Monthly Archives: March 2011

How I lost an arm and got stranded on an island…

When I’m not resorting to sensational, misleading headlines to get more blog readers, I’m often somewhere in the world, sharing the practice of kirtan.

Last weekend was no exception. My Dad and I were invited to come and lead a kirtan retreat on the beautiful, 22 acre island called Inisrath in Northern Ireland. The island is home to an old Victorian mansion that was converted into a Krishna temple in the 1980s, and is also now a regular venue for retreats, run by Tim and the rest of the Lake Isle retreats team.

We left London on Friday – me without my violin. That’s where the losing an arm part comes in. I haven’t travelled without it for a good few years, but thanks to Ryanair, who are one of the only airlines in the world that require you to buy an extra seat for a small musical instrument, I left it gently weeping at home. After arriving at our destination and taking a barge over to the island, we spent the next couple of days introducing the practice of meditation, chanting and sacred music to a lively group of Irish locals. Though most of them had never experienced it before, they took part with gusto in breathing exercises, singing, dancing, trying out instruments and exploring the basics of bhakti yoga philosophy.

Father Harrison, on the barge along with the daily flower run for the temple worship.

Onto the island…

I’ve heard the Irish know how to have fun, and as this lot belted out ‘Govinda Jaya Jaya’ and ‘Hare Krishna’ at the top of their lungs, before dancing around the room, I realised it was true.

It was fun to run it with my Dad too. We haven’t done much as a team, and I was surprised to find we got a good flow going together – passing back and forth the speaking and leading of the chanting sessions.

If you’d like to find out more about Lake Isle Retreats, visit their website here.

Home again – there’s only one way to get back…well, unless you swim.

Fire in the Irish sunset.

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Carnatic Music on BBC Radio 3 – World Routes Academy: Hari Sivanesan

I just happened upon this great episode of BBC Radio 3’s World Routes, focusing on Carnatic music, and more specifically, the journey of Hari Sivanesan – a young veena player (and also a friend I haven’t seen in a very long time – hi Hari!) who has been awarded a year’s mentorship with the incredible singer, Aruna Sairam. He talks about his musical journey so far, plays recordings from the BBC archives, gives a great introduction to Carnatic music for beginners and plays a beautiful piece live in studio. Stay tuned as the programme will continue to feature him throughout the year. For more information, see the BBC World Routes blog here. Congratulations Hari!

 

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Spring Kirtan!

On Saturday I joined in the annual celebration of Sri Chaitanya’s birth. Known as Gaura Purnima, it marks a momentous day for all practitioners of kirtan and bhakti yoga. Chaitanya may have only been personally present more than 500 years ago in India, but his legacy is vibrant and pulsing with the same energy today. He protested against priests who wanted to keep the chanting of sacred names of God as an exclusive practice within the temple, and brought sacred song to the streets. This caused uproar at the time, but the power of his actions soon overwhelmed any protestors and much of Eastern India, as well as pockets of the West and South fell in love with the practice of kirtan. In this way, different classes, castes and genders were united. My friend Gaura often calls him one of the first non violent social reformists. In honour of his birthday, we paraded down Oxford Street, chanting and dancing, waving flags and handing out sweets. It was all quite jolly. Kirtan continued late into the night, and the next day too.

Yesterday I visited Oxford with my dad for another kirtan with the lovely group there, organised by Keshava. It’s always a treat, and yesterday was no exception. Sun streamed in the windows and we were blessed to have a group of enthusiastic singers, including many who had never attended a kirtan before. One girl came all the way from Manchester just to find out what it was all about! They hold events every month – the next on the 19th April. Please come along if you can – and come early to explore Oxford – it’s a fantastic place. It feels like breathing there makes you more intelligent!

More to come: this coming weekend my dad and I will lead a kirtan retreat in Ireland. It’s happening at a place called Inisrath – a beautiful Victorian house on an island near Co. Fermanagh. There are still a few places left if you feel like booking a last minute ticket. It’s sure to be a great event, run by the Lake Isle retreat team who are well seasoned in offering delicious organic food, alternative therapies as well as spiritual philosophy.

