In his spacious apartment in the western Mumbai suburb of Kandivli, Ramesh Iyer is dressed in a traditional veshti and angavastram. It is a sunny Sunday morning and Iyer is all set to host a bhajan session at his home, where some 400 people are expected to turn up. People are trickling in and at about 10:30 am, the mood in the living room changes from polite conversations and laughter to people sitting down quietly as though for some serious lecture. Every year, during the 41-day austerity period observed by devotees of Lord Ayyappa ahead of the mandala puja at Sabarimala Ayyappa temple, Iyer hosts a grand bhajan at his home. Iyer himself is a regular visitor to the Sabarimala temple.
And it’s not just during mandala kalam: bhajan is a ritual every Sunday morning for the managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra Financial Services. “My interest in bhajans started in 1999, when I attended a session at my sister’s house. You could say that I was a learner till 2004. I think I am much better at it now,” quips Iyer. He says singing bhajans is the closest thing to meditation for him. “It allows me to be in a peaceful state of mind,” he says.
While Iyer has always been keenly interested in devotional music, during his childhood, film songs sung by Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey were his top favourites. Even now, during his 90-minute drive back home from work, he divides his time between bhajans, film songs and ghazals. Jagjit Singh is a favourite, too. “Music is a phenomenal stress reliever. It relaxes your mind. Personally, I feel the biggest advantage is that music does not create unnecessary competitive feelings within myself,” says Iyer. It is not unusual for him to sing at company conferences or outings. “The wall of hierarchy is completely broken down. People look at you so differently; you feel their warmth...”
Iyer’s bhajan journey started when he was barely 10, growing up in Kanjurmarg, a suburb in central Mumbai. He would join his three sisters for a one-hour session every Thursday. So, without much formal learning, Iyer developed an ear for ragam and talam at a very early age. “We had a teacher in the neighbourhood and the bhajan used to at her home. Much later, I would sing once a month in a temple, which was really my way of performing in public,” says the 56-year-old wistfully. Iyer remembers singing the Shirdi Sai Baba namavalli constantly. “I think it greatly improved my memory,” says Iyer.
Bhajans have the power to transport you to another world altogether — something one can notice in the way people are engrossed. As the tempo of the bhajan builds, Iyer starts getting deeply immersed without having to refer to any book for the lyrics. The music builds to a crescendo as he joins the others when it comes to singing popular Ayyappa compositions such as Sri Dharma Sastha Saranam and Vanpuliyin Medhinilae.
Iyer’s core bhajan group — the Shree Hariharaputra Samaj, drawn from across Mumbai — of about 15-20 people meets twice a week at someone’s home or at a temple in some part of the city. “This is a fixed routine and lasts for at least two hours each on the weekends. In that sense, it is pursued for 12 months (52 weeks) a year,” he laughs. According to him, having a serious pursuit outside of work is critical since it gives you a break from routine tasks. “It is necessary to get back that energy and have the ability to spread positive energy as well,” points out Iyer.
During festival season, like Ganesh Chaturthi or the Ayyappa puja season, bhajan sessions are more frequent, intense and of course more crowded. “The joy is in being a part of a group and having this singing session together. We are all here because we have this common purpose and that’s what makes it unique and enjoyable,” smiles Iyer. “It allows me to be in a different world.” As the bhajan session concludes and the aarti begins, the music is at a peak. “It is a divine experience and it is the music that makes all the difference,” he says.