SATHYA SAI BABA BHAJANS

One of the best pieces of promotion for the Sathya Sai groups and centres are the devotional singing sessions called bhajans. Because everyone can sing along, and anyone who aspires to perform can take the lead now and again, these meetings are the most attended in the Sathya Sai Organization around the world. The bhajan consists in a more or less tuneful and rhythmic song where one line is sung by one or more lead singers and the same line is repeated by the gathering. It makes for easy learning both of tunes and words. Another attraction is that the classic Sathya Sai bhajans - which he has sung since he set himself up as a guru, are in Sanskrit, which lends itself to singing because of the predominance of open vowels. It gives an added interest to pick up some Sanskrit words, but many groups also have bhajans in English and other languages as well. One also recites mantras recommended and taught by Sathya Sai Baba as part of a bhajan session. Devotees are free to compose their own bhajans and sing them in public (and they are almost never criticised however awful they might be, for all criticism - except of oneself - is considered to be unspiritual).

Most of the bhajans sung in India praise either of Sai Baba as the divinity, the supposed avatar or incarnation of the one God, or of the various former incarnations he claims to have had, Vishnu, Rama, Krishna, and also about other deities in the Hindu pantheon of Hindu. Some bhajans are dedicated partly to Jesus, to Allah and other major religious icons. The texts and melodies are copied around the world, not least by recordings. Christian psalms and hymns are nevertheless also sung in some centres, these meetings being in principle for worship of any form of Divinity. At Sai Baba's ashrams the twice-daily bhajan sessions are invariably sung in Sanskrit, unless some special occasion is made for some foreigners to sing a few in their own language.

One small example shows how much importance Sathya Sai Baba attached to the singing of bhajans can be quoted. When he had collapsed from his major hip injury and had apparently recovered (a recovery which did not last not was very convincing) he stated: "Each and every house conducted bhajans and Namasmarana. Some devotees undertook penance and performed Yajnas. In this manner, a number of spiritual activities were undertaken praying for the well being of Swami. It is as a result of such fervent prayers that I am able to stand before you and address you." (From the published discourse 13-July-2003 - see here)

Some accomplished, but mostly rather amateur singers and musicians take part. Most of them will speak very favourably of Sathya Sai Baba's singing voice and delivery, though non-Telugu speakers otherwise tend to consider his vocal talent far from attractive. His performances on the bhajan tapes and films has never impressed anyone but devotees, it seems. I always thought the massive praise by so many devotee writers about Swami's enchanting, pure, honeyed singing voice etc. etc. were overdone. Not very melodious, and the timbre of his voice is nothing special, it is even penetrating and ear-grating at times. The same goes for his bhajan compositions, not one of which has ever reached any public recognition outside the Indian community, if the major world radio, TV and hit parades are any judge at all. So the "Divine Voice" cannot make itself heard, despite all the huge and costly promotional efforts on his behalf. No recording that has been made of his singing has ever had anything but highly localized commercial success, such as around the ashrams (this despite all his own talk about being loved by the whole world!). His endlessly repetitive, largely boring and simplistic, and moralizing, 'discourse' rants, get no airtime or more than a brief occasional mention anywhere except on his self-owned radio station - Radio Sai - run by the doting propagandist Dr. G. Venkataraman.

With musical arrangement by George Harrison, however, the Hare Krishna Temple singers in London got a hit and reached No. 1 on UK's top twenty back in the 60s with 'Govindam adi-purusham' in Sanskrit and even had something of a hit with the now well-known and dirge like 'Hare Krishna mantra'. But Sai Baba has never got anywhere near that... while he the Beatles are of course many worlds apart as composers, singers and stars. Their songs also have understandable messages. Had Sai Baba's voice and compositions been so wonderful as claimed they would at least have had raised some notice in the musical world, not least since they are mostly available without payment.

Bhajans are a popular attraction to Sai devotees. Part of this is that it attracts all would-be singers and musicians who have been thwarted elsewhere, doubtless very often for the best of musical reasons! Everyone is allowed or even expected to sing along with the back-up choir verses, and in most groups anyone who wants can be a lead singer for some bhajans too. I ran a local bhajan group for years, seeing I was a musician (once professional). This was a real trial for me as I had certain musical standards - the least of which being that lead singers should not sing out of tune, or drag on the tempo. Wannabe singers and musicians were often disruptive, tone deaf persons who reckoned themselves as soloists or insisted on leading bhajans they half-knew or stumbled over all the time. Out-of-tempo drummers and finger cymbal players are easy to recruit. Those aspiring 'artists' who have been thwarted elsewhere, no doubt for excellent musical reasons, were otherwise largely accepted at most Sai bhajan groups I visited. There were always those who, when quietly told to practice before 'performing' barged on regardless of others. If standards were relaxed to let anyone have a go, it never paid off musically... things only got far less well-disciplined. when standards were relaxed. This was standard for most Sai groups I visited in other countries and at the ashram where raucous bhajans were never far enough away (often after hours when it is supposed to be silent!). I particularly recall (wish I could forget) large Japanese groups bashing drums and howling long after 9 pm (lights out time there) in the Prashanti blocks. Egocentric devotees like Datuk J. Jegathesan of Malaysia - to name one of many offenders of the human ear - even issued tapes with his own bhajan singing and songs, all sounding like a crow and a peacock combined.


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