A Brief History of Kirtan

The Sunday Times ran an article about kirtan and how big it has become. While I might not go quite that far, you might have encountered it if you move in yoga and meditation circles and it seems to be very popular on the west coast of America. I’m curious that something that was so niche, that no-one had heard of when I was younger has become a bit more mainstream. My desire to understand some of the history and wider context of kirtan motivated me to write this piece. I wanted to know why the kirtan I knew sounded so different to all the Indian music I had encountered.

Close up of man playing the tabla for kirtan music session.
I trawled through journal and encyclopaedia articles, listened to a lot of different kirtans and read about different religious movements. I revisited the Lilamrta and the Bhagavad-Gita and have been a bit rude about Allan Ginsberg. I found a mine of information in the Garland Encyclopaedia of World Music. (How convenient that I worked for a university at the time which offered courses in ethnomusicology.)
Kirtan, a form of devotional music from India, sung in a call and response style, comes from the chanting of the Vedas – sacred ancient Hindu texts. Chanted in a very precise manner, this was passed from generation to generation of brahmins. Plain Vedic chant was embellished with trills and ornaments, creating kirtan. Music and religious experience are closely linked in Hinduism and music ‘is employed to affirm that God or the Supreme Being…can be approached in its deity form through sound and music’ (Beck, 2019: 3). I knew this but I’m intrigued to read it in different words, in the language of an encyclopaedia rather than the scriptures we read. I am reminded of the passage in the Bible ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was God’. (John, 1:1) I also think about the fact that the closest thing I’ve had to a religious experience has been through kirtan. I am however aware that nostalgia and sentimentality are present there for me too and neither of those things constitute a religious experience.
Following the oral traditions of the brahmins, the 12th century Orissan poet Jayadev Goswami plays a very important role. Jayadev Goswami was a Vaishnava, a worshipper of Krishna or Vishnu. He composed, most notably, the Gita Govinda which had a huge influence on the classical traditions of Carnatic and Hindustani music and established what became the pattern of both kirtan and bhajan. (I know the Dasavatarastotra from the Gita Govinda which describes the ten incarnations of Krishna. Verse number 4 forms part of the Nrsimha Pranams which we sang every day, sometimes several times a day. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know the words. Keshava dhrta narahari rupa jaya jagadish hare.)
Hindustani music is associated with northern India, Carnatic music with southern India. These traditions became more notably distinct in the 13th century; Vaishnava music along with Shaivite traditions in southern India formed Carnatic music. Dhrupad from northern India is the oldest form of Hindustani music and is viewed as the parent of several sacred musical genres, including Islamic devotional music, specifically Qawwali. Dhrupad originates from the temples of Braj or Vrindavana and the Vaishnava bhajans sung there. Vrindavana is a place of pilgrimage where Krishna is worshipped as Makanchor (a mischievous butter thief), Gopal (a cowherd) or Murli Manohar (he who enchants the milkmaids with his flute playing.)
I read about Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the tradition I grew up with. Founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1484-1533) in northeast India, the tradition focused on spreading the practice of kirtan. He travelled to southern India on foot, bringing kirtan with him. He is credited with democratising kirtan as a form of worship, open to all strata of society whereas the songs of Braj had previously been passed through a closed lineage of brahmins. Chaitanya’s nam kirtan involved simple melodies and refrains made up of different names of the Lord. (Beck, 1999: 253). One of Chaitanya’s contemporaries, Narottam das incorporated elements of Braj’s Dhrupad style into kirtan, specifically the slow tempo, creating padavali kirtan, considered in Bengal to be the most refined, cultured genre of kirtan (Beck, 1999). (I know lots of songs by Narrotam das. One in particular we sang every morning at the temple.)
Of the music I sift through on Youtube, Qawwali sounds very familiar in a number of ways, perhaps more familiar than some of the forms of kirtan I have listened to. Described as the meeting point between Islam and Hinduism (Tewwari, 2007:3), Sufi music in India built on bhakti and folk music traditions, combining Persian poetry and Hindu bhajan. The instrumentation, the repetition of lines and building tempo are similar. The tabla or dholak beats are very similar to the mridanga beats in kirtan – constant, complex and neatly cyclical.
