A simple definition of kirtan: the practice of call-and-response devotional singing or chanting, rooted in ancient India and often accompanied with music.
But a closer look into kirtan shows many things: a rich and varied musical landscape, paths to spiritual enlightenment, connections of like-minded individuals, appreciation of both the natural and ethereal, stepping away from addicting technology, musicians merging it with other music styles and en ever-expanding list of festivals, concerts and local gatherings.
You could also think of kirtan as a kind of active meditation. Although most its chants are based on the sacred Hindu texts known as the Vedas, many practitioners regard it as a means to connect to the divine, in a non-denominational way.
A performing kirtan singer is often accompanied by a harmonium, a portable music organ that is pumped with one hand and played with the other. Other instruments you may find on stage or in the audience are tablas (a pair of Indian hand drums), guitars, didgeridoos, hand drums, cajons, conch shells, flutes, singing bowls, chimes, bells, sitars (stringed instruments from India), tingshas (a pair of small brass cymbals), mridangas (two-headed drums), hang drums, gongs, tampuras (stringed instruments from India that create an underlying drone) and ukuleles.
A kirtan show may be different experience for every attendee; some may experience outward joyous ecstasy while others may fall into a deep spiritual contemplation. Some kirtans inspire the participants to dance. Either way, audience participation is a key aspect; in any successful kirtan session the musicians and audience unify into one collective performance.
Most traditional and popular kirtan chants were originally written in Sanskrit, which, compared to Western languages, has a more interpretive and poetic approach to its subject matter. Although this means that many of the chants can be interpreted in more than one way, usually the overall message is the same. Subjects can be attributed to devotion, the divine, mythology, social matters, inner and outer journeys, stories and ideals.
At festivals and shows, things you may find associated with kirtan (some justifiable and others not so much) are: yoga, reiki, traditional meditation, tarot, astrology, crystal healing, fire circles, kaballah, essential oils, incense, kambucha, cacao, drum circles, capoera, tai chi, henna tattoos, chakra teachings, massage, recycling, feng-shui, numerology, alchemy, sacred geometry, medicine wheels, the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhism, vegetarian/veganism, composting, bohemianism and pendulum/palm/tea leaf reading,
Currently in the West, kirtan continues to evolve musically and gain popularity.