I have been chanting and singing Kirtans since I was first introduced to it by my grandmother in the early 1980s. Her soft tender hands would hold my little hands and off we would walk to the nearby Kirtan center in India. The format was slightly different than what we experience today here in the west. It was a much more traditional style of singing – Kirtans with long lyrics, Indian folk and classical melodies, only traditional Indian instrument such as Tabla drums or Mridamgams.
I moved to Los Angeles area in 2002 and started exploring yoga studios and Kirtan centers. It was fascinating for me to see how western Kirtan leaders combined their own flavor of music with ancient mantras and chant and created beautiful melody. Here in the West, lyrics are short so that people can easily chant and sing back. Since then my spiritual singing practice has taken me to hundreds of Kirtan gatherings – from large festivals to small intimate gatherings, I have experienced it all.
Kirtan is a call and response style of singing that originated in India and became popular around the 12th century. There is a lead singer who introduces a chant or mantra at a low tempo. Participants respond back. There are typically some instrumentalist to help get the music going. Harmonium, Tabla drum, Mridamgam drums or Guitars, Sitars etc Once everyone is comfortable with melody and lyric, lead singer slowly builds up the tempo and music gets more intense and fast. People typically start clapping and break into a joyful dance. There is this feeling of buzz that people often relate to after Kirtan.
In my experience, I have noticed people smiling, giggling and much more relaxed after Kirtan. Here are the five Do’s and Don’t’s of kirtan.
- Bring Your Heart
Kirtan singing is not a private activity. When you attend a Kirtan you will encounter lots of people – some chatty, some quite, some overly gregarious, some serious and everyone else in between. Come with an open heart. We all have our own life story and experiences that make us what we are. We all have different personalities. Embrace it with all your heart. It’s not necessary to stress or feel discomforted by the variety. It is what makes us unique. By allowing others to be themselves openly and freely, it opens a window of opportunity for us to do the same.
- Open up your voice
Look, I totally understand that you may not be the best singer in town. Neither is the person next to you or the one next to him/her. When we sing together your voice is not going to be the only voice. In Kirtan, voices merge together to create one sound. It is the singing together that mattes. Contribute yours. Make the experience count by singing out loud. Remember there are musicians, lead singers, other participants etc. We’re all in this together, so sing your heart out.
- Keep your ego away
This is a hard one for all of us. If you are a trained musician, don’t get all worked up if someone next to you is singing out of tune. It does not matter. Kirtan singing is not about technical singing at all. It is about sharing the melody and love that music creates. If you happen to be the Kirtan leader, try not to create Kirtans with intricate melodies or odd time signatures. You can keep them for your solo/band performances. Kirtan should to be simple and soulful. The idea is to encourage everyone to sing and participate, no mater how it looks or sounds.
- Be in the present moment
This is a pretty obvious one. Nonetheless, it’s easy to let our mind wander off to the stuff we want to forget about—that nosy co-worker, that guy in red Mercedes who cut us off, that person who gave us a left handed compliment and said “you look so nice with your makeup on.” Hmm what did she mean by that?
Let it all go and fade away. Although I am a firm believer of not suppressing your inner voice and thoughts, Kirtan is not a place to think about these. On the contrary, you participate in Kirtan to get such clutter out of your mind. The best way to do that is to become interested in participating fully in the kirtan experience, so that it’s possible to be in the present moment and enjoy.
- Embrace new words
Whether you are attending your very first Kirtan, or if it is your 154th, you will encounter words that are new and difficult for you. Kirtans are mostly written in Sanskrit – a foreign language that is not only new to you but is pretty darn hard even for people from the land where it originates from – India. So it is totally okay to skip a word or replace it with something that fits (as long as it is appropriate!) If you don’t get it the first time, try again. Kirtan singing is repetitive. The lead singer is going to be singing the same line again and again and again. So you will get plenty of chances to catch up. Be patient with yourself and people around you.
- Don’t beat yourself up
Really- isn’t that the entire idea of Kirtan? Don’t sweat it if you sing something wrong. You can observe and learn the next time. Don’t panic if you don’t know what the hell you are singing. Go with the flow- or don’t go- just let it flow.
- Don’t let your Kids go wild
Parents, guardians, grand-parents – I love kids and have my own. If you want to bring your kids to a Kirtan, remember to take care of them and keep them with you. Kirtans are not play dates or a time for them to start learning a new instrument. I enjoy being around kids and feel they can benefit greatly from Kirtans and meditation. However, as parents we need to teach them that Kirtan sessions are supposed to be a place where all participants are relaxed in meditation. Be mindful of others and either book a baby-sitter or talk to your kids about what to expect from a Kirtan before heading out.
- Don’t feel pressured to sing
I know I said above open your voice and sing. This is by no means a legally binding statement – you absolutely don’t have to sing if you just want to come, relax, and listen. Some people gain the same feeling of joy and meditation without uttering one word. If that’s the kind of person you are, don’t feel compelled to sing. The important thing is to be surrounded by the sound waves and energy. A lot of people find it easier to concentrate by singing but there are also those who feel more comfortable as a fly on the wall—a silent participator. If you are able to connect with your inner self and avoid distractions without singing and you don’t want to sing, then by all means, don’t sing.
- Don’t be uncomfortable
Typically Kirtan singing involves sitting down on the floor and singing for a couple of hours. If you are not used to it, there is no obligation for you to follow it. Bring a folding chair, yoga block or whatever you need to be comfortable. You don’t need to suffer and think about your knee pain while participating in a Kirtan. It will distract you from singing and be counter-productive.Be comfortable, be present.
- Don’t stand right in front of others
This one is my favorite. I have a good friend who always posts pictures of people behind who stand right in front of her and block her view during Kirtans. You may say, what is there to see in Kirtan- it is mostly dark anyway. But the person behind you might want to look at the lead singer, the musicians or other sites in the room. Being able to make eye contact with our surroundings, can help keep us focused and tuned in to what the singers are saying. Some lead singers make hand gestures to help cue the audience when to sing. If you’re a tall person who loves to stand, perhaps the back of the room is a better choice.
Would you like to explore the wonderful world of Kirtan? Here in San Diego, Pilgrimage of the Heart Yoga offers weekly kirtan in normal heights on Thursday nights. You can also study with us right here, at our online studio, and learn the basics of kirtan chants and see videos of kirtan performances. We hope to see you soon!
Author Bio: Kamini is a Kirtan and Indian Classical Singer based in LA area. She is the author of Kirtan eBook Indian Ragas for Kirtans. Kamini’s Kirtans bring out her deep spiritual background. They are extremely mystical and magnificently divine. People are left mesmerized by her angelic voice, her intricate improvisations, her odd meter rhythms and most importantly her radiant warm smile. For more information and to stay in touch, visit her website or facebook.