Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Paying for Kirtan

Editors note: an article reproduced from 'Elephant' at Interesting point. First time I have heard a kirtan leader being referred to as a wallah, but they have been called worse.

Paying to Pray: Why Kirtan should be free, by Matthew Gindin

I recently saw an ad for a kirtan.
Cost to attend: $25.
This bothered me.

Kirtan is a communal spiritual practice which began showing up in earnest in North American settings in the 1960s through the activities of Srila Prabhupada, the guru of the Hare Krishna movement.

In the ’70s it spread further through the growth of American ashrams and through students of Neem Karoli Baba like Ram Das, Bhagavan Das and Krishna Das.
In the last 20 years, devotees of Hatha Yoga have taken it up as the soundtrack to yoga classes (although that trend seems to be passing in favor of pop music in many places).

What is Kirtan?

Kirtan is a devotional practice central to Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion) in the Hindu and Sikh religions. It was popularized in Hinduism by Chaitanha Mahaprabhu (1486-1534) and in Sikh tradition by its founder Guru Nanak (1469-1539).

In essence, kirtan consists of singing names of God. This beautiful group practice is usually led by a kirtan wallah. The wallah sings out a name, often accompanying himself on a simple instrument while playing the melody of the mantra being chanted. The wallah then repeats the melody on the instrument without chanting, and the others present sing the holy words back.

The wallah is free to creatively vary the melody and to speed up or slow down. Everyone enters into a kind of joyful contemplative ecstasy together, drawing closer and closer to God in all Her beauty.
God might be experienced in the form of Krishna, or Lakshmi, or Shiva, or Ekomkar, or Satnam, or all of the above, in any given session. The session might last for hours. It might last all night.
Usually there is not just one wallah; people take turns freely.

And you know what? No one is charged to attend.

You know what else? The wallah is not seen as a performer. The wallah is not a rock star. The wallah is just the chant leader.

Of course, some wallahs sing better than others, and some are more popular. But that doesn’t make them, in the public conception, artists or performers.
I remember a Kirtan at Shivananda Ashram in Val Morin, Quebec. One of the Swamis began to lead, choosing a certain mantra and melody. The mike was then passed through the crowd to people who signaled they would like to lead a chant.

Two women lead, one after the other, offering haunting traditional melodies.
Finally, the mike came to an Ayurvedic doctor from South India who was visiting the Ashram.
He yelled, “Rama bol!” (Praise God!). He then led the kirtan with such passion and artistry that he had a room of 100 people clapping, drumming, and dancing in ecstasy within moments.
All of us together faced the puja (shrine) for worship (except the swami). I couldn’t see the good doctor’s face, nor did I ever learn his name.

Jump forward a few years. I have been to several attempts at Western kirtan led by Westerners and usually been disappointed (though not always).

The reason is simple: generally people don’t know what they are doing.

How could they? They don’t know the mantras; they don’t know the melodies. They’re struggling just to remember that when the wallah sings, you are quiet; and when the wallah is quiet, you sing.
More perniciously, however, people are confused about some fundamental things.
Whereas at Indian kirtans most people have their eyes closed, at Western kirtans, most eyes are fixed on the wallah or on each other or perhaps on those who inevitably rise up and dance sinuously around the edges of the crowd like some cross between a Christian revival meeting and a belly dancing convention.

People care what their voices sound like. This is not generally true in a traditional setting, as anyone who has been to a down-home Indian kirtan can testify. Out-of-tune wailing is common, as it should be.

Out-of-tune wailing should be common, because kirtan is about God, not us. Of course, we should sing with beauty and artistry if we can. Fundamentally, what we are doing is not about that. It is about praising the divine, getting close to the sacred and leaving behind our egos and worldly relationships for a short while to soar into the heart of the Self, the loving arms of the Mother of all things. It’s about dancing to the sounds of Krishna’s flute, not showing off our own riffs or the sway of our hips.

All of which brings me to my point.

