Traversing the rich and varied cultural landscape in India, one can come across different forms and interpretations of the practice of kirtans, but the glue that binds them all is the ultimate feeling of inner peace and connectedness that it invokes. Kirtan at its core is the practice of chanting and singing hymns or mantras, in praise of the divine, usually to the accompaniment of instruments such as the harmonium, tabla, mridanga or pakhawaj drums, and hand cymbals.
The original intention behind kirtans was to bring sacred chanting out of the temple precincts and into the streets for the common man to experience. It is believed that ritual chanting is among the most universal of human impulses, and hence, most religions of the world including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have one form of the chanting or other as part of their religious expression. In Sikhism, kirtans are viewed as central to their religious practice, an expression of the hymns and compositions of Sikh scripture. They are a way of life in Hinduism and Buddhism, and are sung widely in South India and in Bengal, as devotional songs with accompanying performances.
In the last ten years, they have become a phenomenon across the United States, and have transformed musically to appeal to the ears of American audiences. They have been incorporated into a new generation of spirituality, in modern day yoga and meditation centers to quiet the mind and bring us back to the reality of the present moment through chanting of ancient Sanskrit mantras. Kirtan may result in a religious experience for some, and a spiritual experience for others.
It can be both or neither for some of us. Having its roots in classical music, one can literally be drawn into the melodious aspects of kirtans as well. If you just relish the melody, you are already drawn into this world of uplifting and enlivening music.
Kirtans in Maharashtra are different from those performed in the rest of India, mainly due to their narrative, musical, and theatrical elements—an art of spiritual teaching through musical story telling. Typically performed by lead artists, called kirtankars, who sing one or more famous songs, followed by a philosophical interpretation of the prose. Kirtans involve the audience, both as a participant and as an evaluator of the art form, most likely in a sawaal-jawaab tradition.
Traditionally, the mythic sage, Narada is considered to be the first kirtankar. Narada is a storyteller and musician, who is said to witness events and sing about it later. Narada does share the spotlight with Sant Namdev, who is credited with being a pioneer of Marathi Kirtan or Varkari Kirtan around 900 years ago in the 13th century. Much like Narada, Sant Namdev was a traveler and during his travels, recited his religious poems or abhangs with the aim of bringing people closer using the medium of spirituality. He is said to have lived for more than twenty years in Punjab, where he composed abhangs in Marathi and Hindi. Several of these abhangs came to be included in Sikh scripture, bringing closer the practices of Shabad Kirtan of Punjab and the Warkari Kirtan of Maharashtra.
It is this ancient art form that you will get to experience, if you find your way to Stanford University on May 4. A one-of-a-kind concert, Song of the Divine where Mahesh Kale will take on the role of the kirtankar and Anna Schultz will fill in the role of his philosophical interpreter. This unusual musical journey, so traditional in nature and yet so contemporary in its presentation is truly a marriage of two unlikely minds.
Saturday, May 4. 5 p.m. Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University, 471 Lagunita D.r, Palo Alto. $20, $10 (student). Music.stnaford.edu, www.icmafoundation.org.