Perhaps it’s a sign of our times. For centuries, in moments of stress and sorrow, people have turned to the heavens for answers, for respite and for a little strength. I turn to my iPod.
This isn’t quite going to pan out as a belated eulogy to Steve Jobs. However, if it weren’t for Apple and the iPod (they’ve earned my lifelong loyalty just for the click wheel), I would have had to trundle through numerous visits to the music store in search of succour.
My kind of relief is very simple: it involves a tabla, a tanpura, the voice of Pandit Kumar Gandharva and the words of a weaver-turned-poet. Kabir was born almost five centuries before Pandit Gandharva and, as legend has it, crafted his earthy philosophies on the banks of the Ganges. And yet, no one quite brings alive the nirguni bhajans like Pandit Gandharva.
I am personally not a fan of bhajans or religious music. I could blame Gulshan Kumar’s Vaishnodevi phase in the early 1990s for it, but that would be the easy way out.
But the solitary intonations of Pandit Gandharva, the verses of Kabir and India’s vastly rich Bhakti tradition are quite another matter altogether. The Bhakti tradition demands another post altogether, such has been its sprawling impact not only on the social and religious fabric of India, but also its dance and music. This post is about the quiet, meditative quality of a nirguni bhajan.
Nirgun, the celebration of a formless divinity, is more than a lyrical expression of god. Nirguni bhajans extol the listeners to understand the realities of the world they live in. It’s a tradition that lives on to this day in the words of Baul singers. It is also a world that thrives on metaphors and allegories, and each is free to take his/her own meaning from it.
A moving example of this is the bhajan, Hirana Samajh Boojh. Kabir advises the deer to exercise caution while it’s grazing. A powerful line says: Tere khaal ka karenge bichauna (They will use your skin as a seat or a bed), hinting perhaps at the cruelty of humans or the fragility of life, or even our legacies that live on after we die.
My favourite, rendered beautifully by Kumar Gandharva and unmatched since, is the bhajan Ud Jaayega Hans Akela – a bhajan that talks about the solitary journey of life, its changes and one’s own deeds (Guru ki karni guru jaayega, chele ki karni chela). The song became a beautiful accompaniment to a documentary made by Dr. Jabbar Patel on the famous Marathi writer P. L. Deshpande called Pu La Vruttant. (If you find a CD of it, do let me know).
There’s a very simple reason I like this song. Whenever I listen to it and close my eyes, the only pictures in my mind are an empty, drizzle-soaked beach and the sea. It takes me to a place that instantly calms me down, to the sea – a place that I count as one of Nature’s most patient and unassuming teachers. The two are completely unrelated. But therein lies the beauty of nirgun – finding something to be thankful for in everything you see.