I also listened to some Bengali nam-kirtan on Youtube. I was almost surprised by how familiar it sounds as I’m so used to Indian music sounding unfamiliar to me. The percussion is identical to what I know; the sounds my mother tells me I kicked to in the womb. I’m intrigued to read about Sarbadhikary’s writings on kirtan in Bengal; he describes the immense popularity of kirtan in rural Navadwip, Chaitanya’s birthplace. He differentiates between the two main types of kirtan: nam-kirtan and lila-kirtan. Lila-kirtan are lengthy performances describing the often erotic relationship between Krishna and Radha. These are deemed wholly inappropriate by the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition I grew up with, who are also emphatic that kirtan is not a performance.
Listening to the Bengali nam-kirtan I find on Youtube, I feel at home hearing the way the drums are played and the one-two-three of the kartals, which speeds up to nine beats within three. While Vaishnava traditions differ on kirtan, all hold the kartals and mridanga to be sacred. Kartals are finger cymbals made of bell metal, one held in each hand with a string, ribbon or piece of cloth wound around the player’s forefingers to keep the kartals in place. The beat of the kartals anchors the whole kirtan.
Known as a khol in Hindi or mridanga/mridangam in Sanskrit, the two headed drum (see below) is made of clay and leather. Its appearance is distinctive due its barrel-like shape – it has one small, higher pitched head and a larger bass head. A cloth strap or guitar strap is attached to the drum to allow it to played standing up.
The harmonium is supposedly originally German but has been thoroughly absorbed into Indian music across the subcontinent. It is a reed instrument with bellows, a three octave keyboard and a drone-like sound. (The drone sound is very common in Indian music and is provided by a number of different instruments.) The player sits cross-legged on the floor, pumping the bellows with their left hand and playing the keys with their right hand. In nam-kirtan, it is played by the singer as a vocal accompaniment but it is used differently, perhaps more decoratively, in other genres of Indian music.
‘Devotional singing is simple and straightforward, with the utmost importance placed on the words as they communicate religious messages and narratives. Melody and rhythm are important, but devotional singers normally deplore musical virtuosity for its own sake’ (Beck, 1999: 274). Bhajan, or devotional song, is one of the most widely spread genres of Indian religious music. We sang many a bhajan. Some are lengthy and complicated, others very simple, consisting of a few names of the Lord (of which there are many). Some bhajans are made up of slokas (verses), using the verse structure seen in Valmiki’s epic poem, the Ramayana (one of my favourite stories growing up). I read about the rise of the pop bhajan in the 1980s, influenced by the Urdu pop ghazal. Some of the songs I know can be found as pop bhajans on youtube. The production style and instrumentation are unfamiliar to me.
‘Purely religious music, especially singing the names of God, has developed a significant Western following due to the preaching efforts of Swami Bhaktivedanta’ (Beck, 1999: 255). ‘In 1965, an elderly Indian man known as A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada arrived in America, and soon began singing and preaching Tompkins Square Park, in New York’s East Village’, sitting under a tree, playing his finger cymbals. ‘Bhaktivedanta drew a crowd, … which introduced Westerners to the five-hundred-year-old Hindu tradition known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism.’ (Sanneh, 2017). In a recording from the late sixties, you can hear his followers singing the Hare Krishna mantra in comically strong American accents. Counterculture had exploded in the 1960s, a radical social and cultural shift from the staid post-war 1950s. The New Yorker describes the spread of AC Bhaktivedanta’s teaching as ‘resist(ing) secular explanation’ (ibid). His followers shaved their heads, took vows of celibacy and renounced alcohol and drugs in an era of long hair, free love and LSD, rising early to worship, pray and read scripture.
