What Makes Kirtan Kirtan?

Anandamayi Ma singing
April 17, 2019

The first kirtan I ever attended was a Krishna Das event at a yoga studio in San Francisco sometime during the mid-1990s. About 150 of us were packed shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor of the studio. Krishna Das led kirtan for nearly three hours.

But I was not singing kirtan. Yes, my mouth was moving, and appropriate sounds were coming out, but I was in some kind of weird competitive bhav.

I sat there, alternately self-conscious and prideful; physically uncomfortable, but trying to appear relaxed; and mentally running criticisms of whatever I could dig up to feel critical about.

Obviously, that was not kirtan. At least not for me.

Questioning Kirtan

Recently, some folks on Facebook had a discussion about kirtan. Some people criticized. Some people questioned.

Is the musically simplified kirtan we mostly produce here in the U.S. inherently boring?

Is more musically sophisticated, traditional kirtan inherently better?

Does the advent of the “kirtan concert” spell doom for real kirtan?

Does any of this matter if devotion is present?

The Facebook discussion reminded me that I have never shared how I finally got my proverbial head out of my butt and learned about the nature of kirtan.

Stuck on Kirtan

I did grow to love Krishna Das. And after a time, kirtan and other devotional music became pretty much all I listened to.

But my experience of kirtan was mostly derived from listening to recordings. It was the same every time.

At a subsequent Krishna Das concert, KD himself complained that no matter what he sang, the audience sang the recorded version back to him.

His fans had listened to the kirtans so often, they’d gotten stuck and couldn’t hear the nuances in the live performance.

KD was not a happy kirtan wallah.

Getting into the Zone

My Guru, Anandamayi Ma, also led kirtan. There are many recordings of her singing.

Ma often sang very simple kirtans— a few words repeated hundreds of times. Jai Bhagavan… Jayo Bhagavan… He Bhagavan.

She would sing these simple words accompanied by piano or harmonium or just with her naked voice.

Her voice was beautiful, but she was not professionally trained.

Ma’s kirtan is magical, in part because she sings every repetition a little differently. No matter how many times she utters “Jai Bhagavan” or “Ma Durga,” it sounds fresh and new.

There is no way you could learn one of Ma’s kirtans and get stuck. They just go on, modulating and modulating in a dancelike and utterly spontaneous way.

Ma’s kirtan invites us to enter the zone: a magical zone of rapt improvisation. Crossing the threshold requires total listening, receptivity, and responsivity. It invites us to enter the natural state of God’s play.

There are forms, yet there are infinite permutations. All of life is just like this.

Kirtan teaches us the truth of our existence: we are in a total improvisational call and response circumstance in every moment.

When we listen and respond to the actual call, we are in the zone. When we respond in a rote, conditioned way, our experience becomes much more limited. Kirtan is a practice that teaches us how to live in the zone always.

Kirtan=Devotional ImprovisationShambhavi singing kirtan

Kirtan calls us to become immersed in living presence. We are called to respond spontaneously in a way that circumvents conditioning, intellect, or witnessing.

Devotion is expressed through the quality of the loving attention we give to the utterances of the names.

Then we answer in a way that embodies our glad and playful meeting here in the field of manifest life. Without the one appearing as many, it would not be possible to experience this beautiful, devotional play of call and response.

At the same time, we are at least somewhat relieved of the burden of separation. The play of call and response, entered into fully, opens the heart of wisdom and allows us to discover natural unity.

Kirtan off the Hook

Ma taught me that, simple or complex, kirtan partakes of and teaches us about infinity, about our own infinite potential for self-expression, and about the devotion that is woven into every aspect of our world.

Some years ago, inspired by Ma, I started learning how to lead kirtan.

Fast forward to now, and I still pretty much suck at harmonium. It’s hard for me to sing spontaneously while playing. My voice can do it, but my fingers cannot.

So I sometimes sing without accompaniment or while playing tanpura or ektara. These are drone instruments that afford me more opportunity to enter into the zone of devotional improvisation.

These days, now and then, I manage to actually play kirtan.