Friday, March 28, 2008

Bhajans in Sanskrit

This afternoon I was able to attend a music class lead by Gustaf the head of the music program here. His wife, and another German man who are also talented musicians participated along with Gonga and Tara.

A bhajan (also known as a kirtan) is a devotional song (or can refer to a devotional singing session), usually with Sanskrit lyrics and often of ancient origin. The lyrics often respectfully speak of longing for deeper connection with some aspect of the divine often personified by a deity. Sanskrit is truly an ancient holy language, with most words imbued with meanings both vast and profound. I'm familiar with quite a few Sanskrit words because of my Tibetan Buddhist practice, but I learned some new ones today since each bhajan had a translation into English below the lyrics. The melodies are sometimes also ancient, but occasionally may be much more recent in origin.

A few of the bhajans are recent and use English or German lyrics. Swami has a lot of German students and perhaps 80% of the students here at the moment hail from Germany.

The style of singing is call-and-response, with the bhajan leader singing a line of the song, and then the rest of the group responding by repeating the same melodic line. Sometimes a line is repeated two or more times before the leader moves on to the next line or next melody.

The instrumentation at this ashram has included guitar, harmonium, double-headed drum, and finger cymbals.

The combination of the heartfelt instrument playing, the beautiful melodies, which range in tone from wistfully dark to playfully staccato, layered over with the Sanskrit lyrics, which have a lot of vowels and roll easily off the tongue, is really quite amazing and inspiring.

For me, music is a open doorway to transcendent experiences so I wanted to take the opportunity to learn more about the musical traditions practiced at this ashram. I've now attended the evening bhajan for the past three evenings. Every night from 8 to 9 PM everyone in the ashram gets together in their main temple to sing the devotional songs together. I'll be able to attend one more evening bhajan tomorrow before I head back to the States.

Today was the final written exam for the students in the University program here. They are currently on a trimester system and today marked the end of the trimester. For those students, there was announced there may be a field trip to some of the neighboring temples this weekend, and although I'm just a guest, it is looking like I might also be able to attend. I'll know more first thing in the morning.

I got to hear Sri Kaleshwar teach briefly tonight after the bhajan. His teaching related to the final exams. His accent is fairly pronounced, so I didn't get that much from what he said. One thing he did say that I thought could be related to any practice or even life pursuit is that one needs to practice and study for 2 to 3 hours per day to maintain one's knowledge and skills.

Gonga and Tara have been telling me about all of Swami's activities, and he really does so many things to help the people within his sphere of influence. I totally rejoice at his positive aspirations and activities. The ashram he has created here has been called the nicest in India, and that is easy to believe. It is a large desert oasis. It seems like a paradise world. They are in the process of adding more adjacent land and expanding the facilities. One of the buildings that is going up will add 200 more apartments within the ashram.

We had another unseasonable downpour tonight with lots of thunder and lightning. It is over now, and the air is super clean. In general, this location has some of the best air I've experienced in India. There is still a little smoke from local wood fires and the occasional burning of plastic trash in the neighborhood, but Penukonda is fairly far from from any major population centers, and is so arid that there are not very many farms nearby, hence less sources of air pollution.


Ellen said...

Sounds sublime!
It would be fun to learn to play some of those instruments at the DRC!
Yeah Jeremy and I try to keep to that kind of can be difficult on days of working mundane jobs, but invariably is worth it!

bhagoosh said...

The bhajans are not ancient, and often are not Sanskriti. They are medieval, and were sung in vernacular, in the living language of the people. (Sanskrit is the frozen language of the priests.)

Mahesh said...

Sanskrit is not a frozen language. It is spoken by thousands of Indians, irrespective of caste. I personally have seen sanskrit homes(samskrita griham) where even kids speak sanskrit.
In US summer camps of spoken sanskrit are held for kids.