Only a couple of hours ago, they walked down the red carpet in a brilliant hail of flash photography. Now, as they sit in the open air under the glittering stars, they watch performers deliver a first class show of entertainment and heart, each act introduced by local celebrities. On the stands above, a sprightly reporter conducts interviews for the show’s DVD release.
Yet what seems, at first glance, to be a typical Hollywood awards show... is not. For from an altar on the stage, deities of Jagannath, Baladeva, and Subhadra watch the proceedings.
"Welcome," says the reporter, with a charismatic smile at the camera. "You are watching Kuli MeLA, the sixth in a series of events bringing together ISKCON’s second generation."
The History of the Future
I ask Chaitanya Mangala Walker, 41, how it came this far. Born in Michigan and currently living in Los Angeles, Chaitanya works with several of his peers at at a Kuli-owned high fashion jewelry company. He has two sons—fifteen-year-old Airavata and little one-year-old Danny—and an eleven-year-old daughter, Lauren. He doesn’t exactly mesh with the notion most first generation Hare Krishna devotees have of gurukulis, ISKCON's second generation. But then again, maybe that’s because that notion is a dangerously old-fashioned one.
From the early 1970s to the late 1980s—long before he signed up as one of Kuli MeLA’s seven core organizers—Chaitanya attended ISKCON Gurukula schools in Dallas, Detroit, New Vrindaban in West Virginia, and Vrindavana, India.
One of the original gurukula alumni, he attended the world’s first-ever “kuli” reunion—a gathering of forty to fifty people in a Los Angeles park in 1989. In 1991, he moved to LA and became one of that era’s half a dozen gurukuli activitists, organizing further reunions, connecting kulis with publications like As It Is magazine, and establishing communication with ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission.
Each year, reunions brought together more people who shared a gurukula upbringing. But by 2002, interests began to shift. “Gurukulis were growing older and acquiring their own careers and families,” Chaitanya says. “They wanted to change the focus of get-togethers from remembering something that faded further into the past with each year, to showcasing and sharing their present lives and planning their futures.”
One day, someone handed Chaitanya a flyer that read: “Kuli Mela: June 2006, New Vrindaban, West Virginia.” Kuli, it explained, is derived from the root word kula, or community. Mela means gathering or festival. So Kuli Mela was a gathering of community—a way to bring the growing gurukuli family together to share their lives and talents.
Chaitanya’s interest was piqued. After having organized eleven reunions, he had a strong feeling that this was the next step in his group’s evolution, and he wanted to be involved. He contacted the event’s organizers Kapila Monet, Baladeva Keilman, Govinda Gosh Clayton, and Bhimasena Jones, and joined the team.
“At first we weren’t sure if it would only be a once-off thing or something more,” Chaitanya says. “But the response to the first Kuli Mela was so overwhelmingly positive that people wanted to start holding events with the same format all over the world.”
Kulis from Alachua, Florida were the first to organize their own Mela. Then came Moscow, Russia; Tomsk, Siberia; and Radhadesh, Belgium. Each had a unique flavor based on its location, organizers, and attendee’s needs. But each retained the same format: a three to five day festival held on an ISKCON property, with kuli-relevant workshops during the day and kuli-performed entertainment in the evening.
While planning the 2007 Alachua Mela, organizers noted that the 20th anniversary of the first-ever gurukuli reunion was coming up in 2009. Since Los Angeles was the epi-center from which such events spread out across the globe, they suggested that a mega Kuli Mela be held there in 2009 to reflect on and appreciate what gurukulis had accomplished over the past twenty years.
Before the end of summer 2007, planning for the Los Angeles Kuli Mela, dubbed “Kuli MeLA,” was already in full swing. During the following year, lead organizers Chaitanya Mangala, Kamal Vyas, Shakuntala Zakheim, Krishna Devata McComb, and Govinda Syer carved out what kind of theme, activities and performances they wanted for the event. The year after that—the one leading up to the Mela—these five were supported by a larger core group of twenty-five, including remote organizers and location scouts. This core group then recruited a further 150 volunteers to help during the Mela itself.
Finally, on Wednesday July 29th, kulis from around the world began to arrive at ISKCON’s Los Angeles temple and register.
After attending a welcoming ceremony at the Masonic Lodge next door to the temple, the first wave of 250 participated in get-to-know-each-other activities until 11pm.
The Mela officially kicked off on Thursday, with numbers swelling to 500 as kulis attended workshops and seminars throughout the day. That evening saw the first kuli art show, Art and Soul, organized by Nitai Pall and hosted at the studio of restoration artist Shakuntala Zakheim. Hundreds of people milled through the show, admiring the talent of over twenty kuli artists.
At 10pm, ethnic dance performances kicked off “Bollywood Night” at the Masonic Lodge, before the floor opened up and the crowd, now exhilarated by the escalating atmosphere, danced their way through a night of Bollywood-infused beats.
A Mosaic of Our Generations
The energy and excitement of the Mela continued to climb, and by Friday 1,000 people—incuding several generations of gurukulis along with their parents, children, and better halves—were participating.
