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Prema Hara: Distributing Divine Love of Kirtan

By: for ISKCON News on Aug. 14, 2010
In 1992, when Keshavacharya Das began visiting the ISKCON temple in his hometown of Zurich, Switzerland, he could not have pictured himself recording albums and bringing kirtan—India’s ancient call and response chanting—to the masses. Although as a young man he’d been a major music fan, it was the philosophy of Krishna consciousness, not its music, that drew him; and when he moved into the ashram five months later, he focused his energies on distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books.

But every Saturday night, the temple’s book distribution team would congregate for two hours of kirtan. And something awoke within Keshavacharya. Delving deeper into chanting, he gradually became one of ISKCON’s well-loved “kirtaniyas.”

Yet he wondered if he could give Krishna’s Holy Name to more people than those who visited ISKCON temples. It wasn’t until he moved to New York in 2007, and began going to yoga studios to watch kirtaniyas like Krishna Das and Jai Uttal—who in the late 1990s had planted the seed of the current kirtan craze—that he found out how.

“Sometimes in ISKCON we present kirtan along with too much heavy philosophy,” he explains. “But these artists delivered it in a lighter way that was more digestible for people. They made it dynamic and cultural. And they were very real: they would talk to audiences about their own personal struggles, faults and challenges. People could relate to them.”

Keshavacharya decided that he could do the same. He began to contact yoga studios in Manhattan to see if they would invite him to sing kirtan. They did, and by the end of the year, he had released his first album, Kirtan: Crying of the Soul. A semi-live production recorded over one weekend, it nevertheless launched his kirtan career. And with a glowing endorsement from none other than Jai Uttal—“The haunting melodies and deep soulful emotions of Keshavacharya Das’ kirtan brings me immediately to the ancient temple inside of my heart… I love his singing”—the yoga community welcomed him with open arms.

Discovering Kirtan Yoga

Meanwhile, back in 1997, London-born Kamaniya started taking Hatha Yoga classes at New York City’s Integral Yoga Institute to learn how to manage stress in her life. Soon she discovered their Friday evening kirtans, and began to attend. She’d long been burnt out by mainstream religion, and singing to God with this sweet, open-minded community soothed her soul and made her feel safe.

Hooked, she began attending Monday night kirtans at Jiva Mukti yoga studio, and, not content with that, she started a second evening of kirtan at Integral Yoga. Still, she wanted more, and began volunteering to help local kirtaniyas promote their events so that she could attend them.

But for Kamaniya, it wasn’t enough to enjoy these kirtan events herself. She wanted to share them with others. She launched her own email newsletter “Heart of Kirtan,” a sort of kirtan event-guide, and within a short time, her mailing list grew from a handful of friends to over 1,000 people.

Kamaniya’s work in drawing the kirtan community together also connected her with many popular artists including Krishna Das, Dave Stringer, Jai Uttal, and Shyamdas—a bhakti scholar and kirtaniya from the Vallabhacharya lineage who was also good friends with ISKCON gurus Radhanath Swami and Sacinandana Swami.

“Although the word ‘Bhakti’ was thrown around a lot in the yoga community, nobody seemed very clear on what exactly it was,” she says. “But Shyamdas explained the path of devotion to me, giving me a context to what I was experiencing and helping me understand my yearning for kirtan.”

Let’s Offer Our Lives to Kirtan

Going about her usual service one fateful day in 2007, Kamaniya organized a kirtan at Dr. Mishra’s ashram in upstate New York, not realizing that one of the singers she had invited was her future husband.

Keshavacharya’s kirtan was unique, inspiring and very different to what Kamaniya had been hearing in yoga studios. “There’s an authenticity to Hare Krishna devotees’ kirtan that’s very special,” she says. “I like to joke that the Hare Krishnas ruined all other kirtans for me!”

Although Keshavacharya was still a celibate brahmachari monk at this time—and a relationship was the furthest thing from both his and Kamaniya’s minds—they helped each other in their efforts to spread kirtan many times over the next two years.

Meanwhile, Keshavacharya had begun recording his second album with ISKCON kirtaniya Badahari Das in Florida. When he returned to New York to add backing vocals, he enlisted Kamaniya. And it was while working on the album together that he finally thought, “Maybe Kamaniya and I would be good partners, to help each other spread love for kirtan around the world.”

He proposed to her immediately, saying, “We both want to offer our lives to kirtan. So let’s do it together.”

The two began singing together as a duo. “It was definitely bringing two worlds together,” says Kamaniya. “We had very different approaches—when I lead kirtan, I would have these colorful butterflies attached to the sound system, and send out sparkly pink and orange newsletters. Keshavacharya’s newsletters, meanwhile, were all earth tones and sparse brahmachari aesthetic. But we both loved kirtan, and that’s what mattered.”

Prema Hara: The Giver of Divine Love

Kamaniya began to visit ISKCON’s Bhakti Center in Manhattan with Keshavacharya. “I had had some misgivings about ISKCON devotees because of the limited perception that some people in the public have,” she says. “But I was really taken by the devotees at the Bhakti Center, and I began making friendships there. Now most of the people who have deeply inspired me in my life are either a Prabhupada disciple or a child of a Prabhupada disciple.”

Two devotees in the second category that made a particular impression on Kamaniya were kirtan artist Gaura Vani and his business partner Rasa Acharya. Inspired by their efforts in bridge-building, she began to help promote their kirtan events and developed a friendship with them.

So when they told her that they were launching a record label, Mantralogy, she and Keshavacharya dropped all plans of approaching another. “To us, there could be no better deal than being with a devotee-run record label,” says Kamaniya.

