Dr. Jyoshna La Trobe
What is Kīrtan really?
Kīrtan (Kiirtana) is from the Sanskrit root, kirt which means to “tell, name, call, recite, repeat, declare, celebrate, praise, glorify” (M.Monier-Williams 2008:285). Kīrtan is “laudatory recital, verbal and literary of the name and repeated utterance of the name and description of the qualities of divine beings or being (Singh, 1982:75).
Goswami says that kīrtan is far older than Vaiṣṇava Kīrtan (15th century) going as far back as the caryā songs of tantric practitioners in the 11th century (2002:4) as does Edward Dimock who suggests that Vaiṣṇava kīrtans actually resemble Buddhist Tantric and yogic forms of “circle worship” (1966:46).
Sen also says it “prevailed since early times, though was elaborated upon by Narottama Das towards the end of the 16th century” (1960:98) and refers to Vaiṣṇava kīrtan as “songs and the musical style in which these songs are sung”. From the perspective of a kīrtan player (kīrtaniya) from Rāṛh, reported as the homeland of the kīrtan tradition, “kīrtan is the most sacred of the music genres, because it is the best way of worshiping God” (Mahir Māhāto 1996: Pers.comm.) and “One must say the name of God, Hari, loudly, not just internally, but with devotional expression, (Rājwar 2007: Pers.comm.)
Rāṛhi Kirtan is characterised by extreme dynamism, accelerated tempos, thunderous velocity, and ecstatic dance leading to tornadoes of sonic devotion.
Sri Caitanya is reported to have said "Rarhii sure Rarhii bole
Rarhii akhare Kiirtana kariba"
“To the tunes of Rarh and in the speech of Rarh, And with the words of Rarh, I shall sing kiirtana” (Sarkar 1981: 49 (Mitra (15th century))
As mentioned above, while the historical, social, and religious context of kīrtan has been documented to some extent, scant can be found on the actual kīrtan music, with notable exceptions being Stephen Slawek (1988) and Edward O. Henry (2002: 33-55). Slawek’s article  is mainly concerned with concepts closely affiliated with the Great /Little traditions. He also suggests that the ultimate origins of kīrtan might be the Gītagovinda by Jayadeva’s. Edward O. Henry discusses the ‘Hierarchy of Intensity’ and reports on Slawek’s (1986) investigation into Benares nāma kīrtan citing a recording made in 1971 of mounting intensity.
However, few have reported on the actual kīrtan music because “the texts are not only easier to reproduce but are also deemed to convey the essential meaning and significance of the songs” states Sorrell (2007:119). Yet “the real stuff” of contemporary ethnomusicological practice are also seen in his musical transcriptions of Ram Narayan’s sarangi performance (1980) and Qureshi’s (1986) Qawwali performances for example. My intention is also to shed new light on the kīrtan performance genre highlighting the meaning and mechanics behind the kīrtan music through analysis of the song compositional structures and instrumentals that to date, have not been reported on. Due to its many unique stylistic characteristics, kīrtan is deserving of its own categorization as shall be outlined below.
Characteristics of Kīrtan
Indian philosopher and composer Sri P.R.Sarkar has coined the term “supra – aesthetic science of kīrtan” (2007:25), to describe the musical science behind its transcendental effects. From extensive observation and in depth analysis based on my fieldwork in the Purulia District 2005-2010, the supra aesthetics of kīrtan are derived not only from the lyrical component which directly reflects the divine but from the traditional musical structures which to date have been overlooked or neglected. The essential ingredients of the musical ‘science’ of kīrtan are embedded not only in its these musical structures but also its performance strategies which are designed to create heightened intensity.
