this is a review for the film Rasa Yatra, a four-year labor of love for film director Param Tomanec, artist in residence both at Vrindavan’s Sri Chaitanya Prema Samsthana and Oxford University’s Centre for Hindu Studies. The film guides its viewers through several scenes in India, eventually taking them to what Tomanec has called “the heart of India”: Vrindavan. The film’s final edit was just completed and a distributor is currently being sought.
The film’s greatest triumph lies in its ability to connect viewers of all kinds to Krishna’s expression as pure consciousness, to Krishna the cowherd boy, and to the devotion glorifying him. Whether or not the viewer is a Krishna devotee is irrelevant; Rasa Yatra communicates on a universal level. Devotional scenes include devotees from all over the world, yet do not dwell on this detail.
Yatra is translated as “journey.” Rasa is often defined as “juice,” “taste,” or “essence.” According to scholar Susan L. Schwartz, rasa involves “the experience of emotional states and their potential to induce religious response.” When speaking of rasa, Schwartz also says that, “It is through the experience of the rasas… that the rasika, the enlightened observer, might approach the highest levels of understanding that Hindu tradition embraces.” Rasa Yatra offers the possibility of just such an experience. However, it does so in the framework of the narrative of each soul’s inner journey. It offers a chance for devotees to experience their own journeys to date over again, seeing the clear path of devotion that stretches ahead beyond the horizon.
Pilgrims from all over the world undertake costly and arduous journeys so they may personally experience this divine form, whose sinuous tribhanga (three-fold bending) pose, exquisite detail and playfully benevolent expression have elicited immediate devotion from all who have laid eyes on Him for the past 500 years. Resplendent in head to toe adornments and gold colored garments, the otherwise still shot of Radharama undulates; is this wavering vision from intense heat? Incense offerings? A dream state?
Rasa Yatra calls itself “A pilgrimage into the heart of India.” At first we are spinning as other flowers appear all around us; marigold petals rain down as Radha and Krishna dance in a Ras lila performance. Then the wind blows, and we find ourselves in another far-off place: the Himalayas. Pristine wilderness literally lords over us as its majesty is conveyed in several still shots: snow-covered mountains, valleys of green, brown, gold. The moonlit night, the sun-infused day, a clear lake Chandra Tal reflecting the Himalayas are there for us to adore and marvel at. All is calm, all is still and we see words from the Bhagavad Gita reach us as we continue to float: “… of stationary things, I am the Himalayas.”
In the quiet of caves, on hillsides, and in valleys – clothed in dingy dhotis, brilliant vermilion, pristine white, and dazzling saffron there are people, who understand this as a daily way of life. Meanwhile, the clouds move in a spectacular time lapse. A young hand rings a temple bell, and there is movement, life, the herding of cows, the waterfall in which we somehow seem to get caught and whisked away. We know we are still safe, still loved and still on our sacred journey.
We move through the night and it is morning. We are greeted by the temple spire (chakram), by flowers, by dew-covered offerings to a Shiva lingam. We enter a courtyard where we get to overhear a Aunties’s conversation taking place as she applies mehndi and a two others prepare food. The woman expresses sheer joy from being able to visit the temple, to do pilgrimage, to connect with God in so many ways. The worries of the world fall away from her in a way that is beautifully and fully tangible. She begins to speak of God even coming to visit her in a dream – we follow her into the dream, into the Himalayan clouds.
Now we spin and drift through time as we watch the night sky rotate around the North Star. Our current picks up speed and we are moving at our fastest pace thus far. People are everywhere, moving through towns, enduring airport queues, and at river banks. We experience interaction, competition, exploitation: the so-called “necessary evils” of society in the world: vogue, indigence. We see the result of material aspirations as the sun rises over a skyline crowded with pollution-smeared rooftops. Road-clogging traffic consisting of every conceivable mode of mechanical or animal-powered transportation, pedestrians and cows. Then the camera leads us to a small lane where a car hits a bicycle cart.
Now we see the many traditions inspired by Sri Krishna: we see Holi colors thrown in Vrindavan. We again see the Ras Lila troupe and then see dancing Holi revelers spinning; we, too, are spinning. Suddenly we see the woman from earlier who had dreamt about Krishna dancing in an incense-filled temple. Then we see a charkula dance as a veiled dancer balances a multi-tiered fire lamp on her head. Suddenly we are in a soft rain of flowers for a while before Krishna appears to us one final time.
The film concludes with a dedication to the sweet-flowing river Goddess of Braj: ‘To Yamuna, daughter of the Sun.”
Where did we go? Did we go on a pilgrimage to the heart of India? We surely did. Where are we now? On a pilgrimage to the heart itself: the heart of creation, the heart of humanity, the heart of our own selves.
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