When kirtan is led by a certain person, or group of people, who charge others to attend, a number of things inevitably follow:

First of all, the entire event is reframed as an experience that certain people are, at bottom, purchasing from other people. The sellers are now responsible for creating an experience for the buyers, which means that they need to be performers and artists.

People will attend the kirtan and feel it was, or wasn’t worth their $25. They will discuss the wallah and his voice or her style. This in itself automatically shifts the whole activity away from being a humble offering to God and a shared communal feast of Her love.

Most people’s attention will be on the wallah instead of the Goddess, and they will expect the wallah to create the experience for them. This is likely to discourage, not encourage, the hard work of learning the mantras and melodies.

Since performance is accentuated, people are likely to feel that they need to sing well. This will lead people to focus on the quality of their own singing with all the attendant self-consciousness, shyness, self- reproach and/or egotism. All of which goes exactly in the opposite direction of kirtan, which is about becoming so absorbed in the singing that you forget yourself and dissolve in the ocean of divine love. Or at least come a little closer to that.

Lastly, the most important problem.
If kirtan is kirtan, then it is about a bunch of people getting together to sing to the Divine. Period.
If there is a charge to attend, then some people will not come. Who? The poorest among us, of course—single mothers, low-income families, students, people who thought they could make a living teaching yoga. You know.

How does this make sense?

For Shri Chaitanya and Guru Nanak the great popularizers of kirtan, it was all about throwing open the way to the divine to everyone.

In India the bhakti movement, which transmitted kirtan to our day, was known for transcending caste barriers and including poor servants, women, and even outcasts.
Is this trend of inclusion something we want to reverse here in the West?
Some may object with practical concerns.
Some may ask, “How will we rent out the hall?”
My answer, “Don’t rent out a hall. Find a church, temple, house, yoga studio, or field that is free.”
“We can’t find one big enough,” you say.
Good for you. My suggestion, then, is to find a venue which will allow the event to function on a donation basis. I guarantee you can find such a venue.
If you do this, please do not post a “suggested donation.” That is not a donation. That is a fee.
I have even seen, recently, a poster which listed a “required donation.” Kali save us from this nonsense. A required donation, people, is a fee.

A donation is voluntary and is not set before hand. Got that? Great.

When events are free and are co-created, then people need to invest themselves to make them work. When people invest themselves, they find value in what they are doing. They learn. They grow.
What about Krishna Das, Wah!, Snatam Kaur and other teachers who popularized kirtan in the West and charge for their concerts?

I respect all of the above and have benefited from their teachings and music. I do think, however, that they have made a mistake in spear-heading the professionalization and commercialization of kirtan in the West.

In its original context, kirtan was culturally subversive and arose out of communal relationships of equality and cooperation. This is sometimes true in its Western context as well, thankfully, especially in ashrams, gurdwaras and temples.

The challenge we face, however, is the increasing invasion of kirtan by the capitalist ethos, even among those whose intentions are good.

The “ethics” of our market culture are so pervasive that we sometimes reproduce them even when we have no intention to do so, and without realizing it- even in the midst of supposedly “spiritual” activities.  The only remedies are dialogue, education, resistance, and re-imagination.

Matthew GindinMatthew Gindin, R.Ac., is an acupuncturist, ayurvedic counselor, meditation, qigong and yoga teacher living in Vancouver, BC. He began teaching meditation and yoga after living as a Buddhist monastic for three years. He regularly lectures on yoga philosophy, Buddhist psychology, holistic medicine, and Jewish spirituality. Being curious and perhaps a little too thoughtful, Matthew has explored and practiced neo-shamanism, tantric yoga, all of the major schools of Buddhism and Daoism. His core spiritual commitments are to the contemplative life, positive action in the world, and his home tradition of Judaism whose two core demands, “love God” and “love people” are what he tries to live up to. In addition to his professional site, Matthew blogs at Blue Waters, Blue Mountains and Talis in Wonderland.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Some images from our Summer Kirtan

Chaitanya Lila, from Coventry leading Kirtan

Nama Rasa, from the USA leads us in chant. Two weeks later he was married in a ceremony resounding with kirtan.

