Asian Music and Dance

Classical Bhajans

One of the great and deep joys of being humanist is listening to religious music without being swamped or swept away by religious devotion or faith fervour. Faith has no dominion and music has to stand on musical merits. Swamy Haridhos & Party’s Classical Bhajans stands on its merits as music. There is no need to convert to get the soul of this music. Just imbibe. This recording of a South Indian-style Hindu ceremony – made at Gita Govinda Hall in Bombay on 1 January 1968 – preserves a religious occasion. Let’s face it, there are plenty of those scattered across European, North American, Japanese, Indian and Pakistani releases. What sets Classical Bhajans apart is the artistry with which Swamy Haridhos delivers the bhajans, the Hindu hymns of the album’s title. 

But first some back-story from Bengt Berger. In 1967 Berger fetched up in India to study Indian drumming. Immersing himself in the culture, the Swede took the name Sopan Dev. He had brought one of the state-of-the-art, open-reel tape recorders – a Nagra – with him and clearly was considered serious enough to be granted permission to record Haridhos. That is our immense good fortune. (Haridhos (d. 1994) changed his name for numerological reasons from Haridas at some point.) When he performed, congregational-style in Bombay, his reputation had preceded him. Already established in his home-base ashram in Thennangur – a village in modern-day Tamil Nadu associated with Meenakshi, an avatar of the Goddess Parvati – Haridhos clearly had developed a phenomenal lead and unison style of presenting devotional music. The twist is that Classical Bhajans is exactly what the title proclaims, not the pap usually served up in most ethnomusicological recordings masquerading as Hindu devotional music. Furthermore, it swings. 

Swathes of Classical Bhajans are rooted in traditional art music forms with appropriate ragam and talam duly listed. Its content works both as stand-alone pieces and interlocking sequences. Muthunathan Bhagvatar accompanies on harmonium, P.S. Devarajan on mridangam, K.V. Ramani on tabla and K. Shivakumar on violin. Try Sarunu Saranu and its turn-on-an-anna segue into Murahara Nakadara for proof of how their instrumental accompaniments work and subtly underpin the mood and a piece’s development. Try Vandhe Mohana Mohinim for his deeper ragam approach or the saint-poet Mirabai composition Mori Laga Laguna for more profound insights. It is raw, with throat-clearing and traffic sounds, in places. Agreed, sometimes, as happens on Mori Laga Laguna, somebody gets too close to the microphone. This is not a second-take sort of performance though. Musically, it is in contact with the earth while reaching for the stars. Classical Bhajans is a candidate for the finest field recording of bhajans recorded in situ – as opposed to being recorded in the studio or concert hall – that you will ever hear in your life. 




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