Article: Songs of devotion

Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting

Metre – moraic metre

The metre of Jain hymns is that used in the conventions of the verse form of pada. Poetry in Prakrit did not measure cadence by pure syllables, but by moraic metre based on the weight of the syllables. Traditional moraic metre was adopted by writers of the pada form. Since this poetic form is the most common form of Jain hymns, most Jain religious songs use moraic metre.

Rather than having a set number of syllables in the line, in moraic metre the metre is determined in one of two manners.

One method is to count the number of long or heavy beats. The second way is to count the heavy beats as two and the light beats as one to add up to a number of total beats that is repeated in each line of the hymn.

Musical metre is also determined by the stressed and unstressed beats. However, these stresses depend on the placement of the note within the rhythm, not the type of syllable in the lyrics.

When the longer and stressed notes of the music are well matched by the heavy beats of the poetry, it results in smooth natural singing. Even so, this match of metres is not the primary factor when selecting a hymn repertoire. However, some women performers may consider this aspect when choosing their favourite solo hymn.


A very popular instrument for classical and popular Indian music, the tabla is a pair of drums. Each drum has a circle of black paste on the drumhead. The left-hand larger drum is usually made of metal or clay. The smaller drum on the right is wooden. The

Playing the tabla
Image by eeshawn © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The instrumentation and melodies used for Jain hymns reflect both their roots as a western Indian music tradition and the context in which they are performed.

The musical instruments used to perform Jain hymns vary according to the singers. Although soloists sing without musical accompaniment, choirs generally play several percussion instruments. The sex of the singers also influences the choice of musical instruments and the type of performance. Female choirs tend to use simpler, more traditional instruments, including finger-snapping, to lead religious ceremonies. Male singing groups are more likely to play a variety of instruments, including modern ones, in more complex arrangements in front of audiences.

Jain hymns are musically part of the folk genres found in devotional music and wedding songs, though there are occasional links to the more formal rāga practice. The melodies are based on folk music traditional in western India although contemporary Bollywood influences may also be detected. Some traditional pieces of music are thought of as specifically Jain melodies and remain popular as aids to meditation. The style of singing Jain devotional songs also draws heavily on the folk music of Gujarāt and Rajasthan.

Instruments and musical arrangements

A popular wind instrument across the northern part of the subcontinent, the śenāī has two reeds. It is normally made of wood with a metal end that flares out slightly. Considered to have an auspicious sound, it is commonly found at celebrations

A śenāī
Image by Badagnani © CC BY 3.0

The instrumentation of the hymns differs in solo and group performances. A solo singer in a temple always sings unaccompanied, whereas group singing is accompanied by a variety of percussive instruments. Hymn recordings include instrumentation like that of popular Gujarātī folk music. This is characterised by voice and percussion with 'touches' of harmonium or the double-reed wind instrument, the śenāī. Singers in recordings of devotional songs are usually soloists.

Women’s choirs often have one woman playing a steady beat on a double-headed drum, usually a dholak, while the others sing. The singers mark more complex rhythms with sticks, finger-snapping and clapping, hand cymbals or tambourines. They do not use any melodic instruments or drones. Women’s singing groups mostly perform liturgical worship rites, which serve chiefly as a form of offering in temple ceremonies.

Men’s singing groups sometimes add a melodic instrument, usually the harmonium or electric organ. They may use tabla rather than a double-headed barrel drum, and mainly use hand cymbals as their hand percussion. Men’s groups do not perform the seated percussion dance that women’s singing groups do. In general, men's choirs are geared towards audience-focused performances. This difference in focus is illustrated by more elaborate instrumentation employing a harmonium, several drummers at once and a synthesiser. They also frequently use amplification and feature instrumental solos designed to show off virtuosity.

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