By A Rishi
From its modest birth in the places of worship, devotional singing has carved a niche for itself in mainstream music
From tragic to tender, solemn to ecstatic, music can encompass the entire gamut of human emotions. Perhaps that is why music has been widely used to express devotion in almost every religion of the world. A genre that has defied all attempts to straitjacket it into a time-warp, devotional singing has undergone a series of changes and continues to inspire, and attract, despite its multi-denominational following.
Beginning as a novice attempt to be different in its presentation of the devotional sentiment, devotional music has been in vogue ever since the chanting of Vedic hymns. However, much before this phase, it was restricted to domestic confines, with little possibility of becoming a presence on the concert platform. Public singing of devotional numbers was reserved for a particular class of singers in the lineage of qawwals, ragis and kirtankaarswho sang at dargahs, the gurdwaras and temples.
The homely version offered to the family deity was largely the work of family members where sonority, tunefulness or beat patterns were a loose-knit affair. An increasing demand for quality bhajan renderings found an appeal in the 1960s. Classical maestros of today, then in their formative years, developed a style of concluding recitals with a devotional number of classical and literary value. This merger of professionalism and feeling gave a new fillip to devotional music.
The constant demand of the listeners for repeat performances of some particular numbers almost acquired the status of signature tunes for the artistes. Thus Pandit Jasraj was swamped with requests to sing Mata Kali and Begum Parveen Sultana was even dubbed the musical Bhawani Dayani after her famous Bhairavi bhajan.
By this time, the custom of enclosing bhajan singing within a choral format had become a tried and tested theme. Light music artistes like Anup Jalota and more recently Vani Jairam proved beyond doubt that the form was rife with innovative options. Thus the new bhajan had its core intact but its perimeters altered. It was sung with the help of a complete orchestral backdrop and stage lights, while decor and costume were made part of the bhajan baggage.
Listeners were no longer a select group but the same lot who would hang on to nuances of a ghazal, or be engrossed in the intricacies of a classical rendition. Snatches of taans were judicious inputs to heighten the form, and audience participation was encouraged in the form of clapping with the beats, adding a certain charm to the proceedings. Other stars started glimmering on the stage of devotional music.
One of them was the late Pandit Kumar Gandharva. His relentless quest to collect and and pile a repertoire of folk sources in rural Malwa, the region he had toured and knew intimately, resulted in the emergence of a new genre of bhajannumbers. He resurrected several forgotten ballads and folk ditties by singing them in a form that was highly individualistic.
These numbers were appropriately termed ‘nirgun‘ bhajans since they did not express devotional sentiment for any particular deity but seemed to relate directly 10 the likeness of a human being to the Maker. In fact, the trends in devotional singing have spanned a gamut of areas, as each artiste invested it with an individual stamp.
This includes a heroic handful who have continued to present devotional music in its unchanged format. The Dhrupadsingers of today are its foremost example. The 20-generation-old Dagar Bandhu clan has been submerged in the culture of their Dhrupad with single-minded devotion. Indeed, so perfect has been their rendition that the Dhrupad is now considered synonymous with Dagar Vani.
What sets the Dagar clan apart is their unique style which, though not overawed by the finesse of technique alone, has been the forerunner of technical expertise. Neither does it masquerade a variety of emotions as creative input. This ancient form has attracted many younger exponents including the brothers, Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha, who have now become laudable exponents of this art.
They began their Dhrupad training under Dagar gurus, at the Dhrupad Academy in Bhopal. The cohesiveness of their recital carries the basic tradition forward and couches it with a courageous quality that adds a further dimension to its content. Among the older generation of duet singers are the brothers, Rajan and Sajan Mishra.
Steeped in the tradition of Varanasi, their duets fill the air with the emotive appeal of devotion. The bandish that they eulogize, in Hindustani classical style, hypnotized with its fine-tuned underlay of understanding. With jugalbandi proving such a success, a crowded stage packed with musicians has gained greater acceptability.
The qawwali singers of yore are thus back in the limelight. Their’s is not the popular product of mass appeal registered as a titillating exposition of bawdy nuances, but one of pristine identity meriting devotional recognition; Ustad Jaffar Hussainand his party of musicians have furthered this qawwali with their unsullied collection of age-old numbers, including the lyrics of Amir Khusro and latter day Sufi saints.
The couplets of Kabir and the poetry of Surdas are also part of his repertoire presented in a classical weave, for the artiste hails from a lineage that boasts a history of such singing. Thus retaining a high-pitched timbre, he has refined the art into a stage-worthy form, eliminating repetitions, dramatic trances and catchy patterings and making his own sensibility alight on his singing with a convincing consciousness.
His oft-sung number Chaap tilak cheenee rey… speaks of a transformation that an ascetic devotee undergoes when the power of divine love entrances his being. The arrival of the cassette boom in the music mart was like another passage of rites for the hymnal order. Old traditionals, such as the chaupai (couplet) of the Ramayana, were one of the first series that caught public attention.
The singing duo Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh gave voice to this immortal poetry and the series crossed popularity polls much beyond expectations. Long before one heard of collating and gathering information about chartbusters, the music-listening public had attuned themselves to hearing a different number. Thus when the amalgam Colonial Cousinscame on the scene it was no gimmickry.
The singers, Hariharan and Leslie, chanted Krishna and Jesus in one breath, and classical and pop forms merged without a jarring residue in tow. The era of packaged devotion has even opened the gates of secular appreciation. Today, a thriving qawwali market is in vogue. Masters from both sides of the subcontinent have found favor with their SufianaKalaam, the Kafi and the Dargahi qawwali.
Through their differing versions they have even made discos swing to their beat. Catchy numbers like Mast Qalandar sung by late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have proved to be chartbusters. Musicians like Jaffar Hussain also elicit acceptance and interest and the stage has now become alive to their complete mesmeric appeal. The sense of participation in hymnal rendering is one of its main attractions.
As the words of the lyric are crucial to its meaning, modern day Christian choirs throughout the country have adopted translated renderings of traditional hymns. Thus in a church service in Uttar Pradesh or Delhi it is not uncommon to find the congregation singing a Hindi version of Silent Night, Holy Night on Christmas Day.
In the churches of Mizoram and Nagaland, the service may be conducted in English but the choir invariably opts for the local language. Similarly, the service in the southern churches is in Malayalam or Tamil, but since listeners from elsewhere are familiar with the tunes, they do not find this a parochial preference. Despite this evolved enrichment, there is also a thread of continuity within the devotional network.
The music of the gurdwara is a case in point. The tremulous tones of the shabad is an exquisite preserve and offsets the trendy change of today. In a bemused world, one returns to them with a feeling of solace and a mark of continuance. The devotional development thus is a thing of permanence that gathers about itself fresh forms but does not lose sight of its core essence.
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