Tag Archives: songs

Vaishnava Jan Toh: Who Wrote This Hymn Which Gandhi Loved?

Vruksh ma bij Tu, Bij ma vruksh Tu,

Jou patantaro e ja paase.

You are the seed within a tree, You are the tree within a seed

If I look for distinctions, then that is all I will see.

Narsinh Mehta was a 15th century poet-saint and exponent of Bhakti (worship) form of poetry. He is highly revered, especially in Gujarati literature where he has earned the accolade ‘Adi Kavi’, first among poets, in Sanskrit.

Narsinh lost his parents when he was five years old and was raised by his grandmother. Poor and singularly focused on worship, he faced considerable discrimination in society, including from within his own family. At a young age, he married Mandalika and, having no real means of livelihood, the young couple lived with Narsinh’s older brother and his wife in the old city of Junagadh in north Gujarat. While Narsinh had a loving relationship with his brother, it is believed that his sister-in-law often derided him for his excessive devotion to God and lack of gainful employment.

One day, overwhelmed by the dreary circumstances in his personal life, a distraught Narsinh wandered deep into the nearby Gir forest. There, in the solitude of nature, it is said that he meditated for seven days without food or water. Pleased with his sincere devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before the young man and, on Narsinh’s request, led him to Vrindavan, the garden-city where Krishna had lived. Here, Narsinh witnessed the ethereal Ras-Leela dance of Krishna and the Gopis (cow-herding girls devoted to Krishna). Legend has it that the divine experience so transformed Narsinh that he dedicated his life to composing and performing kirtan, or religious recitals, singing praises of Lord Krishna. From that day, Narsinh Bhagat regaled everyone with stories of Krishna’s life: from his mischievous childhood exploits stealing butter from the Gopis to his erotic encounters with them.

One of Narsinh Mehta’s famous creations about the young Krishna’s carefree days is the delightful Jal Kamal Chhandi Jaane Bala (Leave these lotus-filled waters, Child), a poem based on Krishna’s mythological encounter with the dreaded ten-headed Cobra, Kali Naag. The mighty Cobra’s wives (Naagan) enquire of Krishna who has jumped into the Yamuna river, where Kali Naag dwells and terrorizes the people of Mathura, to retrieve his ball:

Kahe re Baalak tu marag bhuliyo, Ke tara veriye valaviyo

Nishchal taro kalaj khutiyo, ahinya te shid aaviyo?

Tell us, Child, did you lose your way, or did one of your enemies lead you here

Surely your time must be up, why else would you come here?

To which Krishna responds:

Nathi Naagan hu marag bhuliyo, nathi mara veriye valaviyo

Mathura nagri ma jugatu ramta, naag nu shish haariyo!

I have not lost my way, Naagan, nor have any enemies led me here

During a betting game in Mathura, I happened to lose the head of your Naag!

In the end, the story goes, Krishna valiantly fights with and defeats the monster Kali Naag but does not kill him because he has promised the faithful Naagan that he will spare their master’s life; instead, he banishes the Cobra and makes him promise never to return to those waters. “Behold!”, the poet-saint seems to be saying, “Krishna, the all-powerful, in might as well as compassion!”

So steadfast was Narsinh’s faith that he was considered the ‘chosen one’ whose love was reciprocated by the object of his affections, Lord Krishna. Narsinh Mehta’s writings include autobiographical stories, one of which is Kunvarbai Nu Mameru, where Krishna comes to the rescue of his special disciple. According to the custom of Mameru, the parents of a woman expecting a child offer gifts to her in-law’s family during a celebration held in the seventh month of pregnancy. All Narsinh had to offer when his daughter was pregnant were his priceless bhajans, and he proceeded to sing his heart out. Suddenly, it is said that Lord Krishna arrived in the form of a wealthy merchant and fulfilled the materialistic needs of everyone, thereby saving Narsinh’s honor! Like most of mythology, the story is an allegory – in this case, of human greed and prejudice.

