For musician and teacher Kamini Natarajan, kirtan, or community singing and chanting, has always been a deeply spiritual journey. The melodic sounds from the tabla and harmonium coupled with group chanting, singing, and meditation provide a sense of euphoria and natural high, says Natarajan.
“It is a journey that is different for each one of us even as we sing and chant together. It leads and connects me with my innermost self and at the same time, healing and opening up my mind and soul for giving and receiving from the universe,” said the 43-year-old musician.
Every month, Kamini hosts “Kirtan with Kamini,” a community and donation-based kirtan in her hometown of Simi Valley, California. The kirtan consists of a blend of different voices, percussions, chants, and melodic instruments like the tabla, harmonium, and manjira that work together in unity to create a harmonizing wave of sound, said Kamini.
Meditation doesn’t come very easily to many people, says Kamini. That’s why she often encourages people to try kirtan as a way to meditate and look inward to stop the inside chatter.
“It is hard to sit still and let your thoughts wander. Kirtan helps. When we actively sing, listen, and chant it, it becomes our thought. We replace our random mind chatter with chants and music and that is why Kirtan works,” said Kamini.
Kamini also believes in the power and science behind chanting and meditation.
“Group singing like kirtan has been scientifically proven to release serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine in our body and all of these chemicals and neurotransmitters are related with the feeling of happiness and joy,” said Kamini.
Kamini says she is grateful to find that many people often come back to her kirtan sessions because they notice substantial health benefits like better sleep, less stress, and overall happiness. Kirtan originated in India and is another means of connecting with the community through singing and chanting, says Kamini.
The kirtans that Kamini sings are often based on an Indian Raga, which is the core of Indian classical music.
“Apart from the spiritual aspect of it, when we sing together, we connect with people–some of whom I meet for the first time. Kirtan creates this special community bond that I look forward to. Kirtan meetups make it possible to bring together people of all races, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientations. It is like a celebration of diversity in one way.”
Kamini’s kirtan sessions often start off with a delicious South Asian-style vegan potluck. This gives a chance for newcomers and regulars to get to know one another and converse over some good food. As her band sets up, they sit comfortably on a rug and recite “OM,” the seed one-syllable sound before reciting mantras and singing.
Kamini says her kirtan sessions are open to all. Many of her chants and mantras are directed toward Hindu Gods and Goddesses, but Kamini says she also incorporates songs for world peace. “We do some Kundalini chants, some Buddhist chants. I typically do more Hindu chants just because I know more of them.”
Kamini launched “Kirtan with Kamini” in September of 2014 shortly after moving to Simi Valley. She and has since hosted 40 kirtans so far and there is always a growing interest for more meetups and kirtan sessions.
“I believe in the power of culture, community, and collaboration. I am a strong believer in feminine power,” said Kamini, who previously lived in West LA. She found that there were plenty kirtans there, but when she moved, she couldn’t find any so she noticed there was a need to bring kirtan to Simi Valley.
The Influence of Kirtan
Kamini was introduced to Indian classical music and kirtan when she was a child growing up in a small town in central India. She was even told that when she was an infant, she would often rock herself to sleep when she heard the sound of music.
During her childhood, Kamini lived in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarati, and Delhi, India, and moved around quite a bit.
“Moving from state to state in India helped me and my older sister realize diversity and taught us to embrace new languages, culture and adapt to different ways of life. ”
Her father worked as a technical consultant at different textile factories and her mother taught English at the school Kamini attended.
While growing up, Kamini really wanted to be an engineer and also a singer, so she studied electrical engineering simultaneously with music. “I graduated in both during the same period of time. I worked as an engineer for some time period before coming to the USA,” said Kamini.
Her early introduction to Indian classical music helped her connect and better understand and celebrate both her Indian and American identities, she says.
“The chants and mantras that I learned as a little kid, connect me with my roots, and bring back memories of my grandmother, of my little town, of my past and connects them all with my present.”
She recalls one fond memory in particular when her neighbors across the street in a small town in Maharashtra, India, used to organize weekly Kirtan sessions at their home. She remembers attending them regularly with her mom and sister, singing for different Hindu deities. There was a sense of calmness and power being surrounded by positive female role models and Kamini knew she was meant to continue on in her journey with kirtan.
