The Art of Kīrtan, Part 1 – Introduction

The Art of Kīrtan, Part 1 – Introduction

Kīrtan is the central practice of bhakti-yoga, the spiritual path of devotion. Essentially, bhakti-yoga is anukūlyenānuśilana — an expression of affection.

Kīrtan literally means “celebration.” It is a celebration of affection.

The most important, powerful form of kīrtan is nāma-kīrtan, “celebration of a name.” We celebrate the name of the divine beloved, Śrī Krishna, by glorifying it.

Kīrtan and Art

Music is not necessary for kīrtan, which can just as easily be written or spoken as it can be sung. But music is a particularly powerful way of celebrating something, therefore kīrtan is very throughly associated with music.

One need not be a musician to perform kīrtan, one simply needs to have affection that can be expressed in celebration of the beloved, Śrī Krishna. It is not necessary to be “good” at kīrtan, it is necessary to have love for Krishna.

However, the nature of love is that it is beauty. Love is inherently beautiful. Therefore when one celebrates the name of Krishna, it will automatically be beautiful. To make an effort to increase the beauty of ones celebration of Krishna’s name is itself an act of love.

Imitations of beauty will ring as hollow as high heels in a lonely hallway. Beauty comes naturally to one who has true love. And one with true love naturally wants to be as beautiful as possible for the beloved.

Music of Kīrtan

Therefore it is an act of love to learn a bit about the basics of music, and employ that in one’s nāma-kīrtan. The most sophisticated form of music in human history is Indian music. By comparison, western music, even in its high classical form, is very simple and rudimentary. Indian music, being so sophisticated, allows more freedom of expression and has more emotive power than any other system of music. For this reason, we should prefer to learn Indian music theory to make our Kīrtan more beautiful.

Another reason to prefer Indian music is that it is more sattvika. Because it is so sophisticated and subtle it evokes more clarity and pensivity — the character of sattva. Western music theory, by comparison, is inspiring and stirring — the character of rajas. Items of the sattva nature are more amenable to spiritual application.

Another reason to prefer Indian music is that Krishna reveals his personality through the ancient Indian culture. Therefore the ancient Indian culture has a more direct link to the divine svarūpa than any other form of human culture. Since the whole aim of kīrtan is to become closer with Krishna, it makes sense to evoke the musical culture most closely associated with his dhāma-svarūpa.

Simple Stuff

Although the lyrics of Jayadeva’s Gīta-Govinda and similar outstanding poems have been beautifully set to elaborately sophisticated classical Indian music and dance, for the most part nāma-kīrtan uses “folk” principles, relatively simplified aspects of the classical cannon that everyday people can more easily follow and perform.

I will particularly explain the Gauḍiya approach to kīrtan, which is to say the North East (Bengal-area) approach to it.

Basics of Indian Music

Like all forms of music, Indian music has two primary components: rhythm (tāla) and melody (rāga). In the next set of installments in this series I will explain the basics of tāla. After that I will explain the basics of rāga.

When explaining tāla I will first explain how to clap it. Then I will explain how to express a tāla with cymbals (karatāla), and finally I will show some simple beats to go with the simple tāla on the mṛdāṅga drum.

Continued in Part II

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