Asian Music and Dance

Sacred Music of the Street

Devotional music truly comes alive brought outside the temple and set free in the hearts and voices of the people. 

Jahnavi Harrison continues in the second part of her series, with a lively account of the multiple expressions of sacred music, illustrated by recordings made of temple processions and wandering minstrels on her pilgrimage around India.

God in the street

Sacred music has always provided a connection between the worlds of ritual worship and everyday life. This relationship seems natural, but often throughout history has been threatened by the views of some religious authorities. Those who objected preferred the formal songs and mantras to be sung exclusively by priests, believing that the music shared among the masses would contaminate what was meant only for God’s pleasure. Thus most sacred music was only performed within places of worship.

An exception to this rule was the festive processions when the temple deity or its replica was, and is still, carried outside in an elaborate ceremonial march. Often animals lead the way, as well as teams of musicians playing the pancavadyam (five auspicious temple instruments including percussion and different wind instruments). Songs describing the majesty and beauty of God are sung, sometimes in call and response format: 

Arguably the most famous of these processions takes place in Puri, Orissa. Known as Ratha Yatra, or Festival of Chariots, it is attended by millions who come to witness God leaving the sanctified atmosphere of the temple to parade down the busy main street. This is also the only time that the deity can be viewed by anyone not born into an Indian Hindu family. The kirtan at the festival is legendary worldwide.

One passionate advocate of bringing sacred music outside the temple was the fifteenth-century saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Despite the protests of the priestly class, he preached that everyone regardless of their background and caste should have the opportunity to connect with the Divine through music and chanting. Designing lightweight, clay-bodied versions of the wooden temple drums, he created chanting parties to parade the streets, encouraging all to sing the names of God as a spontaneous, joyful activity. 

Religious authorities at the time were outraged at his revolutionary actions, but attempts to stamp out the practice were unsuccessful. Modern-day followers of Chaitanya the world over still perform this chanting in the street daily. 

In this recording, notice Chaitanya’s clay-bodied mrdanga played alongside the African djembe in a chanting procession on Fifth Avenue in New York City. 

The Sikh tradition also emphasises the universal importance of chanting God’s names and many Sikhs regularly perform nagar sankirtan on special occasions. 

Itinerant musicians – One Voice, One String

While sacred processions are an important collective experience, equally noteworthy are the lone voices of itinerant musicians. Coming from a caste devoted to this activity, they live nomadic lives – singing songs in the local vernacular as they wander.

Much of minstrels’ poetry concerns the soul’s longing for the Divine, often thinly disguised as mundane love songs. The most well-known, the Bauls, come from West Bengal. Some Bauls have become internationally famous, but most live in poverty, especially as appreciation for their music wanes. Their emotive voices are often accompanied by the playing of a simple stringed instrument like the ektara (literally ‘one star’) – one string fixed to a gourd and plucked to produce a twanging rhythmic drone. Though Bauls are known for their deep devotion and lack of material desire, they are also traditionally mysterious characters, as likely to be famous for their music as for unusual behaviour. 

Songs for the Journey

Unlike Bauls who commit their lives to sacred music, many people devote their time to singing hymns as they embark on pilgrimage. Travelling by long-distance train is an easy way to come across these pilgrims who spend most of their journey time – often days or weeks – singing songs in praise of God, and especially evoking the holy place they are setting out to visit. One example can be found in the Varkari sect – followers of bhakti saints like Namdev, Tukaram and Jnanadeva. The songs of these saints are known as abhangs and can often be heard in the street during the annual pilgrimage of the Varkari to Pandharpur. 

Some classical singers have adopted these into their repertoire, as in the power-packed rendition of Lata Mangeshkar singing Khel Mandiyala Valvanti Ghai.

Whistle while you work?

Abhangs are also one type of song traditionally sung by outdoor labourers as they perform all kinds of manual activities – from rice and tea-harvesting to fishing. As with the songs of the Bauls, they are usually written in the local language and feature repetitive melody lines and strong rhythm that gives accompaniment to the physically demanding tasks. As opposed to the reverential mood of many temple songs, these compositions often combine striking poetry with a down-to-earth attitude to the Divine. In this example of a Tamil song – Kavadi Chindu – the anticipation of Lord Krishna’s arrival in the forest is described. Other songs commonly express esoteric philosophy using simple analogies, or tell of the challenges that face the average man as he tries to live a life of spirituality and integrity in the challenging world.

Sacred Bollywood

Anywhere you go in India, you’ll most likely hear a constant soundtrack of cinema songs, playing through countless radios and televisions, spilling into the street. India is a country of passionate movie-goers, so it’s no surprise that in a country where ancient spirituality remains vibrant and relevant, sacred music also crops up in many films. These songs cover a range of religions and plot lines, but all share a common popular appeal. Some of the compositions by the massively celebrated A.R. Rahman are strongly influenced by the rich Sufi tradition.

In the next issue, we go deeper into the relationship between sacred music and entertainment. Just as it holds a natural place in films, it continues to be a source of inspiration for popular music, as well as being an inseparable aspect of traditional dance and theatre.



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