For centuries, the songs of devotional poet-saints have been an integral part of Indian religious life. Countless regional traditions of bhajans (devotional songs) have been able to maintain their existence by adapting to serve the contemporary social needs of their participants. This dissertation draws on fieldwork conducted over 2014-2015 with contemporary bhajan performers from many different genres and styles throughout India. It highlights a specific tradition in the Central Indian region of Malwa based on poetry by Kabir and other Sants (anti-establishment poet-saints) performed by lower-caste singers. This tradition was largely unheard-of half a century ago, but is now a major part of Malwa’s cultural life that has facilitated the creation of lower-caste spiritual networks and created a space for those networks to engage in discourse about social issues. Malwa’s bhajan singers have also become part of India’s popular religious and musical life as certain performers have attained celebrity status and been recognized at the national level as living bearers of the Sant tradition.
This dissertation follows performers and songs from Malwa into new contexts and explores the processes by which performers and audiences in diverse styles and contexts use Sant bhajans to construct understandings of the self. It further addresses the role of Sant bhajans in the formation of new communities comprising members from previously disparate social groups. It interrogates why Sant bhajans might be relevant and appealing to Indians from so many backgrounds and how these bhajans and their performers are relevant to major cultural, religious, and social discourses in India today. It describes and analyzes the various processes by which Sant bhajans are creating new arenas for artistic, spiritual, and social dialogue, and allowing previously marginalized voices to contribute to the formation of Indian culture.