ISKCON's "Festival of Culture" carries the essence of the spiritual
culture of India (originally called Bharata) to cities and towns throughout Poland.
Ewa, Beata, and Ania, three girls aged nine, eleven, and thirteen, live in Mrzezyno, a quiet town of four thousand with a beach and port on Poland's northern Baltic coast. They wait excitedly all year for summer, when forty thousand vacationers descend on Mrzezyno and the town comes alive. Impromptu bars, cafes, discos, hotels, campgrounds, and billboards spring up.
The girls' excitement comes from more than just looking forward to summer tourism. Every day they go down to the beach to see, "Have they come yet?"
One Saturday morning as the trio strolls along the port, they hear cymbal chimes and drum rhythms growing louder by the second.
"It's them!" the girls yell in joy, running in the direction of the sound.
A bouquet of colors appears. Forty-five people dance down the street in two lines, women in elegant saris in front and back. Many in the group carry flags and strings of balloons. Spectators on the street and in windows smile to see the women's friendly waves as they dance in unison.
In the middle of the procession shaven-headed men in bright robes dance with joy to the accompaniment of cymbals, drums, a trumpet, and an accordion.
The lead singer's voice charms Ewa, Beata, and Ania with their favorite chant: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
In their excitement the girls recognize someone.
They run forward to hug their old friend, dressed like a traditional Indian dancer.
The train of dancing devotees gradually winds its way to beach, where the procession attracts the curious. While some people laugh or ignore the scene, others clap, and many smile and wave.
With a cue from Indradyumna Swami, Sri Radhika halts the forward march. The sea forms a beautiful backdrop for the musical party. A crowd gathers to see the entertainment. Out in front, Sri Radhika dances with Ewa, Beata, and Ania. They invite children from the ring of spectators to come and dance, and soon twenty-five dancers move in swirling chains.
The music builds to an intense climax, everyone absorbed in Krsna's holy names. Then, to the applause of bystanders, the performance comes to a close and Indradyumna Swami steps forward.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your kind appreciation."
Gaurangi Dasi translates into Polish for the crowd.
"We are members of the Hare Krsna movement. Tonight and tomorrow at 5:00 PM we'll be putting on a festival of Indian culture on the pier. The stage program will include traditional Indian music, dance, and theater. We also have exhibits on the Indian philosophy and way of life.
"In one tent you'll be able to put on an Indian sari to wear for the evening. In another you can have your face painted with Indian flower designs and treat yourself to delicious Indian vegetarian food. This is a festival for the whole family, and it's free."
Indradyumna Swami asks who will be there, and most in the audience raise their hands high. The music starts again, and procession moves on.
Setting Up the Site
At the festival site, only a hundred meters from the beach, a team of devotees unloads the semitrailer. They set up fifteen tents along both sides of the pier and bolt scaffolding to the truck trailer to erect a stage. A banner adorning the stage reads "Festival of Indian Culture, 10th Anniversary Tour."
One crewman is Narottama Dasa, age twenty-two, a second-generation Krsna devotee and a graduate of a gurukula (Hare Krsna school) in Murwillumbah, Australia. After graduating three years ago, he didn't know what to do with himself.
"My friends and I got into drugs. My parents tried to advise me against it, but they didn't really have anything for me to do. Two years ago when Indradyumna Swami came to our farm, he spent a lot of time with me and encouraged me to start chanting again and to come to Poland. For six months I worked really hard for a local devotee, and finally I was able to buy my ticket. It's the best thing I ever did.
"Tomorrow when the festival finishes we'll dismantle everything and then set up again the next day. We do festivals in two or three towns a week, five months a year. It's a lot of hard work, but it's fun too. Clean fun. I have friends here, and I feel I'm doing something worthwhile for people in general, for ISKCON, and for myself. My parents are really proud of me."
After the stage goes up, it's time for Jambavan to do his work at the mixing desk. He tunes the sound system, adjusting the crossover and equalization. The twenty-two-year-old sound technician is a graduate of gurukula in India. His mother is Australian, and he was born in England.
"I was living in Vrndavana with my parents, fiddling with my computer, waiting for something to happen with my life. Then Indradyumna Swami invited me to the Polish tour as assistant sound engineer. I gladly accepted his offer.
"Last year I worked as an understudy. This year I'm running the whole system: four thousand watts of amplifiers, a twelve-channel mixing desk, and several multi-effects units.
"The festivals used to be held indoors for fewer than a thousand people. Now that they're open-air events, two thousand to ten thousand guests come and the sound system is too small."
The Stage Show
Today people start arriving at 4:30. Tribhuvanesvara Dasa opens the festival by singing devotional songs, accompanied by traditional Indian instruments. He graduated from Poland's Poznan Music College in 1978 and spent time singing and playing keyboards in a cabaret band on a Polish luxury cruiser. In 1989, on a street in Warsaw, a Hare Krsna devotee sold him a Bhagavad-gita.
"After reading the book," he says, "I decided to dedicate my talents to glorifying Krsna."
