Unfortunately, the emotional element in devotional music genres seems to take a back seat these days.
Growing up in India in the 1970s, one was constantly sensitized to regional differences. When you got on a train in Delhi and got off, for example, in Bhuj, in Gujarat, the clothes, the food in the restaurants, the shops, everything was different. It was the same with music. The folk traditions of each state were therefore totally different; in essence they still are, but the standardization of accompanists in terms of including harmonium and tabla makes the sounds somewhat familiar. The lyrics of the Sikh Gurbani kirtan are incomprehensible to a non-Punjabi, but the similarity in musical form and basic grammar of the taal and the composition structure is shared by all khayal Where bhajans. To put it another way, a Rajasthani Manganiyar troupe today may not sound so different from a Punjabi troupe to a listener who does not know either language.
Earlier, when one heard a Quawalli in Delhi, one could not have enjoyed a repeat of the experience in, say, Pune. Things have changed. The borders of the region are no longer an obstacle to the dissemination of music. Recently, a talented Carnatic classical singer, Tamilian Amrit Ramnath, based in Chennai, composed a Quawali in Tamil, “Ennul Inikkum Inbameand recorded it with a group of musician friends, including a singer from northern India, Amira Gill.
The authenticity of the composition was undeniable; as the entries given by the talented musical arranger Amrit gave the number a distinctive flavor that made it sound on repeat! Although the number started with the traditional harmonium, the hint of guitars in the background gave the song a contemporary feel. The lyrics were uplifting – the sweetness that is within me, that I can taste, the Omnipresent shines, filling me with Light from within. You are the Truth, in me – but for someone who is not a Tamil speaker like me, it made little difference to the listening experience.
As someone raised in North India with little exposure to West Indian culture, abhange were generally not heard. Bhimsen Joshi sometimes ended his concert with a, and we vaguely knew it was a bhajans in Marathi, but beyond, abhange were definitely not mainstream musically. Now we hear of Carnatic singers giving two and three o’clock Abhang concerts, which are quite popular in Chennai and Bangalore. Even the Bengali-speaking Kaushiki Chakravorty sang abhange on the scene.
Previously reserved for deans like Kishori Amonkar (who composed several herself), Lata Mangeshkar, Vasant Deshpande and Jitendra Abhisheki, the form is now popularized by Americans Mahesh Kale, Shounaq Abhisheki, Rahul Deshpande, Anand Bhatt, Karnataka resident Jayateerth Mevundi, Arati Ankalikar, Manjusha Patil and Devaki Pandit.
Abhang are of various forms – some replicate the impromptu and repetitive chants of pilgrims from across Maharashtra as they make their way to the small town of Pandharpur in the lunar month of Ashaad. There, the Black Stone Lord Vithal awaits his annual tribute. Here only the names of the Lord are chanted, with ever-increasing speed, winding through other ragas, or tunes, and back to base. “Jai Hari Vithal, Jai Jai Vithalis perhaps the most popular; it is a community that sings at its most powerful. The term, Abhangitself, means something without interruption and the song reflects that.
Some abhange, however, are only the dedicated outpourings of saints over the years that can be tuned to any tune. These seem to be more commonly sung on stage; there is complete freedom of expression at the melody level, although the ragas are generally respected. The embellishments follow those used in classical singing. known for her abhangesenior vocalist Aruna Sairam shared that there are texts, hundreds of years old, relating to the different styles of Abhang singing and various padhatis which testify to the diversity of the tradition.
What a surprise as the carnatic singers of Chennai Ranjani-Gayatri, the sister duo known to their fans worldwide as RaGa, turn out to be popular Abhang singers. In a bold premiere they sang abhange in Jaipur a few weeks ago. Granted, anyone I spoke to in town about the folk form had no idea what it was; but the public reaction to the songs gave an idea of its popularity. There is an insistent dominant beat, the repetitive singing is hypnotic and the brevity of the songs leaves no room for boredom. The addition of the auspicious conch, the ringing of small hand-held temple bells and the clanking of cymbals add to the ambiance. For connoisseurs, the lyrics are uplifting. Ranjani-Gayatri ended with a very popular number, “Pandhari se bhoot mothe”. Translated they say: This mighty ‘ghost’ of Pandharpur seizes whoever comes here and never lets him go. Those who leave never come back, they remain under his spell. Tukaram went there and never came back.
Unfortunately, the emotional element in devotional music genres seems to take a back seat these days. The strong rhythm, the increasing rhythm of the song and the simulation bhaava induced by reaching the upper octave in a frenzy seems sufficient for young audiences. The experience of communion with the divine through the group kirtan seems to be missing on the concert stage.