Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC & DANCE : December 05, 1999
Of compositions divine
Dr. (Pt.) Vidyadhar Vyas
Bhajan singing and its traditions are as old as mankind. Among the Vedas, the fourth Veda, Sama, deals with the singing of richas, which are essentially devotional in nature and are the early predecessors of the bhajan.
Every religion has its own devotional songs. However, one must make a distinction between songs accompanying religious ritual and those containing emotions of devotion, divine love towards god, surrender. The first category of ritual songs and compositions are mainly in Sanskrit or the language of religion and the second category of songs and compositions are bhajans as we understand them today and are composed by saints and devotees in the regional colloquial languages.
Traditions of bhajan and singing have been formed over the ages. "We have, for example, Nirguni, Gorakhanathi, Vallabhapanthi, Ashtachhap, Madhura-bhakti and other types of bhajan traditions. Devotees of Siva, Vishnu, Shakti, Laxmi and Sharada sampradaya have their own sets of bhajans and ways of singing them.
Traditionally, a bhajan is sung in a group comprising devotees, with a lead singer. Sankeertan is the best example of this kind of singing. The medieval age saw devotees like Tulsidas, Surdas, Meera, Kabir and others composing bhajans. The tune of these bhajans used to be necessarily simple, easy to sing, projecting the words and their meanings. Sankeertan is a repetition of words and phrases with fixed tunes and it achieves a kind of "tunal mesmerism." Whereas various tunes can be composed for the bhajan and the singing involves a process of development of emotional feelings of devotion, divine love and surrender. Anecdotes, episodes from the lives of gods, preaching of saints, description of god's glories have been the subject of bhajans.
Using Raga Sangeet for tuning the composition of bhajans has been a development in the last two centuries. Till about the beginning of the 20th Century, the Raga Sangeet was the preserve of kings, and rich sections of society whereas Bhajan Sangeet was the music of the masses and was practised mainly by priests and religious preachers. The process of democratising music and making Raga Sangeet available to the masses was set in by luminaries in music led by Pt. V. D. Paluskar and Pt. V. N. Bhatkhande. In this process, bhajan compositions were handy as a tool to take Raga Sangeet to the masses. Pt. Paluskar tuned many bhajans to ragas in simple melodious and attractive compositions. They were popularised by him and later by his disciples Pt. Omkarnath Thakur, Pt. Narayanarao Vyas, disciples Pt. Vinayakarao Patwardhan, and his son Pt. D. V. Paluskar.
The only other tradition in which we find well-tuned bhajan or devotional narration is keertan or the Haridas tradition. This has been on the scene for about two centuries. Raga Sangeet and sometimes folk music of the region has been used to tune the bhajan compositions.
The process of democratisation of the Raga Sangeet and taking it to masses through such popular bhajan compositions opened up tremendous possibilities of its further development and experimentations with various applications. Raga Sangeet or classical music is essentially appreciated by "classes" of genuine music lovers who have studied it and those who have developed "trained ears" by discerned listening. These classes are obviously small in number than "masses" who at once can understand and appreciate bhajan singing, relate to and immerse themselves in Bhakti. It is here, that the today's economics of bhajan singing can be understood.
Bhajan singing has now grown to be an industry, which has innumerable and ever-growing patrons. Today's trends in Bhajan compositions and tunes are vastly varied. Orchestration, use of a variety of melodies, rhythmic patterns, background effects and climaxing musical pronunciations of words, their modulations for better impact, all these are consciously used to spellbind listeners. Since all these complexities are used to achieve easy understanding of the total rendition, the music takes the listeners by its stride easily and the effect is total and tremendous. A successful bhajan concert or recording this way brings in a lot of money and popularity to the participants.
Any society, at any time, always has varied and plural needs from the arts flourishing in it. These psyche needs could be on the level of sensual entertainment and way up on to the level of mental elevation to the pure emotional feeling of artistic bliss. Music is a storehouse of two very dominant moods and emotions and they are Prem (Romance) and Bhakti (Devotion). Bhajan is a very popular genre which stores both these moods abundantly. It is therefore not surprising that a talented musician should make good use of this vehicle to surge ahead and gain popularity and wealth. Developing a kind of aura around him/her is a sure bonus.
To suspect that this trend may be in anyway related to the spread of fundamentalism may be naive thinking. Fundamentalism is a vested political interest. It breeds lust for power, autocracy and dictatorship. Organising religious meets, seminars, discourses, prayers and singing bhajans is not fundamentalism. Religion is something personal but when it is used to control, direct and dictate mass feelings, it becomes fundamentalist. Singing of Raghupati Raghava Rajaram or a qawwali is pure cultural expression, but a "Kafir" outcry goes the fundamentalist way.
Fundamentalism has been all along a limited success story and ultimately it has brought about only destruction. Good music, good musicianship and musical culture has a tremendous sustaining and benevolent power which outlives any kind of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism may try to use music, as any other cultural force, but music, with its universal appeal soon drives it out of its way.
Indian classical music shows this benign force abundantly. Dhrupad - dhamar, khayal and bhajan compositions in Khayal, all are armed at truly secular music. As long as our musical sensibilities are intact and growing, fundamentalism will always be kept out.
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