Hindustani music is called “north" Indian classical music and while that geographical description is accurate about its origins, it doesn’t describe those who practise it. For decades, the majority of its practitioners have come from other regions of the country such as Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal.

Equally noteworthy is the pan-Indian appeal of abhangs, Marathi poems sung in praise of the Hindu deity Vitthal, a manifestation of Vishnu, who is also called Vithoba or Pandurang. When set to music, the composers almost always base them on a Hindustani raga. Abhangs were originally sung by Vitthal devotees called varkaris, on their annual pilgrimage to a temple dedicated to the deity in Pandharpur in Solapur district in southern Maharashtra. Over the years, abhangs also found expression on the concert stage. Reflecting the growing audience for the form, an annual festival dedicated to abhangs, Bolava Vitthal, has expanded to 12 cities this year, which marks its 10th edition.

“Like Ganesha, Vitthal has travelled beyond caste, creed and religion," says Shashi Vyas, co-founder and director of the Mumbai-based company Pancham Nishad Creatives, who conceived the festival. “A musical evening dedicated to abhangs allows those who cannot visit Pandharpur to listen to songs in praise of lord Vitthal, sung by maestros."

The festival overlaps with the annual 21-day pilgrimage, which begins in Alandi, Pune district, from the shrine of Jyaneshwar, the great 13th century poet whose work inspired the Varkari tradition, and culminates in Pandharpur on Ashadi Ekadashi, an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar that falls on 27 July this year. The pilgrimage, or vari, attracts about a million people each year.

Besides Jyaneshwar, other great saint poets include Tukaram, Eknath, Namdev, Chokhamela, Janabai and Bahinabai. The last two were women, while Chokhamela was a Dalit, reflecting the diversity of the tradition.

In contrast to bhajans, which are meditative, abhangs evoke a feeling of communal ecstasy. The list of leading modern composers of abhangs includes Kishori Amonkar, the late Jitendra Abhisheki, the late Shrinivas Khale, Hridaynath Mangeshkar and the late Ram Phatak, the last of whose versions the late Bhimsen Joshi made popular. The Bolava Vitthal festival includes bhajans devoted to the deity, such as those composed by Purandaradasa in Kannada.

It was Amonkar’s versions that inspired Vyas to start this festival. More than 10 years ago, when Vyas had called on the singer, he remarked that she had not sung this form for a long time. Vyas also gently suggested that the title she had chosen for her abhang recitals, Tochi Naadu Suswaru (Let us give musical expression to Vitthal’s praises) may have been too esoteric for the common man. He then arranged an abhang concert by Amonkar and her students, calling it Bolava Vitthal, the title of an abhang composed by Tukaram that the singer had set to music. After a year’s break, Vyas repeated the programme, focusing on young singers.

The line-up this year includes Shounak Abhisheki, Sanjeev Abhyankar, Anand Bhate, Rahul Deshpande, Shankar Mahadevan, Jayateerth Mevundi, Devaki Pandit, Savani Shende and Suresh Wadkar. Mevundi, who is singing in the most cities, is a fixture in this festival, with audiences making sure he sings Purandarasa’s bhajan, Bhagyada Lakshmi every time.

Among the new singers this year are Kolkata-based Omkar Dadarkar and Aruna Sairam, the eminent Carnatic vocalist. The Chennai-based Sairam, who grew up in Mumbai and lived there till well into her adult life, has included abhangs in her classical music concerts for many years, as have the Carnatic duo Ranjani and Gayatri, also Chennai-based musicians originally from Mumbai, who will sing again at the festival this year.

But the inclusion of abhangs in the Carnatic repertoire may have much older origins. It is said that the Marathi poet Samarth Ramdas travelled in the 17th century to Tanjore, where a Maratha king was ruling, and introduced abhangs to Carnatic singers at the royal court.

To mark the festival’s 10th year, Pancham Nishad has produced a coffee-table book, also titled Bolava Vitthal, in which the abhangs have been handwritten in different fonts by calligrapher Achyut Palav. The book will be released in Mumbai at the music programme on 26 July.

Bolava Vitthal will be held from 17 July-5 August. Timings and venues vary. For details, visit www.panchamnishad.com or call 022-24124750/24188494.

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