Several thousand people wander through the festival site. The only open area is directly in front of the stage. Ewa, Beata, and Ania, their faces painted to match their saris, are dancing with Sri Radhika and other young girls similarly dressed. Sri Radhika teaches simple Bharata Natyam steps to the girls, who will present their skills to the crowd.
Tribhuvanesvara, the festival's master of ceremonies, welcomes the guests and invites applause for the dancers as they enter the stage. Croatian Sri Radhika wins hearts as she tells the public in broken Polish about Bharata Natyam.
"We have started a dance school here in Mrzezyno," Tribhuvanesvara announces.
The girls dance, carefully following their teacher's movements. The audience responds with flashing cameras and thunderous applause.
The students then join the audience to watch Sri Radhika perform "Krsna, the Lifter of Govardhana Hill."
While actors backstage prepare for the Ramayana theater, Tribhuvanesvara tells the audience that the pastimes of Lord Rama and His queen, Sita, have fascinated the people of Southeast Asia for thousands of years.
Music composed by Tribhuvanesvara ushers the actors onto the stage. Each actor has a magnificent larger-than-life mask visible from far away. Tribhuvanesvara reads the entire script (except Sita's part, read by a woman), changing his voice for each character.
Around the Site
While most of the crowd focuses on the stage, around the festival site a lot else is going on. Piotrek, a teenaged boy from Katowice, approaches Indradyumna Swami with a photo of both of them together at last year's festival. Piotrek asks him to sign the photo.
"When I was leaving home for vacation, I packed this photo, thinking that I might meet you. When I got off the train this morning and saw a post-er advertising the festival, I couldn't believe it."
Past the exhibition tents, where people read panels on reincarnation, vegetarianism, and the scientific basis of Krsna consciousness, we come to the restaurant tent, now vacant. From behind empty tables, cook Rukmini-priya Dasi apologizes.
"Sorry, there's nothing left. Everything sold out in the first two hours of the festival. A few people said that never before in their life had they tasted anything so delicious."
The questions-and-answers tent is packed. A man asks Jayatam Dasa if Krsna and the Christian's God is the same person.
"God is one," Jayatam replies, "though His names are many. Allah, Yahweh, and Krsna are names for the same person. Just as the sun is known by as many names as there are languages in the world, so is God."
An elderly woman with a dog asks if Hare Krsna is a cult.
"The International Society for Krsna Consciousness," Jayatam answers, "is a registered religion in this country. In India people have taught this philosophy and lived this culture for thousands of years. People unfamiliar with this culture sometimes say we are a cult, but not informed people like scholars or the government."
A boy interrupts.
"Then why do the priests insist that Hare Krsna is a dangerous sect?"
In reply, Jayatam asks, "Who in this tent is afraid of death?"
Almost everyone in the tent raises his or her hand.
"Why are you afraid?"
A discussion develops, and Jayatam concludes by saying that people are afraid of death because of ignorance of an afterlife.
"It is human nature to fear what we don't understand," he says.
At the gift shops, people buy imported items from India. Sangita-priya Dasi, just back from the Ramayana theater, where she plays the voice of Sita, explains that profits from the gift shop help keep the festival going.
Sangita reminisces as she serves a young girl.
"Six years ago I was just like her, an eighteen-year-old attending the festival for the first time."
Introduced on the stage as the festival's organizer, Indradyumna Swami summarizes the essential philosophy of Bhagavad-gita. He holds a copy of the book in front of him for the audience to see. His words, along with the words of the translator, resound throughout the festival site.
"In Bhagavad-gita, Krsna, as God is known in the ancient Sanskrit language of India, speaks specifically for the benefit of human society. Unlike the animals, human beings can inquire, 'Who am I?' "
He explains the basic philosophy of the soul and then says, "Some of you may be wondering why European boys and girls have accepted an Eastern culture and philosophy. I'm sure that if you speak to them they will each give you a different answer to this question. But I also think that their answers could be grouped into two categories. One, they are attracted by the philosophy. And two, they are attracted by the pure way we live.
"If you have a pure goal like attaining love of God, you should have a pure way of life. In Krsna consciousness we follow four principles: no meat-eating, no illicit sex, no intoxication, and no gambling. Although you may not be ready to follow the principles yourselves, how many of you think the world would be a better place if people lived by them? Please raise your hands."
Most in the audience raise their hands.
"Some of you may be thinking, 'Yeah, the principles are good, but what about fun? No hamburgers. No beer or vodka. No discos on Friday night. What do you guys do for fun? Hare Krsnas must be really sad people.' "
He pulls a sad face, and many in the audience laugh.
Then his face lights up with a big smile.
"In Krsna consciousness we feel happiness on the spiritual platform, on the platform of the soul. Anyone can feel it at once by chanting the names of God. I invite all of you to please repeat after me. Two words at a time: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare."
Playing the harmonium, Indradyumna Swami leads a beautiful kirtana, accompanied by Ekalavya Dasa on trumpet.
