Vraja Kishori Sangeet Niketan will offer courses in Haveli Sangeet and other traditional arts of Vrindavan. The founder, Krishnaa Kinkari Dasi from the United Kingdom, shared with Vrindavan Today about the new school, her life as an adherent of Sri Vallabhacharya’s Path of Grace, and the wonderful Brajwasi family with whom she partners to bring the secrets of Braj devotion to devotees around the world. You can experience the magic of their art at their “Super Raas Lila Festival,” December 27-January 4, at Madhav Nikunj, Parikrama Marg, opposite Purana Kaliya Daha. (details below)
Dressed in purple from head to toe, with a mane of tulasi beads embracing her neck, Krishnaa Kinkari Dasi makes a dazzling first impression. I first saw her with the late Shyam Das one cold Christmas night in Vrindavan. They were visiting the Sandipani Muni School with the Pushtimargiya Sri Krishnalila Sansthan, to present the life story of the Pushti Saint, Ras Khan. The production overflowed with expertise and soul, utterly delighting the children, guests and staff. It was the best Christmas gift we could have asked for.
Kinkari ji says she first came to Vrindavan in 1974 “on a quest to find that Krishna!” She had already studied Sanskrit and Hindi, but felt the need for deeper devotional inspiration. In Vrindavan, she lived in a bhajanashram with her swaroop of Sri Natkhat Shyamji, spending days attending Raaslilas all over town, trying to absorb the local language of Braj Bhasha.
A turning point came on a trip to Gokul when she met Shyam Das, who invited her to Jatipura to meet his guru. “I got to the Vrindavan bus stop and turned back, but took courage the next day,” she recalls. “When I arrived, his guru—Sri Prathameshji, Ranchodlal Acharya—had just left. However, he could not find, most unusually, a seat on the train and came back! He told me to stay. From then on I lived at the foot of Sri Girirajji in Sri Mathuradhishji’s temple and served in the temple along with having more lessons in raag, bhog and shringaar [devotional music, cooking, and ornamentation for the pleasure of Sri Krishna] as well as the language.”
“All of these beautiful arts that make up the Path of Grace, with their unadulterated tradition, attention to fastidious detail, and mind-blowing voluminous texts, were exactly what I ad always been looking for, and I felt an immediate affiliation with the ways of seva in this lineage. Most especially, I was thrilled by
the Braj Bhasha literature.
These days, Kinkariji dedicates about fourteen hours daily to translating that same literature into English. Her tenacious dedication, with the combined efforts of Pandit Ghanshyam Das of PKS, have enabled the team to produce twelve major publications over the last six years. All, she says, “By Their great grace.”
She hopes that these English translations will inspire students of Vraja Kishori Sangeet Niketan, a new effort by Kinkariji and PKS to make the traditional arts of Braj accessible to devotees who crave to learn them.
Vraja Kishori Sangeet Niketan will offer classes in vocal music, heritage instruments, and other Braj arts. The first courses will be Haveli Sangeet, tabla and harmonium, but may later include other instruments and courses on a variety of devotional arts such as saanjhi, sringaar (dressing the Deity) and Braj-style cooking. To Kinkariji’s knowledge, this will be a unique institution and opportunity. If there is sufficient support, she says, the school will become a complete Raaslila academy.
Haveli Sangeet is Braj’s special form of kirtan, explains Kinkariji. “In the Pushtimarg tradition, the places where devotees congregate to have the holy sight of the Lord are named havelis and not mandirs (temples). This indicates that the building is Sri Thakurji’s home, not a public place. Haveli Sangeet originates here, in the hearts of the devotees who sing of the Lord’s pastimes in Braj Bhasha. Each time of the day and each pastime merits poems from all the devotee bards, the most famous of whom are the ashtasakha. Their eulogies are accompanied by harmonium and pakhawaj, tanpura, sarangi or sitar, plus other seasonal instruments at every period of darshan or aarati. An appointed person (kirtaniya ji) will praise the Beloveds in song from morning to night. These ashtayam seva kirtans open a door to a vast ocean of remarkable writings praising Them at every second of life. In front of Sri Thakurji, from morning to night, the musicians sit and adore the Lord through sangeet (song).”
Apart from the Sri Vallabhacharyaji Baithak at Bansibat in Vrindavan, Kinkari explains, most of the other pushtimargi havelis, which maintain this art form, are in Gokul and Jatipura. In Vrindavan, the Sri Radharaman temple uses Haveli Sangeet as part of the daily worship, as does Sri Radhavallabh temple and Tatiya Sthan and Nidhivan of the Sri Haridas Tradition.
The classes will be taught by the expert artists of the Pustimargiya Sri Krishnalila Sansthan, a family who have perfected their craft over generations. “The family is now based in Vrindavan, but hailed from Dhansiga near Kolikavan about three decades ago. As you know, the Raaslila tradition began in the bhaktikalin yug [devotional Renaissance] about 550 years ago. The lineages come from then. This family can trace their tree back almost 150 years.”
The presentation of Raaslila is a divine interaction. “The elders of the family all bow down respectfully to their children when they are in the roles of Sri Thakurji, Sri Swaminiji and the gopis, et cetera. They address them in appropriate terms and adore them, for they are then non-different from the Lord’s own swaroop.
