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Kirtan in Bengal

by Swami Sivananda

Glorified above all, is the chanting of

the various Names of Lord, which cleans

the mirror of Chitta; which extinguishes

the great fire of successive births

and rebirths; which operates like the

moon-beam upon the white lily of spiritual

life of bride Vidya; which swells the ocean

of bliss; which gives the chanter the

fullest enjoyment of that Divine Love at

the utterance of each word and bathes the

mind and senses in Divine Bliss.


Bengal is known as the birth-place of Sankirtan. Lord Gauranga was the first man, who pioneered the propagation of Sankirtan Yoga in Bengal, Assam and Orissa during the middle of the fifteenth century. His Kirtans are widely sung there.

There are several kinds of Kirtan in Bengal. Paalaa Kirtan, Shyama Sangit, Parvati and Nama Kirtan are the important ones. Kirtans are generally sung with accompaniments like Khol, Jhal, Vina, Pakhvaj, Mridanga and other musical instruments.

Paalaa Kirtan is the most ancient Kirtan in Bengal. They are written in verse with rhythm. Most of them deal with the life-history of Lord Krishna. They were written by Ramprasad, Chandidas, Vidyapati during the sixteenth century. Paalaa Kirtan is divided into several parts. They are: Balakanda, Yasoda-Gopal, Rasa Lila, Gopiviraha etc. The Vaishnavas sing this Kirtan in chorus on some special occasions. Khol and Jhal are the main accompaniments.

Shyama Sangita or the song of Mother Kali is the special Kirtan for the Saktas, the worshippers of Sakti. They also sing Siva Sangit. These Kirtans are sung only on special occasions.

Recitation of the Names of various Gods and Goddesses and hymns relating to them is called Nama Kirtan. They are generally sung in the evening, after Puja. Parvati Kirtan is another form of Nama Kirtan, sung in different Svaras. Particularly, it is sung in Bhairavi tune in the early morning. It is also sung in Prabhata Pheri. During Arati, they do Nritya with Khol and other musical instruments and sing Hari Bol.


The Sanskrit verb 'Krit' means praising. In the 10th Skanda of the Srimad-Bhagavata is a beautiful description of the Lord's entrance in His 'Lilabhumi' Brindavan:

Barhapeedam natavaravapuh karnayoh karnikaram

Bibhradvasah kanakakapisam vaijayanteem cha maalam

Randhran venoradharasudhaya purayan gopivrindair-

Vrindaranyam svapadaramanam pravisad-gitakritih.

The last word 'Kriti' denotes praise and from this is derived Kirtan which is now commonly known as a certain type and method of melodious singing, particularly singing Lord Krishna's Name and His Lila. Only praising the Name of the Lord and His Lila in melody for the purposes of keeping the flame of Bhakti burning in our hearts can be termed Kirtan.

Santa Tukaram of Maharashtra in one of his Abhangas has charmingly said that as the purifying waters of Jahnavi (Ganga) have come down to the mortal world from the Lord's feet so the flow of Kirtan comes out of the hearts of mortals and reaches the Lord's feet. Both these flows are purifying.

Singing about the Lord is usually known as Bhajan in most parts of India and there is nothing comparable to Kirtan singing of Bengal outside the province.

Kirtan can be classified under two heads: 1. Namakirtan and 2. Lilakirtan or Rasakirtan. Singing the Names of the Lord in melody is named Namakirtan. The main Sadhana in the nine kinds of Bhakti is Namakirtan. The influence and utility of this are highly appreciated among the Vaishnavites of Bengal and among all the religious cults of India. They think that the essence of all religions in Kaliyuga is Namasankirtan Kalau Namasankirtanat. Singing Lord Hari's Name aloud is Sankirtan. From this Prema blossoms out and a devotee forgets the existence of the outer world while he sincerely sings the Name of the Lord. This is called Avesha. A Bhakta attains Samadhi by singing the Lord's Names just as a Yogi does through Yoga Sadhana. The primary aim of Namasankirtan is to attain Prema and the main aim of Vaishnava cult is to generate this Prema. It is said that when Lord Chaitanya used to do Namasankirtan dipped in Prema thousands accompanied him.

