The boundless love of India's poet-saints
Editor’s note: It’s a shame that Indian classical music often feels inaccessible to so many of us. Even if we enjoy listening to a performance or an artist as a layperson, we rarely understand the rich tapestry of tradition that gives them meaning. So we are delighted that Harini Calamur—who is a writer, veteran journalist and also a classical music aficionado—has put together this series on Hindustani music. Each instalment of this beginner's guide comes with its own delightful playlist:) This is a guide to the mystical music of India’s Bhakti movement.
PS: If you missed them, previous instalments of this series include guides to Raga Bhairavi, Raga Puriya Dhanashree, Raga Lalit, Ragas of Spring, Raga Darbari, Ragas of Indian freedom, Raga Shree and Raga Hamsadhwani.
Written by: Harini Calamur.
The heart of India's rich cultural tapestry is woven with the vibrant threads of spirituality, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Bhakti movement. A surge of devotional fervour that swept through the subcontinent from the 11th to the 18th centuries, Bhakti inspired countless poet-saints to express their profound love for the divine through their verses. Their poetry, imbued with passion, simplicity, and directness, captured the essence of spirituality and resonated deeply with the populace. For them, God wasn’t some abstraction. S/He was real—their friend, their confidant, and lover. Across the length and breadth of India, poets and mystics sang out their love for God.
When Tulsidas wrote ‘Thumak Chalat Ramachandra’, it is almost like he is seeing Baby Rama learning to walk, with his anklets making a tinkling noise. There are many variants of this song, the most famous being the rendition by DV Paluskar, in Raga Jaijaiwanti. But a lovely variant is this version by Chhannulal Mishra in Raga Mishra Bilawal.
Mirabai’s verses in classical ragas
The Poet Saints of this land did not speak the esoteric language of the priests, not understood by most. Nor did they spout metaphysics and abstract concepts. They were very rooted, and relatable. Their verses, imbued with intense passion and spiritual fervour, resonated with the masses, transcending social barriers, and appealing to the universal yearning for a higher power.
Mirabai, a princess of Mewar in Rajasthan, defied societal norms to embrace an unwavering love towards Krishna. Her poems, written in the regional dialect of Brajbhasha, are infused with an ardent longing for Krishna and a deep surrender to his divine love. Her songs, sung to the accompaniment of traditional instruments like the rabab and the sarangi, are a testament to her unwavering faith and the power of Bhakti to transcend social barriers. This is Bhimsen Joshi singing one of her compositions ‘Chalo Mana Ganga Jamuna Teer’ in Raga Tilak Kamod.
Another composition of Meerabai, about losing her identity in His (as in Krishna)—‘Mein toh Savar ke Rang Rachi’—talks about the poignancy of love, and the cost Mirabai had to pay for it. This is sung with joy by Kaushiki Chakraborty in Raga Mishra Tilang.
There is of course the expression of Him as the saviour, and this is expressed in the brilliant ‘Hari Tum Haro Janake Peer’ which is sung by the incomparable MS Subhalakshmi. This is supposed to be one of Gandhi’s favourite songs.
The poet saints of Punjab
Every region had its fair share of poet saints, who made the religion more accessible to the masses. In a way this was a religious revival in the sub-continent, as the showers of love for the divine, revived hope and brought renewal to ancient people. In the Punjab, a different kind of religious revival was taking place. Guru Nanak spoke the language of love, and oneness. His followers did the same. There were a number of compositions that are still sung to date in Gurudwaras and other gatherings.
Classical Music in the Sikh faith, is a part and parcel of the faith—the Gurus specified which raga the Shabds should be sung in. Hear this beautiful composition attributed to Guru Tej Bahadur, ‘Ram Simara’ (below)—sung here by Bhai Baldeep Singh in Raga Jaijaiwanti. Another brilliant composition in Raga Malkauns is Nanak Bijuliaa Chamkan.
Ragas from Maharashtra's mystics
In the western part of India, the poet saints Tukaram, Namdev, Muktabai, Eknath, Dyaneshwar, all made their mark, making faith and love for god accessible to all. Their compositions in Marathi—cut through class, caste, and wealth—to find their homes in people’s hearts. They are still sung today with the same devotion and love as they were over half a millennia ago. One of my personal favourites is the abhang composed by Sant Namadev, popularised by Bhimsen Joshi and sung in Raga Aahir Bhairav—‘Teerth Vitthala’—which you can listen to below.
