I still remember that day with overcast bluish-grey sky, sun trying hard to peek out from clouds, cars zooming past ours on multi-lane freeway and a sense of almost child-like wonderment that I had when I first landed at LAX, from India in Dec 2002. I was a newly married bride then and my husband worked and lived here in the USA. This country, its tall skyscrapers, American English, dollar bills, vast freeways, thousands of cars on them, everything was a new experience for me.
For the first couple of months, I missed my home country pretty badly but soon after got busy settling down and learning new ways of life. I had to relearn lot of simple things like driving- on the other side of the road, new American words like cab for taxi, eggplant for brinjal etc. I slowly started looking for Indian connection and thanks to Internet I was able to quickly find several sites that provided lists and resources for Indian music schools, yoga classes, Indian restaurants, grocery shops and temples.
I used to often think about my childhood days, when little me would hold my mom’s hand and walk across the street to a small gathering place on Thursdays for Kirtans. This was my first introduction to Kirtan singing. The organizer would distribute small pieces of paper to singers such as my mom. It had a particular deity’s name, followed by a number scribbled on them. My mom would look at it and plan what to sing, the number would indicate when it was her turn. Slowly I started singing along with her and then started leading some myself. People would often praise my singing and voice and I made every effort to sing better next time. This also led me into learning Indian Classical music. Looking back, I don’t think I had any idea that music and Kirtan would become my life-long journey.
After moving to Los Angeles, Indian classical music was something I missed the most. Back in India, I was part of a large group of devoted musicians, working together to grow as musicians, and serving our community by creating awareness about classical music, a tradition that was fading away and getting replaced pretty rapidly by pop culture of the west. This was the type of work I loved doing- but finding myself in a land where this was no longer relevant made me homesick.
Thankfully there were several yoga centers although not as many as there are now. I started going to yoga studios and met several wonderful people along the way- some of whom had been to India and I felt an instant connection with them. One such visit introduced me to the call and response style of Kirtan singing. I was thrilled and excited to listen to non-native Hindi/Sanskrit speakers singing songs about Krishna and Shiva.
Initially I had a very mixed feeling about it. On one side, I felt really proud that culture and spirituality of India was being practiced here with so much respect and devotion. On the other hand I could not resist feeling amused by westerners butchering my language and the names of Gods and Goddesses. I still remember how awkward and uncomfortable I felt when people broke into an ecstatic dance in one such Kirtan. I sat there in one corner of a dark yoga room on a folded yoga blanket trying to think how exactly I felt. Was I offended witnessing a sacred practice turning into a hippie dancing? Or was I happy that all these people felt so much love and freeness that they no longer had to follow strict rules of spirituality and could break free and dance? I had grown up learning that spirituality needs to be revered and one needs to sit straight, spine up, eyes closed, both hands on knees in gyan mudra (touching pointer with thumb.)
I liked the music part of it though- so much so that I kept attending Kirtan events. I somehow loved simplicity of Kirtan music with just a Guitar and voice- some basic hand drum. Melodies that were easy to follow and simple rhythms were great for singing call and response style. The focus was on chanting and singing itself rather than on intricacies of melody or odd-meter rhythm patterns. It was not musicianship that was the focus, but chant/mantra itself and more so the intent. The more I started attending these Kirtans with an open mind, the more I received.
This was a great learning experience for me as I realized that the very first step towards Kirtan singing is to get rid of judgments and letting go of ego. When you attend a Kirtan next time, try to focus on Bhakti instead of how something is pronounced. In the end, it won’t matter much if someone says “Sheeva” instead of “Shiva.” However, if your focus is fixed on Sheeva you won’t be able to receive benefits from Kirtan. Remember, It is the intent and Bhakti that matters. There is no right way/wrong way, and no, you don’t have to follow the rules of how you sit, whether your eyes are closed or not. Sit in a position that is comfortable to you and your body. If you need to use a chair, by all means do. You do not need to sit in a lotus position if it makes your body uncomfortable because if your body is in pain your focus will shift to pain and discomfort that you experience instead of focusing on Kirtan. You also do not need to worry or think about your singing abilities. Kirtan is not about singing at all. Singing is just a tool, when it comes to Kirtan singing- it acts as a vehicle to transport us into a deeper state of consciousness. It is a journey, in which we travel together with several other people, each with their own destinations, different experiences and different expectations. One thing that is common is that we all want to liberate our minds from our day-to-day stress, constant mind chattering and connect with our divine selves.
It took me traveling some 9000 miles all the way from India to Los Angeles to realize what Kirtan singing is all about. I am happy that I was able to look beyond my ego as a singer and learn true meaning and importance of Kirtans. I sincerely hope my experience will help you get all the benefits of Kirtan from your very first one and if you are someone who has been to Kirtans but have not been able to get it, reading this will help you focus on important aspects of Kirtan. If you want to read more about what Kirtan is, READ HERE