Such singing is done according to the appropriate Ragas and Raginis of the hours of the day and night, e.g., in the morning hours in Bhairavi, in the noon in 'Bagasree,' in the evening in 'Purbi,' or 'Yaman Kalyan,' in the night in 'Behag.'

Mass singing in such style and compass when the singer and the audience both calling the Lord with tears rolling down their cheeks is characteristic of Bengali Kirtan and such examples are rare except in Indian music.

Namaskarakirtan is usually singing the Lord's Name, e.g., 'Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare; Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.' But as the Vaishnavites of Bengal believe Sri Chaitanya as an incarnation of the Lord they sometimes sing 'Sri Krishna Chaitanya Prabhu Nityananda, Hare Krishna Hare Rama Sri Radhe Govinda' or 'Nitai Gour Radhe Shyam, Hare Krishna Hare Ram.' Lord Sri Chaitanya and Nityananda deluged Bengal with Prem by Namasankirtan; hence they are known as the fathers of Sankirtan. The greatest among the teachings of Lord Chaitanya is: Satye yad dhyayato vishnum tretayam yajato makhaih; Dvapare paricharyayam kalau tad harikirtanat.

When the mind is attracted towards the Lord the heart experiences a selfless, blissful state and this is called Rati. When this Rati gets a greater hold it is termed as Prema. The devotee does not wish for Moksha because even asking for or wanting Moksha is a type of Vasana and selfishness. When Bhagavan is the only object of attainment what else can be desired? The utility of Namasankirtan is the purification of the heart and it is both the method and the goal as the Name and the named are one and the same.

The doings at different periods and in different circumstances and ways of Lord Krishna are termed Lila. Any song composed and sung on such Lila is known as Lilakirtan or Rasakirtan. Some are fond of Namasankirtan and others of Lilakirtan. It is ascribed to Lord Gauranga that Lilarasa should be tasted in the company of very intimates whereas Harinama Sankirtan should be preached and practised among general companies, lest those who are not deeply immersed in Krishna Bhakti misunderstand or misconstrue the significance of the Lord's Lila. But it is difficult to judge the attainments of general companies. If the Lord's Name gives one pleasure it is but natural. Singing Lord's qualities and about His Lilas should also give him equal pleasure. Whatever overfloods the heart wih bliss is termed Rasa. As hearing of the Lord's doings merges the heart in Ananda or Bliss, Lila Kirtan is otherwise termed Rasakirtan.

There are 64 kinds of Rasa in Kirtan. Sringara is the main Rasa divided into Vipralambha and Sambhoga and each of them is sub-divided into four which in turn are subdivided into eight each.

A Kirtan singer should not only be a good musician but also must be learned, otherwise he may unwittingly offer the audience by Rasabhasa i.e. mixing up on inappropriate Rasas in a Lila.

In the Vaishanavite literature Padavalis which are lyrical poems and songs combined concerning Lord Krishna's Lila have a very high place and generally are those which have been composed by Vaishnava Bhaktas and saintly persons like Jayadeva, Chandidas, Vidyapati, Jnanadas, Govindadas and others. In the present age Rabindranath Tagore, Sisir Kumar Ghosh have also made a gift of beautiful Padavalis; but the orthodox school of Vaishnavas in Bengal, though they admire these, do not admit these to be Rasakirtan in the real sense of the term. The excellence and sublimity of Padavalis lie in their power of attuning the mind to real Bhava which is beyond Poesy, Rhyme, Cadence or Tune. It has been said before that the Bhaktas believe that God-consciousness and God's proximity could be felt by singing Kirtan, hence the latter has a distinct and definite place in spirituality. If judged from the literary standpoint Padavalis are lyrics, from the musical viewpoint these are Kirtans in the original sense of the term as explained in the beginning of this article, and from the spiritual standard these are Bhajans of Bhagavan.

