This is a brief account of how I came to study and love the music of Vrindavan, and what led me to collect and publish a large anthology of songs and recordings from the Radhavallabha tradition.
Founded by Sri Hit Harivansh in the sixteenth century, the Radhavallabha Sampradaya is likely the oldest continuous tradition of Vaishnava music established in Vrindavan. The longevity of my fascination with the Radhavallabha temple music, from 1975 to the present, speaks to the power of sound, and to the resonating effects of sacred music on human consciousness over long periods of time. In short, hearing certain types of music transforms people’s lives and leads to life-changing decisions.
I grew up in a musical family. My father was a pianist and song arranger for Broadway shows. Studying classical piano as a youth led to playing keyboard in popular bands. Naturally, when I first heard about Indian music, I was drawn, not so much to the sitar or tabla instruments as many Americans were, but to the harmonium as an accompaniment to devotional singing. Somehow I knew that behind the sitar music was a long-established vocal classical tradition that was linked to Hindu worship. Yet a clear understanding of vocal music required serious study of raga music as well as Indian rhythms known as talas.
As part of my initial attraction to Indian devotional culture, I joined ISKCON as a devotee in 1970 in New York City, and worked at ISKCON Press as part of the Sanskrit editorial department. During my first trip to Vrindaban in 1975, curiosity led me to explore some of the vocal music as performed in the various temples in Braj. But while there are indeed many beautiful kirtans in the Bengali language as heard in Bengal and in Vrindavan, my special interest was in the music native to the Braj area, sung in the local language of Braj Bhasha and based strictly on classical forms. Since the classical music of India has roots in the ancient Vedic period, it drew my attention as something of very high value.
What struck me most about the music in the Radhavallabha temple, known as Samaj Gayan, was the consistency of the singing–every morning and evening at precise times–and how the songs were linked to the seasonal rituals in the temple. The songs were composed in classical ragas, many dating hundreds of years, and the singers focused very closely on the meaning of the lyrics that expressed intimate pastimes of Radha and Krishna.
As I sat in the temple on various occasions of Samaj Gayan, I tried to follow the lines of the poems and the melodies, and count the beats of the drum and cymbals. However, the music was too complex for someone without formal training in Indian music. For example, much of the music comprised complicated talas or rhythmic patterns of 14 beats (Dhamar and Dipchandi) or 12 beats (Chautal and Ektal), as well as ragas or melodic patterns that defied the structure of Western scales. There were also intricate patterns of call and response within the time cycles that were quite astonishing to hear. Realizing that I needed guidance, the next step was to enroll in a music college and receive training in ragas and talas, which I did at the Tansen Music College in Calcutta (1976-1980).
As I continued my studies and practice of the basic ragas and talas, the Radhavallabha music gradually began to make sense, and I was able to more closely follow the rhythms and melodies of the songs as they unfolded in the recordings, appreciating their depth and richness. I was not only continually enchanted by the beautiful turns of phrase and accented beats, with rising and falling tempos, but was alerted to something very profound about the entire process of listening to and performing music as a way to access the Divine. Here music is not merely an ornament to devotion, an optional art form or skill that only few could execute, but in fact the central core of the Bhakti religious experience. As more ideas began to resonate with me, I was eager to immerse myself further into this tradition and discover more of its secrets.
After earning an M.A. in Musicology (1986) and a Ph.D. in South Asian Religion (1989) from Syracuse University, I decided to apply for grants to more fully study and document the Radhavallabha music. Under a Fulbright Research Grant in 1992-1993, I was able to live in Vrindavan for a year and collect recordings of the Radhavallabha temple music. It was indeed necessary to live there for longer periods of time as most of the songs are tied to specific holidays and are not heard at other times of the year. At first the musicians were reluctant to allow recordings, but after some time they understood my project of documentation and expected me to be there.
Many audio cassettes were recorded then but were not analyzed until much later, as teaching duties began to surmount my schedule throughout the succeeding years. After 2001, I began to have the tapes digitized for posterity, and to consider publication. One day in late 2007, I spoke with Dr. Neal Delmonico (Nitai Das) of Blazing Sapphire Press, a publisher of Hindu and Vaishnava works. He encouraged me to complete the book and CD archive for publication. The result is the book and archive entitled Vaishnava Temple Music in Vrindaban: The Radhavallabha Songbook (Kirksville, MO: Blazing Sapphire Press, 2011).