Kishori Jani, a kirtan leader from Leicester

Nadiya Mani adds her soulful flute

A section of the sanga of chanters who attended.


Kirtan Krishna, who attended in this pleasing mango-wood murti

Saturday, 18 May 2013

May Kirtan in Oxford

Amala at our 6-hour Kirtan last year, Nadiya is in the background - but not since their marriage.

As the trees find their gloves of green and bluer skies herald warmer days we are very happy to welcome Nadiya and Amala Darling to lead us in chant. Nadiya and Amala have been chanting all their lives and, from their marriage in England last year set off on a world-wide kirtan tour. Well, the tour has brought them to erudite Oxford where we will learn them proper.

Both are noted singers and musicians, having studied kirtan here, in the US, and in India. We look forward to their subtle and devotional mood, and are very enthused to invite you all to experience an afternoon with these excellent chanters, the Darlings.
Sunday 19th May, 4pm - 6pm, Friends Meeting House, 43 St. Giles, Oxford, OX1 3LW

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Kirtan Festival - June 30th

We are  pleased to announce that we will host a Kirtan Festival - six hours of sacred chants, mantras and melody  - on Sunday 30th of June, at Gosford Hill School, Kidlington. Encouraged by the success of last year's event , the Bahl, Desai and Ward families are planning and sponsoring this wonderful opportunity for chanting together, including some of the best of Britain's kirtan leaders, a vegetarian lunch and agreeable company!

Please come and contribute your presence and your voice.  Doors open at 9.30 a.m. and you are welcome to drop in for an hour or six - at your convenience!

The festival and lunch are free of charge, though you are welcome to donate if you wish.

You can visit our Facebook event page for more details at:

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Podcast 12 - Chakrini sings the Mahamantra

Our third offering from Chakrini, recorded in 2011, as she chants the mahamantra. Our thanks to Vasu for his recording skills.

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Saturday, 16 March 2013

Podcast 11 - Jahnavi Leading Kirtan

The second session recorded at our February 2013 kirtan, led by Jahnavi Harrison. Pitch perfect and wonderful if present on the day, or listening afterwards.

To download this podcast on iTunes, search for 'oxford kirtan'. 

Jahnavi chanting in Oxford, March 2011

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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Ananda in Oxford for Daffodil Kirtan

We are delighted to invite you to a kirtan with Ananda Monet, our Russian born friend with the beautiful voice. This is also our Daffodil Kirtan, our annual homage to the yellow trumpets of Spring. Feel free to bring a bunch of these delightful flowers to add to the bright display Syama and her helpers will arrange on the day.

Sunday, 17th March, 16:00 - 18:00, the Friends Meeting House, 43 St. Giles, Oxford, OX1 3LW. Enquiries:

As advance notice, our next kirtan will take place at the same time and place, on Sunday, 21st of April. We look forward to chanting with you in the company of Daffodils this Sunday.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Podcast 10 - Jahnavi Harrison leads the Mahamantra

Recorded at our February kirtan this year, a mere few weeks ago, we are very happy to present a kirtan from Jahnavi, who has regularly visited kirtans since 2007. We have had a spectacular lack of success recording her kirtans in Oxford and are indebted to Vasudeva who came all the way from East London to be our technical wizard at this session.

Jahnavi in Oxford in 2008

I found this write-up on Jahnavi on the web, where she is highly praised by two of the giants of the US kirtan circuit:

"Jahnavi Harrison was born and raised in a family of English bhakti yogis at Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire. She is a multi disciplinary artist, trained in Western classical violin, South Indian dance (Bharatanatyam) and Carnatic music, as well as writing and visual arts. She aims to practise and share the rich culture of bhakti yoga as taught to her parents by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Since 2009 she has been travelling internationally with sacred music bands 'Gaura Vani and As Kindred Spirits' and 'Sita and the Hanumen', and regularly collaborates with kirtan artists like Krishna Das, Shyam Das, Wah!, Shantala and Jai Uttal and Shiva Rea. She frequently features articles on bhakti yoga and the arts for publications like Pulse magazine, Elephant Journal, as well as her own blog - 'The Little Conch'. She offers workshops in mantra music, harmonium and sacred movement and currently helps to share kirtan with a broad range of Londoners through the Kirtan London project.

