views updated


BHAJAN Bhajan (Sanskrit, from bhaj, meaning "to serve, to love, to share") is a Hindu devotional and ritual song performed either privately or communally by a soloist or (more commonly) by a soloist (or soloists) with responding chorus since probably the first millennium a.d.Bhajan, both in terms of practice and etymology, is associated with the bhakti mārg (bhaj is also the root of the word bhakti). The genre's vernacular texts and regional musical idioms help to make it one of the most popular modes of worship, serving as a vehicle for the expression of devotion to a personal deity. Consequently, the repertoire is vast and diverse, with some examples hundreds of years old and others composed freshly for Bollywood.

Bhajan texts are often didactic and autobiographical. The former suggest idealized behaviors for bhaktas (devotees) to imitate, while the latter cite examples from the lives of famous bhaktas such as Mirabai. Sometimes, deities such as Krishna or Rāma are the subject of bhajan texts, with stories from their lives as examples for devotees.

Bhajans generally consist of two musico-poetic parts: dhruva-pada and pada. The dhruva-pada is the identifying couplet refrain sung at the beginning of the bhajan and after each succeeding pada or verse (also a rhymed couplet). Commonly, performers repeat each pada and dhruva-pada. As in many other South Asian musical forms, pitch register generally defines structural sections (pada and dhruva-pada).

In many traditions, singers use the same tunes for several bhajans so that a single tune can serve as a vehicle for a number of different texts. Sometimes, this melody is simple and standardized; however, in some traditions (Gujarati dhāl, for example) and in concert performances, the melodic materials and the concept itself can be more complex. Devotees often refer to these melodies by the title of a particularly popular bhajan.

The musical and textual transmission of bhajan materials is usually oral and communal, with singers learning from each other in performance contexts. Devotees can also purchase bhajan texts in small booklets (sometimes called bhajanāvalīs) in the bazaar or at bus and railway stations, or they can hand copy texts compiled by devotees. Increasingly, bhajans composed for the popular film industry are also making their way into local repertoires through cassettes.


Performances can be as simple as a single devotee singing to him- or herself during a quite moment, or as formal as a classical musician closing a program in a concert hall. A stereotypical performance involves a gathering of devotees (a bhajan mandal) led by a singer (a bhajanik) who knows and can perform many bhajans. In different traditions, Hindu women and/or men (sexually segregated groups are more common in the north) get together on a weekly basis. Mixed groups also perform in special contexts (such as family performances).

Bhajan performance reflects other South Asian models in which a principal singer and group of responsorial singers (jhelā) participate in communal song (samāj gāyan). In bhajan, anyone can lead; he or she needs only have the devotion and conviction to begin and others will follow and support. Bhajan performances are common at temples, but neighbors and relatives engage in communal performances of bhajan in the home and, since neighborhoods have historically tended to be caste-defined, domestic bhajan mandals tend to be caste-defined. However, an individual (a bhajnik) may become so proficient, or may come to know such a specialized bhajan repertoire, that others will invite him or her to their community to lead the singing. Increasingly, in modern urban and suburban settings—and especially in the Indian diaspora—bhajan mandals are ethnically diverse and class consistent, thus reflecting social developments in modern India.

Reflecting the widespread popularity of bhajan, performers will employ whatever instruments they have available, especially those that are small and portable. Historically, performers prefer an unpitched drum such as the dholak or dhol for the purpose of providing the basic rhythmic accompaniment, with singers striking metal cymbals such as the jhāñjh, kartāl, or mañjīra, if not clapping. As music education has grown, classical drums such as the tablā (in the north) and mrdangam (in the south) have become more common. Performances might also include the harmonium, a portable keyed bellows organ introduced into India by Europeans in the eighteenth century but widely adopted and adapted by Indians. In the late twentieth century, small electronic keyboards also appeared in homes to accompany singing.

Many communal bhajan performances begin with an ārathī (an invocation) asking to make the ritual auspicious and successful. An image of the god is placed before the singers, and a plate with a flame (usually from an oil lamp) is passed around the room. Commonly, devotees pass their outstretched hands over the flame and then touch their closed eyes in a symbolic gesture. After the completion of the ārathī the singers begin their first bhajan.

Gordon Thompson

See alsoBhakti ; Music ; Rāga ; Tāla


Henry, Edward. Chant the Names of God: Music and Culture in Bhojpuri-Speaking India. San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 1988.

Singer, Milton, ed. When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Indian Civilization. New York: Praeger, 1972.