for ISKCON News on Feb. 5, 2011
An exclusive event in Bhaktivedanta Manor’s Theater this February 9th will launch the Vaishnava Arts Council UK (VAC), which aims to represent British devotee artists, and connect them with each other and with potential clients.
About forty devotees representing various areas of the arts will attend, including writers, musicians, actors, dancers, film-makers, producers, fine artists, illustrators, photographers, brand consultants, and graphic, web, and fashion designers. Also attending will be a number of Vaishnava professionals involved in educational and cultural projects that consistently incorporate the arts.
The invitation-only event will kick off at 7pm with a talk by Kripamoya Dasa on the relationship between the arts and ISKCON, and how important the arts have been in the development of ISKCON and its outreach work. VAC founder Madhusudhana Dasa will then make a presentation about VAC’s aims and objectives, opening up the floor to questions and comments.
Following the presentations will be a number of exclusive artistic premiers. Paradhamananda Dasa’s short film Rasa Yatra, a pilgrimage documentary that goes from the Himalayas to Vrindavana and spans a period of four years, will get its first screening. The narration-free meditational film, set to beautiful music and sound recordings from Vrindavana, is said to be one of the most visually stunning films ever to come out of ISKCON.
A track from the forthcoming album by Kripamoya, mixed by professional producer Jagannath Suta Dasa, is also on the menu. Although the songs are Sanskrit prayers and mantras, the music is orchestral with a film soundtrack quality and is expected to be groundbreaking.
Meanwhile, ISKCON website Mayapur.TV will announce some new developments, including the launch of an Adobe Air desktop application for watching video. And finally, Madhusudhana’s wife Keli-Chanchala Dasi will perform a new Odissi dance she learned while studying the art in India. The launch will end with everyone enjoying some delicious prasadam.
Madhusudhana first began presenting the Vaishnava Arts Council to various ISKCON members and committees in December 2010, when he also sent out the PDF Creation magazine, a slick yet minimalistically designed publication about Vaishnava artists in the UK. While it’s still very early days for the project, the VAC has already begun its work of connecting creative devotees with each other, and representing them to potential clients.
“Artists tend to work alone in a somewhat isolate environment, and to not be very skilled in business matters such as marketing or representing themselves,” Madhusudhana says. “So the options can be a bit bleak—artists often end up either struggling alone and making very little money, or working at a job that doesn’t feel satisfying for them. We want to change that.”
The VAC will do this by compiling a creative directory of devotee artists in its magazine called “The Creatory.” This list of “ethically-minded” artists and professionals, along with examples of their work, will be a great resource to outside businesses, devotee-run businesses, and the new age/yoga markets, which tend to gel very easily with devotees.
It will also assist ISKCON by providing opportunities to serve devotee festivals or temples’ creative requirements.
The UK Hare Krishna Festival Team, for instance, has approached the VAC for help in developing its brand to enhance its profile both internally to ISKCON and externally to the public. Madhusudhana and other VAC members such as Mayapur.tv film expert Vince Lane, branding consultant Mohan Luthra and Be Inspired Films director Ravi Chambers are currently exploring ways to do this.
Meanwhile, VAC can also give the Festival Team access to a whole host of previously undiscovered talent for their stage performances—dancers, actors, musicians, kirtan artists and more. “They may have been reusing the same dancer for many years, unaware of how many dancers are actually out there, willing to perform—even for free, because they want the experience,” says Madhusudhana. “So in this way, we can help develop a very good relationship between ISKCON departments and artists.”
Other early VAC clients include the Krishna Avanti School, the UK’s first state-funded Hindu primary school.
“They’ve approached us for help in producing two large murals—one for the school’s temple room, and the other for its dining hall,” Madhusudhana says. “VAC contact and local artist Indulekha Dasi is involved with negotiating terms and managing the project through to completion. The murals will also provide artwork to be reproduced on greetings cards, posters and calendars that are sold to raise funds for the school.”
The VAC will also offer educational courses for Vaishnava artists, at an affordable price, the first few of which have already been held. An introductory course teaching Photoshop began on January 16th and has run for three Sunday classes so far, each three hours long.
“The first taster session was free, while the following two were at a heavily discounted rate of £15 per student,” Madhusudhana says. “It takes a lot of work to develop classes like this, but we feel they are so important, because one of our main aims it to make education more accessible and thereby increase the quality of Vaishnava artistic work. In the outside world, these kinds of courses are extremely expensive—you could pay anything up to £800 to learn Photoshop for just one day in London. For most devotees, that’s not an option.”
Four students are currently taking the VAC’s Photoshop classes, while more are expressing an interest. Future courses will be held to teach video production, Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and photography.
“We are also on the lookout for more teachers willing to teach at discounted rates, who believe in making artistic training and education more accessible,” Madhusudhana says. “The aim is to eventually also open the courses to the public.”
An inspirational social life is another thing that the VAC aims to offer artists.
“Artists are often quite isolated, but they require inspiration on a very regular basis—pratically every day,” Madhusudhana says. “It’s the food of artists. So through our network people will be able to communicate when there’s social events, exhibitions, arts or culture related events that can provide inspiration.”
Devotees have also expressed the desire for informal social events, with no set agenda.
“That’s typical artists for you,” Madhusudhana laughs. “The idea is to organically recreate the kind of café culture of Paris in the late nineteenth century when the impressionists would get together, or in New York’s East Village in the 1960s. People would come together in a relaxed setting and just talk art and share their realizations and their latest work. That’s what we’d like to do. Here in the Manor community there are hundreds of devotees, and many artists constantly producing interesting things, but they haven’t been aware of each other and there hasn’t been a network to share it until now.”
