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The Art of Devotional Song

Hindu children learn Bhajan
By Jennifer Lai, June 19, 2007
Image: Hindu Boys Bhajans
Hindu children participate in special prayers on the occasion of Parsuram Jayanti in Jammu, India, Thursday, April 19, 2007. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

QUEENS–The space heater does little to warm the cold, fluorescent-lit basement of the little Hindu schoolhouse in Queens. Under a low ceiling, 15 coat-wearing children sit on beige carpeting, huddled around their singing instructor. A small picture of Ganesha, the elephant-faced Hindu deity, hangs from the wall.

“Shiva Shambo, Shambo,” sing the children, crooning praise of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. Their instructor, a middle-aged man in a grey turtleneck, waves his arms and bobs his head as he sings with them, his voice bursting through to lead the way. He stops every so often to give instructions to the children in Tamil. Then he joins in again, singing, “Hare, Hare, Hare Shambo.” Their voices produce modal melodies, rising and falling in serpentine trills.

From 2:30 to 3:15 every Saturday afternoon at the school, which is part of the Ganesh Temple complex on 45-57 Bowne St. in Flushing, Queens, children learn to sing Hindu devotional songs called bhajans. Performing songs of praise to the deities is a fundamental aspect of Bhakti yoga, which emphasizes devotion to the gods as a path to salvation.

One boy sits beside the instructor and plays a constant drone on a hand-pumped harmonium, establishing the key in which the songs will be sung. Between refrains, the teacher calls the name of the next bhajan, and the students then search for words, leafing through green binders that contain laminated lyric sheets in Hindi, Tamil and Sanskrit. When the teacher doesn’t already have the next tune in mind, a small racket ensues in which the children call out requests and argue about what to sing next. “That’s easy,” says one girl, rejecting another student’s suggestion.

As they launch into the next bhajan, the teacher claps along to infuse the performance with energy. If the children are not loud or passionate enough for him, he entreats them with one of the few English words he utters: “Common!” The little crooners then begin to sing louder and the teacher’s gesticulations become more unbridled. His hands rotate as if connected to his wrists by axles. His eyebrows undulate. He bends his neck back and rolls his eyes into the back of his head, showing the pupils just how ecstatic one can become when singing in devotion to the gods.

The teacher then chooses students for solos, giving lukewarm praise for adequate renditions. A lackluster performance, however, invites his ridicule. He imitates poor performers with exaggerated sounds of a feline in pain. The chiding delights the children, sending them into bouts of giggles.

“Vel, vel, vel, vel, vel Muruga vel,” they sing in Tamil, worshipping Muruga, a deity popular with Tamils in southern India. The god is usually depicted by a “vel,” the Tamil word for spear, which the deity uses to slay demons. The faithful believe the spear is endowed with divine power, and they praise it along with Muruga in gleeful repetition.

It’s 3:15 p.m. and the children are eager to leave. They sway in place not out of godly devotion so much as restlessness. This bhajan lesson is the culmination of a long day of classes. They’ve been at the temple since 8:45 a.m., taking classes in math, English, Hindi, Tamil and Hindu religion. At last, they all press their hands together and sing “Om,” signifying the end of the session. The children scatter out the door with remarkable swiftness, rushing toward freedom.

“This is the only place to learn our culture,” says a Tamil mother from Sri Lanka in a thick accent. She brings her two children here every Saturday, driving all the way from the Bronx. “If they know singing, they can become more devoted.”

This Glimpse of Faith was filed by News21 Fellow James Angelos

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