After marriage, Kamini moved to the U.S. in 2002 and began missing the community experience of kirtan and Indian classical music sessions immensely. She yearned for a community like the one created by neighbors and friends at kirtan sessions in India, and also struggled to understand and adapt to some of the new customs and way of life in the U.S.
“When I arrived, I was on a dependent H4 visa which at that time did not allow me to work or be employed.”
Kamini decided to enroll herself in a community college to take some extra courses and keep herself busy.
“The entire community college system was very new and different to me. I was in my late twenties at that time and there were kids half my age, so there was that challenge.”
There was also a language barrier that Kamini experienced. She also didn’t have a car, so she had to rely on LA’s almost non-existent public transportation at the time, she said.
“In community college, despite me being the shy, awkward, soon to be 30-year-old, with a thick accent who could not understand any American euphemisms, slang phrases, the students around me were generally pretty good with me.”
Kamini often says that it took her traveling some 9,000 miles from India to LA to realize and appreciate what Kirtan is all about: the diversity of voices and the unity of individuals.
“I started singing Kirtans back in India but as a musician, I always sought musical perfection. I always concentrated more on the technical aspect of it rather than spiritual. There was also that artist’s ego in me.”
Once she immigrated to the U.S., she began to have a deeper appreciation for kirtan singers here and how they tried to learn and embrace mantras and chants to really make it their own.
“I started realizing the true meaning of Kirtans. The more I sang kirtans, the more I realized it was not at all about musicianship. Kirtan is not a concert, it is not a performance. It is singing together and the ‘heart of singing.'”
When she first heard about kirtans that were hosted in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, she admits she was either annoyed or amused by these sessions because to her, she thought these kirtans were culturally appropriated by individuals who didn’t know about the history behind kirtans.
“I was annoyed because to me it was cultural appropriation–taking from Indian culture and making it sound fancy, totally mispronouncing words and chants, turning sacred music into a party, dance music,” said Kamini.
But Kamini also realized that she had to also let go of her judgments and be open to letting everyone enjoy kirtans by letting go of her limiting beliefs.
“Who am I to judge whether someone is really trying or is just having fun? I had to let go of what I thought was right and what I considered wrong. I had to let go of my ego.”
Hosting regular kirtan sessions at her home has helped Kamini better understand the healing power behind kirtan, and more importantly, people. It’s also allowed her to be more open-minded and remove herself from the ego and judgmental thoughts.
“It has made me more aware of unity in diversity. It has made me more open as a person. It has taught me to let go and take it easy. It has taught me to go with the flow and that losing control is not as bad as I thought it was.”
She’s also learned how to embrace uncertainties either in life or during an unplanned kirtan session.
“I used to be somewhat of a control freak before kirtans. I am glad kirtan has made me more confident in dealing with uncertainties. I am also happy to have created this community through kirtan. I am glad that I am one of the very few South Asian American women to lead and organize kirtans in the U.S.”
By day, Kamini works as an e-commerce manager for a vegan skincare brand and is a mom to a seven-year-old daughter. She also runs her own music school, records music, and performs with her world music band, Atmasandhi, and organizes Kirtan meetups.
Many people have asked Kamini why she decided to organize kirtan meetups and her answer is simple: “I want to be a strong South Asian American woman and role model for my daughter. I want her to know that she can do it all. I want her to know that ‘yes, it might be difficult to have two completely different careers while maintaining a good life-work balance, but we are capable of it.’”
Kamini has always considered herself to be a strong independent woman, and she hopes to pass along the lessons she’s learned to her young daughter, letting her know she can carve her own path. She also wants her daughter to know that women don’t need to sacrifice their dreams for the family and that they can live their dreams and take their family along with them on the journey.
“I neither want her to think that getting married, becoming an engineer or doctor and having a kid is the goal of her life, nor do I want her to think that if she chooses to do just that, it is bad or any lesser. I don’t want her to believe in what I used to hear often back in India when I did not yet have her, sayings like, ‘having a kid completes a woman,’” said Kamini.
“I want her to know that it is okay for Mom to be the dominant person in her family. I also want her to know that, no, she doesn’t need a man to protect her or take the lead always or make all important decisions for the family.”
-Written by Monica Luhar
*The next Kirtan with Kamini session is September 8, 2018 at 7 p.m. in Simi Valley. For more information about Kamini’s music, visit her website.