Over the past few weeks, there has been a sudden flurry of new devotional music releases. Some of these have been timed with religious festivals.
To mark Janamasthami, the Kavi Narayan Agrawal-led, NA Classical Audio Cassettes Co., released the late Jagjit Singh’s Hari Bol Krishna mantra. This must have been recorded years ago and mastered only recently.
On Ganesh Chaturthi, Strumm Entertainment put out the album Aarti Sangrah by the young duo Anjali and Nandini Gaikwad. On YouTube, singer Sunali Rathod posted the Ganesh Dwadashnaam Stotram.
Though it wasn’t connected with any festival, K.J. Singh’s Asli Music released shabds by Guru Arjan Dev. After a beautifully rendered version of Thakur Tum Saranai Aaya by London-based Deepa Nair Rasiya, we heard a marvellous presentation of Bhinni Raenariye by Delhi group Chaar Yaar, featuring vocalist Madan Gopal Singh.
The league of devotional artistes
Earlier in June, KauRas, comprising Rasiya and her daughters Nimrita and Meera Kaur, released The Gateway, an 11-minute composition containing the chanting of the sacred syllable “Ram”. All these use a blend of Indian and western instruments.
There was also a resurgence following the demise of legendary vocalist Pandit Jasraj on August 17, as people went back to his old devotional favourites like Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya, Mangalam Bhagwan Vishnu and Mata Kalika. After all, the maestro was admired as much for his bhajans as he was for his khayal singing.
Devotional music has always had a huge market in India. While a large chunk comprises bhajans, strotras and invocations, segments like Sufi music, shabds, abhangs and gospel music have a dedicated following too. And besides doing well within India, the genre has had an increasing presence abroad, mainly among the Indian diaspora.
Among the labels, T-Series, Saregama India and Times Music have built up a sizeable catalogue, and industry sources say the first two labels account for 65% of the Indian devotional market in revenue terms. Sony Music, N A Classical and earlier Magnasound, Venus, Tips, Crescendo and EMI have provided quality recordings. In the video field, Shemaroo Entertainment has attracted audiences over the past decade with its Bhakti, Ibaadat and Gurbani categories.
Over the years, Anup Jalota, Hari Om Sharan and Narendra Chanchal have made a mark mainly in devotional music. But there are also others who while specialising in film or classical music have also released a large number of devotional albums. Examples are Lata Mangeshkar, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Bhimsen Joshi, Jasraj, Kumar Gandharva, Anuradha Paudwal, Suresh Wadkar and Jagjit Singh.
In fact, though Jagjit was known for his ghazals, he released some outstanding devotional albums in the 2000s. He paid special attention to the use of chants, choruses and percussion, often giving a temple atmosphere. His devotional pieces like Varde Varde and Tum Karuna Ke Sagar became popular.
Some of the biggest selling albums have been Subbulakshmi’s Venkateshwara Suprabhatham, Ravi Shankar’s Chants Of India, Mangeshkar’s Ram Ratan Dhan Paayo, and Gayatri Mantra featuring Jasraj and Rattan Mohan Sharma, besides Nirguni bhajans by Kumar Gandharva, Jalota’s albums and Ayyappa compilations from Kerala.
At live concerts, certain songs have become staples. Audiences would invariably ask Bhimsen Joshi to sing Jo Bhaje Hari Ko Sada, Teerth Vithal or the Kannada bhajan Bhagyada Lakshmi Baarama and Jasraj would be requested Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya.
Parveen Sultana often ended her concerts with Bhawani Dayani and Kishori Amonkar sang Mharo Pranam.
Jalota has included Aisi Lagi Lagan somewhere in every show. Even instrumentalists like flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia are requested to play similar music.
Where does devotional music stand?
According to industry estimates, while Hindi film music has always remained the largest selling genre, devotional music has often been a distant second, except during that phase between 1995 and 2000 when Indipop was huge. Yet, though the industry has earlier promoted the big artistes and right songs, it seems to have reduced its emphasis over the past four or five years.
With retail stores shutting down and physical music barely available (barring the small vinyl record segment), most listeners are accessing new releases on streaming platforms or YouTube. And though all these songs are available through these avenues, there doesn’t seem to be any focused marketing effort in making audiences aware of this music. Playlists normally ignore this segment.
Very often, the artiste depends on social media, a few press write-ups and word-of-mouth publicity for promotion. But that clearly isn’t enough. Gone are the times when companies showed some excitement and created an adequate buzz over a new release. Vinyl re-releases of catalogue items are barely happening, and radio and television hardly play this genre.
Secondly, with live shows ruled out for a few months, online concerts are gaining momentum. Those involved with devotional music face pretty much the same challenges as musicians from other genres, but what they need is adequate backing. After a dreary day, audiences would love devotional music in their drawing rooms.
Finally, most people belonging to the younger generation seem to believe these songs are meant only for their parents and grandparents. That is natural. However, barring a few attempts at releasing lounge versions of popular pieces or producing animated videos for children, there hasn’t been much conscious effort at targeting newer audiences.
Though it’s a completely different scene, one must here mention the rise of Christian Rock in the West and Down Under, as it’s helping spread religious music among youngsters. Acts like Casting Crowns, Kari Jobe, Chris Tomlin, Third Day and Newsboys have a cult following, and there are many others playing roots rock, metal and alternative with devotional lyrics.
Christian Rock has not been a very large segment, but it is underground and stable, with a lot of new youngsters tuning in and a chunk of artistes experimenting. Just copying the idea may not be the right thing for the Indian market. But maybe something else can be tried with young audiences in mind.
The way things are going, things are just being left to chance once a devotional album or single is released. There is some initial buzz, after which the focus changes. Some gems are coming out as the last couple of weeks have proved. One hopes they reach out to a larger audience.