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India is a land of diverse faiths and beliefs and is bound by a common thread of music, which is an essential constituent of most religious practices. In the Vedic period (3000-1500 BC), music was solely ritualistic. Some of the major earlier forms of Indian Classical music like Prabandh Sangeet and Dhruvapada were all devotional in character. Gradually other forms of devotional music like bhajans, kirtans, shahbads and qawwalis came into being.



These are devotional songs typical of Maharashtra.  These were popularised by renowned saints like Gnaneshwar (13 AD), Eknath (16 AD) and Tukaram (16-17 AD).



Bhajans owe their origin to the Bhakti Movement. The word bhajan is derived from bhaj which means ‘to serve’ in Sanskrit. Bhajan is a popular form of devotional singing prevalent in north India. It is usually sung in temples in praise of god or is addressed as a plea to him. The lyrics are set to simple melodies, generally in one or more ragas. Bhajans are usually sung in groups. There is a lead singer who sings the first line or stanza and is followed by the choir. The compositions are usually based on Shanta Rasa. Stories and episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are popular themes for bhajans, as are the episodes from the lives of Lord Rama, Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva. Bhajan singing is usually accompanied by musical instruments like jhanj, manjira, daphli, dholak and chimta. Originally bhajans were sung only in temples or at homes and their concert appearance is a comparatively recent phenomenon, traceable to the early 20th century.  Meera Bai, Kabir, Surdas, Tulsidas, Guru Nanak and Narsi Mehta are some of the most significant names in bhajan singing. More recently, V. D. Paluskar and D. V. Paluskar have worked greatly towards the development of this form. Sharma Bandhu, Purushotam Jalota and Anup Jalota are a few contemporary bhajan singers.




These are the songs sung mainly by the East Bengal boatmen while boating on the rivers.



Kirtan is another type of folk music usually sung by the Vaishnavas and are based on the love stories of Krishna and Radha. It is prevalent in Bengal. Kirtans were transformed into song and dance congregations by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (15-16th Century AD), drawing inspiration from Jayadeva's Geet Govinda.  Kirtans are of two types: Nama-Kirtana and Lila-Kirtana. The first involves constant uttering of the name and singing of the glory of God, while the second describes the various anecdotes of the Radha-Krishna love. It is customary not to begin a Kirtan without paying due obeisance to Chaitanya in the form of an appropriate Gaurachandrika or event in the life of Chaitanya.  The singing of Kirtans is accompanied by musical instruments like mridanga and cymbals.



Qawwali is a devotional form of music, prevalent among the sufis. The lyrics are in praise of Allah, Prophet Mohammad, members of Prophet's family or renowned Sufi saints. It is written in Persian, Urdu and Hindi and is composed in a specific raga. Qawwali is usually sung in a group, with one or two lead singers. Originally it was sung to the beat of the daff. However, now the Qawwali singing is accompanied by the dholak, tabla, manjira and the harmonium. Traditionally, qawwali is performed outside the shrines of Sufi saints on their birth or death anniversaries. Several theories exist for the evolution of Qawwalis in India. According to one, qawwali evolved from qaul, a form of vocal music similar to the tarana. Amir Khusro (1254-1325) is believed to have incorporated meaningful words into the qaul, which over a period of time developed into qawwali. According to another belief, qawwali originated in Persia in the 10th century AD with the emergence of the Chisti order of Sufism. It was brought to India in the 12th century.  The Sabri brothers, Aziz Nazaan, Aziz Mian, Late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Late Aziz Warisi are important names in qawwali singing in the Indian sub-continent.



Shabads are devotional songs of the Sikhs sung in gurdwaras on religious occasions. They are ascribed to Sikh gurus and many Bhakti saint-poets. Shabad originated as a musical composition around the 17th century AD. Guru Nanak and his disciple Mardana are credited with the development and popularity of shabad. Guru Nanak traveled all over India along with his rabab-carrying companion Mardana, to spread the message of love. Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru of the Sikhs, compiled his teachings into the Adi Granth Sahib. Shabads are sung to the accompaniment of the harmonium, tabla and often the dholak and chimta. Today, three distinct styles exist in shabad singing. They are raga-based shabads, traditional shabads as mentioned in the Adi Granth and those based on lighter tunes. The Singh Bandhu are today the most eminent shabad singers. D.V.Paluskar and Vinayak Rao Patvardhan also sang shabads.


These are the devotional hymns sung by Oduyars and others in South India.


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