Another essential characteristic is that it is egalitarian, inclusive and creates a sense of social equality among both participants and non participants alike, the purpose being to collectively sing praise songs and chants (mantra) for divine being/s, in order to pleasure them, illicit their blessings, as well as other purposes. In this region Śiva and Krishna/Radha are the primary deities to whom praise is sung, using the mantra Hari Bolo literally meaning ‘sing, call, gods name’, the name Hari calling forth both Śiva and Krishna. The repetition of divine name/s, combined with a traditional infrastructure gives rise to the arousal of ecstatic devotion. Similarly Quereshi’s Sufi music of India and Pakistan sound context and meaning in Qawwali (1986), describes Qawwali as,
“Mystical love must be cultivated spiritually and aroused emotionally. This is achieved through ritual or devotional practice, in particular the reciting or recollection of Gods name (zikr) and the listening to spiritual music (sama). Zikr the constant recollection of god, (Schimmel 1975:84) consists of the repetition – silent or voiced – of divine names or religious formulae " (1986:119).
For what makes a kīrtan performance unique is that it includes three major components:
1. A composition (in the form of chant)
2. dance (lalita marmika)
3. and instrumental music held securely
within a traditional performance structure.
Each major kīrtan composition consists of:
1. an opening refrain (la)
2. various improvisational vocal parts (udara, mudara and tara)
3. musical climax (matan) as well as a drum compositions (katan).
The most renowned kīrtan compositions, regarded as the central corpus of the kirtan tradition include Daspera (Dashpede), Pakachuta, Jhorchuta, Sohni, and Tehot for example. A kirtan performance by a traditional group (kirtaniyas) of Rarh, will include two or three of these major compositions as well as numerous rang ‘colour’ or popular melodies as transitional pieces while still leaving avenues for spontaneous creative expression.
Styles of Kīrtan
1. Nama or marāī kirtan
Rather than discuss the whole spectrum of Rāṛhi kīrtan music which is vast and carries within
it a diversity of literary forms and language concerns that only a Bengali adept is properly
equipped to discuss, I shall focus on nāma kīrtan, a style of kīrtan, referring to ‘calling the
names of god only’. In local terms this is called marāī, lit. means ‘circular’, while the internal
meaning is “to grind”. Sri Jagaran Māhāto reports that this ‘continuous grinding’ of Hari’s name
melts away any sense of separation between the devotee and the Lord,
"Marāī is not a Bengali word, it is local Purulia or Rāṛhi local word, it means to move in a circle, while the internal meaning is “to grind”, for if you grind Hari’s name, in your heart, like sugarcane, then it will melt and become nectar for God.’"(JM 2007: Pers.comm.)
To achieve a state of ‘melting’ or ‘absolute absorption’ into the deity (samadhi), marāī kīrtan is performed without halt for many hours, weeks, months or longer, depending upon the occasion and ‘promise’ made to Hari. Hence the Bengali term akhanda ‘endless’ has been ascribed to it,
"Kīrtan is a type of music that you can’t compare with other types, you can’t bind it, you can’t make a boundary line or limit it, or say that there is an end to it (ibid.)."
From observation and analysis the extremely high climactic peaks and deep wells of musical intensity, typical of marāī kīrtan, are reflective of the local terrain, with its searing hot windswept summer landscape, freezing winters, soft modulating mountain ranges, low lying plateaus, and ancient rock formations. These extremities have long featured in the mystic songs of the Baul singers, as well as the fierce devotional expression of the Śiva devotees interwoven though time with the graceful (lasya) sensual movements and musical modes of marāī kīrtan, common to Vaiṣṇavism.
2. Pada kīrtan literature
The word pada means ‘verse’ kīrtan such as Jayadeva’s Giitagovinda 11th century, and Chandidas (of which there were three) based on the theme of Krishna/Radha love kīrtans from the 14th century written from a female persona. As Dimock says,
"The Jiva [unit soul] is a Gopi, or Rāḍhā. One is, and should consider oneself, a woman, in relation to the sole male in the universe, to Kṛṣṇa "(1966:158).
