Shiva’s Damroo, Devi’s Shankha And Vishnu’s Naad: Why Performing For Ramlalla Was More Than Just Music For These Bhopal And Pune Ensembles

Sumati Mehrishi

Feb 06, 2024, 04:26 PM | Updated 05:30 PM IST

Keshav Shankhnaad Pathak with ensemble of shankhas (L) and the Baba Bateshwar Keertan Samiti with the damroo.
Keshav Shankhnaad Pathak with ensemble of shankhas (L) and the Baba Bateshwar Keertan Samiti with the damroo.

On 22 January and 23 January, two confluences of sacred sounds reached the garbhagriha of Ramlalla's abode, the Ram Mandir.

The first confluence emerged from the abode of Baba Bateshwar Dham in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The second marched softly across Ayodhya, in a warming progression of auspices. This one travelled from Omkareshwar Mandir, Pune, Maharashtra. 

Each brought 111 members, with percussion instruments and conch shells, for their devotional outpouring to Ayodhya's victorious moment.

These musical confluences are not even a decade old, but their offerings to Shiva and Ganesh have shaped Hindu unity in measures that are unquantifiable. They are led by two youthful Sanatanis, but their musical span is centuries old. They represent different castes and backgrounds, but the sound articulation they seek is one in Sanatan unity. They live miles away from Ayodhya, but they connect a temple in Madhya Pradesh and a temple in Maharashtra, with the abode of Ram Lalla. 

When members of the Baba Bateshwar Keertan Samiti opened with their customary and familiar performance at the Ghats of Saryu and the Lata Mangeshkar Chowk in Ayodhya, the deep-throated spluttering-utterings of the damroo, the sound of Shiva's own procession outspread itself in Ramlalla's celebration.

Baba Bateshwar Keertan Samiti opened with their customary performance.
Baba Bateshwar Keertan Samiti opened with their customary performance.

Percussion instruments and their gallant, masculine orchestration, gurgled out a tribute to dharmic victory. Devotees cried out of joy and danced along to a shower of rhythm improvisations. Some watched in awe. Others rushed to touch the feet of the musicians dressed in red dhotis and a vest, in peak Ayodhya winter.  

A day later, members of the Keshav Shankhnaad Pathak unfurled their emotion-charged breath into an ensemble of shankhas

Keshav Shankhnaad Pathak performing at the Ram Mandir parisar.
Keshav Shankhnaad Pathak performing at the Ram Mandir parisar.

Contributing to the Shankhnaad Pathak were 75 women and 35 men. Their musical offering to Ram Mandir Pran Pratishtha ceremony is at the pinnacle of spiritual milestones. It has given them the required energy for performances being held to mark the celebrations of 350 years of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s coronation, 100 years of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (in 2025), 60 years of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (2024) and eight years of the Pathak's own existence and performance. 

In 2024, they will add a new musical instrument to their ensemble: the tutari — the sound, symbol and musical identity of Maharashtra and its glorious Sanatan past. 

Nitin Gokul Mahajan, founder of the Keshav Shanknaad Pathak says: "Our culture and integrity belong to the Temple." For Arjun Soni, founder of the Baba Bateshwar Keertan ensemble, Dharmic acharan, conduct and cultural attitudes of the members, are as important as musical offerings they make in devotion. 

The Keshav Shankhnaad Pathak performed at river Saryu, Naya Ghat, Lata Mangeshkar Chowk, different parts of Ayodhya, outside the Hanuman Garhi Mandir, and finally at the Ram Mandir parisar

Back in Pune, women members of the Pathak led shobha yatras held to celebrate the building of Ram Mandir and Pran Pratishtha. They went door to door during the "akshat vitran" (distribution of coloured rice as a gesture for Ram Mandir celebration) yatras in Pune and took along their shankhnaad and its auspices. 

The Baba Bateshwar Dham Samiti could not get its 250 kg nagada past the security apparatus at the Ram Mandir. But its anchoring bass sound surely crossed over for the Samiti that was the first to be called to Ayodhya. 

On 18 December, the Keshav Shankh Naad Pathak received a formal invitation from Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Committee to perform in Ayodhya. Their challenge was selecting 111 members from a four-figure strength (2,500 members). The selected members shuffled to the Omkareshwar Mandir in Pune for a practice session every day. 

