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12 October 2021

My Favourites: Devotional Songs

Back in India, the festive season that kicked off with Ganesh Chaturthi has moved into Dussehra-Navratri/Durga Puja/Saraswati Puja (for us Malayalis) this month. Soon, it will be Diwali, and then, Christmas.

I’m not particularly religious. In fact, I veer between atheist and agnostic. I also grew up in a household which didn’t follow very many religious rituals, other than regularly lighting a lamp at dawn and dusk. We were never exhorted to say our prayers daily, even if we were taught them. My mother and grandmother said their prayers when they lit the lamps, but we never heard them – it was just a silent movement of their lips. In other words, religion was a very personal experience, even amidst the family. This despite the fact that we are 'ambalavaasis', 'temple dwellers', hereditarily the people who wove the garlands for the deity, took care of the temple accounts, etc. 

I have fond visual memories of our little puja room -  my grandmother would close the window, and the white idol of Krishna would stand out in stark contrast. The burnished brass lamp, the golden glow of the flame, the thin spiral of smoke curling lazily upward… my grandmother or mother in their off-white mundum veshti… I may not have been very religious even then, but the sight never failed to move me.

It is the same strange sense of peace that I feel when I stand in front of the monolith lingam at Vadakunnathan temple at dusk. Or when I wake up early morning and find that my husband has lit the lamp in our small shrine here in the US.

While I initially wanted to do a post on songs to the Mother Goddess to commemorate Durga Puja, I didn’t find many that filled me with that same feeling of – for want of a better word, spirituality. I wanted devotional songs that moved me despite myself; that made me want to believe even if I don’t; that, either because of the vocals or the picturisation or both, made me believe in the devotion the words expressed.

Here then, are some of my favourite bhajans or devotional songs, in no particular order, though you will find my favourites clustered at the top.

Lau laga di geet gaati
Bhabhi ki Chudiyan (1961)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Sudhir Phadke
Lyrics: Narender Sharma
While Jyoti kalash chhalke is the more famous song from this film, my memories of my mother and/or grandmother lighting the lamp at dusk triggered my memory of this song. Beginning with Meena Kumari making the wicks for the lamp before she prays to the tulsi plant in the courtyard and then to Lord Krishna, this devotional is deeply stirring. Perhaps because of the serenity in Meena Kumari’s face, or the picturisation of the song, or the absolute sweetness of Lata’s voice that complements the minimal music by Marathi great, Sudhir Phadke – or perhaps it’s all of the above.

Aaj sajan mohe ang laga le
Pyaasa (1957)
Singer: Geeta Dutt
Music: SD Burman
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
This is more a bhakti geet than a bhajan (a bhajan can be bhakti geet, but bhakti geet need not always be bhajans). A jogan sings of her yearning to become one with the Lord as a prostitute, Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), ascends the stairs to confess her love to a man she adores. The devotion in the jogan’s voice is mirrored in Gulabo’s face. In the Bhakti movement, the Lord is seen as the devotee’s beloved, and Sahir’s lyrics were pure and sublime as well as earthy and sensuous, depending on your perspective. Geeta’s voice combined yearning with sensuality, and I can never hear this song without being moved.

Hari om… Mantarpat hari darshan ko aaj
Baiju Bawra(1951)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Music: Naushad
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Once again, while the entire score is stunning, it is O duniya ke rakhwaale that is the most popular song from this film that centres around ‘mad’ Baiju, the man who challenged the great Tansen himself. And it is a beautiful rendition, which never fails to move me; there’s so much devotion in Rafi’s voice as he renders Shakeel’s poignant lyrics. As there is in this understated bhajan, which speaks of a devotee’s anxiety to have just a glimpse of his deity. The song culminates in inexplicable joy as the devotee sublimates himself to his God.

Allah tero naam Ishwar tero naam
Hum Dono (1961)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Jaidev
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
This is one of the bhajans that quickly crept into my ‘favourites’ list. I shouldn’t – I never really liked bhajans, and I never liked Nanda. But this is the film – and the song – that made me revise my opinion of Nanda. Rendered beautifully by Lata (which made me understand how a bhajan can be a spiritual experience) and picturised on Nanda (who lip syncs to it) and Lalita Pawar and other women, Sahir’s lyrics not only pleaded with the almighty to keep their husbands and sons safe but was a broader appeal for an end to all wars. 
O saare jag ke rakhwaale
Nirbal ko bal dene waale
Balwaanon ko de de gyaan
Sab ko sanmati de bhagwaan
Nanda’s sweetness of expression not only emphasised her extreme vulnerability but also added to the overall appeal of the song. Even though Jaidev had debuted with Chetan Anand's Joru ka Bhai, Hum Dono was his first big hit as an independent composer.

