Devotional Music

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India is a land of diverse faiths and beliefs and is bound by a common thread of music, which is an essential constituent of most religious practices. In the Vedic period (3000-1500 B.C.), music was solely ritualistic. Some of the earlier forms of the Indian Classical music like ‘Prabandh Sangeet’ and ‘Dhruvapada’ were all devotional in character. Gradually other forms of devotional music like ‘bhajans’, ‘kirtans’, ‘shabads’ and ‘qawwalis’ came into being.



Bhajans are a popular form of devotional singing prevalent in North India, which owe their origin to the Bhakti Movement. The lyrics are set to simple melodies, generally in one or more ragas. Bhajans are usually sung in groups. Stories and episodes from the ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ are popular themes for bhajans. Bhajan singing is usually accompanied by musical instruments like ‘jhanj’, ‘manjira’, ‘daphli’, ‘dholak’ and ‘chimta’. Originally bhajans were sung only in temples or at homes and their concert appearance is comparatively a recent phenomenon, traceable to the early 20th century. Meera Bai, Kabir, Surdas, Tulsidas, Guru Nanak and Narsi Mehta are some of the most significant names in bhajan singing. More recently, V. D. Paluskar and D. V. Paluskar have popularised this form. Sharma Bandhu, Purushotam Jalota and Anup Jalota are renowned contemporary bhajan singers.



Shabads are devotional songs of the Sikhs sung in gurdwaras on religious occasions. Shabad originated as a musical composition around the 17th century A.D. Guru Nanak and his disciple Mardana are credited with the development and popularity of shabad. Shabads are sung to the accompaniment of harmonium, tabla and often ‘dholak’ and ‘chimta’. Today, three distinct styles exist in shabad singing. They are raga-based shabads, traditional shabads as mentioned in the Adi Granth and those based on lighter tunes. Besides the shabads, there are twenty two ‘vars’ or ballads, which are mentioned in the Guru Granth Sahib. The Singh Bandhu – Tejpal Singh, Surinder Singh and Bhai Santa Singh are among leading shabad singers.


Qawwali is a devotional form of music, whose lyrics are in the praise of Allah, Prophet Mohammad and other renowned Islamic personalities and Sufi saints. It is written in Persian, Urdu and Hindi and is composed in a specific ‘raga’. Qawwali is usually sung in a group, with one or two lead singers. Originally it was sung to the beat of the ‘daff’ but now dholak, tabla, manjira and harmonium are the common accompanied instruments. Several theories exist for the evolution of qawwalis in India. According to one, qawwali evolved from ‘qaul’, a form of vocal music similar to the ‘tarana’. Amir Khusro is believed to have incorporated meaningful words into the ‘qaul’, which over a period of time developed into qawwali. According to another belief, qawwali originated in Persia in the 10th century A.D. with the emergence of the Chisti order of Sufism and was brought to India in the 12th century. Habib Painter, Jani Babu, the Sabri brothers, Aziz Nazaan, Aziz Mian, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Aziz Warisi are important names in qawwali singing in the Indian Sub-continent. 


Kirtan is an ancient folk tradition of musical meditation dating back to the 15th century Bhakti Movement. Kirtans were transformed into song and dance congregations by Chaitanya (15-16th century A.D.), drawing inspiration from Jayadeva’s ‘Geet Govinda’. Kirtans are of two types: ‘NamaKirtana’ and ‘Lila-Kirtana’. The first involves constant uttering of the name and singing of the glory of God, while the second describes the various anecdotes of the Radha-Krishna love. The singing of Kirtans is accompanied by musical instruments like mridangam and cymbals. Kirtan singing is popular in West Bengal. Agnideva Prabhu, Vishnujana Maharaj, Lokanatha Swami and Aditi Dukhaha Prabhu are some of the leading exponents of Kirtan singing.


These are devotional songs typical of Maharashtra sung in praise of Lord Krishna, who is also referred as ‘Vittala’ and ‘Vithoba’ in this state. These were popularised by renowned saints like Gnaneshwar (13th century A.D.), Eknath (16th century A.D.) and Tukaram (16-17th century A.D.). K.Rajagopal Bhagavathar, Kalyani Margabanthu, Sundar Bhagavathar and K.Gopi Bhagavathar are some of the contemporary ‘abhang’ singers.


These are devotional hymns sung by Oduyars and others in South India.

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