Professionalism has crept into the age-old concept of bhajan mandalis

Devotional songs or bhajans that gained immense popularity with the spread of the Bhakti movement throughout India, have undergone changes in form and content. The compositions of Nanak, Kabir, Tulsidas, Meera although enjoying archaic status today, have always been incorporated by various factions of organised religion.

Today, however, bhajans a subject to a different kind of incorporation, that of professionalism. Throughout Delhi and by extension throughout the country, numerous professional bhajan mandalis have sprung up. Traditionally bhajan mandalis were always formed by temple devotees and some temples in Delhi still follow this tradition. “When someone organises a programme we send our kirtan mandalis, and these are formed by the full time devotees of the temple only,” says B.N. Das from ISKCON Delhi.

Over the years professionalism has changed the way bhajan mandalis come together. “Earlier what used to happen was four or five people would gather in a temple and those who could sing would sing, those who couldn’t would also sing, irrespective of rhythm. Following this people who had knowledge about music, formed their own groups and brought professionalism into it. Today in India there are thousands of groups, who perform daily,” explains Sunil Sagar Bandhu, organiser of Sagar Bandhu in Lajpat Nagar.

Delving into the need for this change and its effect, he says, “If a family wants to hold a bhajan sandhya, they want to call people who can perform with technique, it is not as if anyone would come and sing and they will be satisfied. This doesn’t happen, there is a demand for people who know how to sing bhajans.” More professionalism means more money. The package of tuneful singers and harmonious renditions replete with instruments now comes at a heavy price.

At times bhajan mandalis also become platforms for amateur musicians. Sanjay Mathur, singer and organiser of Om Sai Ram Jagran Mandal explains, “People who know how to play instruments, form groups and take it up professionally.”

This is not to say that people who sing bhajans for devotion at gatherings, without an eye for remuneration have ceased to exist, their numbers, however, are steadily declining. Instead some professional troupes today, emphatic about their musical competency, have on offer orchestras and DJ equipments for hire.