Origins of Kirtan
“Kirtan” refers to an ancient religious practice and devotional performance that emerged from India (Indian Subcontinent). It’s a Sanskrit word that means “telling”, in the context of a story.
Instruments, Structure and Accompaniment
Kirtan music does generally adhere (loosely) to Indian Classical music parameters (ragas, talas). Primary instruments include harmonium, tanpura, manjira, tabla / dholak and vocals. In recent years – as with other forms of devotional and traditional music from the subcontinent – it has seen some integration with more Western musical aesthetic. This includes the introduction of guitars, and even the blending of jazz and other genres into the mix in some surprising cases.
It has spread internationally alongside the rise in the various forms of yoga that have reached the Western world. Importantly, it has been a mainstay of devotional practice across many religions and belief systems throughout the Indian subcontinent since ancient times.
Kirtan is a form of meditation focused on chanting a series of mantras to honor the divine, and worshipping God. The meditation involves chanting or singing in a call and response style in various languages – including Sanskrit – in order to show devotion and love.
Bhakti yoga (or bhakti marga) is the form of yoga associated with Kirtan (as opposed to the other forms of yoga). As opposed to gyan or hatha yoga, it is the form (path) of yoga that emphasizes forming a loving and dedicated relationship to the Divine (God) through the arts, which helps to gain self-improvement and realization.
Bhakti Yoga and Kirtan
The power of Kirtan chants and meditation in Bhakti yoga is undeniable. The repetition of a mantra in a group can bring people together spiritually. A chant with a number of voices contributing to it can be a powerful religious experience for everybody present.
The sound of everyone’s voices coming together in song or chanting can generate healing energy for people, and which is the aim of the Kirtan. This is an expression (through chants, mantras or bhajans) of deep love and devotion to the divine.
Bhajan Kirtan in Hinduism
A bhajan is a devotional or spiritual song found in Hinduism. Bhajans focus on expressing love and devotion towards a deity. Many bhajans prominently feature the names of dieties that they’re honoring (i.e. Krishna, Ram, Shiva, Hanuman, Durga Ma, Lakshmi Ma, Saraswati Ma etc). In a Bhajan Kirtan (satsang), there is a lead kirtaniya who leads the rest of the procession through the composition.
Bhajans in the Modern Day
Although an ancient art form, the genre has popular trend-setting bhajan singers, including Anup Jalota (who is credited with a many popular bhajans), and Narendra Chanchal who was important in popularizing the bhajans (songs) for Vaishno Mata and other Hindi devotional music world-wide.
Lata Mangeshakar, sometimes known as the Nightingale of India, has earned global acclaim and recognition for her performances in film soundtracks, as well as holding political office during her life. She is likely one of the most well-known singers from the Indian subcontinent, and has performed and popularized many bhajans in her lifetime – including a 1974 performance at the Royal Albert Hall, which was the first time anybody from India had performed there.
Shabad Kirtan in Sikhism
Kirtan holds a position of huge importance in Sikhism. In Sikhism, Kirtan involves singing sacred hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib. In other words, the lyrics of a Sikh Kirtan are directly from the Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru Granth Sahib contains a multitude of ragas and talas – over 50 in total – which are used in Kirtan performances.
Kirtan in The Guru Granth Sahib
Kirtan chants and meditation prescribed in the Guru Granth Sahib are a way to keep the soul of people spiritual and pure during a dark age, or difficult times, by focusing the mind on the divine. The Guru Granth Sahib says that followers and believers should “Become Gurmukh, chant and focus your meditation.”
The Guru Granth Sahib also says that Sikhs should aim to listen to Kirtan as often as possible to maintain a connection with God and cultivate devotion in their hearts.
Kirtan in the West
As forms of yoga – including Hatha and Bhakti Yoga – spread around the world, it took the practice of Kirtan with it. While new Western audiences and followers have been receptive to practicing yoga and listening to kirtan music from South Asia, they have also added their own musical stylings to this ancient practice and its songs.
A great contemporary example of an artist that has taken in the music associated with Kirtan and has integrated it with his own music (and culture to produce something new) is Jai Uttal. He is an American artist who has reached critical acclaim with his merging of Eastern and Western musical sounds, techniques and forms. It has led to him being nominated for a Grammy.
He describes himself as a Kirtan artist and a sacred music composer. Some of his biggest songs / tracks are Govinda, Gopala and Mahadeva from his 2003 album “Music for Yoga and Other Joys”.
Another artist of note in this sphere is Krishna Das, another American musician well known for his vocal performances of Kirtan. For a short while, he was actually part of the newly-forming Blue Oyster Cult – a massively popular rock band. Before the band took off, he turned his attention to India where he became a follower of Neem Karoli Baba, a guru known for guiding the spirituality of a number of Americans in the 60s and 70s.
Like Jai Uttal, he has also been nominated for a Grammy and performed at the 2013 Grammy awards. He’s been titled the “the chant master of American yoga” by the New York Times. His biggest albums include Live Ananda and Pilgrim Heart, the latter of which features a guest appearance by Sting.
He’s successfully collaborated with some huge names in Western music, including members of British rock band Def Leppard, members of Steely Dan, Hans Christian and legendary producer Rick Rubin.
Das has helped to launch a non-profit organization called the Kirtan Wallah Foundation that seeks to spread the teachings of his guru (Neem Karoli Baba) to new followers and audiences around the globe. He’s composed music for other forms of yoga such as Anusara Yoga, and has merged Japanese buddhist chants with Hindu devotional hymns.