Keshavacharya took the album he had been working on—now a Mantralogy production—back into the studio with Gaura Vani. Although Kamaniya had originally only contributed a few backing vocals, time around Gaura added more balance by giving her the lead on several tracks and generally creating a more interweaving effect between her and Keshavacharya’s vocals.

As the album neared completion in January 2010, the two began to think of a name for their duo. Knowing his wife’s love for Radharani, Lord Krishna’s eternal consort, Keshavacharya searched the one thousand names of Radharani until he found one that jumped out at him: “Prema Hara,” meaning “the giver of divine love.”

It felt right. And so, Kamaniya and Keshavacharya Das became Prema Hara, distributing the divine love of kirtan to world.

The Power of the Maha-Mantra

Released on March 3rd, Prema Hara’s debut album, “Sweet Surrender,” is almost achingly beautiful. The soaring male and female vocals interlace with dazzling artistry, and draw spiritual emotion from the listener. Its mellow, meditative tone envelops you with its warmth, and each track gently builds with a toe-tapping rhythm. As well as the traditional instruments of kartals, harmonium, and mridanga drum, an eclectic mix of cello, violin, sarod, bass, guitar, and electric sitar played by a host of guest musicians—including fellow Mantralogy artists the Mayapuris—create a lively sonic ambience.

The songs themselves are simple, sing-along chants that invoke demigods such as Durga and Shiva as well as Lord Krishna and his avatars, pointing to Prema Hara’s aspirations to reach a wider audience.

“There’s a deity of Lord Shiva in every yoga studio you go to, and we wanted the yoga crowd to be able to access the album,” Keshavacharya says. “But we’ve done this without compromising our understanding, which is that all kirtan is ultimately for praising the Lord and his different forms. For instance on the Durga track, Gaura Vani sings a verse from the Brahma Samhita, prayers to Krishna, which say, ‘I adore the primeval Lord Govinda in accordance with whose will Durga conducts herself.’ And when we sing the Shiva track live, we explain that Shiva is the greatest devotee of Krishna, a pure Vaishnava.”

Live performance is what it’s all about for Prema Hara—with a spring tour launching the album just behind them, they’re already gearing up for a major fall tour, starting at Bhakti-Fest in Joshua Tree, California on September 9th and ending back in New York on November 20th.

“Whether it’s opening for Jai Uttal in Encinitas, California on October 2nd, or performing for yogis of a different tradition at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga farm near San Francsico, or playing at the unbelievably committed smaller regional yoga studios, it’s going to be an exciting tour,” says Keshavacharya.

While Prema Hara occasionally play at retreat centers or interfaith churches, and hope to continue expanding their reach, their most attentive audience can still be found in yoga studios.

“It’s always very touching to see a big group of people sitting down to do kirtan with us with such anticipation and sincerity,” says Kamaniya. “Even though they’re not always sure what they’re looking for, and though their notions of Bhakti might not be so clear, they’re very sincerely looking, and that’s inspiring.”

Keshavacharya and Kamaniya open each performance by speaking about their path of Bhakti in a relatable, accessible way, telling stories or talking about their personal experiences. Then they chant, usually accompanied only by traditional instruments such as kartals and harmonium, as well as mridanga by full-time band member Sri Rama.

“Audiences may start off very shy,” Kamaniya says. “But I always leave the stage and encourage everyone to get to their feet, and by the end of the kirtan, half the room is up and dancing. To me, that’s a very important aspect of people’s kirtan experience. Because instead of dancing to be looked at—which is what they’re usually used to—they’re dancing as an expression of celebration and of worship.”

And when it comes to getting people to come out of their shell and dance, the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is the sure-fire crowd-pleaser. “Regardless of what anyone knows or doesn’t know about it, it’s the mantra that inspires joy and brings people to their feet,” says Kamaniya.

At a recent performance in Jackson, Mississippi—right in the middle of the Bible Belt—Keshavacharya tread very carefully while introducing the Maha-Mantra, because he didn’t know how the audience would react. Despite his efforts, however, two women immediately got up and ran towards the door.

“Hopefully no one will leave now,” Keshavacharya joked nervously, wishing he had been more careful.

He needn’t have worried. It turned out that they were only heading to the back of the room to dance—unable to restrain their excitement the moment they heard the words “Hare Krishna.”

The Future

Now full-time “kirtan gypsies,” Prema Hara are currently working on an electronica remix of Sweet Surrender to reach an even broader audience, and will be returning to the studio this winter to start work on their second album—all amidst a non-stop touring schedule. “Our plans for the future are to catch our breath occasionally!” Kamaniya half jokes.

And they deserve it. Sweet Surrender has touched its audience deeply, with many telling Prema Hara that it’s their favorite kirtan CD of the year and that they haven’t taken it out of their CD player for months. Renowned West Coast Yoga teacher Saul David Ray first heard it at a friend’s house and liked it so much that he stole it. Lonely singles looking for a happy, meaningful relationship have gained inspiration from seeing Kamaniya and Keshavacharya’s spiritually-based connection.

The duo themselves, however, are keen to remain modest and real. They attribute their impact on listeners to reciprocation from Lord Krishna, inspiration from other devotees, and the power of the mantras they sing.

“Sometimes just because we’re on stage leading kirtan, people look at us as being more spiritually advanced than we are,” Kamaniya says. “And that’s a dangerous thing. We don’t want to misguide people like that. I tell our audiences, ‘we have more work to do than anybody—that’s why we have to do this every day!’”

Prema Hara’s debut album, Sweet Surrender, is available from premahara.com and Itunes.
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