Lazy Afternoons in a Nondescript Village

People in my family love singing bhajans. My siblings, cousins, and I have grown up listening to hymns —‘pada’ would be a more appropriate term—written by Soordas, Mira, Kabeer, Raidas, Tulsidas, and others. Choosing a bhajan used to be a multi-step process carried out with utmost attention by my uncles and aunts. We saw them go through a Bhjanavali (a collection of Bhajans by various Indian saints), read a few bhajans, and appreciate their meanings or ‘bhava’. Finally, the reader would single down on a bhajan that had tugged at his/her heart. This long-drawn activity was interspersed with several digressions: people suddenly picked up their favorite bhajan and started singing it; the listeners joined in and before you realised it became a full-blown family chorus. We would join in too if we knew the words or simply listened. To our good fortune, our elders were more than average singers, and lovers of language. Sometimes, while listening, I drifted into a sweet slumber. To give you a better sketch of the setting and background, I am recounting my summer vacation in my mother’s small village in Uttar Pradesh where we landed every year during May and June. While one could romp around in the fields and mango orchards, bathe the animals, help in milking the cows during mornings and evenings, the afternoons were largely a drab affair. With the lunch finishing before 12.00 noon,  there was little for a child to do, unless he/she was interested in revising math concepts with an enthusiastic elder. It was best not to remind them of those horrors. So the usual format of Bhajan Sandhya had taken a more creative twist in our house with the bored elders singing and practicing them on scorching afternoons. Happily engaged elders are generally non-interfering; needless to mention, it suits the children well.

During evening pooja, elders took turns to sing the bhajans they had practiced earlier in the day.  Early on, my sister and I became a part of this family ritual. Usually, we (the complete jing bang of children) showed up strategically at the time of Prasad distribution, but sometimes we stayed for longer. Sometimes an affectionate grandparent would prod us to sing. I often sang smaller bhajans with my sister; I would have been 7-8 while she was three years younger. We sang— imitating the rise and fall of the voice, and the cadences we had noticed in our elders’ rendition. Often, we were showered with unbounded praise or an extra jalebi or laddoo from the prasad, which bolstered our confidence further. My sister and I became quite a pair and were summoned to sing wherever there was a pooja or Satsang. My grandfather—a genial and loving man— told us specifically to sing ‘pads’. “They are Siddha mantras,” he often told us. He believed that Meera, Kabir, Soordas, and other saints had whirled into a state of spiritual ecstasy, and become one with the divine while singing. There was hidden magic in their words. As I grew up, I remember him emphasising ‘bhava’ more than the melody. When I tried to come up with new tunes, my Grandfather drew my attention to the soulful words. He was trying to tell me to be centered and be one with the Bhajan when I sang it. However, the best advice is lost in life if you are not prepared for it. I sang the words, paid all attention to the ‘sur’,  afraid that any wavering notes would make me a laughing stock. Nevertheless, even at that time, the harmonious pull of music moved me to tears. When people sang a ‘Prarthna’ together, the rise and fall of their voices felt like waves in an ocean. 

Life went on. I got interested in other types of music; bhajans took a backseat. Popular genres that had had my friends and peers swinging caught my attention too. I gravitated towards western music and ghazals at the same time. Bhajans remained secure in some treasure chest of my mind and made an unconscious appearance as random humming. Some days when I found myself singing one Bhajan, usually a trail followed, and I experienced a sudden rush of emotions. It is difficult to pinpoint at what stage of life I turned to Bhajans again, probably after I settled down in Pune after marriage. Away from home, when my heart craved for old rimes and rhythms, Bhajans came back to me. This time, however, I felt the words talking. Bhajans embody emotions of pain, love, longing, surrender, and joy experienced by a devotee. I began to appreciate the words in Rajasthani Hindi, which seldom found a corelative in English. For example, how should one retain the essence of the line ‘ ‘गगन मंडल पर सेज पिया की, किस विधि मिलणो होए ’ in translation? Over the years, I have realised that you might savour the best culinary delights in the world, but the comfort of a simple-homecooked dish (let’s say daal-Chawal) is unmatched, and one’s mother tongue, quintessentially, is that heart-warming dish.

