The Mahamantra, Kirtan Performance

Introduction

Kirtan, by definition call-and-response singing of devotional songs or mantras, has a rich and multifaceted history, and is practiced within various religions, such as Hinduism, Sikhhism, and Buddhism, as well as secular popular music venues and community contexts. In the U.S., kirtan is popularly associated with Gaudiya Vaishnavism and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), which was founded by a Hindu man named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. After traveling to New York in the 1960s, Prabhupada quickly gathered a following that became popularly known as the Hare Krishnas. Since then, kirtan has taken off in the U.S., particularly in yoga studios.

Likened to a theatrical folk song in performance, kirtan doesn’t belong to the musician—the songs are co-constructed through call-and-response. For this reason, perhaps kirtan attracts audiences—and musicians—who are hungry for a musical experience different from the one offered by the performer/audience binary. I include myself in this camp. Although I first encountered kirtan in temple settings (where I participated as a flutist), I spent four years playing flute in a kirtan band that predominantly performed in yoga studios. In these performance contexts, I often puzzled over a question that I now see as a space of cultural rhetorical inquiry—what, exactly, was happening when our band performed bhajans—devotional Hindu songs that repeat the names of gods and goddesses over and over—in a “nondenominational,” “secular”1 space? Audience members were not simply consuming kirtan, but actively co-constructing it with their voices and bodies, as they swayed, clapped, and danced to the music.

In this article, I explore this question via one particular mantra called the mahamantra that will be familiar to any readers who have attended kirtan, been to a Vaishnav temple, or heard popular songs like George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”2:

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna

Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare

Hare Rama, Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare

Amba Bhavani with Bhavana feat J Gusto

Remembrance: Amba Bhavani ~ Bhavana

Narayani and Mat Baker are a husband and wife team, who share a love and a passion for devotional music, kirtan and the practice of Bhakti Yoga. They travel throughout the UK and Europe offering their music and voice workshops wherever they are invited. Narayani is known for her powerful devotional singing and for facilitating voice work that opens the heart and encourages our highest expression. Mat is a singer and multi-instrumentalist. He brings a gentle, transformational quality with his soulful voice and powerful percussion and Bouzouki (like a mandolin) playing. www.youtube.com/watch?


Remembrance: Amba Bhavani ~ Bhavana

Narayani and Mat Baker are a husband and wife team, who share a love and a passion for devotional music, kirtan and the practice of Bhakti Yoga. They travel throughout the UK and Europe offering their music and voice workshops wherever they are invited. Narayani is known for her powerful devotional singing and for facilitating voice work that opens the heart and encourages our highest expression. Mat is a singer and multi-instrumentalist. He brings a gentle, transformational quality with his soulful voice and powerful percussion and Bouzouki (like a mandolin) playing. www.youtube.com/watch?