Singing Bhajans – devotional songs, have been an integral part of my family. It was a ritual, a daily practice even, when we were kids. In my community (the GSB – Gowd Saraswat Brahmans) this used to be a common practice in my father’s generations. In the evening when the lamps were lit, there would be a short session of Bhajans.
For me, it started off as an unwanted discipline and chore that I couldn’t avoid, to now something I genuinely enjoy and is one of my favourite things to do.
When I was a kid there was zero involvement in the entire process as it was being enforced, quite similar to other kids in my community that I saw singing every evening. But the more I started to follow this, it became part of me. We stopped of course when I went to college and moved away from home, worked abroad etc. And then I rediscovered it, and tried to make a ritual again, which is when I realized how much I actually enjoyed it.
As a kid the more I sang or watched sing, there would be so much to learn. I always hated community events. There would be a monthly gathering at someone’s home and it would be torture. I could never sing in front of others, but comfortable at home. Also people took singing Bhajans a little too seriously (like my dad does even now) – while it is meant to be a source of joy, a connection and a release too.
One of the reasons I also didn’t connect with Bhajans was simple – I never understood the lyrics. We sang mostly Bhajans in Marathi and Kannada, and a few in Hindi. And I wasn’t familiar with either of these languages except Hindi. (at times I couldn’t distinguish the language). My wife took the trouble of explaining to me the words for the Kannada bhajans and it made it so much easier to then understand how the songs went. Similarly for Marathi, it was only when someone explained what happens in Pandharapur during the annual pilgrimage as we watched it on TV, that the songs for Vitthal came alive.
The other aspect is the music itself, and that I think spurred the creative aspect. For one, I realized there was no one way to sing a song. It could be sung in different ways (raagas or tunes) and the same song being recited in a different way held appeal. Similarly the words could be modified. One didn’t have to necessarily start at the first stanza or sometimes the first line of the stanza. The sheer flexibility as well as improvisation possible would help open your mind.
The other aspect was how much un-important the musical accompaniment was. Most bhajan sessions rarely had any instrument except the taal (small cymbals) to help keep track of the tempo and rhythm. But when there was no musical accompaniment, the entire song actually became richer.
I think watching a live music session hands down beats listening to a recorded session. There is a connection which is lost in the recording. In the case of Bhajans or devotional singing it is an even more sublime connection which infuses the atmosphere and helps everone in the room take wing. This is true from the Qawwali or sufi singers, to a church choir or to the simple bhajans in the homes. The simpler and short of artifice it was the better it would be.
About two decades earlier the Mumbai locals would have bhajan committees in some trains, where a group would sit together and sing bhajans for the entire commute session of about an hour or more. I never saw one, but my colleague would specifically avoid it – oddly, because he said his body couldn’t hold itself, and the rhythms, the lyrics, the voices would engulf him and he would move into a trance and sometimes he would even begin to dance. All of this in the loud, chaotic Mumbai local trains running at a frenetic pace. He would quickly move to a few coaches away from the bhajan singing troupe as he wasn’t sure how he’d react.
I never had the experience with community singing in Bhajans because I mostly sat with people who took it too seriously. Or maybe I had a mind block.
When I sing at home however, it’s a private moment - just me and family, and we simply reach out and the voices come from our hearts. There is a connection, a release and we know its taken place and in that there’s fulfillment that almost nothing else can match.