Drumming Up The Preservation of Temple Life 

A cotton vest, a red dhoti, a saffron gamcha tied tightly around the waist over the dhoti and a garland of rudraksh worn in their necks, forms the dress code for the members of Baba Bateshwar Keertan Samiti.  

There is rustic bareness to the traditional offering, the organised wilderness in rhythm: of their bare arms in action and the resulting impressions of rhythm over the damroo skin, over the brass cymbals, over the Puneri drums.

There is a drape and careful pleating — of the damroo arrangements filling the space between beats. One can visualise the same grace, fall and flow in the drape and pleating of their dhotis. The tight drape of the saffron gamchha around their waist. 

Here is how the Bateshwar Keertan came into being. The "inspiration" came from a machine. Six years ago, Soni noticed that the only source of percussion at the temple during the aarati hours was the nagada machine.

Popularly in use at several temples across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, this apparatus comes with a pre-fitted, fixed nagada, and cymbals that respond to simple physics and electricity. The mechanism is such that the arrangement plays itself — without needing any human intervention or input. 

These machines do fulfil the need for plain instrumentation during the aaratis, but the beat cycle they produce sounds automated and rushing. Plus, they are really no substitute for a bhakta-led, synchronised rhythm-spontaneity, heartful, flow and practice.  

Watching a lone pujari conducting the rituals in the absence of shankhnaadnagadas and other musical instruments, prompted Soni to break the norm. 

Soni tells this author, “I would hear it being used at the temple and it filled me with a sense of discomfort. I thought to myself — 'have things come to such a pass? Have we as people become so useless that we cannot give the temple a musical ensemble for the aarati." 

He began to attend the evening aarati sessions. His shankha would go with him. The evening aarati came to life. This resulted in the growing numbers of devotees attending the aaratis sessions and the growing of the percussion ensemble itself. 

As the sound of the ensemble reached more and more devotees, those who were inclined to traditional percussion, joined the group. “We began as a group of 80 members playing the different instruments. We would gather at the temple and participate in the aarati with damroo and other instruments. Today there are 5,200 members in the group with damroo players, shinghi players, and others who play the nagada, Puneri dhol, brass cymbals and other musical instruments.” 

A Long Breath Of Revival 

Dedicating an entire pathak to the conch shell, the auspices associated with the musical motif symbolic of Vishnu himself, Mahajan works with the members on the representation of the naad (a loose and light translation would be ‘sound’). 

Mahajan says, “The first is the Brahma naad, dedicated to Brahma, it opens the entire offering, body and breath of the shankha dhwani. Second: The Saat Khanda Naad — which has the loftiness of a tribute. Third is the Purna Valai Naad.” In their playing of the conch, the idea is to arrive at the purest depiction possible of the variations in naad

He adds, “Fourth, the Tutari Naad — named after the wind instrument associated with the battlefield, military might, and the victorious Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Fifth: the ardhavalai naad, which is half, like the half-moon. There is flow and the element of water in it. Sixth is the Sudarshan Naad. It rises in spirals and spins, from the earth, higher and higher towards the sky, like Krishna's Sudarshan Chakra.” He adds, “Seventh: the Chhand Naad, which has the quality of making listeners dance in joy.”  

At the Keshav Shankha Naad Pathak, lessons in the blowing technique are given for free and the practice hand-holding takes place looking at the progress of the members in training. “In 2017, we started the Pathak with five people. In 2023, the Pathak grew to 500 members. Today, there are 2000-2500 people associated with us and are receiving the training – which is free," Mahajan adds.

In 2023, they added folk percussion drums — the sambal — to their Shankha ensemble.

Their practice of shankha dhwani is divided into "satras" — sets of sessions. "Om" is the core of their mastering the breath and shankha dwani. The hours and control over "Om", breathing and blowing show up in the satras where the shankha takes over. Their performance on the shankha in these satras reflects the intensity and sincerity of their homework.  

Pune's Ganeshotsava and the iconic performance of the different pathaks during the 11 days of the festival dedicated to Ganesh is the prime, annual, expression of their own art, devotion and practice. “We perform across the 11 days for 12 hours at a stretch sometimes, each day. The performances take place across the city and outside temples including Dagduseth Mandir. The uplifting of the devotees' own connection with shankhanaad is our top priority." 

