Music

Strains of devotion

Suman Bhattacharya is widely acknowledged as an erudite kirtan singer in India and abroad (especially Bangladesh). A much sought-after multilingual singer-orator (fluent in Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Sanskrit and English), he is actively working to revive this art with his research-based presentations that focus on subjects other than just the tradition-bound divine Leela (or play) of Lord Krishna.

In different parts of India, there are several traditional styles of singing kirtan, a devotion-charged chorus that enjoys the top position in ‘Navadha Bhakti or nine modes of devotion. The most commonly heard kirtan is naam-kirtan. For instance, Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna-Krishna Hare-Hare. With this sankirtan, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu brought a new wave of devotional fervour among the masses and the entire country came under its hypnotic spell. But, Bangla kirtan’s four major gharanas (inspired by Jaideva’s immortal Geeta Govinda) are entirely different from this and all tend to blend rich literature (an amalgamation of Sanskrit, Bengali, Maithili, Oriya and Brajbhasha) with different genres of music including classical and folk.

In Bengal, the idiom of Padavali (popularly known as Pala) kirtan was admired once. Originated from Dhrupad, the Padavali kirtan is rooted in padas or rich literary verses. But while Dhrupad is centred on one fixed pada, the Padavali, as is evident from its name, is actually a string of several verses. A garland of such Padavalis is known as Leela-kirtan that describes the divine play of Lord Krishna from sunrise to sunset. Penned by great poets like Jayadeva, Vidyapati, Chandidas and several others, these were composed in ragas and talas and were handed down from generation to generation for centuries. All available scriptures mention the ragas and talas associated with each pada. To handle these ragas and 108 varieties of talas with complex gait, one needs thorough classical grooming along with proper enunciation and narration-skills of a ‘kathaakar’. This is a tall order.

Suman Bhattacharya fulfils all these to the tee. Moreover, he has extensively worked on the kirtan-based philosophy and compositions of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Rishi Aurobindo Ghosh and authors Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay and Bankim Chattopadhyay, as all these luminaries were great kirtan scholars and composers.

Keeping the original style of presentation rooted in Garanhati and Manoharshahi styles that interweave singing, narration and some graceful body movements along with abhinaya – he stands surrounded by the accompanists, who join in either in the peaking interludes between the lines and verses or at the end with a passionate sankirtan as the climax. His traditional kirtan recitals offer blissful learning experience wherever he performs — be it Doordarshan’s National channel, university seminar halls, prestigious concert stages, rustic melas, devotional congregations or private baithaks. The reason is he had the best of both the worlds. Born in a kirtankar’s family in 1974, he grew up with devotion-steeped kirtan in Kolkata’s northern suburb Barahanagar but obtained his Master’s in English from Scottish Church College and mingled with the highbrow social circles of the Metro.

Yet, devoid of urban inhibitions (thanks to his early spiritual initiation at the feet of Shri Vaishnav Charan Dass and exposure on kirtan-arena with his father-guru Santosh Bhattacharya), this brilliant disciple of Nilmani das, Manoranjan Bhattacharya, Vrindaban Banik (Garanhati School), Mriganka Shekhar Chakraborti (Shrikhol), Dwijen Dey (Manoharsahi School) and several other gurus, stands conventionally attired as a kirtaniya with an artistic ‘rasakali’ on his forehead and a confident smile. The team of accompanists on shrikhol (mridanga), cymbal (karataal) and other effects, along with his little daughter giving excellent vocal support, sit on the stage in a semi-circle. The radiating glow of knowledge, the captivating flow of narrations, the songs dipped in his mellifluous voice with amazing range and the graceful movements never fail to enhance the beauty of his chosen topics.

Albeit still marked as a mere ‘religious’ ritual, kirtan is gradually exploring new vistas through Suman’s recitals and numerous recordings which are available on the net. Since listeners are appreciating such ‘research-based’ rendition now and there are very few who can fulfil the growing demand, the trend may change, feels Suman.

In his ‘Shri Chaitanya Kirtan Shiksha O Seva Kendra’ he not only grooms numerous kirtan enthusiasts but also inspires them by organising annual Kirtan Mela featuring performers from every nook and corner of Bengal. On the auspicious day of Mahalaya, prior to Durga Navaratri, the meandering narrow lanes leading to the expansive venue reverberate with the strains of kirtan, thanks to the strategically placed speakers all the way from the main road to allow the entire locality to savour the bliss. And Suman enjoys a revered status.

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2021 5:41:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/suman-bhattacharya-on-bangla-kirtan/article7354454.ece

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