There are five primary Rasas acknowledged by the Bhaktas, over and above the usually known nine Rasas. These five are: 1. Santa (equilibrium), 2. Dasya (service), 3. Sakhya (intimacy, friendship), 4. Vatsalya (filial affection) and 5. Madhurya (love, sauve). Out of these the first one is more appropriate for the Yogis and the rest four are very dear to the Bhaktas according to taste and inclination.

Principally Padavalis are based on the Lila of Lord Krishna. His Bhajan had been in vogue from earlier times, but Lord Sri Chaitanya placed Krishna Lila on a higher pedestal. Lord Sri Chaitanya's ideal of Prema inspired many poets and they composed many Padas or poetical songs taking as their theme Gouranga Lila. These Padavalis are known as Gourachandrika. In real Kirtan first Gourachandrika has to be sung before Krishna Lila.

The life, character and teachings of Lord Sri Chaitanya are sublime, deep, uplifting and purifying. Volumes like 'Chaitanya Charitamrita,' 'Chaitanya Chandrodaya,' 'Chaitanya Bhagavata,' 'Chaitanya Mangala' testify to this. It is doubtful if anywhere in the world any religious preacher or reformer had been able to generate so much feeling or emotion as the name of Sri Chaitanya has done or is still doing among the Vaishnavites of Bengal. So Padavalis now mean lyrical songs based on the Lila of Radhakrishna as well as Gouranga.

A complete chronological history of Kirtan is not available. The old Archeological ruins of Somapur 'Bihara' in Paharpur in North Bengal is the mute evidence of the fact of the great influence of the then decaying Buddhistic religion having its stronghold in that part of the province. With the lapse of time these Buddhists took to mysterious and secret rituals and cults. The practitioners of these cults are mentioned in Vaishnava literature as Pasandi. More than about 1000 years ago Buddhist Acharyas like Luipad used to perform something similar to Kirtan. The Bhikkus and Bhikkunis used to do Kirtan in different localities. In Koi Fong Iron Temple in China, built sometime between 900 and 1280 A.D., there is a picture of Kirtan as it is practised in Bengal, an exact replica of Kirtan done in the days of Lord Sri Chaitanya. It is taken for granted that the sweet flow of Kirtan started from the time of Jayadev. It has been said before that Sri Chaitanya and Nityananda are deemed to be the creators of Sankirtan. It is said that Maharaja Gajapati Prataparudra of Puri when he heard Sankirtan, asked his chief courtier 'what music is this?' His courtier Pundit Sarvabhouma Bhattacharya explained that Lord Chaitanya had created this.

It is mentioned in Chaitanya Bhagavata that on his return from Gaya Lord Sri Chaitanya was mad after Harinam. The pupils of his Tole, religious school told him Lord, we also would like to do Kirtan with you but we do not know how to do it, please teach us. Then Lord Chaitanya sang: Haraye Namaha Krishna Yadavaya Namaha, Gopala Govinda Rama Sri Madhusudana, in accompaniment with clapping of hands. Thus began Sankirtan in India. He advised that Krishnanam is Mahamantra, and asked everyone to sing 'Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare; Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.'

Dancing to the accompaniment of musical instruments like Mridanga (a special type of drum), and Mandira (cymbals) are integral parts of Kirtan. It is the practice to begin Kirtan after worshipping Mridanga with sandalwood paste and a garland of flowers. In the state of Manipur where Vaishnavism is in vogue Kirtan starts after Arati of Mridanga (also called Khol) and Mandira (generally known as Kartal). The Kirtania or Kirtan singer is also garlanded before commencement of the function. The Kirtan singer, his party and the whole audience start Gourachandrika while standing and then everyone sits down and the subsequent portion of Kirtan is performed sitting. In a Kirtan when both the singer and the audience take to dancing enraptured, it is termed Uddanda Kirtan.

