Bhajan literally means Worship. Is it just coincidence that it also means sharing in Sanskrit? Because singing Bhajans is often a shared experience, done as a group. Normally the lyrics and melody are simple enough to be picked up by most people.
My mother was part of such a Bhajan group and once a week she would march us two under-10 girls to join the group. We were in Kolkata then, I remember her Bhajan group being near Rashbehari Avenue, close to a park. If I was good and sat still for the hour the session lasted, she would buy me a lolly on the way back home. A pink and white cigarette sized stick was my favourite and that is what I got each week! In the Bhajan group, people would take turns in leading a song of their choice. They would sing a line and the whole group would follow. My mother was a good singer but being the anxious kind, she would meticulously practice one or two Bhajans on the off-chance that she would get the chance to lead – as far I remember, one just butted in and started the moment someone else finished. Being hesitant, she would often not get her chance. Even in these places there was politics and one-upmanship! Still, there was always some nice prasad (food offering) at the end to look forward to!
I too got a chance to lead a bhajan once. I was 18 and taking part in a week-long Spiritual Camp for young people. On the first day, there was an impromptu bhajan session. After a number of songs had been sung, I took courage in my hands (I am not a good singer) and took the lead. Always embarrassed about my high pitched squeaky voice (I can’t sing but I do have a good ear!), I deliberately started in a very low pitch and soon I was in trouble in the lower–sthayi. I still remember someone sniggering from behind. I was so embarrassed! One never forgets the shame of one’s childhood failures, does one? Needless to say, that was the end of my bhajan leading (or public singing) career!
Today I have chosen a Bhajan which has been made famous by Parveen Sultana, one of the foremost Hindustani classical singers of our times. Take simple lyrics and melody and give it the expertise of a classical singer with years and years of training and experience, and it becomes a gem! This well known Bhajan is in praise of Bhavani (Durga). It is set to raag Bhairavi of the Hindustani system.
भवानी दयानी महा वाकवाणी
सुर-नर-मुनि जनमानी सकल बुध ज्ञानी
जग जननी जग दानी महिषासुर मर्दिनी
ज्वालामुखी चण्डी अमर पददानी
bhavAnI dayAnI mahA vAkvANI
sur-nar-muni janamAni sakala budha gyAnI
jaga janani jaga dAnI mahishAsura mardinI
jvAlAmukhI chaNDI amara padadAnI