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Oldest 24-Hour Kirtan Festival in West Celebrates 17 Years

By: for ISKCON News on April 21, 2016

Jahnavi Harrison leads a group of ladies in dancing their heart out

Over 2,000 people from the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe are expected to attend the 17th annual 24-Hour Kirtan in Birmingham, England from Saturday April 30th to Sunday May 1st.

Today,  it’s a huge bank holiday weekend draw. But back when the event – the oldest 24-Hour-Kirtan Festival in the Western world – began in 1999, attendance was muchsmaller.

It all started with a group of Pandava Sena teenage youth, fans of the year-around 24-Hour Kirtan program in Vrindavan, India, which had been run by Aindra Das since 1986.

“We were inspired by Aindra Prabhu and the dynamic preacher Tribhuvanath Prabhu, who was running the Birmingham temple at the time,” says one of those teenagers, the now grown-up Dr. Jesal Pankhania. “I remember a core of maybe 20 of us doing shifts throughout the 24 hours. There were only 100 people at the peak. We were crammed into our tiny temple room at ISKCON Birmingham, which is basically just a house. It was really austere.”

Some of the weight was lifted with the support and stamina of Madhava – one of the original Vrindavan 24-Hour kirtaniyas – in 2000. “Those were really sweet days,” says Mayapur Madhava Das, co-organizer with Jesal and temple president Nitai Charan Das.

During organizers’ trips to Vrindavan in 2007, 2008, and 2009, the late Aindra Das spent hours guiding them in the correct mood with which to approach the Holy Name. In 2009, Sacinandana Swami began to offer his guidance, and the expanding festival moved to the Balaji South Indian temple on the outskirts of Birmingham, with 500 in attendance.

Jayadeva Das leads

This year, the event, completely free and supported by donations, will be held in a Sikh group’s hall just outside Birmingham city center. 1,500 are expected at the kirtan’s peak, while coming-and-going participants will increase the total to 2,000 plus throughout.

With advertising on the radio, and in universities and yoga studios that dubs the festival “Sounds for the Soul,” those thousands are expected to span a broad demographic. Besides devotees and members of the Indian community, there will also be college students, yoga practioners, Buddhists, and family and friends of devotees, including Chrstians and Muslims.

Organizers are also inviting VIPs from the local West Midlands region, such the bishop, police commissioner, fire department chief, faith leaders and heads of the vegan and vegetarian societies, as well as local newspaper reporters.

All will gather in front of a beautifully decorated handmade altar seating Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra, Gaura Nitai, and Srila Prabhupada. Gaura Nitai’s anniversary is celebrated every 24-Hour Kirtan, as they were installed upon its inception, so this of course will be their 17th.

ISKCON’s 50th anniversary is also being celebrated this year, and the hall will be adorned with floor-to-ceiling saffron drapes in its honor. Posters showing the seven purposes of ISKCON and statistics on all the society’s temples, farms, and schools, as well as the number of books and plates of prasadam distributed will hang on the walls. The centerpiece will be a huge image of Srila Prabhupada, which when viewed close up will reveal that it’s made up of tiny photos of the ISKCON founder.

Sacindandana Swami gets ecstatic at the Birmingham 24 Hour Kirtan

The kirtan will start at 1pm on Saturday, with all the kirtaniyas and devotees facing the deities rather than being on stage to “help the ego” and create the mood of an offering, not a show.

Sacinandana Swami will further set the tone with his “kirtan meditations,” speaking about the name, form, pastimes and qualities of Lord Krishna and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Lead chanters including Sacindana Swami himself as well as Lokanath Swami, Chandramauli Swami, Agnideva Das, Amala Harinama Das, and, pending his health, Kadamba Kanana Swami will then sing the Hare Krishna maha-mantra nonstop.

Slots will last one hour during the day and half an hour at night, with local chanters such as weekly Harinama stalwart Namacharya Das, Jesal, and the UK Hare Krishna festival team with Parasurama and Giridhari also leading.

The Birmingham 24-Hour Kirtan festival – one of the few that go non-stop without splitting into two 12-hour sections – is quite an adventure. In the past the standard harmonium, mridanga, and kartals have been joined by instruments as varied as violins, harps, bansuri flutes, a ukulele, a bass guitar, and even a full drum set. Chords are followed by ragas, and wild dancing contrasts with heartfelt prayer.

“Last year, Madhava had the entire gathering chanting with no instrumental accompaniment for half an hour,” Jesal says. “You experience every style, and every emotion at this festival!”

On Saturday evening, there’s a rocking Gaura arati, and at midnight, a special darshan of Lord Jagannath.

The stunning midnight darshan of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra

“He has actual hands, giving mercy, and a special new outfit,” says Jesal. “In previous years it’s been covered with the Holy Name or with lotus flowers. Every year is a surprise!”

A core group of diehards, including university students looking for a challenge, stay up through the entire 24 hours, while others sleep for a few hours at local hotels.

At 11am on Sunday morning, there will be an elaborate abhisekh, or bathing of Gaura Nitai with a variety of auspicious liquids and substances in honor of Their installation anniversary. And at 1pm, participants will celebrate reaching the 24-hour mark with a balloon drop, party poppers, and showers of flowers.

“Then we continue right on!” laughs Jesal.

Indeed, as the altar is dismantled and the hall gradually tidied up, the kirtan continues on, often reaching a total of 30 to 34 hours.

Birmingham 24h kirtan highlights

Throughout, participants are able to fully absorb themselves, due to the inclusive and caring mood. Organizers help them with what local hotels to book; serve delicious prasadam meals; set up chairs for the elderly and infirm; and provide a “Prahlad club” with activities for the children, and a nursing room for mothers with young ones.

“We just try to think of all the possible obstacles, and do what we can to make sure everyone can be included,” Jesal says.

Meanwhile there is also an inclusive mood when it comes to service, which is, after all, the goal of chanting. Rather than the very small Birmingham congregation attempting to do everything themselves, attendees sign up for services at the hospitality desk upon registering and everyone works together to make the event the best it can be.

“For example, each meal is prepared by the congregation of a different UK city, such as ISKCON Manchester or ISKCON Leicester,” says Jesal.

Besides that, creatively-named teams are made to handle each department of service – for instance, there’s Team Astasakhis for decoration, Team Holy Name for cleaning, and Team Hanuman for serving prasadam.

“What do we want everyone to get from this event?” asks Jesal. “I hope they all leave feeling included, and with the Holy Name echoing in their hearts and minds for weeks after.”

* * *

The Birmingham 24 Hour Kirtan will be broadcast at Mayapur.tv for viewers around the world.

The organizers still need to raise £2,000 in order to be able to put on a free event for devotees and guests. If you feel inspired to support the 24 Hour Kirtan with your donations, please visit: http://iskconbirmingham.org/donate 

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[ 24-hour-kirtan ] [ birmingham ] [ uk ]
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