The song I have selected for analysis in this essay is “Nataraj” by Jai Uttal. If you are interested, here is a link to the YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3okPXwkASw
This song is part of a sacred tradition called Bhakti (Devotional) Yoga. In Bhakti Yoga practitioners meditate and recite the names of gods. Kirtan is a musical form that sings or chants the names of gods. Bhakti Yoga and Kirtan generally come out of the Hindu tradition, but I believe there is Kirtan in the Sikh tradition as well.
Jai Uttal provides a chord progression to the melody which is designed for the Western ear. The instruments he uses are also primarily Western: Guitar and percussion trap set. If this same chant were played for an Indian audience I suspect there would be a Sitar, Tabla and Harmonium. Because of its simplicity it may be an example of Theodor Adorno’s “Regression of Listening.”
“Nataraj” is the aspect of the god Shiva when dancing. This song praises the powerful image of the dancing Shiva. It is said that as Shiva dances he destroys everything in his path and re-creates the world in his wake. Impermanence is an important concept in Eastern thought. One of the important features of this song is that it engenders an acceptance and appreciation of change both in broad terms and in the very personal.
The song supports the spiritual practice of the Kirtan participants. One of the goals of the music is to produce a devotional religious trance in the part of the practitioner. Kirtan is typically presented in a call-and-response format, which fosters group identity.
Art, in general, and music, in particular, can be accessed from many different perspectives. I listen to this type of music often, but I come at this from a secular (non-religious) point of view. While I am highly skeptical about the idea of gods when it comes to philosophy or theology, I am happy to have gods inhabiting the music around me.
Specifically, I am a painter and it seems to help when I listen to this music while painting. By sinking into the trance-like rhythm and simple melody I feel grounded in a non-rational creative potential. In some ways it is though the music represses some part of my brain activity that gets in the way of painting.
So, I treat this music instrumentally. It serves a psychological use. The music tends to bring my emotions close to the surface and produce a sense of “Oneness” with everything. I believe this sense of “oneness” leads to ethical attitudes of gratitude and compassion which I view as positive.
However, it is far from clear that others listening to this music will have the same experience. I believe that art, including music, can have multiple outcomes or responses to the same work. Some may be ethical some may not.
Others may view this piece of music in negative terms. First, those who have a worldview that does not include the Hindu pantheon of gods, may believe this music corrupts the religious beliefs of the listener. Secondly, and more serious in my opinion, is the claim that this Westernized version of a sacred tradition is cultural appropriation and commodification of their spirituality. My response to this musically is ethically positive and I hope others can get past mythology and enjoy it as I do.