Coming up in London is our next kirtan at Yogabase in Islington on 2nd April. I’ll be there with some wonderful friends and guest singers from 6.30pm onwards. Our recent dates there have been truly enlivening, so if you can make it, please join us.


 

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Pulse Magazine Now Online

Pulse magazine is the UK’s only dedicated publication for South Asian dance and music. It’s been running for a good few years and I’ve nearly been subscribing since the beginning. I first read a copy aged eighteen, thrilled to find a magazine that connected me with a wide community of people who shared my interests and discussed and wrote about them in an intelligent, thoughtful way.

Dancer Seeta Patel – photo by Simon Richardson, as published in Pulse

A couple of years ago I started writing for Pulse – mostly reviews as well as recently, my own series of articles on sacred music and the way it interacts with different areas of society. A new website has just been launched where you can now view the latest issue for free. Soon the opportunity for digital subscription will also be created, but for now, enjoy this month’s issue that celebrates the life of Rabindranath Tagore in his 150th year. You can find my article on ‘Sacred Music in the Street’ on page 18.

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Voices Across Oceans

I often moan about the way technology influences my life. I remember the days when I didn’t own a mobile phone; when I actually received handwritten letters in the post and when a keyboard was something I played music on. It was kind of nice to not be accessible at every moment – or at least to be up against the expectation that I should be.

Now, after travelling for the past five years on and off, my once fairly small social circle has exploded to include thousands, across continents and timezones. It can be quite overwhelming to stay in touch, or just understand the nature of those relationships, kept alive by Facebook messages and occasional Skype calls.

The other day though, I thanked God for technology. I met a wonderful lady in Melbourne this year – a fellow Hare Krishna who also happens to love Carnatic music. While I was there we shared a happy hour swapping songs and ragas, and she told me how she’d been doing the same with another lady she knows in India. So last Friday morning we all met up on a conference call to have a music lesson – morning in London, afternoon in Coimbatore and evening in Melbourne. It was so enlivening, and unexpectedly easy, given that we couldn’t even see each other (which I know is possible too). We learnt ‘Jamuna Kinare’, a bhajan in Hindi by the Carnatic composer, Swati Thirunal. Below is a version sung by Prince Rama Varma.

Ahh. Sharing music gives me a warm feeling inside. Perhaps I can live with Skype after all.

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A Glorious End

Some days remain etched within the mind forever. I think yesterday was one I will never forget.

I’ve only attended a few funerals in my life. None have been for people I was particularly close to, but all were moving in their own way. I’m sure everyone remembers the first time they saw a dead body – that strange twist of fear and morbid fascination and loss. I always felt so uncomfortable at the outpouring of emotion. As a teenager, I felt confused at what I was supposed to do. Should I try and cry, even if I don’t feel it? Would people appreciate it if I try and be lighthearted? Am I supposed to comfort people, or do they want to be left alone?

Yesterday’s ceremony was perhaps one of the most cathartic, moving experiences I’ve ever had. Close to eight hundred people gathered at the North London crematorium to pay last respects. One hundred and fifty crowded the small, sunlit chapel, whilst the remainder watched outside on TV screens. I sat with a few friends in a corner behind the plinth where the coffin would eventually sit. We were there with harmonium, kartals, mridanga, flute and violin to lead the major portion of the ceremony – continuous kirtan. Several family members gave beautiful speeches, glorifying the unique qualities of their father, uncle and brother. They spoke of his generous, unfailingly open heart and his humility. His desire to serve others and his lighthearted, loving nature were celebrated by so many. From my vantage point at the front of the room, I could see heads nodding as they spoke, each a moving testament to the truth of their words. The time line of his life was recited. It almost felt as if we walked through a gallery, examining images and memories, and fragments of a life, mapping his journey up to the present moment. It can be sobering to hear a life summarised. One life seems so short – a fluttering rush of days and months, like a moth falling towards a flame. But even a short life is glorious when lived with integrity and substance.

