Song of Surrender

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Ganesh Kumar on the path to Vithala

By Siddhartha Jagannath

The Music Academy
18 December 2013
Sri Ganesh Kumar of Mumbai gave a fascinating lecture demonstration on abhangs of the Varkari tradition of Maharashtra. Ganeshkumar has received many awards and titles such as the “Maharashtra Abhangaratna”. He has also had the rare opportunity of singing in the sanctum sanctorum of the Vithala temple in Pandharpur.

Ganesh Kumar began his gripping oration by saying that Maharashtra was the birthplace of the Bhakti cult in India. Many great saints like Namdev and Tukaram have praised Lord Vithala in the common man’s language, a speciality of the bhakti saints.

This renowned tradition started with Adi Sankara’s Pandurangashtakam. During this time, the varna system underwent a total collapse caused by the tyrannical behaviour of the upper class. What ensued from this degeneration was the birth of the bhakti movement.

After Adi Sankara came a young and brilliant scholar - Gyaneswar. The starting of the Bhakti Movement in Maharashtra is sometimes attributed to him. Some say that nam sankirtan, or the repeated chanting of the name of the lord, too began at the time of Sant Gyaneswar. The nam sankirtan sampradaya is one that is based on bhakti which in turn is a manifestation of bhava, Ganesh Kumar emphasized. This rich tradition all began with the simple recitation of Jaya Jaya Rama Krishna Hari. After briefing the audience on the story of Gyaneswar, Ganesh Kumar went on to speak of the famous abhangasaints - Namdev, Choka Mela, Eknath and Tukaram. (As a member of the audience my only background of these saints was from Amar Chitra Katha). Ganesh Kumar gave a rich historical and spiritual context to our understanding of this period.

The content of their abhangas he said was based primarily on the philosophy of advaita. Advaitic concepts were made simple and the common man was able to connect with this idea of ‘oneness’. It was advaitic philosophy with love for Isvara. Ganesh Kumar also defined the abhangas as “a composition sung by a saint as an outpouring in praise of almighty God.” He also defined a saint as the embodiment of daya or compassion. A person is recognized—not by an institution or a government, but by the masses— as a saint, one who shows boundless compassion. Only a song written by these mahatmas can be considered an abhang.

Eknath mainly sang the Bharud type of Abhang, often meant for the plebeian. They could be outpourings of a person’s problems, like those of a daughter-in-law with her troublesome mother-in-law.

When Krishnadeva Raya came to Pandharpur, he was appalled at the quality of worship sans achara that Vithala was receiving. At once he arranged for the transfer of the idol to Halebid, his capital city. The story of Sant Bhanudas brought the idol nback to Pandharpur and the Vithala temple in Halebidu with no Vithala idol are still part of abhanga lore.

Vasudev sang very simple songs that even a child could understand. The comical costumes he wore would evoke laughter from the children who would gather to listen.

Abhangas of the dhruvapada tradition, the precursor of Dhrupad in classical music, were meant to be sung by a group, just like a choir. These compositions were designed to suit both male and female voices as well as voices of the old and the young.

The main deities of focus in abhangas are Rama, Ganesa, Dattatreya and of course, Panduranga of Pandharpur. In the Varkari sampradaya, there is no caste discrimination regarding who can participate and who cannot. Everyone is welcome to join in.

The accompaniment for group singing consists mainly of the cymbals (which everyone carries), mridanga, bansuri, harmonium and violin. The ragas chosen are always simple. Some of these ragas are Bhoop, Patdeep, Poorya Dhanashri and Bhatiyar.

Ganesh Kumar gave an emotional description of the way simple folk walked hundreds of miles singing their praise of the lord on their way to Pandharpur. He extolled the beauty of the simplicity of this great tradition that connects all mankind, regardless of a person’s station in society.

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