America’s Chanting Guru and His Swaying Indian Tour

Deepika Sarma
Grist Media
Krishna Das in Mumbai for his Kirtan Wallah tour. Photo courtesy Rahul Balyan/Krishna Das.

The music was speeding up. More people were leaping from their seats to dance, some with their hands in the air, some clapping as they leaned from side to side, many with their eyes closed. Krishna Das sang “Ram-uh Laksh-uh-maan Jah-nuh-ki, Jai Bolo Huh-nu-maan ki” louder into the microphone as he worked the bellows of his shiny red harmonium faster and faster, while Arjun Bruggeman, the tabla player beside him, bobbed and swayed as his drumming grew more frenzied. As the participants sang “Sita Ram, Sita Ram, Ram Ram Sita Ram” loudly in unison, a slender middle-aged woman in a floral-print sari, her silver hair wound in a tight bun, moved quietly towards the front of the hall. Planting her feet firmly on the ground, she placed her hands on her hips and began swinging her head in wild circles with eyes closed, until her bun eventually disintegrated to reveal a long, swinging, hip-length ponytail. She was in a trance.

Those who weren’t on their feet were swaying in their seats, clapping and singing along. Unlike the woman in a trance, most of the participants at this musical evening were surprisingly young, well-dressed Indians in their twenties and thirties – a hipster beard here, a Victoria Beckham bob there, a crop top or a khaki waistcoat. Some were foreign, dressed in saris or salwar kameezes. There were loud whoops and applause as the songs grew increasingly lively, and many seemed eager for a decent share of rapture.

But for the religious chants, you could’ve been forgiven for mistaking the event for a regular music concert. Das’ tunes were western, with hints of blues, country and rock and roll, sung in a deep, pleasant voice. Some songs were cheerful, some went galloping as a good quarter of the audience stood up to dance, and some were slow and poignant. When he sang “Mere Gurudev”, about his guru Neem Karoli Baba, tears rolled down his face and he paused at the end to wipe his cheeks, exactly as he’d done after singing the song at a kirtan in Pune over a week ago.

Das is touring India to promote his most recent album, Kirtan Wallah, having sung in Mumbai and Bangalore, and is headed next to Delhi. The Bangalore kirtan, held on January 20 at the Satya Sai Samskruta Sadanam auditorium, started late and went on for around three hours, but the audience showed no signs of tiring. There would be more frenzied dancing before Das’ harmonium fell silent for the last time that night around 10.30pm, after a short speech on love and chants of Om Shanti. The silver-haired woman was seated on the ground by now, wiping tears from her face. Das wiped tears from his face too, and said goodbye. “As we say in America, Namaste,” he said to laughs from the audience. There was prasad for everyone from “friends at the Shivabalayogi center” – small 10-rupee slabs of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.

Amidst the standing ovation and the subsequent rush to the stage to get Das’ autograph, someone began to shout, “Krishna Das Maharaj ki! Jai!” and the audience thundered along. “Bajrangbali ki! Jai!” added a lone voice. “When are you coming next?” asked another.

* * *

Krishna Das, born Jeffrey Kagel in New York in 1947, was a part of the band that went on to become Blue Öyster Cult. He’d been a rock musician struggling with drugs and depression, and in 1968, he met Ram Dass (the influential American spiritual teacher, born Richard Alpert, described by New York magazine as “the acid-tripping former Harvard professor”. With Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Aldous Huxley and Allen Ginsberg, he’d researched psychedelic chemicals in the 1960s, becoming a counter-culture icon for promoting LSD as a path to mind expansion). In search of a path to spiritual awakening beyond chemical substances, Alpert travelled to India in 1967, where he met Neem Karoli Baba – or Maharaj ji – who named him Ram Dass. In 1970, Kagel journeyed to India with Ram Dass and was introduced to Maharaj ji, who gave him the name Krishna Das.

