New Zealand Performers Make Philosophy Go Down Easy

By Madhava Smullen on 20 Aug 2010

A group of ISKCON devotees and congregational members at the New Varshana Farm near Auckland, New Zealand—calling themselves the ISKCON Performing Arts Program—are taking the Krishna conscious performing arts to a new level of quality. And with shows at local community events and public festivals, they’re stepping out of their comfort zone and demonstrating how powerful the arts are as a medium to introduce people to the path of Bhakti Yoga.”

Krishna DramaA group of ISKCON devotees and congregational members at the New Varshana Farm near Auckland, New Zealand—calling themselves the ISKCON Performing Arts Program—are taking the Krishna conscious performing arts to a new level of quality. And with shows at local community events and public festivals, they’re stepping out of their comfort zone and demonstrating how powerful the arts are as a medium to introduce people to the path of Bhakti Yoga.

It all began in October 2009 when Amrita Pani Dasi, who had always loved the arts but never worked professionally in the field, was inspired to stage Jagannatha Priya Natakam for the Auckland Ratha Yatra festival that December. Written by her late guru Tamal Krishna Goswami, and telling the story of Lord Jagannatha’s appearance, it was particularly close to her heart. So she rounded up several of her friends and devotional peers to perform in it, and set to work.

But at the last second, just as rehearsals were about to begin, every single one of her crew dropped out. It seemed as if all was lost.

Then suddenly, in what seemed like a miracle, a host of young devotees she had never met approached her and offered to act in the play.

“The simple production I had planned developed into a full-blown epic,” Amrita Pani says now. “Although few of us had ever been in a drama before, we worked hard and included dance and martial arts to add flavor. We begged and borrowed costumes, built a stage on a shoe-string budget, and hired equipment.”

Amrita surrendered to the process, and everything began to fall into place.

“But when the time came to perform, and I saw the temple full of devotees, my anxiety was huge,” she says.

She needn’t have worried. The audience loved it.

Amrita and her group were so inspired by the positive feedback that they decided to ‘get back on the horse’ and keep working together. Wonderful friendships were made, and, realizing the Krishna conscious power of such presentations, Amrita started the ISKCON Performing Arts Program (IPAP) in February 2010.

Today, leaving her full-time real estate position behind, she and her husband Rohita Dasa run IPAP and its umbrella company Harmony Events from their home office, two minutes from the New Varshana temple.

“IPAP meets every Saturday from 9am to 7pm in our temple’s large, modern prasadam (food) hall,” says Amrita Pani. “We offer a whole host of performing arts classes, each lasting one hour. For instance, Kathak dance is taught by Bhavatarini Dasi from India, who has been a dancer, teacher, and choreographer for over twenty years. And singing is taught by Vishnu Padi Dasi from Bengal, who is expert at teaching the proper Bengali pronunciation, and who sings popular Hindi bhajans for our shows.”

Group member Shiva Saripilli is currently leading drama classes, while second-generation devotee Vamana Ho teaches mridanga, a traditional Vaishnava drum.

At only nineteen years old, he also teaches at the local gurukula school, is a part-time martial arts instructor, and is busy with his university studies—yet still somehow finds time to do service at the temple.

Finally, Amrita Pani’s husband Rohita Dasa—a much-loved kirtaniya originally from the Czech Republic—teaches kirtan instruments. Mainly-self taught, he also performs at IPAP shows and has the unique ability to raise an audience to its feet.

The students, meanwhile, are a diverse group. IPAP focuses on working with young people and inspiring them in Krishna consciousness, so many of its students are youth. But they’re a broad range—all the way from eleven year-old-girls who are bored living on the farm and looking for something exciting to do, to thirty-year old Indian professionals who appreciate the mix of Indian and Western culture.

Many are newcomers to Krishna consciousness, who found out about IPAP after visiting the New Varshana temple.

“These students come to love and appreciate ISKCON’s culture of singing, chanting, dancing and feasting,” Amrita says. “They enjoy the prasadam we provide
every Saturday, and many are chanting and taking up Krishna consciousness seriously and even considering initiation. And where they used to be shy in participating in kirtans, they are now the life of the temple program.”