It was a perfect time for the Gala evening at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, Hollywood—what Chaitanya-Mangala calls “The crown jewel of the whole event.”
As the audience arrived off the red carpet dressed in their best, some in fancy silk dhotis or saris, others in tuxedos or evening gowns, each performer contributed to the night’s theme, “A Mosaic of Our Generations,” by telling of their own experience as part of the “kuli collective.”
The theater’s professional stage, drenched in a rich purple glow and watched over by deities of Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra greeted opener Chaitanya Riggins, as a spotlight followed her to her seat. Her moving performance, of a song she had written specifically for the event, captured the feel of what it means to be a kuli.
The high production values continued as Krsangi Davis’s modern interpretive dance showed her struggles and triumphs on the journey from child, to adult, to mother. Up next, Krishna Devata McComb’s controversial performance art piece depicted her growing up as a woman in ISKCON and feeling suppressed, repressed and unappreciated while struggling to have her voice heard.
Honoring the past—the bitter hardships kulis suffered in what Chaitanya calls ISKCON’s “early, experimental schools,” as well as the sweetness and joy of those times—was a subject touched upon in speeches between entertainment acts. Hearts opened up and tears flowed freely during Ananta Vrindavan’s a cappella rendition of Je Anilo Prema Dhana, Narottama Dasa Thakura’s song for departed Vaishnavas, as the entire audience raised candles in memory of all the brothers and sisters they had lost to suicide and other tragedies.
All in all, however, the event was a positive experience—one that focused more on honoring the gurukuli pioneers for their services than on past struggles.
Yet many of the younger kulis in the audience couldn’t relate to either topic. “We understand that they didn’t have the same experiences as us, and we did our best to cater to the varied audience,” says Chaitanya. “But in the end it’s very important to us that we start a long-term tradition of thanking devotees—in this case, the gurukuli pioneers—for their services and making them feel appreciated. And twenty years from now, when they have contributed a lifetime of service, the younger kulis will understand.”
Typically for such a hugely ambitious project, lack of relevance wasn’t the only complaint about the Gala evening. “It was one of Kuli MeLA’s biggest logistical challenges,” Chaitanya admits. “We hadn’t fully anticipated how difficult it would be to move 1,000 people from the temple to Hollywood. And although we advised attendees to give themselves two hours for the trip, many did not realize exactly how bad Los Angeles traffic is!”
The result was that only about five hundred people made it to the first half of the show, while the rest finally arrived during the intermission or second half. “We learned a lot as organizers,” Chaitanya says. “Compared to rural locations such as Radhadesh or New Vrindaban, where everything is self-contained, a city location proved challenging on many levels. We had to move people back and forth a lot—even the shuttle ride from the hotel to the main festival site took fifteen minutes. On top of that, we found that the passionate city atmosphere combined with the intense energy of Kuli Mela could be overwhelming at times. In the future, we will opt for rural locations over city.”
In the end, however, organizers and attendees alike felt that the Ford Theater’s unique open-air layout, its expert lighting and stage crews, and its friendly ushers and house staff were worth any difficulties. Many commented that the combination of Gurukuli talent, devotion and heart with this crack team of professionals delivered a level of production that had never been seen before in ISKCON—and one that should set the new standard for ISKCON’s public festivals.
“What's more, despite only a thousand people and at times less being there that night, soon so many thousands more will be able to see the show,” says Chaitanya, who co-produced the forthcoming professionally filmed DVD of the event with Kamal Vyasa. “That’s why we went for the Ford Theater despite the drawbacks, and why it was all worth it. It has the ‘wow factor’ that was vital to create something that would live on far beyond one night.”
The Journey Comes Full Circle
Another major hurdle arose for Kuli MeLA organizers the very next day, when a 20th anniversary celebration of LA Reunion’s traditional “Picnic in the Park” was set to be held. Up till now, the Reunion had rented Culver City Park every year and gone over its hundred person limit by several hundred—which the city had overlooked.
But on January 1st 2009, unknown to Kuli Mela organizers, a new ordinance had been passed enforcing the rule that everyone had ignored for years. “We only found out about this as we were setting up in the park on Saturday morning,” Chaitanya says. “Park authorities approached us to let us know that if we went over the hundred-person limit we would be shut down. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have six hundred people planning to show up here in the next two hours.’”
With no other choice, lunch was served at the temple instead. “It was disappointing, but it was also a notable moment,” Chaitanya says. “When we held the first reunion twenty years ago, we were rambunctious, rowdy youth, and the ISKCON Los Angeles authorities asked us to leave the temple—so we went to the park instead. Now, twenty years later, we were asked to leave the park and went to the temple instead—where, this time, we were happily welcomed. It felt like our twenty-year journey had come full circle.”
That evening, the mood lifted as the largest crowd of the Mela—1,100 people—gathered outside the LA temple to watch The Rose of Vidharbha, a new play from Burnt Laddhu writer and director Madi Brinkmann. In an inventive move praised by ISKCON leaders, organizers had blocked off the entire street for the day and rolled in a 350-seat bleacher for extra seating.