As a student of Bhakti yoga under Maharaj ji for two and a half years, Krishna Das was introduced to kirtan, and took to it in earnest. Das has been one of the leading artists behind kirtan’s growing popularity in the West since the 1990s. Although he’d been singing at temples and ashrams in India and at venues back home in the US through the 1970s and 80s, he recorded his first album, One Track Heart only in 1996. His 1998 album Pilgrim Heart featured a guest appearance by Sting. His 2001 album Breath of the Heart and 2003 album Door of Faith were produced by Rick Rubin, the American record producer who has worked with artists like Black Sabbath and Kanye West. In 2013, Das’ album Live Ananda was nominated for a Grammy award for Best New Age Album. He was also invited to sing at the Grammys, where he was introduced as “the bestselling chant artist of all time with over 300,000 records sold.” The same year, a documentary on him, One Track Heart, was released. He’s also the co-founder of Triloka Records, a California-based label for world music. Almost 45 years since he first came to India and over a dozen albums later, Krishna Das today is spoken of as the ‘Rock star of yoga’ and the ‘Chant Master of American yoga’.

There’s a spectrum of western kirtan singers: on one end are the American ISKCON devotees sporting saffron clothes, beads and shaved heads, such as those who attend the Mumbai International Kirtan Festival. On the other end are artists like the commercially successful 1990s band Kula Shaker, whose catchy tunes combining kirtans and rock found popularity even in India. Krishna Das, who describes himself as a bhakta rather than a musician, falls somewhere in between.

The kirtan form of call-and-response has proved popular across the globe. Sometimes classified under ‘New Age’ music or ‘Yoga music’, western artists who sing kirtans, like Jai Uttal, Dave Stringer and the duo Deva Premal and Miten, are in demand in countries as far away as Brazil and Estonia. In 2014 alone, Premal and Miten travelled to 24 countries to sing. They’ve led kirtans in India in temples and ashrams, but never held ticketed public events here like Das is now doing. “I think this the first time KD [Krishna Das] has created a tour,” said Miten. “It gives us an idea to do the same.”

Uttal, a leading artist in the western kirtan movement, pointed out in an email interview that he was nominated for a Grammy in 2004 for his kirtan album Mondo Rama, which gave “a boost to the western kirtan movement, which was at that time in its infancy. Shortly after that, the big festivals started sprouting up through the states and then Europe.” He’s known Das since 1971, when they met at the ashram of Maharaj ji, whom Uttal also considers his guru. “Krishna Das co-owned the record company that released my first four albums and was inspired by me to start singing publicly as well. In fact, I co-produced his first CD.” Despite his pioneer tag, though, apart from a lone performance at the 1998 Femina Miss India beauty pageant, Uttal too is yet to do a public tour in India.

An hour before the Bangalore kirtan, I was ushered by The Spiritual Company, which organized this tour, towards a spacious room beside the auditorium. Nina Rao – Das’ assistant who also accompanies him on vocals and kartals (small, hand-held cymbals), and has a music album of her own – gave me a warm hug as she ushered me into a large room with a portrait of Sai Baba. Das, a kind-faced bespectacled man who looks a bit like Eric Clapton, was waiting.

I asked him about the genre he belongs to. “New Age music – it’s a new discipline in the West, and there are different approaches to it. Some approach it as a musical experience, which doesn’t really turn me on. For me it has to have some inner juice – a deeper connection.” Das said that when he first met his guru, Maharaj ji, everything in his life changed immediately. “Something happened inside of me and I realized that whatever it was that I was looking for was real – ultimately I think it was love. Not love that’s between two people, but love that’s within us.” And has he found it? “I’m working on it,” he laughs. “Chanting has music in it – but it’s not about music. It’s repetition of the divine name. They say that these names have power to move us more deeply into ourselves. The music is like the syrup, and the name is like the medicine inside the syrup.”