While reading Meera’s Bhajans (in Rajasthani) my mind conjures up an image of a dreary desert with a lovelorn lady, pouring out her heart in front of a  Krishna idol—in a secluded corner of a majestic palace—tears streaming down her weather-beaten face as she sings, “आऊँ, आऊँ कर गया साँवरा, कर गया कौल

अनेक ” (“I’ll come, I’ll come, my dusky Lord said. He made hundreds of promises.) So while singing Meera Bhajans, I become one amongst the multitude who utter these words that had once emerged from the deep depths of Meera’s heart in a moment of oneness. 

Then and Now

Last year, my son learned about the lives of various saints— Meera, Kabir, Buddha, and Saint Francis— as part of his school curriculum in Grade 2. He studies in a Waldorf school that regards the child’s age consciousness as essential to learning. The Waldorf setup believes that children are deeply spiritual, responding spontaneously to everything around them. As their eyes and senses begin opening to the world, they slowly develop an irreversible awareness about themselves and the world. Therefore, self-knowledge and scholastic learning should complement each other and unfold slowly—much like the opening up of a flower. Waldorf education tries to retain a child’s innocence for the longest time and prepares them with optimism, as they get ready to move into adulthood. In grade 2, stories of saints are told not with any religious intent, but to help children seek comfort and love in a not-so-ideal world. They are, after all, stories of steadfast love, belief, and reverence towards the creation and all its beings—big or small. For example, the story of Saint Francis is the tale of an ordinary man from Assisi who fought in a war, and later self-realisation led him to sainthood. The tales of him feeding bread to hungry wolves is recounted widely.

Stories of saints help children feel and believe that there is goodness in the world. It is a way of letting them know “the world is beautiful”. The stories are seamlessly integrated through oral storytelling, writing, painting, songs, and drama. Thanks to my son’s study of Meera bai’s life story, I got the opportunity to sing Meera bhajans for his class. His teachers, Sarita and Jothsna graciously invited me to the online class a few times.  Earlier in the year, I had reached out to Sarita, requesting her to count on my help, if any singing was required. I had been pining to introduce Bhajans to my son and his friends, who knew little about Meera and related little to the language (dialect)  she had written in. 

Sarita did a fabulous job of introducing Meera to the class. She drew a serene blackboard drawing of the saint, which was to become her background for the next one month when she unravelled the life of Meera for her students.

                                                                                                          Sarita’s blackboard drawing of Meera

Children sat riveted to their screens, waiting to hear ‘what happened next’ in the tale of the little girl (as old as them) who had fallen in love with an idol. Every day, Sarita narrated episodes from Meera’s life, painting a picture of erstwhile Rajasthan, and left the narrative at an interesting juncture, to pick it up again in the next class. After storytelling, children wrote about the episode (the teacher’s written matter) with accompanying drawings. Their notebook is a labour of love. I am deeply grateful to the teachers for the exquisite work that came from children. They inculcated a love for learning along with discipline.


                                                                                                A view of my son’s lesson book                                    

Every crucial turn in Meera’s life was captured through bhajans. Sarita began with an extremely melodious bhajan and before we knew it, not only children but everyone at their home was crooning it. It acted as a balm to the restless soul during the lockdown. Here’s the recording of the first Bhajan with my son. 

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After narrating the episode of the ‘Barat procession’ where Meera is told by her mother, in a moment of parental tiredness, that she is betrothed to Krishna, Sarita invited me to the class and I sang ‘Mere to girdhar gopal doosro na koi’.  Children sat wide-eyed, as I explained how true and real Krishna was to Meera. In fact, Meera’s poetry is so powerful in its simplicity that the listener gets the emotion even if the language seems distant. 

