In a groundbreaking move, Bhakti Theatre (BT), an affiliate of ISKCON Durban, recently stepped onto a broader stage, participating in the Playhouse Company’s 2023 Community Arts Festival (CAF). This marks a significant shift from their traditional performances confined to the annual Durban Festival of Chariots or designated temple spaces. The move to engage with the public space reflects a bold initiative to share Krishna-conscious stories beyond the confines of the Hare Krishna community.
Bhakti Theatre was inspired by the energetic Bhaktimarga Swami, who has staged grand productions at the Durban Festival of Chariots since 2000. Bhakti Theatre was established in 2015 to facilitate devotees’ enthusiasm to perform Krishna-conscious stories through theatre.
When submitting their proposal to the CAF, Bhakti Theatre had already staged 27 productions. Rasa-sthali Dasi, the Managing Director of BT, Rukmini Dasi, the Creative Director of BT, and ISKCON South Africa’s Minister of Outreach envisioned a broader reach for these impactful performances.
The 2023 CAF journey began with the annual effort at the Durban Festival of Chariots, where Bhaktimarga Swami staged “The Gita.” The cast consisted of an eclectic group of devotees from various provinces and showcased a production usually exclusive to this once-off spectacle. However, recognizing the need to break free from these sectarian boundaries, the theater collective sought to transcend cultural barriers and engage with a more diverse audience.
Bhakti Theatre’s decision to participate in the Playhouse Company’s developmental exercise, facilitated by the South African Government’s Department of Arts and Culture, marks a revolutionary act giving them access to an exclusive skill-share with Tony Award winner Dr. Mbongeni Ngema. The Playhouse Company, nestled in Durban, is a cultural institution with a rich history. It receives public funding and is committed to representing diverse cultural groups in KwaZulu-Natal, aligning with Bhakti Theatre’s vision of reaching a wider audience.
This move is particularly significant against the backdrop of South Africa’s history, where theater played and still plays a crucial role in articulating the struggle against apartheid. Bhakti Theatre’s adaptation of Krishna-conscious concepts to resonate with and through African stories showcases a deep understanding of local sensitivities, making it a powerful tool for sharing the all-inclusive Krishna-conscious message.
Bhakti Theatre’s journey from being synonymous with Vaishnava festivals to gracing the stages of public theatre is no small feat. In our interview, Rukmini Dasi shared insights into the development of Bhakti Theater and its recent foray into the Playhouse Company’s Arts Festival.
Rukmini emphasized the need for relevance and a shift from devotee-centric expectations and spaces. She expressed, “We’re a group of people, a small island of Hare Krishnas, and there’s the whole world. They are not going to adjust so that we become relevant. We have to be the ones who maintain our spiritual purity while being relevant.”
The collaboration with the Playhouse Company signifies a willingness to learn and adapt without compromising the Krishna-conscious essence. Rukmini spoke about the challenges and learnings, highlighting the importance of being real with the philosophy they present. Bhakti Theatre’s approach involves conveying the philosophy and embracing the challenges of personal conditioning faced and brought out through its practice.
Rukmini reflected on the humbling experience, emphasizing the need for flexibility. She said, “We were forced to be flexible. You had to just shift and change, shift and change, shift and change.” The support from ISKCON Durban‘s leadership has played a crucial role, providing the necessary resources and space for Bhakti Theater’s growth.
As a multiracial and multilingual production among this year’s Playhouse Company’s offerings, Bhakti Theatre’s presence challenged preconceived notions. Rukmini shared, “We want to show that this message is universal by showing that people from all different backgrounds can come together to present it.”
The significance of Bhakti Theatre’s move lies in its Krishna-conscious ability to transcend cultural and racial boundaries. By presenting Krishna-conscious stories with authenticity and relevance, Bhakti Theatre could become a catalyst for fostering unity and understanding among diverse communities in South Africa.
Bhakti Theatre’s participation in the Playhouse Company’s Arts Festival has opened the door to a world beyond traditional boundaries that is uniquely South African. With a vision to be relevant without compromising spiritual essence, Bhakti Theatre paves the way for a new era in sharing Krishna consciousness. As they continue to adapt, learn, and collaborate, the impact of their performances extends far beyond the stage, resonating with a diverse and eager audience.
In the words of Rukmini Dasi, “We were open and willing to connect with whatever comes forward.” Bhakti Theatre’s journey from exclusive enclosures to public theaters is a cultural milestone and a revolutionary step toward making Krishna Consciousness accessible to all.
The greater ISKCON community will have the opportunity to see Bhakti Theatre perform at next year’s Mayapur Festival – 2024, where the BT management team previously received an award for their outstanding work in 2018.
Bhakti Theatre Creative Team
• Production Manager: Rasa-sthali
• Writer & Director: Bhaktimarg Swami
• Co-director, co-writer: Rukmini
• Sound Tech: Chaitanya Chetty
• Light Tech: Nashvin Gangaram
• Costume Assistant: Krishna Priya Naidoo
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