The voices of devotion – Part 1

I recently started a Facebook group dedicated to Tamizh Isai (tamil music) where members post interesting Tamil songs based on a specific theme every day. A few weeks ago, the theme was devotional music. That got me thinking. Some voices and artists are just brilliant as devotional singers. It is almost as if they were placed in this Earth to eloquently deliver God’s music. A few of these are equally adept at Carnatic music. Others not so much. But the thread that connects them is the sheer devotion their voices inspire in listeners. Here is the first of a two part series that looks at the small list of such artists with a sampling of their music. This is by no means a comprehensive list nor is it objective. If you the reader feels that more artists need to be featured here, feel free to drop me a line and I will do my best to profile them too. Music by nature is subjective and a topic like this is even more so. With that minor caveat, here we go.

M.S.Subbulakshmi:

Any devotional list has to start with MS amma. Many of us woke up to her Venkatesa Suprabhatam or Vishnu Sahasranamam and heard Bhaja Govindam following one or both of them. It was the staple morning piece in most houses in our neighborhood. If someone kept track of how many tapes of the Sahasranamam and Suprabhatam were sold, I am sure it would warrant a place in the record books. Many artists have tried to release tapes of  the aforementioned shlokas but M.S.S voice is the only one lodged firmly in our brains.

When it came to Bhajans, M.S amma was extraordinary. There are innumerable bhajan pieces – compositions of Tulsidas, Meera, and many others where her utter devotion elevated the listener’s experience. Some of the pieces that come to mind are Sri Rangapura Vihara in Brindavana Saranga, Annamacharya’s Dolayam and Srimannarayana, Meera Bai’s Giridhara Gopala in Mohanam, Meera Bai’s  More To Giridhara in Behaag, the spectacular Hari Tum Haro composed by Meera in Darbari Kanada, Rajaji’s tamil composition Kurai Ondrum Illai, Tulsi Das’s Shri Ramachandra Kripalu in Sindhu Bhairavi and Shri Kanchi Periyavar’s Maitreem Bhajata. There are countless others but this small list gives you an idea of the breadth of composers M.S amma covered.

M.L.Vasanthakumari

It would be unfair to compare MLV with MSS and there is a good reason for it. They were both incomparable peers who pioneered the way for classical music singing by women in the mid 20th century along with D.K.Pattammal. It can be argued that MLV had a wider carnatic repertoire compared to MSS amma but that doesnt take away the fact that MLV also did wonders with some devotional pieces. On top of that list is MLV’s definitive rendition of Sri Andal’s Thiruppavai. There is a Thiruppavai version by everybody today but none so that matches MLV’s version. Ariyakudi’s version is more elaborate and is less devotional and more carnatic music. MLV makes it more accessible to the common man and it is a joy to hear. It is my go-to version every Margazhi. Listen to the entire album here

She also had a wide repertoire of Purandaradasar Krithis and some of them standout for the depth and devotion they offer. Here is MLV singing the Dasar krithi “Venkatachala Nilayam” in Sindhu Bhairavi. Here is MLV using the same wondrous Sindhu Bhairavi on a Swathi Thirunal composition, “Vishweshwar Darshan Kar”. 

Here is a song on Murugan in Behag that a much older MLV sings with a young Sudha. And then there were the movies. MLV was the voice du jour for all the wonderful dance pieces in old tamil movies. They were steeped in Carnatic ethos with the lyrics praising the glory of the Gods. 

K.J.Yesudas:

K.J.Yesudas is best known for his contributions to Malayalam and Tamil cinema but his devotional songs should very much be a part of any conversation of great devotional singers. While he made his chops with Hindu and Christian religious music, his collection for Lord Ayyappa are quite special. And it all starts with “Harivarasanam”.

Harivarasanam is probably the most heard and most loved Ayyappan song and Yesudas’s voice is inextricably linked to it. I have heard a few other versions of the song but nothing comes even close. Here is another piece from the 1972 movie Chembaruthi – Saranamayyappa worth a good listen. Yesudas has sung a lot of Lord Ayyappa’s songs over the years and I remember hearing them every November and December as friends prepared to go to Sabarimala. The devotional fervor whipped up in the evenings at Ayyappan Puja Sangham in Coimbatore is something I will remember all my life. 

Outside of Ayyappan songs, KJY did very well with popular devotional songs in Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam. Here is a beautiful rendition of Venkata Kavi’s “Swagatham Krishna”. Youtube offers very many devotional songs of Yesudas that have moved devotees over the decades.

Mohd. Rafi

Here is my outside pick for voices of devotion. If you are a fan of Rafi saab, you know why he is here. We live in a world torn by religious conflict. But music has no barriers, no boundaries. A.R.Rahman is an excellent example of that. ARR has composed some wonderful Bhajans in the last few years. But Rafi saab was the first in that list to make music universal. And his bhajans are a testimony. Here is my small pick of Rafi songs that deliver a devotional punch unlike any other. 

1. Man Tarpat Hari dhar – Baiju Bawra. This song will move you. You have my word for it. The Malkauns/Hindolam is gorgeous and Rafi’s voice just wafts like a breeze at the temple. I am transported. Simple as that. And if you wanted more secularism in music- this gorgeous Hari bhajan was written by Shakeel Badayuni and set to tune by Naushad saab. 

2. O Duniya ke Rakhwale – Baiju Bawra. Another classic piece composed by Naushad for the same movie and Rafi saab makes you feel every word of it. The Darbari Kanada is phenomenal and the song makes a strong impact.

3. Madhuban mein radhika – Kohinoor. What a song. The listener is transported to Brindavan on Rafi saab’s voice, Naushad saab’s tune and the wonderful lyrics of Shakeel saab. The song is set in Hameer and how lovely it sounds 53 years later. 

4. Badi der bhai nanda lala– Khandaan. Rafi saab does this Krishna bhajan beautifully.

5. Mujhe Apni Sharan – Tulsidas. Rafi again does a wonderful rendering of this Ram bhajan set to tune by Chandragupt. 

I have a different set of artists lined up for the next part of this musical journey on the voices that inspire devotion in us. Until then, enjoy the wonderful songs in this post and here is the public Youtube playlist with most of the songs

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