been pressed by the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, Giani Harpreet Singh, to stop allowing the use of harmoniums inside the precinct of Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple). The logic provided by the Jathedar has been that Guru Nanak Dev ji never used the harmonium, and instead there was always a string instrument player accompanying him. Mardana, who accompanied Guru Nanak Dev ji across a significant part of his lifetime, has always been shown as playing a version of the rabab, a stringed instrument that gets plucked or played like the sarangi.

Among the people who retain the Sikh musical tradition, very few people today can however play the instrument; instead, the harmonium has become the choice instrument. As per news reports, removing harmoniums will not be easy as of the total singers, only five can use string instruments and perform without the harmonium. Given the fact that each day fifteen ragi jathas perform in the Darbar Sahib precincts, the challenge posed is enormous. This has received significant media attention, and a divide has also arisen within the Sikh community, with some raising the practical difficulty posed by this request.

What is rather curious however is the question of whether the Indian harmonium is truly a European invention. As per the Government of India’s site Indian Culture, the Indian harmonium was a significant improvement on the European design undertaken in 1875 by Dwarkanath Ghose, who designed his version of the Indian hand-pumped harmonium in Calcutta. The changes he brought to the European version allowed its operation by hand in a seated position, and made it more durable, less expensive to build, and easier to maintain and repair among other benefits. Given this fact, the claim that the harmonium being a British introduction may not hold water if scrutinised through the historical lens.

Why Ignore Women, if One is to Go by History?

If the historical precedent was to be taken seriously, one could also sadly question why women are not allowed to sing the shabad kirtan and gurbani inside the Darbar Sahib. That is one issue that the SGPC seeks rather not interested in solving. As an Indian Express report dated November 2019 had pointed out, even after SGPC came into existence in 1920, this discriminatory practise attributed to the pre-SGPC mahant era has continued. For that matter, even today women are not allowed to even sit behind Singh ragis (men kirtan singers) at Darbar Sahib. What makes it perhaps even more ironic, as some who supported the 2019 resolution of Punjab legislative assembly on the subject pointed out, is that the issue has been going on at least since 1940, when the SGPC’s own resolution had said that there was no reason to discriminate.

It is not that an attempt was not made. In 2005, under the presidency of Bibi Jagir Kaur of SGPC, it was announced that women would now be permitted to do Kirtan and Sukhasan seva at the Darbar Sahib. Additionally, arrangements are also in the works for women’s Sukhasan seva, over which there had been significant controversy just two years prior, wherein two UK born Sikh women were refused to participate in the seva, followed within months by another incident of two other Sikh women from the diaspora being pushed out of line awaiting the Sukhasan procession.

What followed however was a familiar script. There were vehement protests by the Damdami Taksal, and by the then Jathedar and his predecessors. Bhai Ranjit Singh, the former Jathedar of Damdami Taksal, even vowed that ‘‘Panthic organizations would physically remove’’ Joginder Singh Vedanti from his position of Jathedar of the Akal Takht if these changes were carried out. Ranjit Singh even insisted that ‘‘the decision to allow Sikh women to perform ‘kirtan’ from the sanctum sanctorum of Harmandar Sahib should be taken only after taking entire Sikh Panth into confidence’’. Another former Jathedar of the Akal Takhat insisted that there was no historical precedence of women performing kirtan from the Darbar Sahib. All of this eventually led to the move getting scrapped within a month, as even the Sant Samaj, a conglomerate of Sikh religious figures, had backed the Taksal on the issue.

The Larger Trend Visible

Of late, the Akal Takht Jathedar and the SGPC have been engaging in raking panthic issues that only end up creating outrage. Be it the issue of release of ‘Sikh prisoners’ or the issue of carrying weapons, there has been no dearth of controversies being created one after the other that seeks to position the Sikh panth’s interests while trying to portray some kind of insecurity being faced by the community at large. The move regarding the harmonium may be seen as yet another step in this direction. Even in the past two years, the SGPC has faced a lot of heat over the case of Missing Saroops of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib ji in Punjab.

However, as the SGPC’s critics of late have stated, the SGPC's current leadership is not interested in addressing the issues of Sikhs around the world, and is instead using its influence and energy to propagate its supremacy without doing anything on the ground. As Baba Sarabjot Singh Bedi, head of a faction of Sant Samaj, had told the media, with apparent reference to the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)’s control on the SGPC, “...They (SAD) ruled Punjab for 15 years and never remembered panth. After decimation (in assembly elections), they have remembered the Panth and the Sikh issues”.


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