After speeches the front and back doors were thrown open, the March wind gusting in with the shafts of sunlight. A non stop line of people passed through, holding flower petals which they placed at his feet as a sign of respect. The kirtan began, and the sound carried up to the high ceiling. Watching every person pass, I was captivated by the range of emotions on each face. So many kinds of tears – of love, of pain and loss, of joy. Some were overwhelmed and wept uncontrollably, whilst others looked on his face with a steady gaze and peaceful heart. Children passed, looking dazed or distressed, and teenagers, trying to control emotions they never expected. Old friends, colleagues, saffron clad monks. Perhaps the worst to see were his parents, saying goodbye to a cherished son. They lovingly touched his face and walked away from the coffin with faltering steps. I sat watching, singing and playing my violin – trying to stay present to my task but finding tears streaming down my face at unexpected moments. They dripped down my nose, falling all over my violin. I looked over at my friends to see them crying too. My dear friend sang with her eyes closed, only pausing once in two continuous hours because emotion overwhelmed her.

Despite so many tears, as the ceremony drew closer to the end, an indescribable feeling of joy began to rise within the room. Voices called with such love and focus. The sound was heavenly in a rare way. With an irresistible rise and fall, the mridanga drum picked up tempo, and a few men began to dance. They stood beside the coffin, gazing at their old friend with such love, arms raised, swaying and stepping in time. More joined in and soon almost everyone was standing and moving to the beat – even those looking on from the rear balcony. I wondered if it was disrespectful to dance at a funeral? It certainly seemed incongruous in the white walled, Victorian chapel. But no one cared – in those last moments, all sounds were of loving prayer – every tear stained face decorated with a smile.

Then silence fell, and my Dad recited the final prayers from the ancient Upanishads. ‘Let this temporary body be burnt to ashes, and let the air of life be merged with the totality of air. Now, O my Lord, please remember all my sacrifices, and because You are the ultimate beneficiary, please remember all that I have done for You.’ We repeated the words together, speaking one final prayer that described the glory of kirtan as the garden-like oasis for the weary soul. Then with the press of a button, it was all over. Vacuums were quickly whipped out to clean away the petals and everyone was ushered out.

May we all lead lives rich with love and service, that flower in such a glorious end.

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The S Word

Tonight I was sitting next to my mum and a few people commented that we looked ‘exactly like sisters!’ Compliment for her. Yes, I know I’m not getting any younger. Tomorrow marks one more year of being, and I’m surprised at how meaningless it’s starting to feel.

When I was younger I was all into birthdays. Each year had a different theme, from St Patrick’s Day, to murder mystery, to Hawaii. It was fun. But now that I’m officially an old crotchet, I don’t feel much for the passing of another twelve months – except the realisation that there’s no time like the present to become more determined to live my words – put my thoughts into action.

So many experiences this year have brought me to the understanding that I have to surrender. I know – it’s almost a dirty word in today’s society. Surrender is what you do when you get arrested, or when you realise that you’re going to be stuck in traffic, whether you beep the horn twenty times or not. Surrender means relinquishing control. Failing to take charge of life.

Well, not really. At least not from where I’m standing. To me surrender means being satisfied with the fact that I’m not in control. It means acknowledging the divine source of everything in my life, and having faith that there is a higher plan. It means letting go to whatever vision I have of the way things are supposed to be, and listening, watching and learning as they unfold the way they will.

Tomorrow is a birthday for me, but a funeral for my uncle. We step into this life for a few moments, and walk off through the wings after the play ends. It’s so important to make everything inbetween count. Not in a frantic way. Not anxiously watching the years passing, our bodies changing. But with grace, good humour, patience and faith.

I love the way my dear friend Gaura put it in his song, ‘Surrender’. Heartfelt realisation.

 

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