Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC & DANCE : December 05, 1999
Resurgence of the bhajan
The other day I had gone to buy some cassettes. The owner had informed me that the cassette I had been asking for, "Shivo hum Shivo hum" by Pt. Jasraj had just arrived. I had given my first set to an NRI friend and was keen to listen to it again. While I was browsing through the new arrivals, I noticed that there were several cassettes of bhajans sung by almost every Hindustani and Carnatic singer, some familiar and several unfamiliar names. I had a similar experience when I was shopping at Rhythm House, a music shop in Mumbai. I asked the salesman if they were selling more devotional music cassettes these days, and he said, "Yes, to a certain extent, compared to five years back".
If more and more singers are cutting cassettes of bhajans, could it be that there is a greater demand or may be a felt need to listen to bhajans? Is it true for all age groups or is it typical of only the elderly? Can there be some reasonable explanation?
I thought, could it be that the Indian listener is turning more towards devotional songs. But before making any such statement or generalisation I had to have some data from which I could make a guess. I tried to ask people about what they felt about devotional bhajans. There was a general opinion that it was safe to present a cassette of bhajans to any age group for any occasion. But then my sample could be biased.
The most simple explanation is that every kind of music is available readily on cassettes and CDs at an affordable price. Whatever be one's taste in music - classical, light classical, pop, folk, gazals or bhajans - there is a wide choice. This is a big departure from the era of 78 rpms, EPs and LPs. There is a veritable explosion in the music market. And bhajans too have their share.
Many people seem to feel that one finds mental peace and tranquility on singing and listening to bhajans. Some experience a sense of nearness to god. They close their eyes to ensure that they concentrate on this near ecstasy. Thus bhajans become a great source of stress removal. In spite of several comforts and relative spendability, modern society has robbed man of a basic sense of security. There is constant uncertainty and anxiety, direct and indirect, real or imaginary. And bhajans help in relieving the tensions as most of the them make man aware of his small existence and assure him that there is a power that can help him if he seeks it. An important characteristic of bhajans is that, a common man gets turned on to the simple, the easy and soulful language to which he can relate and thus enjoy the moment.
Perhaps there is another reason too. The Indian psyche is not yet ready to accept a western way of life. We are searching for our roots once again, and bhajans are an answer to this need. Or could it be that the advancement of scientific technology and the resulting overall materialistic attitude of modern man is pushing him towards spiritualism which can be experienced through bhajans. The words, tunes, rhythms and the typical repetitive style of the bhajans give a certain sense of permanency which we call Shashwat, something which will not change, something each one of us is secretly pining for.
Another common explanation specially by those who are not very young, say, in their forties, is that there are too many garish, violent, blood-curdling and loud programmes on the television which tend to tire them out. They would rather listen to or watch the sober, the pleasant and the simple bhajans for relaxation and recreation, which they can also share with other members of the family without any mental discomfort.
I asked some musicians for their view on the rising popularity of the bhajans. They had there own explanations. Not many these days can understand or appreciate classical music. Moreover, many people do not have the time or the inclination to listen to, or to sit through, long concerts. So they too prefer to sing the easy, melodious and familiar bhajans with simpler tunes, which elicit an immediate applause.
These days bhajan mandalis are springing up in practically every urban locality. In villages they have been in existence since the beginning of the Bhakti era. There, the action is participatory whereas at the concerts it is passive. In the discos also the action is participatory but there is a big difference. The spiritual experience in the bhajan mandalis is of a more conformist nature. Also, bhajan singing is a great social leveller and for a while individual differences recede to the background.
These days there is greater overt bhakti among all age groups. We often see youngsters flocking to temples. There is also more participation in religious activities, in singing bhajans or dancing to their tunes by the young. Perhaps therein lies the resurgence of the bhajans and their more contemporary popularity.
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