Narsinh Mehta was a pioneer in many ways: as a man with scarce regard for social status, since he was stigmatized by members of his Brahmin community for worshiping with members of a lower caste. He was a saint who did not denounce family, unlike other men of faith, and he continued to fulfill his duties as a husband and father after devoting his life to Krishna.

His sentiments are well proclaimed in what can be considered his most famous work, ‘Vaishnav Jan Toh,” which describes what it means to be a ‘Vaishnav’ (worshipper of Lord Vishnu, one of whose avatars is Krishna). The bhajan, a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi’s, is well known nationally as well as internationally, having been featured in films and documentaries based on the Mahatma.

Vaishnava jana toh tene kahiye je peed paraayi jaane re

Par dukhe upkaar kare toye man abhimaan na aane re.

A Vaishnav is one who understands the plight of his fellow humans

Though he helps those that are in need, he does not allow it to inflate his ego.

Amazingly, Narsinh Mehta’s original work has been passed down by word of mouth – very little has been found in written form! A devotee of the immortal God, a human with indestructible faith and a way with words, seems to have imbibed some of that immortality, uniting several generations through his reflections on humanity, faith and love.

Bela Desai, Ph.D., has been working in biotechnology in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty years. Besides science, she enjoys reading and traveling to different places around the globe. She loves to dabble in singing and writing as well.


Qawwali Singers Extraordinaire!

The strains of Sufi Qawwali music hold a special fascination for me – there is something about the soaring notes, the seeker’s voice and the universal need to reach the ultimate – all captured into one marvelous tide of music. Fanna-fi-Allah – the group comprised of Tahir Hussain Faridi Qawwal, Aminah Chishti Qawwal, Laali Qalandar, Salim Chishty, Ali Shan, Jahangir Baba, Abrar Hussai and Aziz Abbatiello are a phenomenal amalgam of musical talent, adherence to a centuries-old tradition and virtuoso teamwork on stage that left me spellbound last year. They have traveled to India and Paksitan over the past twenty years to learn and imbibe the pure tradition of Qawwal from legendary masters. This intense dedication to the tradition shows in every syllable that is uttered on stage and every melody that soars to the rafters.

In conversation with Tahir Hussain Faridi Qawwal, the lead singer I heard a fascinating story of cultural assimilation. Speaking Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi today fluently started with listening to classic rock as a teenager. He says, “I listened to classic rock – Beatles and the Incredibles these bands included Indian classical instrumentation and collaborated with those musicians. I heard the tanpura, sitar and sarangi – and I was instantly drawn to those sounds. I followed that  and soon started listening to records of Ali Akbar Khan, Bismillah Khan and Ravi Shankar. I was drawn to the music and I was also drawn to Eastern mysticism. My first guru in Nova Scotia was a Sikh guru who taught me classical Indian music. Then, from the library I listened to an album by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan  and was blown away. There started my journey.”

When asked about his favorite qawwalis, he says, “I love the classic qawwali like man kunto allah – I listen in the car and cry sometimes from the pure beauty expressed in it. I love Bulleh Shah’s poetry and also enjoy the Persian poetry of Khusro and Rumi. We have out own connections to Islam. There is a flavor in each of these themes beyond the life story of an iconic figure – we are singing in praise to this quality – that is truly beyond us.”

Tahir confesses that the sacred principles that he holds dear while upholding this tradition is the feeling of community best expressed in the Sufi gatherings called sama – there is a sentimental, emotional expression that we are devoted to inspiring when we perform.It is very different from the self-centered ambition in the West. Talking of their upcoming concerts this weekend, Tahir says, “We do not know what to expect – we aspire to create something that is always fresh and always new. You can’t make Indian food and put it in the fridge and serve it. It’s got to be fresh – just like that we don’t know the music that will come forth.  But it’s always ecstatic, trying to move you to a higher plane. The audiences are always mixed – there is a cultural bridge that happens at our concerts – there is the hippie yoga community that gets into it and the South asian community that comes together too. The whirling dervish artist also adds the element of expressive movement.”