Eastern spirituality was rather fashionable in the 1960s. AC Bhaktivedanta Swami was friends with Allan Ginsberg, despite having polar opposite views on many things; I don’t think Ginsberg had any interest in adopting the abstemious, celibate lifestyle Swamiji espoused. Ginsberg was keen to learn more about meditation having travelled to India, where he had learnt to sing Hare Krishna while accompanying himself on the harmonium. (You can see Ginsberg chanting on Youtube, playing a tiny harmonium. I imagine if he’d been a congregational member at the temple, my dad would have talked about not letting him lead the singing but would have tried to find other ways to make him feel valued and included. This was of course my father, the man who hid all the pairs of kartals in the cupboard on a Sunday, so infuriated that he was by people playing them out of time. )
Ginsberg organised an event at which the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane played. Swamiji, as his followers called him, was the headline act. They expressed concern that a rock concert attended by hippies on LSD was no place for an elderly gentleman, no less a swami. ‘If thousands of young people gathering to hear rock music could be engaged in hearing and chanting the names of God, then what was the harm?’ was his response. (Satsvarupa das Goswami: 1980). ‘These young hippies wanted something spiritual, but they had no direction. They were confused, accepting hallucinations as spiritual visions.’ (ibid). (Interestingly, Timothy Leary was in the audience that night. He was quite keen on the idea of the idea that LSD could facilitate spiritual experiences. Unsurprisingly, his employers at Harvard University took the same disapproving view of drugs as Swamiji.)
Swamiji taught his disciples to sing, to play mridanga, kartels and harmonium before sending two married couples to London where they befriended the Beatles, in particular George Harrison, by delivering an apple pie to Apple Studios every day until they received a phone call. Harrison produced and released an album called Radha Krsna Temple for them on Apple Records in 1971 which went to number twelve in the charts and they all went on Top of The Pops. You can listen to it here. George Harrison later purchased an old manor house in Hertfordshire for them, Bhaktivedanta Manor.
Growing up, I was very aware that we were not Indian. Cultural appropriation has since entered the current debate. I watched a video of Emma Dabiri, the social historian and cultural commentator who talks about white people claiming and whitewashing the creations of people of colour. She gave Elvis as an example; we know very little about the black musicians whose music Elvis popularised. She also talks about power dynamics; the oppressors taking credit for the work of the oppressed. I think about the horrendous things the British did in India, oppressors and oppressed.
We all had Sanskrit names, we ate kitchari and chapatis, we loved the Ramayana and Mahabharata and we learnt to chant verses from the Bhagavad Gita. Did we claim them as our own? It was about following Srila Prabhupada’s teachings and scripture; Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings which extolled spreading kirtan to every town and village, regardless of anyone’s background.
I spoke to an Indian academic. He told me the community I grew up in was seen by many Indians as peculiarly old fashioned and it was viewed as very odd that a group of white people were telling them what Hinduism was. I can certainly see what he meant, but different traditions have different practices and beliefs. In addition to that, a huge proportion of the congregation who worship at Bhaktivedanta Manor are British Asians, many of them originally from Gujarat.
Growing up I was aware that the Indian families we knew had different values. Family and education were important and the girls I learnt to dance with went on to pursue professional careers. By contrast, we talked about eschewing materialism, renouncing worldly attachments and material endeavours. The Bhagavad-Gita talks about fruitive workers. I decided that I wanted to be a fruitive worker and pursue a professional career. Mostly I didn’t want to have to worry about the heating bill.
I attended bharatanatyam dance classes at the Indian mandir in Belfast. We learnt to dance in the temple room. Knees bent in aramandi, I observed the differences between their altar and our temple altar. On their altar were Radha Krishna, Lakshmi Narayan, Hanuman, Durga, a Shiva linga, Ganesh and Sai Baba. By contrast, Gaudiya Vaishnavas focus on the worship of Krishna to the exclusion of all other Hindu deities. Different traditions view these matters quite differently. Furthermore, some worship Krsna as an incarnation of Vishnu; others worship Krishna in his own right as the supreme deity, as we did.
