The price of hatred and politics has been paid through various means in the Indian subcontinent. A land that historically welcomed and celebrated diversity has for so long been ridden with animosity. Our religious identities have become more rigid and the culture of oneness is slowly getting lost. As a result, our rich heritage of arts has also been dismantled over the course of the past hundred years. Music, in particular, that defines our South Asian culture has incurred a huge loss due to the creation of such rigid boundaries.
A musical art form that is practically lost today, the Rababi tradition is a point of union between the Sikh and Muslim communities. The association started with the first Rababi, Bhai Mardana, a Muslim musician who had been a virtual lifelong companion of Guru Nanak throughout his epic travels. He accompanied him for some 30 years during the travels across South and Central Asia, providing the aural musical expression of Nanak’s compositions.
Bhai Mardana sang and played the Rabab, a stringed instrument originating from Greater Persia/Afghanistan, to Nanak’s poetry and prose during their travels. Formerly, his community of musicians were labelled as ‘Mirasi’ which till present day has derogatory affiliations to an archaic caste system. However, after the inter-communal relations between the two sects, the group of musicians were collectively referred to as ‘Rababi’s’.
This period in our history witnessed a huge change in public conscience amongst the Indian subcontinent and intersected with major uprisings. Challenging societal hatred and communalism, the tradition of Sufism was born out of Islam, the Bhakti movement saw an uprising within the Hindu community, and simultaneously the Sikh religion was being formed. All three acquired music as a form of rebellion against the prevalent fundamentalist thinking that had seeped into the country’s social fabric.
Reflecting similar ideals to Sufism and Bhakti movement, the Rababi tradition embraced a sense of fluidity amongst religious identities. Rababi’s were members of Muslim community and yet they actively sang and performed Kirtan within the premises of Gurudwara’s. They were affiliated with the ten Sikh guru’s and put their messages in the form of music while playing an eminent role in the formation of the religion itself.
Till the present day, such a union has not been replicated; replaced instead by more prevalent forms of animosity and hatred. Rababi’s presented a pure and unhindered portrayal of spirituality that disregarded religious boundaries. Unfortunately, the union was dismantled with the creation of socio-political boundaries in 1947. After the Partition of Punjab, the Rababi’s were forced to migrate to Pakistan as their religious identities became inevitably prominent.
The tradition has lived on within in limited form, although the line of Rababi’s is slowly dying out. Passions roused by the Partition dislocated people from their homes and forced them to accept borders even in the realm of inner faith. Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand, one of last masters of Rababi singing tradition passed away in Lahore on 29th April 2015. He was the last gem of the Rababi Raagis and his renditions of Kirtan are revered till this day.
After his passing, the art form has largely been forgotten except small groups of young men from Muslim and Sikh faiths still keeping it alive on both sides of the border. It can be exhilarating to wonder how different the landscape of religious folk music could have been if the partition had never taken place and moreover, how interfaith relationships could have been different as well if only religious dogma took a back seat and the beauty of song and worship was found through community and unison.