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Chants for sale

How does an ancient mantra like the Gayatri suddenly become hot? Today this four-line Vedic mantra spells commercial success

Times Music and HMV have launched cassettes and CDs glorifying the power and "contemporary significance" of Gayatri, an ancient mantra.

While Times Music boasts of a Pandit Jasraj rendition, HMV has roped in Swami Sukhabhodananda (popularly called the 'Corporate Guru') to do its version. Music shops say both are fast sellers.

"We have sold more than three and a half lakh cassettes of Gayatri", says Mr Sanjay Varma, Deputy Manager, Times Music.

Music shops confirm its popularity. Mr Venkatesh, owner of Disco Track, a shop in Bangalore's middle and upper middle class locality of Jayanagar, says he sells at least one cassette of Gayatri every day. Mr Vikas Mahesh who runs Calypso, a stylishly done-up music shop in the same area, says, "Times Music's Gayatri and Sacred Chants of Shiva easily figure in my top ten bestseller list".

Why the sudden boom in the sales Vedic chants and Sanskrit shlokas?

Devotional music in South India has always enjoyed popularity. M S Subbalakshmi's Venkatesha Suprabhatam, Vishnu Sahasranamam and Bhaja Govindam have sold consistently over the years. Cassettes based on other religious texts like Lalitha Sahasranama, Shyamala Dandaka and Soundarya Lahiri have also found a place on family tape racks.

So why the hype about Gayatri, Sacred Chants of Shiva, Chants of India, and the just released Sacred Chants of Buddha, when similar cassettes have existed without much fanfare?

"People interested in devotional songs and Indian classical music are the ones who patronise these chant tapes", says Vikas Mahesh, admitting that marketing gimmicks work wonders for the sale of a cassette. "M S's Suprabhatam is unrivalled even today, but a Gayatri has come to enjoy the same popularity simply because of its packaging and advertising."

Another shopkeeper says nearly 50 per cent of the success of Gayatri can be attributed to the Times of India's relentless advertising.

Mr Varma admits his company has an upper middle class clientele who relate to tapes like Gayatri. They relate to fusion but not strictly traditional music, and are impressed by good packaging.

He recalls how a non-seller like their Sacred Chants of Shiva got a new lease of life when it was clubbed with Gayatri, giving birth to a twin album called Bhakti, A Devotional Collection.

But marketing is just one aspect that has contributed to the success of these tapes. Listeners have taken to the music in a big way.

Mr K Gopinath, senior manager at a private firm, owns a CD of Gayatri that he plays every morning. He describes himself as a devout Hindu for whom listening to devotional songs has always been a priority. Gayatri is a favourite because he loves "the rhythmic recitation of the mantra", and identifies with the religious belief associated with it.

Another person who swears by Gayatri is Mr Nelson Moses, who works with Times of India, Bangalore. Mr Moses is a Catholic who was attracted to Vedic chants even as a teenager. He finds the chanting very soothing and listens to Gayatri on his Walkman at night when everyone is asleep because his mother believes that "anything Hindu is of the devil!".

The Natarajans are hard-core music lovers for whom shopping signifies "splurging on devotional and Karnatak music cassettes". They understand Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada, and usually pick up tapes in these languages. Ms Natarajan personally believes that "music is the shortest route to god".

"You need not understand the shlokas to derive their worth. Our Vedic chants are so potent they exert a soothing influence on your unconscious mind," she says.

Mr Moses agrees. "That probably explains why a large number of top executives and software professionals buy these cassettes".

Peace, tranquillity, stress relief, instant spirituality -- is this mere ad copy, or do the tapes really work?

For Ms Jyotsna Rao, who has just completed her post-graduate diploma in film appreciation, chant cassettes are fake. "They sound too pseudo. More like a remix, a commercial adaptation -- they are made with a lot of artifice", she says. For her it's a fad that will die "once the novelty wears off".

Times Music uses Pandit Jasraj, a popular Hindustani classical singer, for its Gayatri. The singers on The Sacred Chants of Shiva are not in the same class, but sell because they are clubbed with a big name like him.

Mr Sanjay Varma maintains that the artist is the main attraction for any cassettes' sale. "Pandit Jasraj has a very wide appeal. In fact we were surprised that his Gayatri was so well received in the South." But Mr Vikas Mahesh of Calypso says there is a very prominent North-South divide here.

"South Indians prefer devotional music by, say, a Yesudas, an S P Balasubramaniam, or a prominent Karnatak musician. The Times' Gayatri is not very popular with orthodox South Indians", he says.

Mr Varma reveals that Times Music did have plans to launch a South Indian version of Gayatri but scrapped it for fear of upsetting the orthodox.

So does the chanting always stick to Vedic tradition?

"If a mantra is not recited according to shastra, its very purpose is defeated. Music companies intent on making a fast buck invariably compromise on this aspect", Ms Natarajan laments.

And what do the music companies have to say?

"The Gayatri rendered by Pandit Jasraj is true to the North Indian style of rendering the shloka", Mr Varma says.

"If I want to learn the authentic way of chanting a mantra, I should go to a gurukula. Since that isn't possible, I am content with what the music companies give me", avers one listener.

A dilettante currently "dabbling in devotional music" has the last say.

"A Hollywood director like Stanley Kubrick incorporates a shloka from the Bhagavad Gita for a love-making scene in Eyes Wide Shut, a Madonna revels in her new-found interest in Indian spirituality. And here we are, grudging our music companies making some money by selling our culture. We Indians have to seriously invoke the last line of the Gayatri mantra, Dhiyo yo nah prachodayat… Let us all be enlightened.

The Gayatri is truly 'happening'!

Priya Krishnamoorthy

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