I am curious about other groups of Westerners who practice forms of Eastern spirituality or Hinduism. Most follow an Indian guru who came to the west with the intention of engaging Westerners. There seem to be quite a few, most centred around the practice of yoga, often as an outreach activity, unlike what I grew up with. Some practice bhakti, some practice raja yoga, some are rooted in Sikhism, some follow blends of a range of world religions, some worship Krishna, but none seem to worship him and him alone.
I listen to some more kirtan, most of it from the US – Prajna Vierra, Mooji Kirtan, Nikki Slade, Krsna das, Jai Uttal, Jay Jagdeesh. None of it sounds right to me. Most of it is too westernised for my tastes. Some of it is so westernised, it might be more accurate to describe it as kirtan-inspired. I’m less keen on the stuff with a new age feel and am puzzled by its choral sound. Some of these kirtans don’t even have any percussion! I’m aware I’m making sweeping statements about some very successful musicians, some of them Grammy winning but I just want a proper kirtan. Like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsLqmVGflB4
Given the popularity of kirtan in the US, I wonder if the zeitgeist is moving closer to the values and practices I grew up with. I’ve watched meditation, clean eating, self-discipline, Ayurveda, juice fasts and rising early to do yoga become more popular. None of these are new to me. However, rising early, meditation and fasting were part of religious practice; to be combined with prayer and study of scripture. Not ends in themselves or something under the wellness umbrella. I speak to my mum. Scholar of scripture that she is, she is unequivocal about the new age kirtan movement. Kirtan, she says, is not a sing-song, not a performance, not about some woolly idea of spirituality where watching the sunrise equates to a spiritual experience. Unless you are sincere in your worship of Krishna, it carries no meaning. That said, the saint Haridas Thakur, a contemporary of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu emphasised the importance of chanting whether it was ‘in negligence or in faith’ (Bhaktivinoda Thakur). I might stop there for now before diving into a discussion about scripture and hermeneutics…
I’ve enjoyed writing this and learning more about the history of kirtan. Exploring different religious movements has highlighted the similarities, differences and incompatibilities between them and the tradition I grew up with. I hadn’t entirely realised the kirtan I knew was so specific to Bengali Vaishnavas (worshippers of Krishna), that I could potentially go to Bengal and encounter something so familiar outside of an Iskcon temple. I reflected on the peculiarity of growing up in Belfast, singing songs by a 12th century Orissan poet in the living room, around the corner from the blue, white and red curbstones and the UVF paramilitary mural, a deeply divided society. But now I live in London, where there are so many kirtans I can’t keep up…
Beck, G. (1999) Religious and Devotional Music: Northern Area in A. Arnold, ed. (1999) The Garland Encyclopaedia of World Music Routledge, pp. 272-284.
Beck, G. (1999) Religious and Devotional Music: Southern Area in A. Arnold, ed. (1999) The Garland Encyclopaedia of World Music Routledge, pp. 285-297
Beck, G. L. (2019) Sacred Music and Hindu Religious Experience: From Ancient Roots to the Modern Classical Tradition. Asian Studies and Philosophy.
Sanneh, K. (2017) What Does Tulsi Gabbard Believe? The New Yorker, online. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/06/what-does-tulsi-gabbard-believe (Accessed 05/03/2019)
Sarbadhikary, S. (2015) Place of Devotion: Sitting and Experiencing Divinity in Bengal Vaishnavism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Satsvarupa das Goswami. (1980) Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, Volume 1. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
Tewwari, L.G. (2007) Common grounds between Bhajan and Qawwali. Conference on Music in the World of Islam. Assilah 8-13 August, 2007.
Bhaktivinoda Thakur Hari-nama-cintamani & Nama-bhajana. Available at: http://www.harekrishnajapa.com/wp-content/ebooks/Hari-Nama-Cintamani-Nama-Bhajana.pdf (Accessed 10/03/2019)