Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Vaiyasaki in Rishikesh
Renowned kirtaniya Vaiyasaki Das came to Rishikesh for a few days in November. We hadn't seen each other for many years and he actually did not know me as Jagadananda, but in my former incarnation as Hiranyagarbha. Vaiyasaki had been in Toronto in the early 70's, where he joined a little after me. We later knew each other in Mayapur as he was part of the India BBT party, which he left to spend three years in Bangladesh.
I had been writing to him in somewhat excited anticipation of his arrival here, but he did not really know who I was. As he is a world-wide figure, chanting and doing kirtan in every corner of the globe, he is probably used to that kind of thing. If you look at the Facebook pages of him and his wife Kaisori, you will get an idea of their jet-setting ways.
He has been invited to Rishikesh several times by the disciples of Swami Rama, since, as the story goes, when Swami Rama heard Vaiyasaki's 1983 recording, "Transcendence," he was quite impressed. He told his disciple Ragani Beugel that this proved it was possible for a Western person to chant authentic kirtan and that she should take inspiration from his achievement. Ragani has gone on to become a well-known kirtan singer in her own right and Vaiyasaki is a regularly featured performer at the annual Maha-samadhi festival of Swami Rama at the HIHT in Dehradun and again at Sadhana Mandir in Rishikesh.
I went to see Vaiyasaki and Kaisori at Sadhana Mandir, but we actually met along the Ganga promenade. After talking for a while, he asked me if I knew Hiranyagarbha, which is when I had to tell him that I was indeed that person. He got a kick out of it and "remembered" a couple of stories about me. Since I had no recollection of either, neither may be true. Or, rather, the second one is most certainly nonsensebut so was somewhat instructive when it comes to understanding the way apocryphal tales come into the world.
The first was that he saw me packing on the very day I left Iskcon in 1979. According to him, he came up to me and asked me what I was doing. I apparently answered, "Prabhupada said work now, samadhi later. Well I want samadhi now." This I can believe, as it is something I may well have said at that time. I was in favor of following Rupa Goswami's upadesha-sara then, as I am now.
But then he said that he met me some years later in Nabadwip and asked me about what I was doing after initiation by Lalita Prasad Thakur. I apparently told him that I had been given the identity of a peacock in Vrindavan and was doing bhajan with this nitya svarupa. Now, this is, of course, completely impossible. I neither could nor would ever have said anything of the sort. A story like this was also told of Hrishikeshananda Das, but I have it directly from him that in his case too it was a bit of propaganda coming from people who had no understanding of raganuga bhakti. So, how did Vaiyasaki come to believe that he had actually heard it directly from me? Strange...
At any rate, I was happy to have the company of a devotee and spent an enjoyable hour or two with them discussing various things about the past and present. He has written a thickish book about the Radha Damodar travelling party and Vishnujan Swami, who was a great inspiration to him, as he was for so many others.
Vaiyasaki spent his teenage years in Winnipeg and was a contemporary of Randy Bachman and other members of a rock and roll band called the Guess Who, which had a few huge world-wide hits back in the 60's and 70's. He had his own rock band at the time, but that was interrupted when he became a devotee. (He is actually five or six years older than I am.) He said to me, "I think of Randy and those people and they are really just doing the same things they were doing back then. While I am having the time of my life travelling the world and spreading the chanting of the Holy Name. I would not trade places in a million years."
In the 1970's, with book distribution being the vogue in Iskcon, Vaiyasaki became involved with the library party in India. After a stint in Thailand, he suggested that the party make a tour of Bangladesh. There was some resistance, as Bangladesh was and still is a very poor country. They finally agreed, however, and that changed Vaiyasaki's life. One day, he was crossing a river in a ferry launch somewhere with a group of musicians, kirtaniyas who were going to join a Harinam festival somewhere. He was fascinated by them without really knowing why, and when they got off the boat, rather than continue on to his real destination, he jumped off and followed them and getting completely absorbed in the Holy Name for several days. After that, he spent the next three years with Iskcon in Bangladesh, learning the local style of kirtan.
Now kirtan seems to have become a bit of a fad, and so many people within and without Iskcon are recording devotional music, both in traditional and novel styles. Vaiyasaki keeps principally to his traditional Bengali style and on his latest album even sings Hare Krishna kirtan in the very tune that he first learned from the Bangladeshi kirtaniyas in the 1970's.
I was asked to introduce him at the HIHT on November 13. Vaiyasaki asked the audience whether they would prefer a concert-style performance or to participate in the chanting. He also did this at the second concert he gave at Sadhana Mandir. The Swami Rama bhaktas prefered participation and at both concerts were quite aroused by the chanting. On the second evening, Vaiyasaki even gave me a mike to be his back up vocal (I have to include a smiley here, :)) and so I had a lot of fun, too.
Vaiyasaki occasionally introduces philosophical points in his presentation, without being too aggressive for an audience that is of a different background than Vaishnavism. He talks to yogis about cultivating the heart chakra through kirtan and things like that.
Overall, it is easy to be impressed by Vaiyasaki's achievements. He has been persistent in developing his art and Iskcon has given him that opportunity. Now, he still is invited by Iskcon and other people to various places and a wide variety of audiences around the world and can do so independently. He has done more than anyone to introduce and develop the Bengali style of kirtan to Iskcon and the world. So I offer him a sincere "Jai Gaura Haribol!"