I mentioned the Rababis in my last post, in particular with regard to how their musical tradition represented one of the authentic Kirtani lineages dating back to the guru’s times and how their tradition is practically lost today.

Before coming to Calcutta I was actually searching old record shops in Delhi in the hope of finding some 78rpm recordings of the Rababis.

Me doing the dirty work, sifting through dusty old 78rpms, whilst my comrade Jas Bhai sits back and takes photos!

So who are the Rababis exactly? The Rababis belong to the Mirasi caste whose hereditary profession and specialisation it is to perform music for their associated patron families. Mirasis are essentially musical service providers and are considered of fairly low social status. Guru Nanak’s renowned companion and musical accompanist was the Mirasi known as Mardan Khan. He played the Rabab, a plucked lute of Persian origin, and would accompany Guru Nanak whenever they sat to to sing Kirtan on their travels. In our interview with Bhai Baldeep Singh he mentioned how this instrument in his possession is modelled on the nomadic Rabab which would have been used by Bhai Mardana!

The nomadic Rabab

Guru Nanak was so inspired by his companion and accompanist that he gave him the title Bhai (brother) and thus he became affectionately known as Bhai Mardana. The descendants of Mardana and those Mirasis associated with his clan were given the title Bhai and came to be collectively known as Rababis, after the Rabab which they played. They continued to serve the gurus and the Sikh community by performing Kirtan and they came to be highly respected amongst Mirasis. Such was their pride in being Rababis of the Guru’s that when Bhai Mehboob Ali (aka Bhai Booba), a Rababi at the Patiala Court in the early 20th century, was given a prize for his masterful Sitar playing, he refused the certificate because they had used the title ‘Khan Sahib’ instead of ‘Bhai’.

In the late 19th century, once Punjab had come under British rule, the first census reports were commissioned in which we have an interesting account of the Rababis. At that time they still called themselves Sikhs and dressed like Sikhs with many bearing turbans and beards. After all, for generations they had sung Kirtan and the hymns of the gurus and identified as disciples of the gurus! Their Muslim origin was only reflected in some of their practises such as the burying of their dead and the use of tobacco for example.

By the time of independence and the partition of India, the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities had become polarised and at odds with each other. The prolonged encounter with Christianity, during the colonial period, led to the creation of various religious reform movements, such as the Singh Sabha, which worked towards distinctly defining their own community’s religious identities and values. Leading up to partition, as a result of increasing animosity in the name of religion, the Rababis faced a choice of Islam or Sikhism, Pakistan or Punjab. Many stayed in Punjab, became initiated Sikhs and became well known Ragis and many disappeared into Pakistan leaving their musical heritage behind. During this period the Rababis came to be firmly branded as Muslims rather than Sikhs. The reformers sidelined the role the Rababis could play by defining what is Kirtan and who is allowed to perform it. In doing so they practically caused the end of a centuries old tradition and consigned much of its musical heritage to fade out of memory.

Learn more about one of the last Rababis of Pakistan here.

Despite my search not being fruitful, there are some old recordings that have found their way into the right hands and been made available on YouTube giving us a fascinating glimpse into the ‘folk’ style of the Rababis: