When film producer and academic Jasvir Kaur Rababan, 35, was growing up in a tightly-knit Sikh community in central England, the Gurdwura she attended for her Punjabi education was filled with the sounds of the harmonium, an instrument created in the early 20th Century. It was the sound that lay at the core of her spiritual practice and that of so many other Sikhs living in the West.
Her perceptions on the authenticity of which instruments were used in Sikh prayer were shattered after she began to study at university in London to learn how British colonization altered Sikh culture and instrumentalization of this spiritual music.
Sikh Musical Heritage: The Untold Story is a visual account of largely overlooked historic events, from the introduction of Kirtan to the Sikh faith by Guru Nanak Dev Ji to the invasion of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries that nearly destroyed the Sikh culture.
The documentary will screen in the Detroit Metro area for the first time 3 p.m. Saturday at Madonna University in Livonia. Rababan will be at the screening to answer questions after the film.
The documentary draws on extensive academic and community based research to reveal the origins of Sikh instrumentation. It is a visual account of largely overlooked historic events, from the introduction of Kirtan to Sikhi by Guru Nanak to the near destruction of Sikh culture by the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“Music has always been at the heart of our spiritual practice as Sikhs, but something in our history changed the instruments on which we play that music,” said Rababan, 35, as she visited Windsor, Canada and the Metro Detroit area in advance of the film’s screening.
“During my studies in London, I encountered a different chapter of Sikh music that exists no where in our history books and I received no knowledge of this as a child,” Rababan said. “I was 18 (when I started University) and I was confused about this new line of information, and my professor challenged me to prove him wrong – that the music I knew growing up in my Gurdwara was not the authentic and original style that had been intended and used in prayer in the earliest times. This challenge led me on a quest.”
The quest lasted over 15 years, resulting in the filming of the documentary that took place in India, England and the United States.
Her research took her into London’s vast libraries, where she could find no mention of this style of Punjabi music and no import/export records of these types of instruments being imported into Britain from India and visits with Sikh elders in London’s gudwaras who explained to her how the ancient instruments – the Rabab, the Jori and the Saranda to name a few – were played for centuries by the gurus.
“It was these elders who retold the stories of how the British destroyed so many parts of Punjabi culture – including the unique instruments used in our music – and replaced them with British culture as to say that our culture was inferior to theirs,” Rababan said. “The movie is an unfolding of the truth for Sikhs. It asks: ”What did we once have, and where did we come from?””
The documentary has made showings on the Film festival circuit with its premeire in New York and in Canada smaller screenings at universities.
According to Rababan, Sikh music is not for entertainment but for inner spirituality. Most of the Sikh scripture of poetry is embodied with musical notes and melodies. It is these melodies and their instrumentations, that help Sikh worshippers connect to the music and get to the core of their spirituality and their own serenity.
“And if our musical instrumentation and melodies has been messed with (since British colonization,), then therefore, our spirituality has been messed with,”she added.
Not only has she created a film on Sikh instruments, Rababan also plays them. She has a special admiration for the Taus as well as the Rabab, string instruments used by the Guru Nanak in the 1500s when he went on his 27-year enlightenment journey to spread his scripture and teachings through sound and music. These instruments – used to deepen spirituality – were a part of the Sikh Gurus’ genius in understanding their purpose of helping us in our journey to bring balance and order between our mind, body, and soul.
“Visually (the taus) it is a beautifully shaped instrument that resembles a peacock. It is made of one piece of wood and has a beautiful resonation.
“When I play, I am wrapped in a spiral of sound that encapsulates and mesmerizes you. I’ve played for 10 years now and I loved it at the first touch.”