Nagpur was an important milestone in the Shankha Naad Pathak's journey — from Pune to Ayodhya was bound to have Nagpur as a meaningful milestone. “We got an opportunity to perform before RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat ji. It was an important performance for our recognition. Then Champat Rai ji heard us perform and that paved our road to Ayodhya. Later, we wrote a letter in order to apply to our performance on the occasion of the Pranpratishtha of Ram Mandir six months prior to the historic event.”

Mahajan had taken a vow that he would perform with the pathak at the Ram Mandir to mark the celebrations of its Pranpratishtha. "My sankalp for performing at the Mandir parisar got fulfilled. The emotion took over and many of us, including children in the pathak, were crying while blowing the shankhas."

He adds, "The sound of the shankhas echoed at the Mandir. The emotion surged when we stood before the devpratima of Ramlalla. The moment became very personal and brought a spiritual culmination of a long sankalpa for those members in the pathak whose family members had fought in the struggle for Ram Mandir."

Mahajan counts Shankha Naad as one of the unifying factors in Sanatan. He is associated with the Sangh Parivar and believes that Hindu youth would do well to understand the power of intellect, being culturally rooted and the celebration of dharma and culture in creative ways. 

"Through my years in the pathak I have understood that the confluence of culture and dharma helps in the understanding of the right 'acharan' (conduct) and of the need for a healthy body and mind. Both ensure contribution to dharma. Shankha Naad tells us that not every fight needs a sword. Buddhi, devotion and culture are powerful and enough." 

Making Nari Realise Her Shakti 

The 80 per cent strength of women in the shankh pathak did not turn around overnight. When they approached the pathak, their enthusiasm was brimming, however there were streaks of self-doubts. Their inhibitions had to be broken.

Joining the pathak would require them to draw together the courage needed to represent the feminine strengths associated with blowing of shankha — an aspect they seemed to have completely sidelined with their overpowering self-doubts. 

Mahajan used some visual support to remind these women of what they grew up observing, retelling, worshipping, all these years. He rolled out the devichitras depicting Durga and Saraswati. The visual impact of Durga and Saraswati holding the shankha would convince them of their own shakti — physical, devotional and that of knowledge.

"When I pointed out to them the shankhas held by Ma Durga and Ma Saraswati, it seemed as if they got introduced to a feminine aspect they had always known, but turned inward. I made them revisit the fact that women in Bengal play shankha during rituals, pujas and festivals." 

He aligned the third important input. He recounted before them the physical and emotional benefits of playing the shankha

Their breath training and practice is a sequence of rigorous regimes. For breath control training, the pathak members are given a pipe to practice the blowing between regular training sessions on the shankha. “It trains their breath and sound output and most importantly, it gives the lips the composure and core strength which is needed for keeping blowing the shankha for long hours.”

The pathak meets on second and fourth Saturday every month at the Omkareshwar Mandir in Pune. These two sessions give members the required mental and breath exercises and material to work upon.  

Dharma Before Music 

Soni informs that their ensemble conducts rehearsals in such a way that it can carry a 15-hour long performance at a stretch. “With the intention of practising for long hours, we turned to a local dharamshala for our practice pad. From 10 pm to 4 am or 5 am, we would work around composing the offerings, the flow and the different parts and structures."

Is there a process they follow in order to compose a piece or offering: "Bhagwan hee karaate hain (the deity himself guides us through it and it happens on its own)."

Soni’s musical offerings are inseparable from "Bateshwar", the name of the deity and temple — a name part of their own social identity in Bhopal and Madhya Pradesh. 

For Soni — as the founding member, Dharmic integrity and conduct is of supreme importance when it comes to the selection of members and keeping up the dharmic discipline as musicians. 

"New joinees have to inform us if there is any habit — part of their lifestyle — not inclined with dharmic discipline. There are times when we make them give their word to the deity to leave those adharmic habits. This goes a long way in ensuring the sanctity of their musical offering." 

"In addition to these rules, members of the group are expected to stand up for dharma, be ready for daan-punya, serve the poor and other tasks," he adds. These actions taken for dharma have a role to play in their commitment to the musical ensemble which itself is an offering in devotion and dharma. 

It's perhaps the accumulated energies from their dharmic discipline that infuses the strength into their performances that can often run into marathons across hours.

Their performances take the shape of moving and roving concerts between devasthanas or between landmarks of dharmic. There is a youth-led musical conquest in Sanatan unity shaping up in Ayodhya, and its prime audience is Ramlalla himself. 

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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