Tag Archives: kirtan

India Calling

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These manhole covers are everywhere, one more thing that reminds me of India here in New York city.

Yesterday a friend wrote to me on her journey to Badrinath, and I closed my eyes and pictured her there beside the rushing waters of the Ganga. I told her how the Hudson often reminds me of this sacred river – especially in the morning, and the ‘violet hour’ that quieting dusk where the lights start to appear on the water. Sometimes, like this morning, flocks of birds screech loudly from the rooftops, and the blasting horns of the produce trucks sound like conch shells being blown. Like in India, there is an almost constant symphony of construction going on, and beggars fill the streets and subways.

Here too exists the simultaneous intensity of materialism and spirituality. Walking downtown is a total sensory overload. It’s nearly impossible not to absorb the thousands of words, colours, slogans, songs and smells that reach out and grab at every step. But from this maelstrom there seems to grow a deep desire for some greater meaning. Along with Los Angeles, New York is probably one of the most yoga mad cities in the Western world. Kirtan and bhakti are buzzwords, and even if understanding is a little shallow, the desire to understand is usually genuine. Last Sunday I played violin for a workshop with Krishna Das. To my surprise, 450 people packed the room. Most of them chanted and meditated with the kind of gusto normally reserved for a football game. The more remarkable thing was that many of them didn’t fit the image that is usually assigned to ‘yogis’ or hippies. If I stood behind them at Starbucks, I’d never guess that they could chant the Hanuman Chalisa from start to finish.

As India speeds towards Western culture – the average Mumbai mall is a surreal dive into American street fashion, New Yorkers look for a change. The Wall Street protests are ongoing, and 700 were arrested the other day for blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. I visited last week to join in with the Meditation Mob, a group that meet up to sit and meditate there every few days. Tomorrow they will set up a temple space at Liberty Plaza, where the village of protesters is growing by the day.


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Just Like Honey

I was thinking about kirtan melodies as I jogged through the fields this morning. I’ve always participated in kirtan in a supportive role, but in the last six months or so, I’ve been getting asked to lead more. There’s nothing like sitting down in front of a roomful of people who are waiting for you to do something, with almost no idea what you’re planning to do.

What do I sing?! It’s a time honoured question. The words are not so difficult, but there are hundreds and hundreds of melodies to choose from. Some great kirtan leaders can archive thousandsĀ in their minds, pulling them out in an effortless sequence over hours of sweet chanting. For some, like me, breaking a sweat is not uncommon.

But as I jogged, I realised that even the most beautifully crafted jar can’t make the honey any sweeter. So it is with a tune. The melody is only a vessel that carries the nectarous names of the Lord, which are sweet in a way that can’t be matched by any other sound.

Photo by Purusartha das

So next time you sit down to sing, no worries. Whatever comes out, the honey will still be sweet. But if you are looking for beautiful melodies, you could try listening to some free downloads from Mantralogy.com, where five years of 24 hour kirtans are archived, along with thousands of other recordings. Happy tasting.

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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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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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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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