Examples of Vaisnavite pada kīrtan abound especially from the 16th century onwards, including those of Narrottama Das, Govinda Das (16th century) and Vidyapati. Of the many renowned contemporary kirtan compositions, there are numerous examples in Prabhat Samgiita, composed by Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar (between 1983-90).
The Kīrtan Instruments
The traditional components of a kīrtan ensemble as reported in the 16th century by Kaviiraja, are
1. the khol drum player
2. the singer
3.the principal dancer cum kartal or cymbal player
1. The khol
It is the traditional percussive instrument for marāī kīrtan, with historical accounts that stretch back to Caitanya’s time. Every aspect of the khol drum has deep spiritual significance for the kīrtaniyas. According to kirtan experts Naba Māhāto and Basanta Rājwar from Bagra, the black paste on the khol (gab) are the black eyes of Rāḍhā, crying tears from the pain of separation from her beloved. The khol drum body is
made from red earth (lal mati) of Rāṛh and the strings on the surface of
and nobody else can touch the khol with their feet but the muchi. It is only this caste that can do these things. When you do puja, when you start Haribol you first give them prasad, first you worship the cobbler caste, and then Kṛṣṇa, Kālī or Śiva. Other castes can’t touch it with their feet. when Caitanya came he made a rule, he gave the power to the low castes, he gave them a special role, so only they are allowed, because this khol symbolises Rāḍhā’s love and separation, and all of Rāḍhā’s emotions and tears are inside the khol, so even if I know, I can’t do it, only the muchi, cobbler caste can do it (SM, 2007: Pers.comm.).
Supra Aesthetics of Marai Kīrtan
The musical science behind marai kīrtan is a gradual build in intensity creating devotional arousal through the constant repetition of god’s name and a well planned musical structure, with variable rhythmic and melodic highlights rising to climactic peaks of concentration and zeal. As Qureshi says regarding Qawwalli,
“one must above all express and convey intensification since intensification is a process. Multiple repetition finally is the intensifier par excellence in a Qawwali performance impressing the message fully and continuously. Different types of repetition are associated with different stages. Reiteration belongs to the lowest stage where no or little arousal is present. Insertion recurrence [is where] some mild enthusiasm or mild arousal is present. Multiple repetition finally, implies intense arousal and even ecstasy” (1986:216- 217).
Through observation, interviews, and musical analysis my research reveals, contrary to popular notions that it is derivative, marai kīrtan is original/traditional at its core and derivative/contemporary only at its periphery.
The titles of the core compositions (tālas or raginis for example) Dāspera, Pākāchutā, Jhorchutā for example, are not known Hindustani classical rāgas or tālas, they are specific to Rāṛhi kīrtan as the names demonstrate. Popular melodies from the folk music culture (rang) and even Hindi film melodies are also incorporated into the performance, but are situated on the periphery and generally performed after the central corpus of kirtan compositions. Specific Bauls songs and Hindustani rāgas such as Śiva Ranjani rāga are also integral to the performance for cultural as well as musical reasons, and lie between the two (central corpus and periphery). Thus, my thesis concentrates on the extant kīrtan music and performance rather than the origins and evolution of the Rāṛhi kīrtan tradition.
Through this investigation I demonstrate that marāī kīrtan of Rāṛh, in its broadest sense is part of the pan Indian genre samgīta, i.e. instrumental music, song and dance, yet it also has many distinct characteristics as a performance genre that are unique and not replicated in other Indian music tradition to my knowledge. Hence, rather then being largely derivative, my findings reveal that marāī kīrtan of Purulia, exists not only as a contemporary expression of Vaiṣṇavism (with Śiva worship at its base) but also as an original, yet highly structured music performance tradition. In other words, behind this wildly ecstatic expression of devotional singing and dance, there is a central corpus of compositions (tālas/ rāga melodies) and clearly defined musical structures which have not originated from any outside source other than Rāṛh itself.
