With roots in the Vedic anukirtana tradition, a kirtan is a call-and-response style song or chant, set to music, wherein multiple singers recite or describe a legend, or express loving devotion to a deity, or discuss spiritual ideas. It may include dancing or direct expression of bhavas (emotive states) by the singer. Many kirtan performances are structured to engage the audience where they either repeat the chant, or reply to the call of the singer.
A person performing kirtan is known as a kirtankara (or kirtankar). A Kirtan performance includes an accompaniment of regionally popular musical instruments, such as the harmonium, the veena or ektara(forms of string instruments), the tabla (one-sided drums), the mrdanga or pakhawaj (two-sided drum), flute (forms of woodwind instruments), and karatalas or talas (cymbals). It is a major practice in Hinduism, Vaisnava devotionalism, Sikhism, the Sant traditions and some forms of Buddhism, as well as other religious groups. Kirtan is sometimes accompanied by story-telling and acting. Texts typically cover religious, mythological or social subjects.
Etymology and nomenclature
kirtan (कीर्तन) has Vedic roots and it means “telling, narrating, describing, enumerating, reporting”. The term is found as Anukirtan (or Anukrti, Anukarana, literally a “re-telling”) in the context of Yajna, wherein team recitations of dialogue-style and question-answer riddle hymns were part of the ritual or celebratory dramatic performance. The Sanskrit verses in chapter 13.2 of Shatapatha Brahmana (~800–700 BCE), for example, are written in the form of a riddle play between two actors.
The Vedic sacrifice (yajna) is presented as a kind of drama, with its actors, its dialogues, its portion to be set to music, its interludes, and its climaxes.— Louis Renou, Vedic India
The root of kirtan is kirt (Sanskrit: कीर्त्). The root is found in the Samhitas, the Brahmanas and other Vedic literature, as well as the Vedanga and Sutras literature. Kirt, according to Monier-Williams contextually means, “to mention, make mention of, tell, name, call, recite, repeat, relate, declare, communicate, commemorate, celebrate, praise, glorify”.
kirtan, sometimes referred to as sankirtana (literally, “collective performance”), is a call-and-response chanting or musical conversation, a genre of religious performance arts that developed during India’s bhakti devotional traditions. However, it is a heterogeneous practice that varies regionally according to Christian Novetzke, and includes varying mixture of different musical instruments, dance, oration, theatre, audience participation and moral narration. In Maharashtra for example, states Novetzke, a kirtan is a call-and-response style performance, ranging from devotional dancing and singing by a lead singer and audience, to an “intricate scholarly treatise, a social commentary or a philosophical/linguistic exposition”, that includes narration, allegory, humor, erudition and entertainment – all an aesthetic part of ranga (beauty, color) of the kirtana.
Kirtan is locally known as Abhang, Samaj Gayan, Haveli Sangeet, Vishnupad, Harikatha. The Vaishnava temples and monasteries of Hinduism in Assam and northeastern, called Satra, have a large worship hall named Kirtan ghar – a name derived from their being used for congregational singing and performance arts.
In regional languages, Kirtana is scripted as Bengali: কীর্তন; Nepali & Hindi: कीर्तन; Kannada: ಕೀರ್ತನೆ; Marathi: कीर्तन; Punjabi: ਕੀਰਤਨ; Tamil: கீர்த்தனை; Telugu: కీర్తన.
Kirtan is often practiced as a kind of theatrical folk song with call-and-response chanting or antiphon. The ancient sage Narada revered as a musical genius, is called a kirtankar (singer of kirtan) in the Padma Purana. The famous story of Prahlada in the Avatara Katha mentions kirtan as one of nine forms of worship, called the nava vidha bhakti along with shravanam (listening), smaranam (remembrance), pada sevanam (service), archanam(offering), vandanam (obeisance), dasyam (servitude), sakhyam (friendship) and atmanivedanam (surrender). The so-called Naradiya Kirtan divides kirtan into five parts: naman (prayers), purvaranga (spiritual lesson based on old epics), chanting, katha or akhyan (exegesis) and a final prayer for universal welfare.
