Music is a vital characteristic of Ginans

Satagura padhariya tame jagajo, attributed to Pir Satgur Nur
Satagura padhariya tame jagajo, attributed to Pir Satgur Nur. (image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies)

Ginans are religious lyrics which have been a central part of the religious life of the Nizari Ismaili community of the Indian Subcontinent that today resides in many countries around the world. The Ginans served as secondary texts in the local languages to convey the teachings of the Qur’an and the Isma’ili interpretation to non-Arabic speaking peoples.

Ginans are poetic compositions attributed to Pirs and Saiyads, or preachers, who came to the Indian Subcontinent as early as the eleventh century. Saiyads were distinguished from Pirs, a title which was interpreted as indicating formal appointment by the Imam. Most of the seventeen Saiyads  who authored Ginans were descended from Pir Hasan Kabirdin’s son Imamshah or his other children.

Ginans were composed from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, by about thirty da’is, at a time when the written literary tradition was flourishing in the Indian Subcontinent, with well-known figures such as Narasimha Maeta (fifteenth century), Mirabai (1498-1557), and Narhari (seventeenth century), Kabir (1440-1518), and Guru Nanak (1469-1539). Composition of devotional & mystical poetry among Muslims, especially the Sufis, was also developing at this time.

Eka shabada suno mere bhai” ginan attributed to Pir Shams From Mahan Ismaili Sant Pir Shams Rachit Ginanono Sangrah 2. Bombay,1952. Also titled, as Collection of Ginans composed by the Great Ismaili Saint Pir Shams.
“Eka shabada suno mere bhai” Ginan attributed to Pir Shams (Image:The Institute of Ismaili Studies)

Ginans are meant to be sung, therefore, music is an important characteristic of Ginans. Some manuscripts indicate the ragas (melodies) according to which the Ginans are to be sung.

The rasa, which was recited to a raga, was a frequently used medium for religious instruction and to express specific emotional feelings; this medium was prevalent in Gujarat from the twelfth century onwards. The rasa composition always ended with the name of the composer and with prayers for forgiveness.

Very popular in the Gujarati folk life is the garbi,  a folk dance, with the word applied to the song as well as the singing party itself. The individuals move around in a circle and sing to the accompaniment of a rhythmical clap of hands and feet. Pir Shams composed twenty-eight Garbis, through which he taught the Ismaili interpretation of Islam.

The music used in Ginans is vital for invoking specific emotional states; many manuscripts indicate their connection to rituals such as before daily prayer or at funerals. These Ginans were likely composed for the purpose of relating the rituals to the new converts.

*Azim Nanji, The Nizari Isma’ili Tradition in the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent, Caravan Books, New York, 1978
Aziz Esmail, A Scent of Sandalwood: Indo-Ismaili Religious Lyrics. London: Curzon in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2002
Ginans: A Tradition of Religious Poetry, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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