News & Notes

Music as an offering

Indian music and dance, both classical and folk, hold a special place in the cultural and spiritual landscape of the region. These art forms have evolved over centuries, deeply intertwined with religious and philosophical traditions. Scriptures reveal how musical notes were initially used in the recitation of laudatory hymns (Saama gaana). Over time, instruments were introduced to accompany the voice, with wind and percussion instruments preceding string instruments. Sculptural evidence from as early as the 2nd century BCE supports this evolutionary process. Additionally, a fascinating inscription on the wall of the 11th-century Brihadeeshwara temple in Tanjore mentions over 200 artists supported by the temple, illustrating the enduring legacy of this tradition through the centuries.

We know music was performed primarily in temples as an offering to the Lord, but the Natya Sastra also gives evidence of an old tradition of music as an accompaniment to dance and theatre, confirming that it was always envisioned as an art to please as well as elevate. However, the centres of the arts remained temples –Lord Ranganatha at Srirangam is even now greeted by music on festive occasions.

The Mughal invasions resulted in the practice of classical music being changed in North India. Now, the music in temples was kept secret and, over the centuries, developed its own features, which we now call Haveli sangeet. The name came about, as the temples were hidden to protect them, in house called havelis.  Remnants of this tradition are still found in Mathura, Vrindavan, Nathdwara, Goverdhan nath, and Baroda – mainly those temples that stuck to the tradition or sampradaya of the Pushtimarga Vaishnavs.

The founder of this tradition was Vallabhacharya (1479-1531) a Telugu Brahmin who lived in North India, and died in Banaras. His son Vitthal Nath (1516-1588) started the tradition of the ‘ashta yam’ of eight seva rituals of the Lord that were accompanied with appropriate music.  Interestingly, the worship of the Lord changed musically in the four seasons; and of course with the time of the day.

It was said “jaisa Bhog, jaisa Raga, jaisa Shringar” , meaning it was not just the raga that changed, the bhog offered to the Lord and how he was adorned changed too, each time. Eight prominent saint poets contributed to this tradition; they are called the Asht Chaap Kavis and lived in the 15th century.

Echoing this tradition of music and dance offerings to the Lord, as seen all over India, the Ram Janmabhumi Teertha Kshetra Trust initiated 45 days of raag seva in the temple. Every day, artists from different regions and genres offered their art to Shri Ram. Coordinating this massive effort, Yatindra Mishra from the royal family of Ayodhya and himself, an art patron and author, shared, “We wanted to revive the ancient traditional offering of the arts to Shri Ram. The dance, too, was of all styles but strictly rooted in tradition. We were supported by the Sangeet Natak Akademi for information on artists; the artists offered their seva entirely free of cost, and every artist eagerly accepted our invitation without hesitation. Many more remain keen to come, and we plan on continuing this seva.”

The devotional music was of all types – from Marathi abhang, to Gujarati chaarni gaan’, to harikirtan, and Ramkatha.  The dances included Kathak, Mohini Attam, Sattriya, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Manipuri, and Yakshagaan.

The oldest performer was 92-year-old Vyjyanthimala, who seemed to acquire a new energy when she entered the temple. The seva was performed at one of the huge mandapams on the side, not interfering in the main approach to the inner sanctum. Pilgrims stopped to listen, and some went their way. The atmosphere was charged. Rattan Mohan Sharma (nephew of Pt Jasraj) sang only bhajans, clearly in an elevated frame of mind, accompanied by his son Swar. Jayanthi Kumaresh on the Saraswati veena with her husband Kumaresh on the violin said, “I felt so blessed to be in that space; for me, it was only about Shri Ram; nothing else mattered then.” Basanti Bisht Devi, singing the folk melodies of the hills that are traditionally performed in the small temples of Uttarakhand, was attired in her traditional village attire, the occasion being a formal one.

Yatindra Mishra shared that artists from 20 states came to Ayodhya. The logistics of coordinating their travel and stay were done by devoted volunteers from Ayodhya. It was an unprecedented 45 days on non-stop seva by the top most artists of the country, including legendary names like Sonal Mansingh, Padma Subrahmanyam, and Swapna Sundari, who incidentally  was the first to offer traditional temple dance “aagama nartanam”.

Indeed, the seva was simply spectacular; it was stunning, according to many artists and listeners.