Perambulating the Bounds

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Wednesday night Bhajans

The concert on Wednesday at Temple Sri Ganesha, Nashville’s Hindu temple, featured something a bit different with a concert of Sampradaya Bhajans. These are devotional songs from the South Indian Carnatic tradition which range from short, simple pieces one can teach to children to longer more involved works. Unlike other concerts of classical Carnatic music, the composed material is not the starting point for extended improvisations on the ragas and talas. There is improvisation, but it occurs more firmly within a hymnody context of structured songs, and like Western hymns these are meant to be sung by a congregation. The skill of the performer is manifest in the expressiveness with which the melodies are delivered.

This concert was presented by Udayalur Kalyanaraman, a vocalist from India with a group that included another vocalist, someone playing harmonium (and singing along off mike), and another man on the mridangam drum. In certain respects the music is similar to qawali in that it includes solos, unison singing, and call and response between the leader and the rest of the party. However, when I suggested this to Sankaran Mahadevan, the organizer of the event, he resisted the comparison, and with reason. The most striking divergence is the emphasis in qawali on featuring improvisatory virtuosity of the leader. The bhajans were more recognizably devotional, and in fact performance was presented as a devotional ceremony more than a pure concert. It began with the temple priests intoning a blessing on the musicians and bestowing garlands on them – the concerts in this space typically do not start this way. The audience was invited to remove their shoes, as is required in the upstairs prayer hall filled with the shrines of many deities, but not normally for concerts in the assembly hall.

Attending a Hindu devotional ceremony leaves a Christian with the question of what to take from it. I have some vague acquaintance with the broad outlines of Hindu theology, but I know nothing of the devotional practices. The songs were mostly in Tamil and Telugu, and in fact Kalyanaraman’s commentaries between groups of songs seemed to switch between English and I’m guessing Tamil. However, I gather that from the Hindu perspective, my lack of knowledge poses no great barrier. Several times Kalyanaraman said “even if I know nothing, still I can say Rama.” Invoking the god’s name appears to confer benefits, and I know that Indian music theory holds that the music confers spiritual benefits through the intrinsic qualities of the melodies and underlying musical elements. Different ragas and talas are understood to have different and reliable effects on listeners. Many classical composers had a similar belief in associating keys with different states of mind, and you find it more recently in those musicians who experience synesthesia, like Scirabin or Messaien.

The belief in this sort of power of words and music puts different demands on the music as a vehicle for devotion. In the West, our hymns are by comparison very wordy. They may tell a long story, or lay out an argument. Verse 1 goes “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing…on earth is not his equal.” Then the next verse explains how we would lose if “we in our own strength confide,” goes on to name this God as Christ Jesus, and the third verse talks about the devils filling the world but “God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.” And so on for another verse and a half. The lyrics explain several things, use different metaphors to drive key points home, and get into theological niceties like how God’s will manifests itself in the world through our actions. Bhajans allow a few words and the sound itself to do the work of transforming the soul.

That being said, there is Western religious music that approximates this lyrical simplicity: praise music, a form despised by serious-minded Christians like myself. Are these bhajans simply the Indian equivalent of an energetic song that repeats Praise God or some such phrase over and over? If that is the case, does this music interest me only because of exoticism? Were I to fully understand the language and the religious context, would I find it spiritually shallow? I resist these possibilities, and the alternatives comes down to something like finding a greater complexity and integrity in the sonic qualities of Carnatic music, the pure musical side of it. Much of my objection to modern Christian worship music comes from the sense that the music is denatured, made too smooth and characterless to engage the soul. But that contention does ask for some more objective analysis to back it up. The weakness could lie in specifics of harmonic movement, linear counterpoint, lyrical content, or performance style, but I’m not in a position to spell out those specifics. It remains a reaction.

Getting back to this performance, one thing that struck me about the bhajans was the variety in harmonies and particularly rhythms. Some songs move forward with very steady, straight beats, others break down into syncopation. Kalyanaraman himself has a wide range, with a strong mid-range voice that he occasionally took into almost a falsetto or dropped down into a low range that sounded like the strings on a guitar being loosened to slackness. However, in the end I find the classical performances more engaging with their longer, complicated elaboration of material. Which of course makes sense, in that I approach Carnatic music as a concert goer, not as a religious devotee, no matter how much open-minded ecumenicism I may bring to this as spiritual expression.

It doesn’t have anything much to do with the bhajans, but I wrote the following a couple of years ago after first seeing Temple Sri Ganesha’s prayer room. The power placed in the name of the gods reminds me of the visual elements of devotion in that place.