Guests and devotees dance, swaying back and forth in front of the stage. Sri Radhika and her "students" dance in circles, holding each other's hands. Indradyumna Swami suddenly changes the melody, and the kirtana's tempo builds. Bhakti-priya Dasa joins in with his bass guitar, and Syama Bhakta Dasa plays his African djambe. Devotees and guests dance with abandon.
Indradyumna Swami ends the kirtana and speaks some final words.
"If you have enjoyed the chanting, the dancing, and the talk on the philosophy, I would like to invite you to take it home with you. If you take a Bhagavad-gita from our bookshop, where I am going right now, I'll write a little dedication for you.
"I can see that many young people are waiting for our reggae band, Village of Peace. So please give a warm welcome to the lead vocalist, all the way from New Zealand, Sri Prahlada."
I enter the stage with the other band members for our first set.
At the book tent, Radha Sakhi Vrnda Dasi and Nandini Dasi are busy keeping up with the demand. Most of the Gita sales come after Indradyumna Swami's talk on the stage.
"What are your names," he asks a middle-aged man with his wife and two sons.
Nandini writes their names on a piece of paper, which Indradyumna Swami copies onto the front page of the book:
July 18, 1999
Dear Jacek, Magda, Bartek, and Rafal, May this ancient wisdom bring peace and happiness into your lives.
Yours, Indradyumna Swami
Indradyumna Swami is excited about the success of the festival.
"Each festival is a gem," he says. "It's not always easy to get permission to do them. Sometimes mayors on their own or under pressure from the local priests cancel the festivals at the last moment."
Hare Krsna Reggae
Village of Peace's Krsna reggae has a crowd of a couple hundred people dancing in front of the stage. I sing in English, Bengali, and Sanskrit. We're gaining a reputation, and fans call out requests. "Wake Up" and "Divine Love" are favorites.
Ten o'clock is close-down time. I say good-night to the audience.
"We have been together all night, and I can safely say that by now we're all friends. We don't like to say good-by to friends, but there is one good thing: we'll have the pleasure of meeting again. Thank you all for coming. Good-by till tomorrow, and remember, chant Hare Krsna and be happy!"
I sign CDs and cassettes and give my address to those who want to write to me. I have received many letters from kids who stopped smoking, drinking alcohol, or eating meat after attending one of our concerts. Some kids start to read Srila Prabhupada's books and regularly chant Hare Krsna. I know I'm not a great musician, but letters like these and memories of the kids chanting and dancing in the concerts inspire me to keep singing.
Port authority captain Jusef is pleased he attended the festival.
"My superiors in Szczechin and the local priest told me not to allow the festival this year. I didn't listen to them, and the mayor supported my decision. I'm so glad your festival has come back to Mrzezyno. People have such a good time when you come to town."
As he walks away carrying his favorite prasadam deep-fried vegetable samosas he turns and says to Indradyumna Swami, "May these festivals continue for the next hundred years!"
As the festival ends, Beata, Ewa, and Ania excitedly run with a festival poster and a pen, requesting autographs from Indradyumna Swami, Tribhuvanesvara, and other artists. Two buses carrying exhausted devotees pull out of the festival site. Three teary-eyed girls wave.
"Good-by," they shout. "Come again next year."
Twenty-two-year-old Sri Prahlada Dasa has been a Krsna devotee since age five. He has traveled with the Poland festival tour since it began in 1990. Last year he was married onstage to Rukmini Priya Devi Dasi during the Polish Woodstock festival.
Excerpts from letters written by mayors and cultural directors in some Polish cities that hosted the Festival of India. (Translated from Polish.)
The spectacle was held in a nice atmosphere, delivering heaps of spiritual experiences. Warmly recommended. (Mayor of Miedzychod)
The idea of the festival is splendid, and the people presenting it are full of kindness and grace. I am still hopeful that people who improperly understand the word "tolerance" will deliberately begin to change their outlook upon life and will kindly accept this kind of spectacle in future years. (Director of the Culture House, Miedzychod)
The Festival of India was a cultural and artistic undertaking on a very high organizational level. We give the organizers the highest mark. In thanking you for presenting India's culture, we are inviting you again to Glogow. (The Chief of Glogow's Culture Department (On behalf of the President of Glogow)
Hearty thanks for marvelous and gorgeous entertainment. The friendly mood and kindness prevailing during the Festival of India may for all of us be an excellent example of a grand and professionally prepared show. The dance, theater, pantomime, and concerts executed by artists representing united cultures of both West and East caused bliss and enchantment among all the Festival's participants. (Mayor of Wolsztyn)
We would like to thank you for organizing and delivering so many unforgettable experiences from this wonderful event. We hope that it is the first step toward future cooperation. (Director of the Culture House, Chocianow)
This astonishing event will be long remembered by the inhabitants of Chocianow. The Festival delivered to the public a lot of sensations and made it possible to get in contact with Indian culture, lifestyle, and philosophy. Hoping for future visit of your Festival. (Mayor of Chocianow)
The whole affair was accepted very nicely by the inhabitants of Chojnow, which was proved by their attendance in great numbers. The Festival in a significant way helped us get to know this culture. I invite future cooperation and wish for many more successful festivals. (Director of the Culture House, Chojnow)