Take for example, ‘चूनरी के किए टूक ओढ़ लीनि लोई’ (I have shredded my chunri and worn the ochre) ‘Loyi’ is really like a thin woven sheet or blanket, and the word is still prevalent in Northern India. Even if the readers miss out on the meaning of  ‘loi’, they do get the sense that she is using a cloth metaphor to suggest ‘casting off ‘ of her old life.


                                                                                     Meera looking at a Barat procession from her house; an epochal moment from her life.

Sometimes I wonder how difficult it must have been for Meera to contain her unbridled expression; words bubbling forth from a secret fountain! Or was it a survival mechanism? Did words come to her rescue? Did they give her power in a world where no one understood her position? A world where she got comfort in calling herself ‘बावरी ‘ (Bawri): a natural ploy to deflect attacks and questions. Amidst painting, music, and cursive writing, the story of Meera continued in my son’s class.

Sarita gave me the flexibility to bring the not-so-popular Meera songs. Excited, I went back to the old Bhajanavali and the Internet to retrieve the exact lyrics of Bhajans. I also looked at various renditions; the ones by M.S Subbalaxmi being my absolute favorite. In her heyday, M.S. had acted and sung in a Hindi movie called ‘Meera’. Bhajans rendered in her earthy voice are rare gems. You may want to listen to them here:

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Here’s a rare recording of M.S Subbalxmi’s live performance. It’s a bhajan about Meera, not a ‘pada’. I was ecstatic to have stumbled upon it. Even if you ignore all other links, I earnestly recommend you to visit this one. 

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After all the scouting, I recorded and sent a few to my son’s teacher, which I found easy for children to follow. One bhajan, (बंसीवारा  आज्यो म्हारा देस) particularly stood out. In my memory, it’s my sister who had come up with a catchy tune. Later, she and I had improvised and sung it many times. Sarita fell in love with this bhajan. Here’s Satyam (my son) and my rendition of the same.

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The lesson on Meera continued with more anecdotes, paintings, language, and vocabulary work. Yes, the same lesson was used to teach language skills to children without making it explicit. I was invited to the last class to wrap up Meera’s life journey with a bhajan. Children had reached a point in the story where Meera was now a tramp—a ‘Deewani’ (if I may use the word without offending readers). She had severed all ties with her family. Dressed in ochre robes, dancing to the words that the divine had invoked in her, she was unrecognizable; her life as a princess discarded like old, tattered clothes. She was ready to snap the last tie she had with the physical world. Which bhajan could I sing that encapsulated Meera’s feelings? A song to culminate her journey; a song that could be her clarion call to her beloved. I decided to go with ‘कोई कहियो रे हरी आवन की’(Koi kahiyo re Hari aavan ki), a ‘pada’ I had heard from my maternal uncle. This bhajan tugs at my heart with its powerful imagery and metaphors.
Life was coming a full circle. The same bhajan; same old tune, yet I was feeling the pull of its poetry like never before. The pain and helplessness of Meera as she says ‘कहा करूँ कुछ बस नहीं मेरो पंख नहीं उड़ जावन की’ or  ‘ये दो नैना कहयो नहीं माने, नादिया बहे जैसे सावन की’.  Here’s an audio of my humble effort. 

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You can learn a bhajan; memorise its words; perfect its tune, but only when you have grace, you get the ‘bhava’. In some rare moments, bhajan singing can overpower, and the singer forgets how she is singing. I can’t claim to have had that experience but have heard my mother (a lifelong Bhajan singer) talk about it. In my mind, that’s how Meera’s last moments play out. A moment of complete oneness with the divine and then you vanish. Gone. What a way to die!

The famous American poet Robert Frost has said “poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” I wonder if Meera knew what legacy of poetry she was leaving behind! Living in a state of complete surrender, she voiced the over wheeling emotion that was fast becoming her—an all-consuming idea to be with Krishna. Poetry is really a song looking for a tune. Meera’s bhajans will keep on finding new seekers. Each one of them giving his/her own voice to the words of the rebel saint from Rajasthan.