IPAP is a tight-knit team, making sure its get-togethers are relaxed and social, and taking care of its members. “Every Saturday evening, after our classes, we all attend arati at the temple and share a vegetarian feast dinner,” Amrita says. “And we often celebrate surprise birthday parties for the students with cake, balloons and prasadam. It’s very nice for those who are in New Zealand without their families to feel that they have an ISKCON family that cares about them.”

And IPAP puts as much effort into its productions as it does into taking care of its members. Its first, Jagannatha Priya Natakam, was the longest and most lavish drama ever seen at the Auckland temple.

Its next production, performed in honor of Gaudiya Vaishnavism founder Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and entitled Golden Avatar, was a variety show that included dance, Vaishnava songs, and a dramatic portrayal of Shri Caitanya’s pastimes. The kirtan finale, during which the audience joined in, dancing and singing with the actors, has become IPAP’s signature.

The group’s new show, “Spirit of India,” will be performed bi-monthly in local public venues. Aimed at young people, it includes a short comedy drama, a dance, singing, and a mridanga demonstration, and ends with a Hare Krishna rock dance party backed with a slide show of devotional images.

Other performances for the general public include appearing at the finale of a recent talent quest in the local Rodney district, and performing at several Indian community functions. All have received highly enthusiastic responses.

“We have made a lot of friends through performing, and I belive we’ve also shown a positive and ‘normal’ side of Krishna consciousness to the public,” says
Amrita. “Hopefully we’ve helped people understand devotees more, and we’ve also shared our values with them.”

Indeed, IPAP aims to show young people that they can have fun and be happy without drugs or alcohol, and to attract them to take up Krishna consciousness. “I believe that hearing about values and philosophy through drama is non-threatening and is much more palatable,” Amrita says. “Drama is very powerful.”

ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada thought so too, as illustrated by a moving recollection from one of his disciples, Vrindavan Chandra Dasa.

Vrindavana Chandra remembers playing Arjuna in the drama ‘The Pandavas Retire Timely’ for his guru at the New Dwarka temple in Los Angeles in the 1970s.

Towards the end of the play, he looked over and was amazed to see Prabhupada crying. When the play was over, Prabhupada said, “I want to thank these nice
boys for performing such wonderful service. These plays are better than reading my books.”

He then told the 15 to 20 sannyasis who had been sitting in the coveted space next to him to clear out an area so that all the actors could sit near him. When they had settled in, Prabhupada, with his voice still choked up with emotion, said, “These plays are very pleasing to me, and I want everyone to know that these boys will all go back to Krishna after this life.”

It’s Prabhupada’s desire that drama be used to connect people with Krishna consciousness that makes the hard work of running IPAP worthwhile for Amrita. And it’s obvious that she’s ready for plenty more.

“We are about to audition for the Auckland Diwali festival, which is held in the city center and attended by thousands of people,” she says. “Our dance, which features many colorful costumes and is accompanied by mridanga and the chanting of Hare Krishna, is quite professional and we are confident that we will be chosen to perform.”

IPAP will also be be performing at the Diwali festival in the New Varshana ISKCON temple, with their most ambitious project yet, the “Ramayan.”

Next, they’ll be looking to take their Spirit of India show to Kerikeri, a town four hours North of New Varshana, as an outreach effort. And as their first anniversary rolls around in February, they’ll be performing Jagannatha Priya Natakam again by popular demand, this time for the general public.

Finally, in spring 2011, they will put on several cultural performances at New Varshana’s open day for Holi, the Festival of Colors, which will culminate with the traditional spraying of colored dyes.

Amrita hopes to keep developing IPAP to the point where it can be used as a tool to promote other community services, such as caring for elderly, disabled or dying devotees. “We want to establish a project under Harmony Events that will begin with in-home assistance and later develop a rest home and hospice,” she says.

“For now, however,” she concludes, “We simply want more and more people to join us in doing as many performances as possible.”

For more information about ISKCON Performing Arts Program, please visit www.harmonyevents.co.nz or phone Amrita Pani Dasi at 09 412 6108.

Posted in In the News.