Authentic qawwali, mystical poetry, clapping and enthusiastic dancing – the music of Fannafi Allah will move you in more ways than you can imagine!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.








Planet Symphony – East Truly Meets West!


Hundreds of professional artists and students playing over 50 musical instruments. Western Classical Music. Indian Classical Music. Carnatic Tradition. Hindustani Tradition. Jazz Tradition. Folk music Tradition. The cause? A plea to tackle climate change. Anyone who thinks that Western musical and Indian musical traditions do not mix will completely change their mind, once they have heard Chitravina Ravikiran play with Western orchestras. Now, in his latest musical venture, he has taken that unique musical ability to help musical styles and nationalities converge for the cause of the environment. And what an ambitious venture it has been – Tomorrow, on June 5th World Environment Day, tune into his Youtube channel to hear the universal musical plea orchestrated through his efforts.

Release of Planet Symphony on June 5th

Chitravina Ravikiran, a phenomenal Indian musician initiated work on the Planet Symphony, a musical composition which will go live tomorrow to mark World Environment Day. He says, “The Planet Symphony Orchestra (PSO) upgrades Art-for-entertainment to Art-for environment in response to the agony felt by billions all over the world, including millions of students who have literally taken to the streets demanding climate justice. This effort is non-political but we aim to inspire decision makers of governments and corporate houses to prevent an environmental meltdown within ten years, after which several effects due to global warming will be irreversible.”

Work started in March – he notated the composition, invited musical collaborators and soon word spread like wildfire. Professional musicians – student musicians – everyone wanted to pick up their instrument and play – at once as an individual and joint plea for action to tackle climate change. 

Chitravina Ravikiran is no stranger to working on artistic collaborations with musicians drawn from varied genres. Listen here for his version of the famous tune Fur Elise by the Indian Carnatic maestro, with an improvisatory prelude in the specially created Indian raga Veetavanam and rare touches of Melharmony, created in honor of the romantic composer, Ludwig van Beethoven.

East truly meets West in the love for music and the deeply felt need to save our planet – both music and the environment do not adhere to narrow national boundaries. Listen and join the movement!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.




Who’s Afraid of Dhrupad?

Dhrupad Vocal. Gundecha Brothers. Sundaram records. Available at www.dhrupad.org

Hindustani musicians often speak of dhrupad the same way that jazz musicians speak of the blues: It is the root, the source from which their music springs, and to which each musician must return to continually recharge and revitalize. But while blues is an unabashedly popular form of music, dhrupad came from sources that were not even music at all, if we think of music as being something performed for audiences at a concert.

Indian Classical music vs. Jazz blues
Indian Classical music vs. Jazz blues

Dhrupad is probably closer to the chanting of Hindu priests than any other form of Hindustani music, and such chanting is primarily a tool for reaching enlightenment, rather than an art form. Unfortunately, this closeness to spiritual practice has prompted many people to think of dhrupad as a kind of musical “spinach” i.e. something that you should listen to because it’s good for you, not because it’s aesthetically pleasing. Consequently, many Indian music stores with substantial selections of khayal and other Hindustani classical music will carry little or no dhrupad recordings. Even devotees of classical music often seem to think that listening to dhrupad will be about as exciting as watching the grass grow.

Thanks in part to the efforts of the International Association for Human Values (IAHV), the three Gundecha Brothers (vocalists Umakant and Ramakant, accompanied by Akhilesh on pakhawaj) are helping to dispel this myth. They performed two benefit concerts this year for IAHV’s 5H program, which provides education, medicine and nutrition for poor people in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. And although those who came may have thought their primary motivation was to help a good cause, they experienced an evening of music that was not only spiritual, but beautiful and artistically sophisticated as well. Dhrupad, after all, has been concert music since Mia Tansen sang it for the emperor Akbar. And the similarities to more modern forms of Hindustani music are more noticeable than the similarities.