There are five schools of Kirtan: 1. The one introduced by Narottamdas, a great Vaishnava Bhakta, resident of a place called Khetri in the Pargana of Garerhat in Rajshahi, is known as 'Garanhati'. 2. In the district of Burdwan from Manoharsahi Pargana came 'Manoharsahi' introduced by Acharya Srinivas and propagated by Jnandas, Balramdas, who were contemporaries of Narottamdas. 3. From Ranihati, also in Burdwan district come 'Reneti' similarly introduced by Acharya Srinivas and subsequently popularised by Vaishnavadas and Uddhavadas. 4. From Mandaran in Midnapore district comes 'Mandarini'. 5. 'Jharkhandi' comes from Jharkand, also situated in Midnapore.

Mandarini, Reneti and Jharkhandi types of Kirtans are more or less out of use now. Garanhati school is now revived by Brajamadhuri Sangha. Manoharsahi is mostly in vogue now.

Upto the middle of the 18th century Kirtan-singing was in a flourishing state in Bengal, but with the advent of Kavigan and Pachaligan, Kirtan suffered a temporary set back in popularity. But it came to be known as Dhap. A very accomplished man by the name of Madhu Sudan Kan born in Jessore, about the middle of the 19th century, composed many Padas on Radha-Krishna Lila and used to go about singing Dhap in company with the male and female members of his family, and though not the originator of this style of Kirtan, he gave it a great push.

In the present times a type of Kirtan is sung known as Dhap Kirtan. This was usually sung by women. During the Sraaddha ceremonies when Brahmins, Pundits, learned scholars and distinguished guests are invited, such Dhap Kirtan used to be sung by some famed songstress. During the course of time, these women singers are gradually replaced by men. With the advent of men songsters the revival of high class Kirtan is slowly taking place. Names of Rasikdas, Premdas, Ganeshdas are famed but they have passed away. Another name, Ramkamal Bhattacharya hailing from Patna district, took Calcutta by storm by his great powers of Kirtan singing. He had such charm and extraordinary genius that at times where accommodation permitted a gathering of nearly 10,000, audience used to hear him singing with rapt attention in pin-drop silence.

Amongst the old schools, Advaitadas Babajee Pandit was very well-known in his time.

Places like Panchthupi, Moinadal, Sreekhanda, Navadwip, are still famous for Kirtan in Bengal.

In Navadwip every year during a function known as Dhulot, Kirtan parties from different places congregate during the Phalguni Purnimabirth anniversary of Lord Sri Gourangaand sing Kirtan. During Vaishnava festivals or anniversaries of birthdates or passing away dates of Bhaktas, Kirtan is sung congregationally at places like Santipur, Srikhanda, Jhamatpur, Katwa, Kalna, Kendudilwa, Ran Keli etc.

Kirtan sung at the commemoration ceremonies of Vaishnava Bhaktas, Acharyas and Mahapurushas is known as Suchak Kirtan. Sri Ramdas Babajee excels in this type of Kirtan. It is difficult to explain the actual spontaneous Sattvik Bhavas like tears, bliss, shivering, sweating, which manifest during and in accompaniment with his Kirtan.

There is one particular characteristic in Kirtan which is while singing Padavali Kirtan, a singer, to illustrate, to elucidate or to bring out the latent beauty or hidden meaning of the composition, can and usually does add ornamentation of his own. This is known as Akhar and this usually beautifies the singing and makes Kirtan more attractive.

This is such a vast and deep subject that it is impossible to do justice to Kirtan in such a short article like this. Only salient points have been culled from the authoritative treatise on the subject written by Rai Bahadur Khagendranath Mitra, to whom acknowledgment and thanks are conveyed herein.

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