Abhanga Repost – taking Bhakti poetry to youngsters

In an informal jam recording of the song – Pundalik Varde, the members of the Abhanga Repost band can be seen sitting in a tiny room in t-shirts and shorts, reciting the names of all the sants of the Varkari Sampradaya.  Not the lyrics one would expect from geeky youth – the names of the gurus of the bhakti movement associated with the Varkaris including Jnanesvar, Namdev, Chokhamela, Eknath, Tukaram and Gadge Maharaj.

Abhanga Repost is a folk fusion band which performs Abhangas written by these composers who worshipped Vittala (or Vithoba) in Maharashtra. But they have given these age-old compositions a modern twist.

Guitarist and vocalist Ajay Vavhal, harmonium player Piyush Aacharya, bass guitarist Swapnil Tarphe, tabla player and multi-percussionist Viraj Aacharya and drummer Dushyant Deorukhkar have come together to create a buzz around the Abhanga.

Historically, the Abhanga has influenced many musical traditions in India. The Sangeetha Ratnakara of Sarangadeva, one of the most important musical texts of India, was from Devgiri, which is in present-day Aurangabad. Both Hindustani and Carnatic traditions consider this to be a definitive text on music.

One expert on Abhangas told this author that while the first example of a scientifically composed South-Indian krithi was Jayadeva’s Ashtapadis, it happened at the same time as the Marathi Abhangas during Sant Gyaneshwar’s period. Marathi Abhangas have the same structure as krithis — eight lines and then the writers’ name at the end. Ashtapadis are sung in different locations in different manners. And the dhruvapada, which is the most important part in a composition is still sung in a chorus only in Marathi abhangas today.

He adds that the Varkari Sampradaya (those who walk by foot every year to Pandharpur on Ashada and Karthika Ekadashi) laid a lot of stress on community development and music in the community had to come through the participative element, irrespective of gender.

The dhruvapada is structured in such a way that the pitch is common to male or female voices. This unique feature of the Marathi abhanga is not to be found anywhere else in the world. It uses pakhawaj (percussion instrument) as an accompaniment which has a lot of base frequency. It also uses a very different tala structure of high frequency. Anyone listening is touched as it traverses the entire range of frequency of human receptivity. 

All the members of the Abhanga Repost band have a good sense of Indian classical music as they have performed with different classical/fusion bands/artistes. “We have been listing to Indian classical music since our school days and we also try to incorporate classical music in our compositions of Abhanga,” says Swapnil.

Tabla player Viraj is undergoing training under Pandit Ramdas Palsule and his brother and harmonium player Piyush has been trained by Pandit Ajay Jogalekar. He is also undergoing vocal training from Vidushi Nandini Bedekar. The band members also try to attend different classical baithaks to experience the nuances of Indian classical music.

The band was started in 2016 by Swapnil and Dushyant whose families are from the Varkari Sampradaya and so were familiar with these Abhangas. College mates, their mutual love for music and a sense of community brought them together. The lyrics of the Abhangas, deeply allegorical, appealed to the two youngsters. “Each Abhanga has message for a society. It is so commendable that whatever these saints wrote hundreds of year ago, is still applicable in the 21st century, be it be a call for revolution by Tularam, Bhakti worship by Dnyaneshwar or social awareness by Eknath.”

Abhangs are typically very high energy renditions, where the devotees dance, play the dholak and cymbals and everyone joins in the chorus. “In the traditional renderings many Indian instruments were used as accompaniments while presenting the songs. So we too decided to retain its originality by using the tabla and harmonium (which are a must in an Abhanga rendition.) The guitar imitates ‘iktari’ and drums and the bass guitar plays the role of the Pakhwaj and Dhol and this is how we ‘Repost’ it!” says Swapnil.

He adds, “Our performance is nothing but a modern ‘Kirtan’. We also dress traditionally while performing to keep that folk feel intact. We don’t wear the clothes which the varkaria wear but yes we make sure our clothes don’t look out of place.”

The band spends a lot of time on research on every Abhanga they render before tuning it, to maintain integrity with the original as well as to retain the meaning. They say while they themselves like all Abhangas, ‘Lahanpan dega deva’ and ‘Amhi bi-Ghadalo’ by Sant Tukaram are immensely popular amongst listeners.

Lyrics of ‘Lahanpan dega deva’

lahan pan dega deva | mungi sakhrecha rawa ||

airawat ratan thor |tyasi ankushcha mar||
jaya angi mothepan |taya yatana kathin ||

tuka mahne barve| jan whave lahahuni lahan||

mahapure zade jati| tehte lavhael wachati||

The lyrics refer to Sant Tukaram beseeching the Lord to give him back his childhood because it is the only time when man is without Ahamkara or pride.

The band members say for them Bhakti, revolution, art and music are the same. “One has to practice dedicatedly to achieve these things. We can say these are different roads leading to one destination that is divinity or inner piece!”

Their novel approach has brought new audiences to Indian music. “We have received messages from many people who are non-Maharashtrians telling us they were touched by the beauty of the Abhangas. We have also been successful in taking this literature to youngsters who identify with a young band like us.”

The Abhanga has travelled far from its early underpinnings. Sant Namdev has written poetry in Punjabi and his work feature in the Guru Granth Sahib. It is also commonly believed that Abhangas influenced Carnatic music, more specifically the Dakshina Bhajana sampradaya first started by Maruthanallur Swamigal. This in turn influenced the Trinity when Thanjavur was under Marathi rule. “So basically the concept is not confined to Maharashtra. We haven’t yet played in the southern part of India but we would love to perform there and spread the wisdom of these beautiful poems,” says Swapnil.

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