Siva in Nashville

Our Siva is shaped like a lozenge,<>
Compact concentration and
Collapse of the universe into
A dark, dense mass.

<>Of course it sits on a
Golden throne, dressed for
Adoration, surrounded by gifts.
You peer through the dressing
To praise the pull of black fire.

<>The glow of distant places takes
Shape within its stomach.
Stare at it with laser mind,
To perceive shapes, colors, and motion,
The primitive moments of origination.
An object that blocks the view and opens a portal. <>

In Rothko’s panels, red and purple seep out the sides
And you get to the colors through the black field imposed on it all.
As you stare at the crushing center,
Patterns of paint wash and canvas weave emerge.
Solid dissolves into light whisked strokes.
Wait and you will see what comes of the dark,
Even more so in overcast hours when you see least,
After heavy Gulf storms drop down
And soak you on the way in.

If I get crushed by the black stone,<>
Will enough of me survive to regroup?
Will I catch fire and glow,
Or just expire?
I may have already collapsed,
Crumbled at the slightest gasp of wind,
Let the blood that would feed my family dribble away,
Through years of resentment and whining.


  • Thank you very much for your review of our bhajans at Nashville
    on last 26th.
    May God Bless you.
    Udaiyalur Kalyanaraman

    By Anonymous Kalyanaraman, at 8:41 PM  

  • Dear Sir
    We saw your review on bhajans sampradaya.It was really supreb.Udaiyalur Klayanaraman is doing a great service to humanity.All Indians are proud to have such a divine personality.
    Radhe Krishna

    By Anonymous sridhar, at 11:22 AM  

  • Dear Meddox
    We all red your review and Udaiyalur bhajan is always number one in India and He is the first person to perform Sampradaya Bhajan for the past two years in the various parts of USA and summer in USA is full of DIVINITY because of his visit.We pray God sincerely to give them good health to do this always.
    Ram Hari

    By Anonymous Shankar, at 11:29 AM  

  • Dear Sir
    We appreciate your excellent review of Udaiyalur Kalyanarama Bhagavthar who is performing bhajans in USA for the past one and half month.We heard his bhajans at Sanjose and nobody can perform bhajans like Sri Kalyanara man.His bhajan was full of devotion, Pure Music and he explained everything in simple mannar.After Sri Guruji he is the only person who is diong this in an excellent way.It was a great boon for us on 16thJune.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:50 PM  

  • Dear Maddox
    Your review is wonderful.
    Sri Udaiyalur Kalyanaraman and party performed Namasankirtanam at Sanjose on 16th and that was a memorable bhajan performance in our life time.Really something great.Accompaniments and vocal support and way of presentation with meaning were excellent.We are eagerly waiting for his next year's visit to Sanjose.
    With Thanks
    Sai Ram

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:41 PM  

  • It was a great performance and I'm looking forward to his concerts year after year. One of the readers has mentioned that after Shri Guruji only Shri Kalyanaraman is performing great bhajans. In fact there are very many great Bhagavathas in India who perform wonderful bhajans. But for us here we do not come in contact with those bhavathas. Udaiyalur Shri Kalyanaraman is no doubt one of those great Bhagavathas.
    Radhe Krishna!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:15 PM  

  • Dear Maddox:-

    Very nice review clearly from an independent angle about naamasankeerthanam.
    Infact KR is divine in taking the bhakthi to astrnomical heights through his naamasankeerthana.
    Thanks a lot .


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:44 AM  

  • Dear Sir
    Thanks for your review on Namasankirtanam.Sr Udaiyalur Kalyanarama Bhagavathar is not only doig Namasankirtanam but also helping many deserving Bhagavathas through Bhagavatha Seva Trust.We appreciate his noble work and we are his real fans.
    Radhe krishna.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:31 PM  

  • Dear Sir
    Nice Review.There is no doubt Kalyanaraman and his Party is the excellent team with Bhakthi and Bhava and spreading Namasankirtanam all over the World.We like their Bhajans.They performed here at Chicago on last 29th May during Thiagaraja Utsavam and nearly 600 devotees assembled and the performance was excellent and everyone was in tears when he sang Purandara Dasa Kriti.This is a real bhajan with Bhakthi.
    Jai Guru Datta

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:58 PM  

  • Radhey Krishna!
    Being in India, it is nice to read about the spread of Nama Sankeerthanam in America. In the passage, the crux of the purpose of Nama Sankeerthan was enlisted beautifully. I would also like to add another small fact- Here; Hinduism allows one to worship God in any form. For Radha, God was her lover, for Yashoda, He was her dear son, for Hanuman, Lord Rama was his Master, and for Kuchela, He was a friend. Let us hope that many more Bhagavathas like Kalyanarama Bhagavathar keep alive this wonderful and immortal medium of devotion. I really hope and pray that Kalyanarama Bhagavathar’s proficiency fused with devotion will fill more and more hearts with the sweet music of His glory!
    Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu!

