When American musician Dave Stringer visited India for a paycheque in the 90s, he came back with a calling. He was hired by an Indian guru to make videos about the philosophy of yoga and the music of yoga. His role was to translate the concept and turn it into the film.
He says, “I was dropped right into this whole ashram world without any knowledge about it at all.” Perhaps, that is how he had played a leading role in introducing kirtan music to mainstream audiences. He adds, “I was not invested in something happening… but the experience of sitting to meditate for the first time was powerful.”
Kirtan originated in India around 500 years ago as a method of sharing the philosophy of Bhakti yoga. Ecstatic chants are the soul of kirtan, which grew into mantra-based devotional music with Sanskrit as its lyrical language. While yoga has shifted from spiritual practice to health practice, kirtan still remains on the path of spiritualism. Stringer, who had also been nominated for Grammy, says, “As a kirtan singer since we sing the names of Hindu deities, it’s sort of predicament or paradox“. He was raised a Christian, but now he calls himself to be agnostic. “These Hindu deities are understood, even by most Hindus, as psychological metaphors and because of our culture and minds traffic in stories, they’re useful.”
The Musical Transformation
Starting out with simple instruments, kirtan now combines instrumental inspiration from various origins. Stringer says, “Old kirtan was played really simply with the instruments they had available to them, namely things like finger cymbals. One of the first instruments that came in was the sarangi, which is kind of bowed fiddle.” Sarangi has its origin in Nepal.
After the Mughal invasion in the 1500s, the skinned drums were brought into the music, and other instruments too.
Harmonium was, in fact, added to the kirtan sound by the British, and it has now established itself as a major instrument in the kirtan music. “IT was brought on ships basically to play Christian hymns to convert the ‘heathens’, which they were spectacularly unsuccessful in doing,” claims Stringer.With the evolution of music and cultural assimilation, the European, American and Australian hippies in India brought the acoustic guitar into the music during the 60s and the 70s.
The Musical High
“I became addicted because of the first experience,” says April Smallwood, an online editor, when she visited Sydney’s Hare Krishna organization Govinda’s, “I had no idea what the chants meant, or what I was saying, essentially, but that helped me become more present because I was just focusing on pronouncing the words correctly. I noticed after that session, even four days afterward, I was on a continued high.”
She insists that kirtan helped to achieve the state of mindfulness that was harder to achieve through just meditation. She adds, “I find kirtan really effective because there’s not much that’s asked of you; you’re not really required to concentrate or be still.”
The founder of Govinda’s, Pratapana says that kirtan is the science of self-realization which is not necessarily inclusive of religion. “You might say: ‘Well. I don’t want to chant Krishna’s name.’ That is still okay. You can chant any name of God you have. It is not the sectarian or institutional experience of religion. It is open to anyone, following any religion or not, believing in God or not.”
Stringer suggests that humans can connect through music and have that inherent desire to do so too. People have been going to churches to sing together. And singing chants and songs in groups is not a new concept. It’s been there in European culture, Christian culture, and is no stranger to Hindu culture. But what’s beautiful about Kirtan is that the religious roots of it don’t clash with the belief of Christians, according to Smallwood, and it is something that everyone can be part of and can benefit from.
With kirtan, you are not only expressing your soul but also leaving behind all the material pressures and mental tortures behind, which is a very important aspect of the modern-day life. To make it short, it is just an opportunity to connect, relax the thought process and get ongoing with nothing but smiles.
Adapted from the article published at abc.net.au