The Marathi Varkari saint Namdev (c. 1270–1350) used the kirtan form of singing to praise the glory of god Vithoba, an avatar of Vishnu. Marathi kirtan is typically performed by one or two main performers, called kirtankar, accompanied by harmonium and tabla. It involves singing, acting, dancing, and story-telling. The Naradiya Kirtan popular in Maharashtra is performed by a single Kirtankar, and contains the poetry of saints of Maharashtra such as Dnyaneshwar, Eknath, Namdev and Tukaram.Learned poets from 17th and 18th century such as Shridhar, Mahipati, Moropant contributed to the development of this form of kirtan.’ ‘Jugalbandi Kirtan is performed by two persons, allowing question-answer, dialogue and debate. Performance requires skill in music, dance, comedy, oratory, debate, memory, general knowledge and Sanskrit literature. Training takes place at the Kirtan Kul in Sangli, the Akhil Bharatiya Kirtan Sanstha in Dadar, Mumbai, the Narad Mandir at Sadashiv Peth, Pune and the Kalidas Mahavidyalay in Ramtek, Nagpur as well as at smaller schools in Goa, Beed and Ujjain.
In Andhra Pradesh,the compositions of Tallapaka Annamacharya, a 14th-century mystic, represent the earliest known music called sankirtana. He wrote in praise of Lord Venkateswara, the deity of Seven Hills in Tirumala, where unbroken worship has been offered for over twelve centuries at the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple.
Annamcharya is believed to be the incarnation of Lord Venkateswara’s sword. During his long and prolific career, he reputedly composed and sang 32,000 Sankirtanas and 12 Shatakas (sets of hundred verses). His works were in Telugu and Sanskrit.
Bhajan versus Kirtan
A Kirtan and a Bhajan are closely related, with both sharing common aims, subjects, musical themes and being devotional performance arts. A Bhajan is more free form, can be singular melody that is performed by a single singer with or without one and more musical instruments. Kirtan, in contrast, differs in being a more structured team performance, typically with a call and response musical structure, similar to an intimate conversation or gentle sharing of ideas, and it includes two or more musical instruments, with roots in the prosody principles of the Vedic era.
Many Kirtan are structured for more audience participation, where the singer calls a spiritual chant, a hymn or a devotional theme such as from Vaishnavism, the audience then responds back by repeating the chant or by chanting back a reply of their shared beliefs.
Kirtan in Sikh history has been the musical analog of Kathas recitation, both preferably performed by ragi jatha, or professional trained performers. A Sikh Kirtan is a religious, aesthetic and social event, usually held in a congregational setting on Sundays or over certain festivals to honor the historical Gurus, but major temples in the Sikh tradition recite Kirtan everyday as a mark of daily bhakti (devotional remembrance) of God’s name. The congregational setting is called a Sangat or Satsang, a word that in ancient Indian texts means “like minded individuals, or fellow travelers on a spiritual journey”.Kirtan refers to devotional singing in Sikhism. It is typically performed at Gurdwaras (Sikh temples). Sikh scriptures and legends are usually recited in a song, to a certain raga and accompanied with musical instruments. The Gurus themselves created numourous musical instruments including the Dilruba, the Sarangi, the Esraj and a modification of the Pakhawaj creating an early form of the Tabla.A Shabad Kirtan refers to the musical recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib, the primary scripture in the Sikhism tradition which is arranged according to raga. The Shabad Kirtan can be listened to silently or sung along with the gathered congregation.
According to Guy Beck, the music tradition did not develop in early Buddhism possibly because it was considered sensual and inconsistent with its core teachings. Later Buddhism did develop monastic chanting of the canonical literature, particularly in the ritualistic Vajrayana and other Mahayana traditions. Chants, songs and plays about the life of the Buddha by the Buddhists of Bengal were called Buddha-samkirtan.
In the west
Kirtan singers have appeared in the West, such as Krishna Das, Bhagavan Das, Wah! and Jai Uttal as well as Snatam Kaur, Lokah Music, Deva Premal, Jim Gelcer, Jyoshna, Aindra Das, Gina Sala’, and Gaura Vani & As Kindred Spirits. Yoga centers report an increase in attendance at kirtan; according to Pure Music’s Frank Goodman in conversation with Krishna Das in 2006, kirtan has taken on a wider popularity.
There are also Kirtan singers in the west who sing authentic traditional Indian style Kirtans such as Kamini Natarajan and Sheela Bringi.
In the United States case law, the term sankirtana has also been used to refer to evangelical activities of ISKCON. ISKCON had sought the right to perform sankirtana in California airports such as in Los Angeles. The court ruled that while ISKCON has a constitutional rights of protected speech, the Los Angeles airport also has a right to forbid any form of solicitation, out of “a legitimate interest in controlling pedestrian congestion and reducing the risk of fraud and duress attendant to repetitive, in-person solicitation of funds” by all groups including ISKCON.
The male given name Kirtan or Keerthan is used in South India for females as well, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
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