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A bhajan has no prescribed form, or set rules, is in free form, normally lyrical and based on melodic ragas. It belongs to a genre of music and arts that developed with the Bhakti movement. It is found in the various traditions of Hinduism but particularly in Vaishnavism, in Jainism.
Ideas from scriptures, legendary epics, the teachings of saints and loving devotion to a deity are the typical subjects of bhajans. It is usually a group event, with one or more lead singers, accompanied with music, and sometimes dancing. A bhajan may be sung in a temple, in a home, under a tree in open, near a river bank or a place of historic significance.
The saints of the Bhakti movement are credited with pioneering many forms of bhajans, starting with the South Indian bhakti pioneers, but bhajans have been widely composed anonymously and shared as a musical and arts tradition. Its genre such as Nirguni, Gorakhanathi, Vallabhapanthi, Ashtachhap, Madhura-bhakti and the traditional South Indian form Sampradya Bhajan each have their own repertoire and methods of singing.
The Sanskrit word bhajan or bhajana is derived from the root bhaj, which means "divide, share, partake, participate, to belong to". The word also connotes "attachment, devotion to, fondness for, homage, faith or love, worship, piety to something as a spiritual, religious principle or means of salvation".
In Hinduism, Bhajan and its Bhakti analog Kirtan, have roots in the ancient metric and musical traditions of the Vedic era, particularly the Samaveda. The Samaveda samhita is not meant to be read as a text, it is like a musical score sheet that must be heard.
Other late Vedic texts mention the two scholars Shilalin (IAST: Śilālin) and Krishashva (Kṛśaśva), credited to be pioneers in the studies of ancient drama, singing and dance. The art schools of Shilalin and Krishashva may have been associated with the performance of vedic rituals, which involved story telling with embedded ethical values. The vedic traditions integrated rituals with performance arts, such as a dramatic play, where not only praises to gods were recited or sung, but the dialogues were part of a dramatic representation and discussion of spiritual themes.
This body is but a guest of four days,
a house made of dirt.
On this earth your mark is made,
a symbol of your good work.
— Translated by David N. Lorenzen
The Vedas and Upanishads celebrate Nada-Brahman, where certain sounds are considered elemental, triggering emotional feelings without necessarily having a literal meaning, and this is deemed sacred, liminal experience of the primeval ultimate reality and supreme truth. This supreme truth is, states Guy Beck, considered as full of bliss and rasa (emotional taste) in the Hindu thought, and melodic sound considered a part of human spiritual experience. Devotional music genre such as Bhajan are part of a tradition that emerged from these roots.
A Bhajan in Hindu traditions is an informal, loosely structured devotional song with music in a regional language. They are found all over India and Nepal, but are particularly popular among the Vaishnavism sub-traditions such as those driven by devotion to avatars of Vishnu such as Krishna, Rama, Vitthala and Narayana (often with their consorts).. In Southern India, Bhajanais follow a tradition (Sampradaya) called the Dakshina Bharatha Sampradaya Bhajanai. This involves a tradition that has been followed for the last several centuries and includes Songs/Krithis/Lyrics from great composers all over India encompassing many Indian languages.
A Bhajan may be sung individually, or more commonly together as a choral event wherein the lyrics include religious or spiritual themes in the local language. The themes are loving devotion to a deity, legends from the Epics or the Puranas, compositions of Bhakti movement saints, or spiritual themes from Hindu scriptures. The Bhajans in many Hindu traditions are a form of congregational singing and bonding, that gives the individual an opportunity to share in the music-driven spiritual and liturgical experience as well as the community a shared sense of identity, wherein people share food, meet and reconnect. The bhajans have played a significant role in community organization in 19th and 20th century colonial era, when Indian workers were brought to distant lands such as Trinidad, Fiji and South Africa as cheap labor on plantations.
