The Sikh scriptures are musical compositions and the tradition of music dates back to the time of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. For most of his life and on his four major journeys Guru Nanak was accompanied by his childhood friend Baba Mardana an accomplished musician and rebeck player. While Guru Nanak would compose his spiritual poetry Baba Mardana would set it to music using the rabab, a stringed musical instrument that was plucked like a banjo. Baba Mardana helped establish the Sikh musical tradition called kirtan.
Baba Mardana had been born into a Muslim family and helped establish a musical tradition among Muslim descendants of performing kirtan at Sikh places of worship. Up to the time of partition there was a tradition of having Muslim rababies performing kirtan at Darbar Sahib . Schoefft noticed this and his painting prominently features a Muslim rabab player accompanied by two others musicians, tabla drums are visible in the lap of the ragi on the left.
Beneath them come the choir, or singing men, known as Ragis, who sing hymns and chant the text of the sacred volumes in a manner unintelligible to the understanding, and unpleasing to the hearing. These are all Sikhs, and may at least have the credit of believing what they practice; but there is a fourth body, who are composed entirely of Mahometans, and who still are not ashamed to lend their vocal powers to the service of the heathen. These compose the orchestra, and extract inharmonious sounds by sweeping the strings of fat-bellied barbitons, called Rababs, whence they are called Rababis. These men claim to themselves the honour of being descended from the Mardhana, who accompanied Nanak in his travels. Like their ancestor, they are a hungry lot.
Linguistic and Oriental Essays
Robert Needham Cust, London, 1880
1. The Golden Temple Past and Present
Madanjit Kaur, Guru Nanak Dev University Press, Amritsar, 1983, pg. 112