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Importance Of Abhang – Devotional Song In Marathi

Abhang is of great importance in Marathi bhakti literature. Abhang or Abhanga or Abhangs is a term denoting a meter, a devotional song and a figure of speech. As a meter, it is specific to Marathi literary and devotional compositions.

Abhang means ‘a’ – non and ‘bhang’ – ‘ending’ or ‘interrupting’, - thus the word means a flawless, continuous process, in this case referring to a poem.

The meter of Abhang is said to have been formulated by Sant Dnyaneshwar and it was made common by Sant Namdev. There are two types of Abhang - Devadwar Abhang and Deviwar Abhang. The Abhangs have four charans, the first three are of the same meter, but the last one i.e. fourth one is comparatively shorter. Ektari or Veena is plucked during Abhang singing by the main singer and the group follows him line by line. The Abhang is unfolded with little bit of improvisation of Alaap, Taan and now Sargam. Most of the tunes for Abhang are from folk music of Maharashtra and so, they are simple, hummable and linger in a cluster of 4-5 notes.

In early Marathi literature, two meters were popular with the saint-poets. They were ovi and abhang. Abhang was developed from the Prakrita meter satpandi or ardha satpadi. It is mainly based on tala (timing). Abhang became popular because it could effectively convey the thoughts of the saints in a musical style.

Abhang by its mellifluous oral transmission and didactic appeal has attracted the people of Maharashtra over the centuries. Harikathas, kirtanas, other devotional singing, which have maintained their enchanting nature till this day, are generally full of abhangs of Dnyaneshwar, Namadeva and Tukaram. Tukaram’s Abhang Gatha is regularly studied and sung in Maharashtra, mostly in the Varkari sect. They have enthralled society by their exposition of divine and human morals.

For the last 700 years or so, abhang have been very popular among the devotees of Vitthala. There was a large fraternity of saints after Dnyaneshwar, who offered their votive songs in the form of Abhangs. Among the well  known saints are Sopana, Gora Kumbhar, Savata Mali, Kanhoba, Niloba, Muktabai, Janabai, Kanhopatra and Bahinabai. All these saints exhort the people to follow the path of devotion of Bhagavan Vitthala, who showers his compassion on the suffering devotees and gives them a permanent place in heaven.

The original simple ‘ovi’ meter became endowed with rhythm and then emerged as abhang in the works of innumerable saints of Maharashtra. The difference between the two meters is marginal, as both of them have sprung from the same Prakrita meter. Ovi has its origin in folk songs, in which the lilt or cadence is important. Abhang is mainly based on tala or timing.

Abhang singing demands a multi-level grasp of techniques. Ragas don't change definitively, they fade into one another. The rhythms are dynamic and dramatic. Each word of the song carries implied meanings. Exposure to a range of styles is essential to develop one's own approach. A strong voice with a resonant timbre is a must. Knowledge of the life story of the saint composer evokes deeper feeling.

In Maharashtra, Abhang can be heard in bus, street, marketplace, and during home pujas. During the annual Pandarpur yatra in Ashada month (June – July) on foot, pilgrims carry dolis, dance, sing abhang, play dholak and cymbals.