Rathi Krishna dasa January 4th, 2012
The following is an interview with Srimati Yamuna Devi by Akincana Krishna dasa on behalf of Dhanrudhara Swami for a kirtan book Maharaja was writing. In the interview, Yamuna Devi shared her remembrances of Srila Prabhupada’s instructions on kirtan as well as her own realizations on kirtan. Yamuna Devi recently passed away on December 20, 2011.
Question: What instructions, guidelines, likes, or dislikes did Prabhupada express to you about kirtan?
Thank you for asking this question. Yes, Srila Prabhupada did give instructions about kirtan at various times, in various circumstances. A few I recall:
Instructions from Srila Prabhupada on Kirtan
1970 Mumbai: One morning soon after arriving at Kailash Seksaria's home, Srila Prabhupada called on a male devotee to lead kirtan. After two lines of guruvastaka he asked him to stop and asked another devotee to continue. The same thing happened, and he asked another devotee to lead, and another. Then he asked me to lead and did not stop me. When I asked him later about why he did that, he said:
“Learn to listen. You cannot follow nicely unless you hear nicely and you cannot lead nicely unless you have learned to follow nicely.”
August 1968 Montreal: Some mornings Srila Prabhupada had our London group meet with him in the temple room after the morning program and breakfast. On one occasion when he requested me to lead the mangalacarana prayers, he also interrupted my singing to correct my pronunciation as I chanted, he said:
“Learn how to pronounce Sanskrit or Bengali words to the best of your ability. Listen, then repeat.”
1971 Mumbai: On nagar sankirtana an Indian man criticized my pronunciation and Srila Prabhupada said:
“She is doing to the best of her ability. She is doing it in her own way.”
November 1969 London: We had some problems with volume levels. This was evident especially in store front temples where our neighbor store front occupants complained of excessive “noise”. Right from the vyasasana Srila Prabhupada would quietly instruct:
“Learn how to play instruments “softly”, quietly, if the kirtan leader is doing so.”
This proved to be difficult for the mostly passionate 20-something devotees at that time, most of whom generally felt the louder the better.
1971 India: I commented on Srila Prabhupada's chanting of jaya radha madhava, and made the statement that it was difficult for devotees to follow how he chanted, his rhythm changes, and his mood, even when chanting this simple prayer. He said jaya radha madhava was one of his favorite prayers.
Even forty years later, how many old timers can follow the subtlety of a kirtan leader, what to speak of the complexity of Srila Prabhupada's kirtan mood and rhythm.
Experiences, Impressions and Observations of Srila Prabhupada Leading Kirtan
When Srila Prabhupada leads kirtan, he opens sound windows to the spiritual world.
It was obvious that his senses and mind were fully focused on transcendental sound. He often closed his eyes at the beginning of prayer or kirtan. Later, when the beat increased or after some time, he would often open his eyes to observe his surroundings or the assembled chanters. This is especially true during long kirtans.
In temple kirtans, he favored playing kartals or a gong. When alone, or with one or two others, when chanting Narottama dasa Thakura's or Bhaktivinoda Thakura's prayers, he enjoyed playing mridanga or harmonium.
Srila Prabhupada played instruments with expertise, and in a very individual distinct way, whether it was kartals, gong, bongo drum, mridanga, or harmonium. His harmonium was like no one else's I have ever heard. He said he asked his father for a harmonium when young, and his father obtained one for him. At that time, harmonium was considered a European instrument, not a temple kirtan instrument.
No matter what he played, instruments are there to support kirtan, they always took second place to the role of his voice. In other words, his voice was the main dominant kirtan instrument.
I recall an Albert Road kirtan, in the autumn of 1972 in Calcutta, where the devotee who was leading placed too much focus on their harmonium playing. Srila Prabhupada stopped the kirtan entirely and said, “Too much harmonium”, and indicated that devotee should lead kirtan. He said, “No harmonium,” and the kirtan resumed.
Srila Prabhupada's kirtan had no tinge of being a performance. It was purely for the pleasure of Krishna. It allowed the chanters access to the fact that the Lord's holy name and the Lord are non-different. He said that the key to anartha free kirtan was hearing and studying our literature, and gradually it would rise to the platform of pure devotional service.
Srila Prabhupada's kirtans and prayers were fully ego free and extremely potent.
One morning at John Lennon's estate in 1969, Srila Prabhupada asked me what my favorite prayer was and I responded, Lord Caitanya's Siksastaka prayers. In turn, I asked him what his favorite prayer was and he immediately replied, “Hari Hari Bifale” by Narottama dasa Thakura.
I had the good fortune of witnessing Srila Prabhupada chant his favorite prayer on four occasions. At Akash Ganga I was sitting right next to him holding a microphone in front of his face. Gurudas took photos of him chanting. His meditation that day was so deep and profound, that the skin on his face became slack — as close as I ever saw him to the point of bodily transformation.
Question: What makes a great kirtan? Talk about the best kirtan (or kirtans) you've ever been in. What made it (them) great?
Purity is the force. Great kirtan is experienced by the mercy of the holy name itself.
Question: What makes a great kirtan leader? What is the consciousness of a good kirtan leader?
No matter what the style of kirtan, that kirtaniya who at least knows that there is no difference between the Lord's holy name and the Lord Himself. A kirtaniya who closes the distance between a gross and subtle sound experience and the manifest presence of the pure holy name. Old or young, a kirtaniya who has tasted the mercy of service to the holy name, and therefore overflows with the desire to share that with others.
Question: Who are some of your favorite kirtan leaders? What is it about them and their style of kirtan leading that you like? Can you talk about any especially memorable kirtans you were in with such great kirtan leaders?
Deep, focused, uncomplicated, long, smooth, soulful, steady, spontaneous, and meditative are a few traits that come to mind. I prefer kirtans supported by a few well played instruments, not the big band kirtans popular today that can be more performance kirtans than Gaudiya tradition supplication and service to the holy name.
Question: A couple names of past appreciated kirtan leaders, and when?
Srila Prabhupada's kirtans in San Francisco in 1967 and 1968 are classic favorites; those early kirtans were non-responsive. In the temple, his congregation of chanters played instruments softly, while Srila Prabhupada generally played his kartals and chanted alone.
When the rhythm was established, he chanted through an entire prayer — most commonly the mangalacarana or guruvastakam prayers — and after finishing, chanted Hare Krishna and then the congregation chanted along with him. Nothing quite matches up to the power, purity or potency of those kirtans, where often the entire congregation was tearfully appreciative.
During this period, he introduced responsive kirtans. New San Francisco disciple kirtan leaders in this period: Visnujana for depth; Harsharani for sweetness; Mukunda for steadiness; and Jayananda for humility.
In London in late 1968: anyone in our party of six.
In London 1969: George Harrison for connection and expansiveness; new devotee Jaya Hari for enthusiasm; Dhananjaya for warmth; Yogeswara for his focus.
In India late 1970 through 1972 on sankirtan with Srila Prabhupada: Dinanath for soul; Nanda Kumar and Rishi Kumar for keeping the beat without force; Bharadraj for smoothness.
From 2004 to 2009: Kartamasya, lover and servant of the holy name and Bhaktivinoda prayer kirtan leader for his pure intent, rich bhakti, and subtlety. Akincina Krishna and Amul for love of kirtan and expertise.