Seema Acharya Chaudhuri on reviving the Padabali Kirtan of Bengal

Seema Acharya Chaudhuri, born into a family where music played an important part, is today among the lone practitioners of the Padabali Kirtan of Bengal, a devotional art form to which it is said all of Bengal’s music forms trace their roots.

The veteran singer — in the Capital recently to perform under the aegis of Impresario India — notes that the style she follows is the “manahar shahi kirtan” or refined presentation. “Part of the reason the art went out of vogue was that the urban elite were no longer interested in watching performances whose portrayal was somewhat crude, with shouting and all that,” she says. Having learnt from the icon of the art, late Chhabi Bandhopadhyaya, Seema is determined to go on sharing the art till her “last breath”.

Before she came upon her guru, she relates, she was like any other chirpy teenager who learnt Bharatanatyam and played Western popular music on the guitar. “It was a wonderful transformation,” she says. Her father Bhushan Acharya Chaudhuri was an eminent sarod player. He also played several folk rhythm instruments and had provided music to films in Oriya and Bengali, including those of Satyajit Ray. Her mother Preeti Bhattacharya was an accomplished vocalist though not a performer. With her siblings too immersed in the arts, the young Seema found herself “floating on music”.

But she had not yet savoured the joy of drowning in it. “One evening I visited a temple and saw a very saintly lady. This was Chhabi Bandhopadhyaya. She was singing with her eyes closed and looked so divine.” Seema realised this singing was her “cup of tea.” The next day found her at the renowned kirtan singer’s house. “I prayed,” she emphasises, “please teach me padabali kirtan, and she said, no, I don’t teach anymore.”

Seema just began singing, offering the lotus and hundred rupee note she had brought, at the feet of the guru. Hearing her sing, the guru relented.

“That is how I started learning kirtan,” explains Guru Seema about the incident that took place over 15 years ago.

“Kirtan is praise of god. There are two forms: Sankirtan is chanting of the name of God and sung in a group. Leela kirtan relates stories of Radha and Krishna.” While the kirtan is credited to the 12th Century poet Jayadeva (author of the Gita Govinda), it was popularised at the time of Chaitanya, she continues. “Then Nityananda introduced the akharas where kirtan used to be taught.”

The kirtans, describing the leelas (literally, divine play) of Radha and Krishna, have been written by well known padakaars, Vaishnava poets, such as Vidyapati, Chandi Das and others.

The leelas are divided into sections like childhood, friendship (goshtho), love, etc. “The love is a very pure love. It is called aprakrita prem. Radha is jeeva shakti, life, and Krishna the almighty power. The love of Radha and Krishna is the embracing of life with the almighty.”

It is not easy for the human soul to tread the path to god, she notes. Therefore, Radha had a tough time. She had to escape from chastising family and neighbours and made her way during monsoon rains, during the night, on a path full of thorns and other obstacles. This journey is known as abhisaar (thus the dancing nayika abhisarika).

The veteran adds, “Love is not always a happy ending.” Emphasising the last word, she notes, “It is also in the memory. It is aprakrita prem, not sensuous love.”

The stories of Krishna’s love for Radha and the gopis are classified as Madhura leela. When he left Vrindavan to do his duty as the protector of the people, Radha was bereft. “Radha had to face viraha (separation).” The stories of separation are known as Mathura leela, she says, adding, “the best literature is based on melancholy.”

The veteran singer who takes in students from India and abroad and also performs with her disciples, says, “The kirtan is now a dying art form. This is because all arts are nourished by the urban class and urban classes patronise Hard Rock (and other such popular forms).”

The Kirtan is accompanied by a horizontal clay drum known as the shreekhol. “In Chaitanya’s time it was called mridanga. Padabali kirtan is always supported by mridanga. Chaityan and Nityananda both used to play the mridanga.”

Learning kirtan singing or mridanga playing is not easy as the talas used are not found in other genres of Indian music like Hindustani, Carnatic or even Odissi music, says the guru, No wonder, she says, these arts have few takers since it is the age of instant demo beats on the synthesiser.

“But I am struggling to propagate it,” she says. dohar

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She explains the art as “a process of purification of human instincts...like mother, friendship, and pure love, and politics and rajya shaasan (governance). Everything is there. It is not only for Vaikunth, it is for human life.” Her students, though also following careers in worldly life, prepare to become kirtanias with meditation and chanting of scriptures like the Bhagavat and the Gita too. While in earlier days she found only the elderly in her audiences and was invited for religious ceremonies like shraadha, etc., she now gets invitations for non-religious occasions too. “A few days back I went to Banaras Hindu University,” she says by way of example. “I am trying to present it academically now. Now youngsters are also coming.” She adds that Rabindra Bharati has introduced it as an optional subject, and the State sangeet academy of West Bengal holds workshops on padabali singing and shreekhol.