The VAC, with its focus on community, is a great way for devotee artists—especially gurukulis—who may feel distant from ISKCON to simultaneously express themselves and serve the mission.
“There’s a lot of raw talent here in the UK amongst gurukulis,” Madhusudhana says. “For example, there’s one devotee here called Kumar Grant, who’s a musician, club and festival DJ, and web designer. He’s into Deejaying in contemporary genres like trance and drum and bass, but he is offering free studio music production services to devotee projects through our Creatory. In that way, he feels some connection to ISKCON—the VAC is like a bridge that he feels comfortable with.”
The response to the VAC so far has been tremendous. Devotees artists are thrilled at the thought of being able to exhibit and share their talents and their work. And senior ISKCON management such as Britain’s GBC Pragosh Dasa and GBC secretary Varshana Dasi have been very supportive, with Varshana inviting Madhusudhana to give a presentation at the annual national management council meetings. Temple presidents have also offered their help and resources to build the VAC directory and create access to artists in different congregations around the country.
Other devotees are more closely connected to the VAC as core members of its team. Madhusudhana receives guidance and support from preacher and senior devotee Kripamoya Dasa, local artist Indulekha Dasi, and a professional cameraman and artist—who prefers to remain anonymous or known by his pseudonym, Cityzenkane—who created a stunning bas-relief sculpture of Lord Jagannatha by a railway bridge in London’s East End.
Meanwhile Jagannath Suta Dasa, who’s been a professional music producer for twenty years and has worked with kirtana and new age artists such as Gaurangi Dasi, Jayadeva Dasa, Deva Premal and Jai Uttal, as well as with major labels such as Universal Music and Sony BMG, serves as music editor of the VAC’s Creation Magazine. He’s also one of the VAC’s flagship artists—he’s giving back to ISKCON by establishing a record label called Radha Krishna Records, a joint project with London’s Soho Street temple which will provide professional recording facilities for devotees.
Madhusudhana himself is also an avid artist, and runs his own freelance graphic design business, Ashram Arts, which serves a 95% devotee client base. He has designed the cover for the Northern European BBT’s 2009 introductory book on Krishna consciousness, VEDA: Secrets of the East; a billboard used to advertise Leicester City’s 2008 Rathayatra Festival; and the cover and layout of Sign Language in Hinduism, a book by the Radha Krishna Deaf Association of Bhaktivedanta Manor. Recently, he has teamed up with another devotee to start a second business, Visual Unity, which will cater more to the commercial, mainstream world.
In fact, most of the artists connected with VAC—the magazine is currently sent out to about 90 devotees—are highly accomplished.
“Right now, rather than amateurs, we’re looking for devotees who are already practicing some sort of artistic career—whose services are already highly marketable,” Madhusudhana says. “Because I think by reporting on, working with, and inspiring those guys, we will naturally inspire younger artists who are just starting out, and make a real impression on the outside world, too. We want people to think, ‘Oh, the Hare Krishnas have really got it together—they’re talented, yet also professional, and are accomplishing things not just within the smaller world of their community but also in the outside world.’”
Madhusudhana feels that a project like the VAC is extremely important to ISKCON, since the society depends so heavily on the arts in its public communications.
“Take the covers of BBT books, for example—there’s a constant need to update them and stay with the times, which you can’t do unless you have access to fresh artists with their finger on the pulse of current design trends,” he says. “Then there’s Hare Krishna festivals, which will constantly have a need for new talent in order to remain relevant to the public. And there’s the music scene, with the need for kirtan celebrities to inspire devotees. While people like Madhava and Gaura Vani are wonderful and are leading the way, I feel it’s now time for local communities to nurture their own local talent rather than flying in celebrities.”
While the VAC is still just starting out—it doesn’t have a legal identity or charity status yet—there’s a strong need for the organization, and it’s sure to grow fast.
Already a number of artists have suggested that the VAC have membership, and that Madhusudhana charge an annual fee—something he is still working on a good structure for, that will sit well with the typical anti-establishment artist psychology. If it does happen, Madhusudhana plans to reciprocate by setting up an online store on the VAC website where devotee artists can sell their work.
“In the future, when we have an excellent organizational structure, a very good portfolio of artists, and have had a string of successful events, we would like to use those to apply for financial support from the UK Arts Council,” he says. “Because they do fund arts groups that meet certain criteria all the time. They’re handing out £200,000 here, $100,000 there to obscure studios and arts projects every year—so why can’t we qualify for those things?”
In the more short term, the VAC will help organize Bhaktivedanta Manor’s second annual Vaishnava Resources Exhibition in March, which will showcase the work of various different departments and projects around the country.
“As with last year, there will be displays by youth groups, educational departments, spiritual travel agents that take take groups of devotees on pilgrimage to the holy places in India, cow protection and ecology projects, and more,” Madhusudhana says. “But the difference will be that this year, fifty per cent of the exhibitions will be VAC artists showcasing their work.”
In the future, Madhusudhana feels that the VAC format will catch on around the world, and says that others will be very welcome to take the model and apply it in their own country. For now, though, it remains a uniquely British project.
“In order for it to gain strength and succeed here, I think initially there has to be a national identity, a sense of ownership that this is ours—this is something that we as British devotees can take advantage of,” he says. “But it is traditional in every great society that there is patronage of the arts, and I do hope that in the future, the idea spreads.”
British devotees interested in getting involved in the VAC can contact Madhusudhana Dasa at firstname.lastname@example.org to be placed on the mailing list and be kept up to date with news, event notification, and developments.
Watch Cityzenkane's video about making a sculpture of Jagannath in the East End.
Read Creation magazine Issue 1
Read Creation magazine Issue 2