Reclaiming the Bhajan
Ancient musical styles of India transform modern worship of Christ
The average religious Hindu man—hungry for an encounter with the Ultimate Reality— responds to song perhaps more than any other form of communication. He wants to experience the Truth, to feel it. He is not content with mere intellectual understanding. Music is one of the best bridges from me, as a follower of Christ, to this Hindu man.
All kinds of songs are sung in India. The average religious man on the city street loves the Indian film songs which are mostly about romantic love. Then you have your semiclassical ghazal and classical raga lovers—but they are a minority. The villagers, of course, appreciate their local folk styles which consist entirely of live performances during festivals which last all night long.
As far as Western music goes, about a half a million young people all over India love rock and roll, but through MTV and VTV that number A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Chris Hale was raised in Nepal and has served 10 years in India. He is currently living in New York and records devotional songs (bhajans) to Christ in Hindi with Peter Hicks and their group, Aradhna.
is increasing rapidly. Something over a million may seriously love pop music. But the majority of India’s upper class, though they would not go out and buy the CD, would love to dance at a disco to some good, fast, dance music from the West (along with their favorite, Hindi pop music).
When it comes to his devotional life, however, the Hindu religious seeker wants bhajans, repetitious songs with a simple melodic line which the leader sings and the devotees repeat. Bhajans can outside wealthy devotees homes under shamianas (large tents) throughout the year but especially during festivals.
The average urban Indian is attracted to Western modern music and Hindi pop (which is influenced greatly by the West). It makes him loosen up and enjoy himself. But if you introduce this kind of music in a religious context he would likely find the experience confusing. He may well leave saying, “Tan halata hain lekin man ko kuch nahin karta” (or, “This music moves the body, but it does nothing for the soul”).
Admittedly, there is an increasing minority in the cities especially from Christian background and an increasing number of Hindu young people who are responding spiritually to modern, Western worship styles. But the vast majority of Indians do not. As for the typical Western hymns and Western classical music, these do even less spiritually for the average Hindu than the modern Western choruses.
Translating the Western choruses into the local languages is only a minute improvement, because though the intellect can respond, the emotions are not touched by the Western melodies. Translating the words of great Western hymns and putting Indian melodies to them is a vast improvement on the above, but this also has its weak points.
One can easily imagine how difficult it is to take a Western poetical form and fit it into traditional Indian musical form. The majority of popular Christianalso take on complex classical forms and are available on cassette or CD. But, by and large, a bhajan is ‘live’ and sung in the context of a satsang, or religious meeting where a preacher expounds Scripture with bhajans interspersed throughout keeping the devotees actively involved. Satsangs are held at temples, ashrams and worship songs have melodies that are reminiscent of Hindi film song melodies of the last 20 years. This brings us the Biblical thought through the Western and Indian instruments. This back to square one, music that moves singing of the bhajan and the thought format is also appealing to Indians the body but not the soul. goes from the mind into the heart and living outside India. From my experience with the bhajan worship songs in North India are South Indian Of course, this style of worship is group Aradhna1 (meaning, “worsongs translated into Hindi. Though very foreign to most Indian Christians ship”) in the United Kingdom there is a far greater similarity from traditional church backgrounds. during the last two summers I have between South and North than Initially, many of them find such a found that this format appeals between West and East, it is clear format offensive because it reminds greatly to the large number of Indian that this is still very inadequate for them of Hinduism. However, the use emigrants. It is even welcomed in use among North Indians. The of bhajans is recommended primarily predominantly white churches who translations are quite poor and lack in evangelism or in churches that are are seeking a multi-cultural worship the sweet poetical flow of North actively seeking to make their worship experience. Indian verse. service more appealing to Hindus.
What we need, then, is for people to begin learning and using the the most helpful musical form, rily being used by church planters in traditional forms and arranging them especially in North India, where the vast areas of India that are not musically using a combination of Christian and Western influence is being reached directly by the local Indian and Western instruments. By most strongly opposed. These songs church. and large, the first part must be done have Indian lyrics, Indian tunes and Finally it needs to be said that the by Indian poets and Indian musicians. an Indian worship format. Histori-modern, English-speaking, high class, Foreigners can help especially with cally, they are taken from Hindu secular, Hindu person may be more the packaging because of their access devotional practice, but there is open to spiritual things through to quality electronic musical equip-nothing unscriptural about these modern, Western worship formats ment and their familiarity with its forms. The forms are conducive to than traditional Indian ones which he use. With God’s help, there is much Biblical meditation. First, there is the has already thrown out. We’ve found that can be done with music to exposition of the passage by the in the ministry we do among these communicate the message of the preacher which enlightens the people that they respond to the Gospel in India. understanding through the Holy traditional bhajan format when Clearly, with Hindus, the bhajan is Bhajans and satsang are prima 1. Our first CD, Deep Jale (Light the Lamp) is in its Spirit. Then there is the repetition of presented using a combination of second production. See “Resources,” page 27.
Worshiping Christ With the Best of East and West
In 1990, I went to India after graduating from Berklee College of Music with a degree in classical composition, jazz and rock guitar, with a vision to reach modern Indian youth with a rock band that sang songs in Hindi and English. Within the first year there I discovered Christian bhajans, devotional songs addressed to Christ that had a lyrical and melodic style that was truly Indian and that drew me into worship. Our rock band, Olio, which was performing in university campus rock music festivals began singing some of these bhajans using the instruments in the band as well as Indian percussion. We found that the young people loved these songs the most although at that time it was not common to mix Western styles such as rock music with the traditional Indian styles. Now, 10 years later, Hindi songs with Western instrumentation, both devotional and secular, are very popular. Andrew Lloyd Webber is presently working on a new Broadway musical with India’s top popular song composer, A.R. Rahman. Rahman popularized the use of Western instrumentation and rhythm in Indian songs. Indians, both young and old, love their own melodies and poetry. The time is ripe for Christian youth to begin composing worship songs to Christ which blend Indian melody and lyrical style with Western instrumentation. There are many composers of Indian music in the Church in India, but many of them feel that the younger generation is not interested in their music. What is needed is a freshness that will attract the young people to the Indian melodies, and that freshness is Western instrumentation and rhythm. There needs to be an exchange of musical ideas between the older and younger generations in the Christian church.