A Vaishnava Bhajan composed in 19th-century, set to Indian classical music
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Some Bhajan songs are centuries old, popular on a pan-regional basis, passed down as a community tradition, while others newly composed. Everyone in Hindu tradition is free to compose a Bhajan with whatever ideas or in praise of any deity of their wish, but since they are sung, they typically follow meters of classical Indian music, the raga and the tala to go with the musical instruments. They are sung in open air, inside temples such as those of Swaminarayan movement, in Vaishnava monasteries, during festivals or special events, and at pilgrimage centers.
Bhajan versus Kirtan in the Hindu traditions
A Bhajan is closely related to Kirtan, with both sharing common aims, subjects, musical themes and being devotional performance arts. A Bhajan is more free in form, and can be singular melody that is performed by a single singer with or without one and more musical instruments. Kirtan, in contrast, differs in being a more structured team performance, typically with a call and response musical structure, similar to an intimate conversation or gentle sharing of ideas, and it includes two or more musical instruments, with roots in the prosody principles of the Vedic era.
Many Kirtan are structured for more audience participation, where the singer calls a spiritual chant, a hymn, a mantra or a theme, the audience then responds back by repeating the chant or by chanting back a reply of their shared beliefs. A Bhajan, in contrast, is either experienced in silence or a "sing along".
Stavan is a form of popular and historically pervasive genre of devotional music in Jainism. The subject of a Stavan varies, ranging from praise of Jina, Jain religious ideas and its philosophy, in a manner similar to Bhakti Bhajans.
Jainism rejects any Creator god, but accepts protector deities and rebirth of souls as heavenly beings, and its devotional singing traditions integrate these beliefs. Stavan may include dancing and worship rituals. Known as Bhajan in north and west Indian regional languages, a Stavan is typically sung as folk melodies by groups of Jain women, and are formal part of ceremonies and celebrations within Jainism.
Nowadays Many old and new Jain Stavans are being sung and recorded by Jain singers.
The Sikh tradition places major emphasis on devotional worship to one formless God, and Bhajans are a part of this worship. A more common form of community singing is called Shabad Kirtan in Sikhism. A Shabad Kirtan is performed by professional religious musicians, wherein bani (word, hymns) from the Sikh scripture are sung to a certain raga and tala.
Modern composers and singers of Bhajans
V. D. Paluskar and V. N. Bhatkhande have combined Indian classical music with bhajan. Pandit Kumar Gandharva made famous the Nirguni Bhajans of Sant Kabir and Malwa Region. The dancer Mallika Sarabhai has produced performances based on bhajans. Abhinaya Chakravathi Sri JS Eswara Prasad Rao of Hyderabad, who is the disciple of AL Krishnamurthy Bhagavathar, Pudukkottai system, has produced performances based on Sampradaya bhajans under the title "Nitrya sankeerthnam".
Bhajans of Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism traditions, Vedic mantras and Yoga chants have been composed, published in Western musical sheet format or recorded by western singers such as Krishna Das, Deva Premal, Miten, and by various West Indies singers influenced by East Indian heritage.
The Stavan compositions and literature of the Jainism tradition are extensive, with a historic overview provided by Sri Sudhara Stavan Sangrah, traditionally preserved in "puja box" by Jain families. It is vectored text with Jain lyrics and is canonically inspired.
Kripalu Maharaj is one of the modern era bhakti leaders and bhajan-kirtan composers. He has composed eleven thousand one hundred and eleven doha (couplets) on the leela of Radha Krishn and the devotional philosophy called Radha Govind Geet; 1008 pad (songs) called Prem Ras Madira; hundreds of kirtan in the form of Yugal Shatak and Yugal Ras and twelve pad which fully describe the beauty and the decorations of Krishn, and thirteen pad which describe the beauty and the decorations of Radha Rani called Shree Krishn Dwadashi and Shree Radha Trayodashi. Renditions of Shree Maharajji's bhajans and kirtans have been recorded by well-known singers in India such as Manna Dey Anuradha Paudwal and Anup Jalota.
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