By Nishtha Shukla
What do John Lennon, George Harrison, Madonna, Kula Shaker and Cher have in common? They are all celebrated western musicians who have used Indian chants, instruments and harmony in their music at one point or another. Continuing this musical journey into Indian spirituality is a whole new generation of American musicians, who are popularising traditional kirtans (devotional songs) among their countrymen.
Most Indians have experienced at some point the spiritual rush that comes from a powerfully harmonised kirtan. This is apparently a universal phenomenon, as the American experience with kirtans indicates. For all the cultural differences that stand between kirtans and Americans in the form of unfamiliar gods, sound, language and meaning, an increasing number of people claim to experience the same peace of mind listening to kirtans that any Indian would.
Krishna Das (real name Jeff Kagel), Bhagavan Das (Michael Riggs), Jai (Doug) Uttal, Gordon Burnham, Deva Premal and Miten are some of the names that have popularised kirtan, with a difference. To begin with, they combine Indian and western instruments, like electric guitar with sitar, or the violin with the harmonium and the tabla. This gives kirtans that modern funky effect that is further accentuated by western music styles like rock, reggae and soul. Krishna Das of ‘Door of Faith’ fame sings Sanskrit prayers and invocations to western instruments, and plays the violin, cello, organ, trumpet and the guitar in semi-classical fusion with Sanskrit and Hindi verses and Indian music.
The movement does go beyond music for these kirtan-singers. It is for them a form of seeking companionship with the Divine. For Jai Uttal: ‘‘These ancient chants… contain a transformative power and healing energy. By singing these prayers and expressing a full range of emotions through our voices we join a stream of consciousness and devotion that has been flowing for centuries.’’ Gordon Burnham is music director at the Vedanta Centre in Cohasset, Massachusetts and leads kirtans at ashrams and temples. He has also taught Music Therapy at Northeastern University in Boston.
These lives and their music represent an earnestness that defines the soul and the inner spirit. With such transcendental tools, these musicians transform their songs into a devotional and emotional outpouring sometimes difficult to find even in India.
For Deva Premal devotion extends beyond her music. She was raised in an atmosphere of mantra and spiritual discipline and started chanting the Gayatri Mantra at age five. With her music heavily influenced by Indian music, she claims it comes naturally to her, ‘‘as if I’d heard it all before, in another life’’. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, renowned thanatologist and author of On Death and Dying, is the biggest fan of Miten and Deva Premal.
In the ‘call and response’ mode of kirtans, listeners repeat each line so that everyone is completely involved in the invocation. Most feel the vibrations that follow chanting to be divine in nature, which indicates a direct and active experience of spirituality. Then whether you understand the words or not, is irrelevant. What is important is the energy that envelops all participants and helps them experience the Divine.
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