For these poet saints, their love for God made God of this world. They saw God everywhere. Sometimes they cried to God, and sometimes they laughed at God. In this one, Tukaram singing to Pandurang talks about a formidable Ghost in Pandarpur —‘Pandhariche Bhoot Mothe’, which catches people and doesn’t let them go. This song is sung with so much affection by Ranjani and Gayatri, Raga Chandrakauns.
This love can also be heard in the composition ‘Bolava Vitthala, Pahava Vitthala’—everything you say should be Vitthala (God), everything you see should be Vitthala. Listen to a rendition by the late, great Kishori Amonkar—based on Raga Bhatiyaar.
Kabir ke dohe in Indian ragas
And finally to round off this piece, let us look at another great of the bhakti movement —Kabir. A weaver by trade and a spiritual seeker by nature, his verses, often delivered in enigmatic riddles, challenged societal norms and conventional religious beliefs. Kabir's teachings emphasised the unity of all beings, the immanence of the divine, and the path of experiential knowledge over blind faith.
The great vocalist, Kumar Gandharva travelled large swathes of rural North India speaking to ordinary people, who still sang Kabir, the way it had been sung in the past. And he used those as a base to convert Kabir’s compositions to classical ragas. ‘Sunta Hai Guru Gyaani’ has always been a personal favourite—set to Raga Aahir Bhairav.
As much as hearing the raga, the beauty of classical Kabir also lies in deciphering the meaning, and the inner meaning. And the layers that follow. In this beautiful rendition by Parveen Sultana, ‘Na Kachhu Re Ram Bina’ (in Raga Mishra Bhairavi).
And to round off this edition, I will leave you with the incredible ‘Lagan bin Jaage na Nirmohi’—without devotion there can be no spiritual awakening by Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, in Raga Hamsadhwani.
And, just as a bonus there is a fabulous documentary made by singer and Kabir scholar—Shabnam Virmani. ‘Had Anhad: Journeys with Ram & Kabir’ (Bounded Boundless)—is a beautiful journey into the syncretic—where the oneness with the maker is brought to the fore.
We have created a handy playlist with all the tracks mentioned on splainer’s Youtube channel. ICYMI, you can check out Harini’s playlist on Raga Bhairavi here, Raga Puriya Dhanashree here, Raga Lalit here, Ragas of Spring here, Raga Darbari here, Ragas of Indian freedom here, Raga Shree here and Raga Hamsadhwani here.
PS: If you need a list of all the amazing music shared by Harini:
- ‘Thumak Chalat Ramachandra’ in Raga Jaijaivanti DV Paluskar
- ‘Thumak Chalat Ramachandra’ in Raga Mishra Bilawal by Chhanulal Mishra
- ‘Chalo Man Ganga Jamuna Teer’ in Raga Tilak Kamod by Bhimsen Joshi
- ‘Mein Toh Savar Ki Rang Rachi’ in raga Mishra Tilang by Kaushiki Chakraborty
- ‘Hari Tum Haro’ in Raga Darbari Kaanada by MS Subhalakshmi
- ‘Ram Simara’ in Raga Jaijaiwanti by Bhai Baldeep Singh
- ‘Nanak Bijuliaa Chamkan’ in Raga Malkauns by Harbans Singh Ghulla and party
- ‘Teerth Vitthala’ in Raga Aahir Bhairav by Bhimsen Joshi
- ‘Pandhariche Bhoot Mothe’ in Raga Chandrakauns by Ranjani and Gayatri
- ‘Bolava Vitthala, Pahava Vitthala’ based on Raga Bhatiyaar by Kishori Amonkar
- ‘Sunta Hai Guru Gyaani’ Raga Aahir Bhairav by Kumar Gandharva
- ‘Na Kachu Re Raam Bina’ in Raga Mishra Bhairavi by Parveen Sultana
- ‘Lagan Bina Jage Na Nirmohi’ by Ashwini Bhide Deshpande
- Had Anhad — Journeys with Ram and Kabir by Shabnam Virmani