    Poornima Ramachandran

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:27 AM  

  • Dear Sir
    Excellent review.Udaiyalur Sri Kalyanaraman and his co artists performing very well and really they are spreading our Indian culture all over India and Abroad.He visited last year also and we pray God to give them good health and bless themm to come to USA every year to bless all devotees and rasikas of Namasankirtanam.
    Sai Ram

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:16 AM  

  • Dear Maddox
    Appreciate your review on Namasankirtanam.Udaiyalur Kalyanarama Bhagavathar came to Phoenix and conducted Bhajans for two days and it was memorable performance.We hope that he will come to USA every year and make us happy with his divine music.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:06 AM  

  • Dear Sir
    Nice review.Aprreciate.acaongrstulstionsto Udaiyalur Kalyanaraman.
    Sri Hari

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:19 PM  

  • Dear Sir.
    Review on Namasankirtanam is good.Really I appreciate your interest on our Indian Music and particularly on Bhajans.Music is beyond religion and language.Sri Udaiyalur Kalyanaraman's Devine Music and Bhakthi makes us happy always.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:52 AM  

  • Dear Sir
    Good review.Udaiyalur bhajan creates a devine vibration and we are all enjoying his Music at Chicago for the past three days.He has very good knowledge of Music and his pronounciation of all songs in all languages is excellent.It is a divine gift for him.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:54 PM  

  • Dear Maddox
    We appreciate your review about namsankirtanam and Udaiyalur bhajan at Neshville.Udaiyalur Kalyanaraman's Music with divinity catches many people in the line of namasankirtanam all over the world.He is diong a great service to bhagavathas through his Trust.We like his Music and way of presenting bhajans. It creates Bhakthi.Best wishes to Udaiyalur.
    Jai Sri Ram
    Ramachandra Sharma

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:27 AM  

  • Dear Sir
    Review on Namasankirtanam was good.Sri Udaiyalur's bhajan was very nice and his explanation on various saint composers of India was simply superb.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:06 AM  

  • Dear Sir
    Good review.Sri Udaiyalur's Bhajan is very melodious and enjoysble.
    Om Sakthi

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:34 AM  

  • Dear Maddox
    Excellent review on Sampradaya Bhajan.Udaiyalur Sri Kalyanarama Bhagavathar and Party is performing Bhajans all over India and abroad.They came to USA last year also.Sri Udaiyalur has created a taste in sampradaya bhajan among the bhajan lovers like me through his simple and melodious music.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:45 PM  

  • Dear Maddox
    I saw your review on namasankirtanam by udaiyalur at Neshvilli.
    Good review.Thanks.Best wishes to
    Udaiyalur Kalyanaraman and his team.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:51 PM  

  • To all who have posted comments, I want to thank you for reading and for your kind words. I also appreciate hearing each of you describe what is valuable to you in the singing of bhajans, and in the performance and good works of Sri Kalyanaraman. It sounds like he has had wonderful audiences across the country.
    In Nashville we are blessed with an individual, Mahadevan, who sees to it that the community has a chance to experience this kind of music regularly. He does us all a great service.
    With all of you, I ask for blessings on the musicians in their performances and travels.

    By Blogger David Maddox, at 11:31 PM  

  • I saw your review and thanks and really impressing.Udaiyalur Kalyanarama Bhagvathar is in USA THIS YEAR ALSO 2006 and performing bhajans in various places.No doubt he is doing a Great Service to Humanity.His bhajan at Chicago - Arora Temple was simply superb last week on Vinayaga Chathurti Day.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:30 PM  

  • Udayalur Kalyanarama Bhagavathar and his troupe are spreading the concept of Bhakti through Sampradaya Bhajan performances all across the globe and his intermittant Harikatha adds splendour to his performance.I had heard him many many times in India.Last month I heard his Bhajan at Livermore Temple in California.It was excellent and the audience enjoyed the programme for almost three hours.
    May his service to the community grow to greater heights and reach more and more Asthikas all over the world.
    Angarai Bhaskaran

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:03 PM  

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