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A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

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Roots of Kirtan Festival Introduces Newcomers to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu
By Madhava Smullen   |  Mar 23, 2019

On Saturday March 16th, just a few days before Gaura Purnima (Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Appearance Day), around 250 people visited Manhattan’s Bhakti Center for the Roots of Kirtan festival – described as “dynamic, creative and overflowing with devotion.”

Attendees were a mix of bhakti practioners and newcomers who had heard about the event on social media or in their yoga class.

Roots of Kirtan is one of a series of introductory events by The Bhakti Center that correspond with major Vaishnava festival days.

“We’ve been trying to curate these events in a way that very much focuses on the experience of a person new to bhakti,” says Jahnavi Harrison, a teacher at the Bhakti Center’s newly founded School of Kirtan.

Each event features an experiential element that’s exciting for people unfamiliar with the tradition. The Lotus Festival, for instance, celebrates Janmastami, Lord Krishna’s Appearance Day, with a ceremony in which everyone gets the chance to offer a real lotus flower.

During The Pearl Festival, corresponding with Radhastami, participants offer a pearl sewn onto a circular card, on which they write a prayer. All the pearls are then strung onto a necklace for Srimati Radharani.

Roots of Kirtan, of course, celebrates Gaura Purnima. “Kirtan is widely known and very popular nowadays,” says Jahnavi. “But many people don’t know about its roots – what the kirtan tradition is, its culture and history, the people who historically spread it all over the world. So the idea was to host a festival that both inspires people in their connection with kirtan, and is also educational and a vibrant, dynamic experience.” 

The Roots of Kirtan festival began with kirtan by Bhakti Center resident Kishor Gopal. This led quickly into the main highlight of the event, a forty-minute original drama, written and directed by kirtan singer Gaura Vani and titled “A Mango Tree in the Courtyard.”

The play was intended to provide insight into the life of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who is the fifteenth century founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and the modern kirtan movement, and is revered by devotees as Lord Krishna Himself.

However Gaura Vani also wanted to make it a unique presentation, rather than the usual straight depiction of pastimes.

Thus the play was comprised of four scenes with four different actors, each playing Lord Chaitanya at a different period of his life. 

“The idea was also to have different types of people playing Lord Chaitanya, including a woman – myself; and an African American – Jaya Jagannath Prabhu; to show that we can’t really understand Lord Chaitanya with our material conception,” Jahnavi says. “Lord Chaitanya has so many features, but they’re all within one person – the feminine, the masculine, different colors, different moods. We are unable to find all those aspects within one ordinary human being – so we wanted to try and give people a flavor of those different facets, with different actors and different scenes.”

The first scene, with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu played by Jaya Giridhari, depicted the Lord’s youth as scholar Nimai Pandit. 

Jahnavi Harrison as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu founding his sankirtan movement in Navadvipa at Srivas Angan 

The second, with Jahnavi Harrison as Chaitanya, showed him founding his kirtan movement in Navadvipa, and performing Nama Sankirtan with his devotees at Srivas Angan. It also included his initiation by Isvara Puri, and his rejection of his scholarship in favor of simply chanting the Holy Names.

The third scene featured Jaya Jagannath Das as Lord Chaitanya dancing in seven kirtan parties at the Rathayatra festival in Puri, Orissa. A former professional dancer, Jaya Jagannath delivered a powerful and beautiful portrayal.

Jaya Jagannath as Lord Chaitanya dancing at Puri Rathayatra

Finally, writer-director Gaura Vani enacted the Lord during his time in the Gambira, a small chamber in the house of Kashi Mishra in Puri, where he spent his last days in deep ecstatic longing for Krishna.

The drama was narrated by well-known devotee comedian Yadunath Das and featured live music by Jahnavi’s sister Tulasi, Tulasi’s husband Namarasa Das, and professional violinist Charlie Burnham.

The mood of the play was the perfect inspiration for the stand-up kirtan that ensued afterward. Vibrant and joyous, everyone danced for over an hour as Gaura Vani and others chanted, passing the mic around to different kirtan leaders.

Gaura Vani as Lord Chaitanya during his final days in deep ecstatic longing for Krishna

As they sat down, tired, participants tucked into a delicious prasadam feast cooked by Doyal Gauranga Das, a resident monk at the Bhakti Center for the past decade. The feast included rice, koftas, baked samosas with tamarind chutney, maple flavored malpura, and blueberry cheesecake. As with all Bhakti Center meals, it was entirely vegan (the Center does offer ahimsa milk sourced from Gita Nagari farm in Pennsylvania to its presiding Deities).

“People had a wonderful time,” Jahnavi says. “I think the drama in particular, and seeing Lord Chaitanya’s life, inspired people. Many who were coming to the Bhakti Center for the first time said they cried the whole way through or got goosebumps. One community member brought her father, who despite not understanding the whole story was still very moved by the experience. So I think the power of spiritual art to bypass the intellect and actually penetrate the heart was exhibited.”

Festivalgoers experience the ecstasy for themselves in kirtan

In addition, many were deeply fulfilled by the celebration and community of the festival. “For a lot of people, outside of birthdays, or going out to clubs or bars, it’s quite a foreign experience to come together in a festive mood to celebrate something that’s very spiritual, deep, and uplifting,” says Jahnavi. “I think that is very impactful, whether you’ve done it many times before, or whether this is your first time.”

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