‘When she sings and plays one feels that one is eavesdropping on the music of the Gods. She needs no recommendation, one only has to have ears to hear her and one knows immediately that we are in the presence of grace.’ - Krishna Das

‘Jahnavi Harrison is a being of total devotion. Listen to her sing and let the doors of your heart fly open.’- Jai Uttal

For a glimpse on YouTube see:

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Sunday, 24 February 2013

Podcast 009 - Chakrini sings Om Namo Bhagavate

Chakrini released her first kirtan recording when she was just fifteen years old, on cassette tape in those days. Since that time, and a number of albums later, she has been recognised as an important voice in the kirtan community.

In this podcast we hear Chakrini sing Om Namo Bhagavate, in Oxford, in 2011. Visit her website for more

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Podcast 008 - Rasasthali sings the Maha Mantra

This is a recording of Rasasthali Devi singing the maha mantra at an Oxford kirtan in 2009.  Rasasthali, an Oxford DPhil student at the time, was a regular kirtan leader in Oxford. She is an accomplished musician and her tunes often hinted at her Polish origins.

She gained her doctorate in Oxford and moved, with her husband to the great state of Mississippi, USA, where they are both in University employment. They have expanded the population of the world with the birth of their baby boy. Happy chanting to them all.

Rasasthali at one of our Oxford kirtans in 2008

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Friday, 8 February 2013

Beat the Winter Blues! February Kirtan

We are joyfully anticipating our February kirtan  with Jahnavi Harrison.  Jahnavi belongs to a family of talented kirtaniyas, and some of you will remember her sister Tulasi who led our December session.  Jahnavi is well-known, both to our regulars here in Oxford, and in countries all over the world, for her heart-felt singing and inspired violin accompaniment.  As she is so much in demand and is never in the country for long, we are honoured to have engaged her and hope you can join us for chanting on 17th February.

If you like chanting and live in or near London, you may be interested in Kirtan London, of which Jahnavi is a founding member.  There are regular and vibrant kirtan programmes taking place there, including a whole day of chanting coming up on 16th February.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

A New Year for Chanting

We wish you a thoughtful and good year, filled with the challenges we need to grow, and the happiness we need to get up in the morning.

As our image shows how we can sing and dance our way through this year, in ecstasy, or we can crawl through it painfully. Every day of this year we have the choice, and remember chanting nurtures dancing. So, happy chanting to one and all, and we look forward to meeting you at an Oxford Kirtan soon.

And, By the way, the fact that we are now in 2013 - thirteen being a number which is often a cause for concern - may be auspicious, as thirteen is a lucky number in many Eastern traditions. Being always reminded these days how we live in a global community we can thus reap the benefit.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Podcast 007 - Tulasi sings 'Krishna He'

Tulasi Harison sings 'Krishna He' at our December Kirtan. Just the chant to ring in the new year. Happy 2013 everyone, and may you be blessed with auspicious sounds to hear, peace in your hearts, inspired thoughts, and action that pleases everyone..

Tulasi chanting in Oxford, May 2011

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Sunday, 23 December 2012

Podcast 006 - Vrindavan Kirtan

This kirtan podcast was recorded last week at our monthly kirtan at the Friends Meeting House. Our kirtan leader was Krishna-ksetra, a renowned musician and singer. The style of this short but very jolly piece is that of Vrindavan, the birth place of Krishna, in North India. It has a lively and spontaneous mood, engaging the emotions in its pace and peace.

 Remember you can subscribe to these podcasts by filling your email address into the box in the side, clicking the RSS button, or going into itunes and searching for 'Oxford Kirtan'.

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