The first most obvious difference is the formal structure. Almost all of the improvisation takes place during what dhrupad performers call the alap. Dhrupad alap however, actually corresponds to what Hindustani instrumentalists call the alap, jhor and jhala, for it consists of slow medium and fast sections (called, vilambit, madhya, and drut, just as they are in instrumental music). The percussionist plays an older two-sided drum called the pakhawaj, which has its pitched sound ringing on a note much deeper than the “ta” of the modern tabla. When the vocalists sing with the pakhawaj, they begin with a fixed composition that usually uses a text by a traditional poet such as Tulsidas or Kabir. They then improvise entirely in Bol-baant i.e. singing variations in which the words of the poem are repeated and varied. There is no use of the taans or sargam which are so important to khayal.

A Dhrupad singer and instrumentalist
A Dhrupad singer and instrumentalist

But aside from these relatively minor differences, most of what you will hear in a given dhrupad performance will be greatly similar to what you would hear in a khayal performance. Many of the ragas are the same, as are the srutis and the rhythms, and the overall experience of the concert makes one think it would be more appropriate to see dhrupad as a cousin of khayal rather than its grandfather. One could say that dhrupad is “simpler” than khyal. But this is true only in the sense that it has fewer ornaments and flourishes. In this sense, a B.B. King guitar solo is “simpler” than a Jeff Beck solo, Haydn is “simpler” than Beethoven, and the Parthenon is “simpler” than a Gothic cathedral. But simplicity in none of these cases implies lack of sophistication or artistry. It merely means that the artistry is focused on broad lines rather than on filigrees and curlicues.

When the Gundecha brothers sing an alap, there are fewer shakes and quivers than you will hear in khayal. But they do use slow subtle shifts in sruti which require tremendous vocal power. The great khayal vocalist Ustad Nisar Hussain Khan said of dhrupad that “the long gliding phrases require very deep and sustained breath. I readily admit that I would not be able to become professional in that style.” Dhrupad also requires a very large pitch range (two and a half octaves, going all the way down to a low sa), extensive use of volume dynamics and tone quality shifts, and as sophisticated a knowledge of layakiri (rhythmic variations) as any other form of Indian music.

It is widely asserted that Dhrupad has not changed for centuries, but strictly speaking this not true. Dhrupad jugalbandi (two vocalists singing together) did not begin until the second half of this century, and now thanks to the Gundecha brothers and their teachers the Dagar brothers, this practice is extremely common. This was a very effective innovation, for it enabled the broader lines of the dhrupad ornaments to be used in new ways without having to borrow ornaments from khayal. When the Gundecha brothers sang the pentatonic raga bhupali at their San Francisco IAHV concert, the wide intervals in the raga made it possible for their vocals to freely swell and slide against each other, creating a languid counterpoint that almost sounded like widely spaced harmonies. And during the drut alap, their staccato recitations of quick syllables created bubbling cross rhythms that could exist in no other form of music.

On their new album “Dhrupad Vocal”, they also add another innovation: a rich reverberation that creates a sound more like a concert hall than the traditional small room sound used in most Indian classical recordings. Because Indian classical music today is almost always played amplified in large concert halls, this is a more accurate way of reproducing a live performance, and the resulting sense of grandeur fits the music quite well. I would have preferred to have less reverb on the pakhawaj, for this setting obscured many of the higher tones of the drums, and forced brother Akhilesh Gundecha to play with less drive and virtuosity than he used in the live concert. But there is no denying that the explosive snare-like quality produced by the reverb was extremely effective. Perhaps this pakhawaj sound will become the standard for twenty-first century dhrupad, just as jugalbandi became standard in the twentieth century. Only time will answer that question, but there is no doubt that, thanks to the Gundecha brothers, dhrupad will continue to grow and flourish.

Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for fifteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.