Jaago mohan pyaare jaago
Jagte Raho (1956)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Salil Choudhury
Lyrics: Shailendra
On the face of it, definitely a bhajan – when Nargis first appears, she is offering flowers at the feet of Lord Krishna. It is the first prayer of the morning, as she awakens the lord from his sleep – a new dawn is beckoning. It is also the dawning of new hope – for a poor man, haunted by thirst, and hunted like an animal by members of a so-called civilised society. It is also the heralding of a new era, where the light of knowledge will banish fear and anger and hatred…
Kiran pari ghagri chhalkaaye
Jyot ka pyaasa pyaas bujhaaye
Phool bane man ke angaare
Jaago Mohan pyaare jaago

Tora mann darpan kahlaaye
Kaajal (1965)
Singer: Asha Bhosle
Music: Ravi
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
A stellar score in a film that doesn’t deserve it – now where have we heard that before? Kaajal boasted of several iconic songs, and this one, playing against the credits and the initial scenes in the film, was a lovely bhajan picturised on Meena Kumari and Durga Khote. Sahir, writing in shuddh Hindustani, manages to work in his (non-)beliefs as well as Hinduism’s underlying principle – your ‘God’ is within you; your mind is a mirror of your inner self.

Tora mann darpan kahlaaye
Bhale bure saare karmon ko
Dekhe aur dikhaaye
Mann hi devta mann hi ishwar,
Mann se badaa na koi
Mann ujiyaara jab phaile
Jag ujiyaara hoye

Darshan pyaasi aayi daasi
Sangdil (1952)
Singer: Geeta Dutt
Music: Sajjad Hussain
Lyrics: Rajinder Krishan
This is one of Geeta Dutt’s unmatched bhajans, right up there with Aaj sanam mohe ang laga le (Pyaasa) and Ae ri main to prem diwani (Jogan). Composed by Sajjad who, before he discovered Lata Mangeshkar, had composed some beautiful melodies for Geeta (and Shamshad), this bhajan ranks among one of my favourites. In a serious psychological study of love, guilt and redemption (albeit based on Jane Eyre), this bhajan is being sung by a young woman who has dedicated her life to the deity. The sound of the bells (that mimic the jal tarang) is something that remains with you long after you listen to the song.

Itni shakti humein dena daata
Ankush (1986)
Singers: Pushpa Pagdhare, Sushma Shreshta
Music: Kuldeep Singh
Lyrics: Abhilash
One of the finest – and perhaps, most realistic films of the 80s, Ankush was director Chandrasekhar Narwekar’s (better known as N. Chandra) debut as director. In 1982, Datta Samant had called for a strike of the textile workers in Bombay – in the aftermath, mills shut down, unemployment increased, and youth unrest became a permanent part of civil society. N Chandra, who grew up witnessing this first-hand, wrote story and screenplay, as well as edited his film (he had earlier worked as editor for Gulzar), apart from directing it. Music director Kuldip Singh was an IPTA member, working for years on the IPTA dramas before making his debut with Sai Paranjpe’s Saath (1982). The film, which starred Nana Patekar (among others), was a surprise hit upon release, and soon became a cult classic. This bhajan, coming at a crucial moment in the film, provides some hope to the disillusioned youth – a hope that is soon shattered, leading to a tragic denouement.

Zara saamne to aao chhaliye
Janam Janam ke Phere (1957)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar
Music: SN Tripathi
Lyrics: Bharat Vyas
IMDB lists this as being c0-directed by Vijay Sadanah and Manmohan Desai (as Manoo Desai). As far as I know, MD’s first film was Chhalia (1960). Be that as it may, Janam ke Phere was one of the many ‘mythologicals’ that were churned out with regularity in almost all languages. Starring Nirupa Roy and Manhar Desai, the film dealt with an atheist son of religious parents, whose beloved tries to bring him back into the fold. (With a name like Janam Janam ke Phere, what could you expect?) However, this song, beautifully rendered by Rafi and Lata, raced to the top of the Binaca Geetmala in 1957.

O sheronwali
Suhaag (1979)
Singers: Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosle
Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Since we are in the middle of Durga Puja festivities, let me end with this song from Suhaag. It is perfect for the season since it is addressed to Goddess Durga and celebrates the garba, which is an essential part of the Navratri celebrations in North and Western India. Amitabh has quite a few devotional songs to his credit, as well as the iconic temple scene from Deewar, but this song, kitschy as it is, is a stunning collaboration of music, vocals, and choreography. Bonus? The song is not just inserted into the narrative for gratuitous ‘bhakti’ sentiment, but actually serves the plot. 
What devotional songs do you like? 

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