The Yoga of Kirtan:  Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting

By Steven J. Rosen

Book Review

Deepak Shimkhada,

Claremont McKenna College.
Claremont, CA

 

I grew up with the sounds of kirtan. I lived in a small apartment in Kathmandu with my older brother. I was twelve years old. As my brother attended night college, I waited for him all alone in the apartment, a bit scared. When it got really dark, around eight o’clock, the kirtaniyas gathered in a pati in the center of the town and began to sing. Only three musical instruments were used—harmonium, tabla and jhurmas (cymbals). As their unison voices of bhajan would reach my ears, I would feel comforted with a sense of security, as if I were not alone. After listening to about two hours of singing into the night, I would welcome my brother home and would forget about the kirtans in the distance. We lived in that apartment for four years, and during that time the kirtans kind of entered into my skin and became part of me. Now as a grown up man, I am fond of bhajans and have amassed a large collection of songs by various native and non-native singers. 

     When Steven Rosen sent me a review copy of his recent book The Yoga of Kirtan, I did not think of it much because I had expected it to be a standard book on the subject, a dense text with the analysis of the history of kirtan and its role in society. However, when I opened the book to examine the table of contents, I gladly found none of that. Then leafing through all the way to the end, I was pleasantly surprised to find a CD tucked away in a pouch. Without reading the book, I immediately went for the CD and played it. To my delight I found the CD alone is a treasure trove of many beautiful bhajans sung by some of the most familiar names in the U.S. For me the CD alone is worth the price of the book.

     When Peter Manuel’s book Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India first came out in 1993, I wished it had an audio cassette containing the pieces of music he so fondly discussed in his book. I, as a buyer, or any buyer for that matter, would have paid a buck or two in addition to the cost of the book. But the book, which examined the craze of audio cassette industry in north India, did not include a sample cassette. Fifteen years later, someone finally had the wisdom to include the music he discusses in his book. It makes perfect sense and for this alone I find Rosen’s book both a pleasure and a treasure to read and to listen to. 

     Most of the interviews read like a personal journey into the lives of the bhaktas. The questions are carefully formulated which peel the layers of the singer’s personal life with the intention of getting to know him/her a little better. For that matter, the book is quite entertaining and engrossing. 

     Except for one, all the singers are non-Indians, making the kirtaniyas Western converts. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, the kirtans sung by the Western converts have a unique charm that is difficult to describe. One only has to listen to them to appreciate. I find the kirtans refreshing and musically engaging. For someone who has been listening to the Indian voices, these kirtans are distinctively different both in voice and in rendition. Even the beat is different. While most kirtaniyas use the same harmonium and a percussion instrument, these have their own unique rhythms unlike most Indian bhajans.The songs come from the singers’ heart. These are a new breed of Hindus doing their own version of Bhakti through kirtan, which I find refreshing. Every time I listen to the CD, I feel like clapping my hands, jumping on my feet, and dancing to the tune of the music—truly inspiring. 

     When Chaitanya Mahaprabhu sang, we are told his devotees sang with him as they danced. The great saint must have evoked the mood in the minds of the devotees to merge with the Divine through the medium of repeated beats created by chanting and musical instruments. The bhajans Rosen has collected and stored on this CD have that quality. Both the book and the CD break the tradition and are a pioneering work well worth owning.