Following the Foreword by John Stratton Hawley, there is a lengthy introduction describing the history and theology of the Radhavallabha Sampradaya. The main part of the work contains 108 songs in Hindi script, Roman transliteration, and English translation, accompanied by 18 CDs of the same 108 songs from original audio recordings made at both the main temple and at Hit Ashram, another location in Vrindaban where Samaj is regularly held.
The collection also includes the earlier recordings made during 1975-1980. The songs cover most of the festive holidays from Holi through the Rainy Season, Janmastami, Radhastami, and Rasa Lila. The anthology contains rare and historic recordings since the lead singers have passed away or are no longer active musicians. It is thus the most comprehensive treatment of the Radhavallabha music available in English.
The 18 CDs are also available on one DVD in digital format. For this project, I was fortunate to have the translation assistance of Sri H.S. Mathur, a native speaker of Braj Bhasha and former manager at Sri Rangaji temple in Vrindaban. He provided invaluable help with much of the translation work as well as interpreting the culture and literature represented by the songs. Previously published translations of songs of Hita Harivansh by Western scholars Rupert Snell and Charles S. J. White, as well as songs by Hariram Vyas translated by Heidi Pauwels, are included.
As I became more absorbed with the songs of the Radhavallabha tradition, the feeling of being associated with the more ecumenical spirit of Braj and Vrindaban seemed very real. During my numerous sittings in both the main temple and at Hit Ashram, devotees from other sampradayas were regularly in attendance and participated in the singing of Samaj-Gayan. Initiated members of Haridasi and Nimbarka sampradayas were there, as well as many other sadhus, babajis, yogis, and bhaktas from the Braj area including Govardhan and Radha Kund. Several of the singers were also Bengalis from the various Gaudiya temples in Vrindaban. I even met a few Indian devotees from the ISKCON temple who were regular singers and found that the Samaj Gayan experience fulfilled something special in their hearts, as with me.
The Radhavallabha musical experience of hearing the eternal pastimes of Radha and Krishna set within the groves of Vrindaban provides a glimpse into the transcendental realm, where there is no need of sectarian debates and disputes about siddhanta, Vedanta, avataras, varna-ashrama, theology, gender, or rituals, etc. All issues of doctrine and identity are set aside for the duration of the sitting, as has been done for nearly a half-century in Radhavallabha Samaj Gayan. Hopefully my experience with the Radhavallabha music, as documented in my book, will awaken other devotees to the beauty and richness of songs and music that carry forth unique devotional moods and emotions from previous times that cannot be reproduced through texts or words alone.
Ananda Aju Nanda Ke Dvara (Click for Soundcloud)
(birth Song of Sri Krishna) by Hita Harivamsa (#48 in Radhavallabha Songbook)
ananda aju nanda ke dvara /
dasa ananya bhajana rasa karana pragate lala manohara //
candana sakala dhenu tana mandita kusuma dama ranjita agara /
purana kumbha bane torana para bica rucira pipara ki dara //
juvati jutha mili gopa virajata bajata panava mrdanga su tara /
jaya Sri Harivamsa ajira vara vithina dadhi madhi dudha harada ke khara //
Translation: Charles White (1996, 94-95)
There is joy today at Nanda’s door:
Darling Krishna born a cowherd from the Bhajan Rasa of the Bhaktas’ songs.
Sandal paste adorns the bodies of the cows:
The houses elegant with flower garlands, arches beauteous there are, full of Pipal branches in the midst of jars.
How handsome are the maidens, met with cowherds,
Keeping time upon the drums, both long and small.
Sri Hit Harivams says, in the courtyards and the lanes is the best of saffron-colored honey, milk, and curd!
Beck, Guy L. “Bhakti Sangit: The Art of Music in Vaishnava Tradition.” Journal of Vaishnava Studies 21.2 (Spring 2013): 143-171.
________, editor. Vaishnava Temple Music in Vrindaban: The Radhavallabha Songbook. Kirksville, MO: Blazing Sapphire Press, 2011, w/ 18 CDs.
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