Sep 01, 2016 11:28AM
By Erin Lehn Floresca
Kirtan, or sacred chanting, originated in sixth century India and is one of the oldest musical traditions in the world. A Sanskrit word meaning to tell a story, kirtan is a call-and-response style song or chant, set to music, and often sung in Sanskrit. Kitzie Stern, producer of the New World Kirtan podcast, shares, “Kirtan is basically a simple and powerful way to quiet the mind. The mantras combined with the music are a hack into the human system that allows us to access the joy and connection that is always there underneath the chatter of the mind.”
Kirtan was popularized in the Western World during the 1960s. When George Harrison of the Beatles became a fan, kirtan became widespread, and has enjoyed an increase in popularity ever since. “Mantra is medicine for us as human beings. Sanskrit is an ancient and sacred language—all human beings understand it on a deep level. The mantras vibrate our cells in ways that are medicinal, and the music helps us to take it in,” says Stern.
Kirtan has been described as ecstatic. A traditional kirtan concert consists of devotional singers or wallahs (chant leaders) who chant and sing while playing musical instruments such as a double-headed folk drum called a khol, a pair of brass hand cymbals known as kartals and the harmonium, a portable free-reed organ. At a kirtan based on Western music, anything goes, from folk rock to hip hop, and Western style elements are often combined with the traditional Indian instruments.
According to Stern, kirtan is known for bonding everyone in the moment of co-creation between audience and artists, followed by quiet meditation in community. The mantras used in kirtan open the listener to the experience of peace. She explains, “Kirtan is a spiritual practice that is over 5,000 years old, but it’s primarily the experience of feeling a connection to a deeper place of belonging and love that we all share as human beings. It opens the heart, and we can feel that when we sing together at a kirtan.”
Stern shares that kirtan has the ability to quiet the mind if listened to with intention. “Everyone experiences kirtan differently. You can think of it as a sing-along, you can get up and dance, you don’t even have to sing,” says Stern, who also notes that a kirtan concert is not like most typical concerts. A lot of people, performers and audience alike, usually sit on the floor, and there is quiet meditation, not applause, after each song.
“The performers are accessible; in fact, there’s not much of a distinction between performers and audience,” explains Stern. “Here’s how it works: the wallah sings the mantra, and the audience sings it back. When your mind wanders, you bring it back to the mantra. A single chant can go on for quite some time, and as you sing you experience a deep connection with the musicians, the other audience members and yourself. And when the music stops, your mind is quiet—the silence after each chant is to bathe ourselves in that beautiful silence. It doesn’t happen often in our culture.”
One does not have to attend a live kirtan performance to reap its benefits. Stern’s podcast plays a variety of chants to help listeners tune into tranquility. She observes that, “There’s a deep river of peace and joy each of us have inside, but the speed at which we live and the chatter of our minds prevent us from accessing it. Kirtan allows us to tune into that space and live our lives more present to the magnificence that surrounds us. It is the song of the soul.”
Learn more at NewWorldKirtan.com.
Erin Lehn Floresca is a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.