Using the front of the LA temple as their stage, the cast and crew of thirty kulis delivered an electric performance of the story of Krishna and his queen Rukmini. Many attendees cited the play, in which actors creatively used the temple’s steps and balconies as set pieces, as their favorite Kuli MeLA performance.
Festivities continued with the show Fashion Therapy, featuring over thirty kuli models gliding down the runway in clothes by fifteen kuli designers. Next, DJ Bala Bosch spun a set of Krishna-infused dance tunes, wrapping up the official Kuli MeLA 2009 celebrations.
The Entourage of Lord Jagannath
But the fun wasn’t over yet. Sunday heralded the 33rd Los Angeles Ratha Yatra, an ISKCON event replicating the traditional spiritual parade held in Jagannath Puri, India. And while this was an event in itself and not part of Kuli Mela, kulis participated enthusiastically.
“Other kuli reunions have been more sporadic, but the reason why the LA one has been so consistent is that people really want to see Lord Jagannath every year,” Chaitanya says. “He is at the heart of why we’ve been getting together for the past twenty years.”
As a symbol of their love for the Lord who has watched over them through bad times and good, kulis headed by Krishna Devata McComb collaborated with Ratha Yatra organizers to create "The Entourage of Lord Jagannath." Leading the Ratha Yatra parade from Santa Monica to Venice Beach, this group of 200 kulis chanted and danced at the foot of Lord Jagannath's cart. In their midst, thirty exotically costumed kulis of thirty different nationalities, each carrying a flag representing their country, gave the parade an attractive international flair.
The festival after the parade also predominantly featured kuli performers. Headlining artists included singers Karnamrita and Rasik Priya, while kirtan band Gaura Vani and As Kindred Spirits performed with famed world musician Jai Uttal.
Finally came the culmination of nearly a week’s worth of celebrations: the traditional “Kuli Kirtan,” a gurukuli-led chant that went on into the night until, as Chaitanya chuckles, “The fire marshall pulled the plug.” As kulis joyously stage-dived and crowd surfed, the rip-roaring chanting of Krishna’s names rent the sky.
Kuli MeLA was over.
Gurukulis, ISKCON, and the Future
Prior to Kuli MeLA, Los Angeles temple president Svavasa Dasa and other ISKCON leaders understandably expressed their concern to the event’s organizers over what might happen when 1,000 kulis inundated the property. But they were pleasantly surprised.
“You guys have alleviated all of our major concerns, and exceeded our expectations,” Svavasa told Chaitanya Mangala as the event came to a close. “We were especially impressed by your bhajan kutir which had fifty to one hundred people chanting Krishna's names for sixteen hours a day. We put on one of the biggest Ratha Yatras in North America, so we know what it takes to organize a festival. But Ratha Yatra is just one day, and we’ve watched you put on five days of the same calibre. So now we can understand and appreciate what you are capable of.”
It’s a change for kulis, who are still often referred to and thought of as “kids” by ISKCON’s first generation—despite having productive professional lives and children of their own. And with he and his peers now in their forties, Chaitanya think it’s about time.
“To some degree it’s natural for our parents’ generation to still think of us as children no matter what age we are,” he says. “But when this attitude is institutionalized, it becomes a problem. Hopefully events like Kuli MeLA will push the first generation to start taking us seriously as capable, mature adults, and to start offering us the facilities and leadership opportunities we need to take responsible positions in ISKCON.”
In saying this, he’s not denying that some kulis still are kids. In the younger, 16 – 25 age group, some can still be rebellious and exploratory by nature. And although organizers encourage all Kuli Mela attendees to follow the regulative principles introduced by Srila Prabhupada, and have them sign agreements that they will while on ISKCON property, some individuals have tried to push the boundaries and carry out questionable activities at Kuli Mela.
“For every positive action there are negative ripples, and when you are dealing with youth this kind of behavior comes with the territory,” Chaitanya comments. “But we are always trying to come up with ways to channel that energy in a positive direction—and the general outlook of ISKCON leaders is that the good our events create far outweighs the bad.”
Kulis have a deeply connected history with ISKCON, and in many ways the two are inseparable. Yet various issues have also divided them in the distant and recent past. Most notable, of course, was the June 2000 multi-million dollar lawsuit kulis filed against ISKCON because of abuse suffered in its early schools, forcing the society to declare bankruptcy.
“There’s a reason why Kuli Melas are held on or near ISKCON properties,” Chaitanya says. “It’s an attempt to build bridges between the two groups. And it works. The ISKCON communities offer their services and spaces for us to use, and we put on events that hopefully offer something to them. So far, by the end of each Mela, both groups are wishing it could keep going and can’t wait for the next one.”
“Of course, Kuli Melas are not everything,” he adds. “They are small festivals held for a few days of the year. But they are a small step towards rebuilding real, long-term trust that we hope will be the seeds of cooperation and working together more closely in the future.”
It’s a noble goal, and the mission continues in December 2010, when kulis from all over the world will attend the first ever Kuli Mela in Australia to once again associate with, serve, and empower each other.
For more information, visit www.kulimela.com or join the Facebook group "Kuli Mela Association."
Reserve your copy of the Kuli MeLA 2009 DVD today at www.krishna.com.