Sacred Sounds Sikh Music Traditions and the First World War

Presented by Alchemy and SAA-uk in association with The Network of Sikh Organisations, U.K.

Saturday 3 June to Wednesday 15 November 2017 in Doncaster, Leeds, Bradford, Newcastle, Gateshead, Birmingham and Ilkley


Sacred Sounds tells some of the largely forgotten stories of British India’s role in the First World War.  Over one million Indian combatants and non-combatants participated in this devastating war.  Of these just under 100,000 were Sikhs – an astonishingly high number – considering they represented a tiny percentage of India’s population.  Inspired by an evocative photograph of Sikh soldiers performing Gurbani Kirtan or Shabads (Sikh sacred hymns) in a French barn, this live concert showcases the music that Sikh soldiers took with them to camp and battlefield.


The concert explores some of the many narratives of this period – the timeless and transcendent beauty of the Shabads themselves, originally composed by Guru Nanak (1469-1539) the founder of the Sikh faith; the power of the letters, exchanged between Sikh soldiers and their families and the vivid individual stories they tell; the forthright and often anguished voices of the women of the Punjab through fragments of folk ballads – including a mother’s lament for a departing son; the brusque recruitment songs that the British commissioned as well as new spoken word elements. Sacred Sounds is further brought to life by award-winning writer, artist and film-maker Imtiaz Dharker’s vivid poetry and images, enhanced by Jack Lockhart’s animation. A cinematic backdrop of images promises to make this a thought provoking and memorable experience.


Nima Poovaya-Smith, Director of Alchemy says: “By the end of the war the Punjab alone had contributed nearly 450,000 Muslim, Hindu and Sikh combatants and non-combatants; just under 100,000 of these were Sikhs recruited from different villages of the Punjab. The source of inspiration for this project was primarily the Sikh Shabads.  They provide a luminous framework for other records. These include the voices of the Sikh soldiers and their families and friends through letters exchanged – expressing hope, stoicism and the sorrow of separation.  These contrast with the harsh pragmatism of the recruitment songs, used by the British to encourage people to enlist.”


She goes on to note: “The Sikh contribution to music is quite remarkable considering the fact that they are not a large community.  They have made a distinctive contribution not only to vocals, strings, keyboard and percussion but in the past, have also played on brass instruments and bagpipes through their role in the British army. Imtiaz Dharker’s wonderful responses to a number of the images and letters from that period give us a fresh contemporary perspective, as does Robert Green’s spoken word performance in the Prologue.”


Mohinder Singh Chana, member, The Network of Sikh Organisations, U.K. added: “I’m very pleased that this project is happening.  The contributions of Commonwealth soldiers, including Sikh soldiers, in the two World Wars, tend to get overlooked in mainstream coverage of commemorative events.  Sacred Sounds throws interesting light on this aspect of our history.”


Keranjeet Kaur Virdee, Director, SAA-uk says: “I’m delighted to be involved with this project, not least because a number of young people who trained in the SAA-uk summer schools, weekend workshops and masterclasses are now well-established names on the U.K. music scene including Keertan Kaur Rehal, and Prabhjot Singh Gill.  Maestros, such as Kirpal Singh Panesar and Vijay Venkat, have conducted a number of masterclasses for SAA-uk.  It is wonderful that these artists are coming together with other artists such as Christella Litras, Ravneet Sehra and Joe Williams to create a new body of work.”


The cast features: Kirpal Singh Panesar (strings and vocals), Keertan Kaur Rehal (vocals and harmonium), Christella Litras (vocals), Ravneet Sehra (vocals and spoken word), Prabhjot Singh Gill (percussion), Joe Williams (spoken word), Vijay Venkat (strings) and Robert Green (spoken word).


On Wednesday, 11th October 2017, the partners involved in Sacred Sounds are mounting an International Conference at the Royal Armouries in Leeds.  The conference will explore the fascinating stories behind the making and showcasing of Sacred Sounds involving artists, historians, academics, arts administrators and above all communities of people, particularly the Sikh community.


Sacred Sounds Diary of Events:

Concert Performances


Cast, Waterdale, Doncaster, DN1 3BU

Saturday 3rd June 2017 at 12 noon and 2.30pm



Gurdwara Singh Sabha, Grant Street, Bradford BD3 9HD

Saturday 2nd July 2017 at 2.30pm

Free event. All welcome.


Sage Gateshead, St Mary’s Square, Gateshead Quays, Gateshead, NE8 2JR

Monday 17th July 2017 at 7.00pm


Birmingham Town Hall, Victoria Square, Birmingham, B3 3DQ

Saturday 22nd July 2017 at 7.30pm


Ilkley Playhouse, Weston Road, Ilkley, LS29 8DW

Thursday 12th October 2017 at 7.30pm


Royal Armouries, Armouries Drive, Leeds, LS10 1LT

Wednesday 15th November 2017 at 2.00pm

Free event.  To book a place



Salon Performances

The salons showcase some of the Shabads, vocals and spoken word performances from the main concert, followed by discussions with artists about their creative journeys.


Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha (GNNSJ), 2nd Floor Darba, 78 Lady Pit Lane,

Leeds LS11 6DP

Friday 30th June 2017 at 7.00pm

Free event. All welcome




Gurdwara Singh Sabha, 12 Mansfield Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE4 5RN

Sunday 16th July 2017 at 12.30pm

Free Event. All welcome.


Nishkam Civic Association, 6 Soho Road, Handsworth,Birmingham, B21 9BH

Friday, 21st July 2017 at 6.30pm

Free Event. All welcome.



Seminars and Conferences


Gurdwara Singh Sabha, 12 Mansfield Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE4 5RN

Monday 17th July 2017 from 10.30 am – 12.30 pm tbc

Free Event. Booking essential.


Nishkam Civic Association, 6 Soho Road, Handsworth,Birmingham, B21 9BH

Wednesday 20th September from 11.30am – 2.00pm

Free Event. Booking essential.


Royal Armouries, Armouries Drive, Leeds, LS10 1LT

Wednesday, 11th October 2017 from 10.00am – 5.00pm

Free Event. Booking essential.


For full programme details tickets and to reserve places visit:


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