 Slawek’s article on Popular Kīrtan in Benares (1988: 77-92) is mainly concerned with concepts closely affiliated with the Great /Little traditions and suggests that the ultimate origins of kīrtan might be the Gītagovinda by Jayadeva’s from Birbhum in Rāṛh
 Popular Kīrtan in Benares (1988: 77-92)
 Starting at a moderate pace of 81 beats per minute (b.p.m.) and increases to 147 b.p.m. (2002:35).
 Ha from Hara (a name of Shiva) and Ha from Hari (one name of Krishna)
 It is told in the Kālīka Purana, the Devi Bhagavata, the Mahabharata, in the chapter titled “Prayers of Akrura”, and in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.9.37, Purport).
 It is told in the Kālīka Purana, the Devi Bhagavata, the Mahabharata, in the chapter titled “Prayers of Akrura”, and in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.9.37, Purport).
Dimock, Edward and Levertov, D. 1967, In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali.
Goswami, Karunamaya, 2002, The Evolution of Bengali music
Kirtyananda Avadhuta, Acaryā, 1995a, “Essays on Rarh (1)” Prajina Bharati Magazine, 18/ 4: 9.
La Trobe, Jyoshna, 1996, 2010; The Music Culture of Rarh, India
Māhāto, Binapani, 1981, “A Glimpse of Jhumur Songs” Folklore Journal, Qureshi, Regula, 1986, Sufi music of India and Pakistan: sound, context, and meaning in qawwali. Cambridge University Press
Pashupati Māhāto, 1987, 2004; The Performing Arts of Jharkhand.
Rouget, Gilbert, 1985; Music and Trance. University of Chicago Press, has been insightful regarding the ‘transcendental or supra effects of kirtan’.
Sarkar, Sri Prabhat Ranjan, 1981, 2004 in English; “Ra’r’h, Cradle of Civilisation”, Ananda Marga Pracaraka Samgha (Central), Kolkata.
Slawek, Stephen, 1988; “Popular Kirtan in Benares: Some Great Aspects of a Little Tradition”, Ethnomusicology, Spring/Summer.
Stoller – Miller, Barbara, 1977, Jayadeva, the Love song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva’s Giitagovinda
Rāṛh literally means ‘reddish soil‘ in the Austric language, and is the name of an ancient kingdom that existed up till British rule when it was divided into three states, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar. Its geological boundaries include the major rivers, Ajay, Subarnerekha and Kansavati surrounded by a ring of soft undulating hills that were once reported to be higher than the Himalayan peaks. Previously in Rāṛh consisted of many countries or ‘bhums’ often named after their rulers, such as Man Singh for Manbhum or after characteristics of the landscape such as Birbhum ‘forested land’. The last king to rule the whole of Rāṛh was King Sasankar in the 7th century, a staunch Shivite and. British divide and rule policies meant that in 1956 Manbhum was abolished and merged into Bengal and Orissa, (now Jharkhand) three separate states, yet still exists as Rāṛh in the imaginations of the people. This region, was greatly appreciated by Vishambhar Misra (Sri Caitanya Deva) the 16th century Vaisnavite saint for its who kīrtan tradition. It was Vishambhar Misra that instigated sam or Congregational kīrtan, or nama kirtan ‘singing the name of the lord only’.
the khol are made from goat skin. The special role of making the khol, is given to the cobbler caste, or muchi, with instructions from Caitanya, that they are the only ones who can make the khol drum, kīrtan expert Jagaran Mahato says that the right hand side (high sounding) represents Kṛṣṇa while the left hand side (deep sounding) represents Rāḍhā and the strings connecting the two sides are the gopis, the milk maids of Kṛṣṇa called the āsta sākhis, “eight friends”. The three white stripes around the center of the khol represent the three gods, Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Maheshvara Śiva and the clay body of the khol is said to be the made from the body of the demons Madhu and Kaitabha (JM 2007 Pers.comm.).
Only the Hari Das caste can make the khol, the untouchables, the real cobbler, the Harijon, the muchi, only they can do it because without touching with your feet to the khol, you can't make it......