Bangla Kirtan: the veneration of Lord Vishnu goes global

Bangla Kirtan is a Hindu devotional style from Bengal, based around glorifying Lord Vishnu, the preserver deity (‘kirtan‘ means ‘to glorify’). Inspired by the work of Jayadeva, a 12th-century poet-saint, musicians from the Vaishnava sect began to compose spiritual songs, addressing themes such as divine sacrifice and love, as well as the fables of Krishna, Vishnu’s eighth avatar (see him with Radha, his common companion, above). Adherents danced and sang in pursuit of the divine, seeking to venerate their god through communal acts of sonic worship.

In the early 16th century, holy man Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (whose taken name translates as ‘Great Lord of Consciousness’) wandered throughout India, chanting the names of Vishnu’s many incarnations and instructing his devotees in how to follow his melodies. He held mass puja ceremonies, bathing in the Ganges at Ambulinga Ghat and leading massed choruses of disciples in chanting the virtues of their deity, all in simple language attuned to the ears of the masses.

Traditional songs of the genre are sometimes said to summon the sentiments of a rural Bengali sunrise. The music itself tends to be flexible, combining concepts drawn from Vedic temple rituals and ancient Hindustani ragas, and setting them to various rhythms at different speeds. There have been many sub-streams, such as the tappa-tinged Reneti, the Dhrupad-influenced Dhapkirtan, and many others, commonly linked to local folk forms. Modern Bangla Kirtan shares musical and social roots with other Kirtan styles, including the Sikh Shabad Gurbani and even Islamic Sufi traditions.

Recently, the sounds of Bangla Kirtan have enjoyed a far greater cultural reach than you might expect. In 1966, avid Vaishnava Kirtan chanter A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York – commonly referred to the Hare Krishna movement. They really have taken their Kirtan global, reaching millions with their melodies. I’ll never forget enjoying their free vegetarian food and joining in with the chants, at, of all places, a heavy rock and metal festival in rural Poland (the Hare Krishnas even made a video of the event).

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