“I had been addicted to Raaslila performance for many years before [meeting them],” admits Kinkari, “but when they were called, unbeknown to me, to take part in a festival some London Vaishnavas had sponsored for the children at the Sandipani Muni School, and I had the darshan of their Sri Thakurjis and their art, I felt inspired to pursue the matter further! I admired their ethic, values, discipline, Brahminical manners and the strong family ties to this inheritance. I particularly admired the way that the children were able to fulfill their roles, which indicates a strong but loving parentage.”
Although the idea of a school to teach the arts of Braj is a recent one, the collaboration between Kinkariji and the PKS goes back to six years ago, when they first conceived the idea of writing translations of key Vallabh Sampradaya texts in English. The PKS artists are themselves adherents of the Path of Grace of Sri Vallabhacharyaji and thus, says Kinkariji, they were already familiar with the literary traditions and music of the Pushti Acharyas, the ashta-chaap, and the lineages of Sri Haridasji and Hit Harivansh.
The first translations were of the life stories or vartajis of the great saints of Pushti Marg. The translations became an inspiration to stage the stories, so one of the members of the troupe rewrote the chosen vartajis in Braj Bhasha verse to fit the musical framework of Raaslila.
All the revenue from the group’s book sales and fundraisers goes toward their continuing projects, as well as several charitable causes. Their UK fund, Food for Life London to Vrindavan, supports disadvantaged children, saints and sadhus performing bhajan in remote areas of Braj, the Fauji Baba in Govardhan, the widows of the bhajanashram, service for devotees giving parikrama, and the service of the cows in their goshala. They also support Food for All in London, which feeds many homeless people on the streets. The Sandipani Muni School has been a frequent beneficiary of the troupe’s support and artistic offerings. “We have [also] taken performances to Mansarovar, Chandrasarovar, Sri Bansibat (Bandirvan) and Sri Giriraj Tarahati. Now the pushtakjis [books] have helped us to develop a permanent stage on the parikrama marg in Sri Vrindavan—opposite Purana Kali Daha—with safe rooms for the Sri Thakurjis to dress, for pilgrims to take rest, for about 15 cows to live happily and for the free performance of the Raaslilas as it used to be: doors open for devotees.”
Projects like Kinkariji’s are helping to preserve the local Braj dialect which, despite its great literary and historical significance, the artists of PKS fear is falling out of usage in Vrindavan due to economic pressure on youth to speak modern standard Hindi and English.
Kinkariji agrees. “It may be said that yes, the knowledge of Braj Bhasha is declining. Many devotees in Vrindavan have not looked into the vast ocean of beautiful literature—the divine vani—that is available in Braj Bhasha. However, with the Lord’s grace, these rivers of delightful words will continue to be spoken and sung. These are the roots and reasons for our effort to preserve and perpetuate this culture […] to preserve and perpetuate the tradition in a fast-changing world.”
“There is a lot of [worldwide] interest in this literature and music, however not everyone has had the chance to learn the Devnagari alphabet. By transliterating and translating, even those people can have a change to get some revelations into the lila-kirtans that come from the ashta-chaap poets and their gurus, and thus gain a vision into the amazing pastimes of the Beloveds in Sri Vrindavan.
“Sri Nathji gave Sri Vallabhacharyaji the direct command to use His Braj Bhasha—the Beloveds’ own personal mode of speech—in the writings and the singing. In other paths the worship is done through Vedic mantras. We hope to continue in this seva to seekers of such divine loving pastimes, wherever they come from.”
Kinkariji has strong faith that dance and music, especially in the form of Raaslila, is the most effective and enjoyable way to convey the Beloveds’ pastimes to all, but, “The demands of modern life are squeezing these [traditions] out of the culture. It is essential that such arts are preserved and enhanced in every way possible so that they will never die out or be disregarded.
“Now that we have 12 books and the space, we can also offer lessons to seekers. These, of course, will ultimately be sung for the pleasure of the Beloveds. All such seva is but a tiny offering at Their feet.”
From December 27th-January 4th, the group will be presenting an eight-day “Super Raaslila Festival” at Madhav Nikunj on the parikrama marg, just across from Purana Kaliyadaha. Admission is free and the presentation begins at 1pm daily. The theme of this year’s utsav is ‘The Stories of the 252 Vaishnavas.’
“Along with the usual Raaslila delights there will be eight days where, after Sri Thakurji has enjoyed the music and dancing, a chosen varta will be enacted and the ‘moral of the story’ demonstrated. These vartas show the practical application of devotional principle and will be portrayed with accuracy and good humour.” The group’s two newest publications are set to launch on January 3rd, and prasad will be distributed on the January 4th after the Raaslila. All are cordially invited.
Those interested in books or classes but who are unable to attend the festival are invited to contact Pandit Ghanshyamdas at 94122802802.
Books Currently Available from Vraja Kishori Publications:
The Vraja Festival Calendar
Ashtayam Seva Kirtan Pranalika
Sri Gopijan ke Panch Prem Gita
Sri Pushtimargi Lakshanani
84 Vaishnavon ki Varta
Dhanya Dhanya Vrishabhanu Dulhari
Rasakhan, Rasa ki Khan
Forthcoming at this year’s winter festival:
252 Vaishnavon ki varta, Volume 1
Vasanta Ashtayam Seva