Miten said the biggest inspiration he draws from Das is his devotion, “Not only to his guru, which I relate to, but also to the depth to which he dives when he sings. I recognize how easy it is to ‘perform’ and create what people call a ‘show’. In America, people always call these events ‘shows’, and it always bugs me and Deva because we feel like, how can you call kirtan a show? It retains the spiritual connection, there’s nothing showy about it. Krishna Das is a great example to young kirtanwalas of how to transmit the devotion through chant and voice and music.”

“A lot of people say I’m like an American burger,” said Das, “a veggie burger – with Indian ketchup. So the melodies come to me in the shape I’m familiar with as a westerner. Which means I grew up with rock and roll and pop music, so the melodies really lean much more towards that.”

The wonderful thing about chanting, according to Das, is that “you don’t need to dress yourself a certain way or change anything about yourself. You need to do the practice that changes you from the inside.” And that’s perhaps what appeals to his young audiences.

Considering India is the home of kirtan, what is the appeal to Indians of a white man singing songs in a foreign accent set to western tunes? Said Das, “I think in the last few years western culture has really come here with technology – you’re exposed to music, fashion – it’s so different from when I first came here. People know what’s going on in the West and are very interested in what’s happening there. Every generation rejects what the generations before were doing. Its just natural – it happened in America. They just happen to run into me and want to know – what is this westerner doing? You know, Indians, more than anything, respect bhaav. I’m not the greatest musician, I don’t have the greatest voice, but I have a lot of bhaav. I think a lot of people in every culture – they can sense that, they run to that, and it’s a blessing for all of us – certainly for me.”

Did the Grammy nomination change things? “I think it changed things in India, more than anywhere else. Because I think Indian people were amazed that chanting would be taken so seriously. A simple chanting record like Live Ananda that would get so much respect in the US by the musical community – that made a really big impression on people here. Made a lot of people very curious.

He said he enjoyed being at the Grammys (“We stayed at a nice hotel!”) for his own, “weird” reasons. “It showed me very clearly that what I enjoy and what I’m interested in has nothing at all to do with the commercial music world, with the judgment of music as being either good or bad. I was honored by the Grammy – who would not be – but it showed me very clearly that I’m just singing, you know, not for awards, but to save my ass.”

Tabla player Bruggeman, who, along with Rao, was among the people on stage with Krishna Das during his Grammy kirtan, expressed a similar sentiment about being torn about the big nomination. “As a musician – Oh my god. On the other hand, it was not my scene.” He was reluctant to elaborate on why it wasn’t. “There was so much attachment there – so much fear, wanting to be something…”

When they were opening the envelope at the Grammys to announce the winner in his category, Das claimed, he was praying they wouldn’t say his name. “I said Maharaj ji, do not do this to me.” I asked him why. “Because then I’d be” – he made a face and put on a comical deep voice – “Hi, I’m a Grammy winner. How are you today, I’m a Grammy winner. Have I said that before, that I’m a Grammy winner?…That’d be too much for me to overcome.”

All his tour posters certainly announced the nomination, I pointed out. So did his website. “Grammy nominee means Grammy loser,” he laughed.

* * *

As far as kirtans go, Krishna Das’ are rather hip. Rao told me that Radio Mirchi’s online devotional music channel Devraag, which plays Indian bhakti music, wants to play Das’ music. At his public kirtans in India, the audience is extremely well dressed. “As opposed to me, right?” Das laughed, gesturing towards his clothes. “I’m the same slob I always am.” He said he had a cupboard full of red plaid shirts, red t-shirts, and black trousers – exactly like the ones he wore that evening – they’re his uniform. He’s always clad in red because it’s the color associated with Hanuman, whom he follows. Maharaj ji, he told me, was considered an avatar of Hanuman, and was worshipped as such. “Maharaj ji told me to dye everything red – even my bedsheet, my langoti!” The Hanuman Chalisa features often in his songs.

Our conversation circled back to his appeal for a young Indian audience. “India has a spiritual culture that goes back thousands and thousands of years,” he said, “that looked for the deeper meaning of life. Here’s this generation in India with no connection to that and with access to stuff like never before. They’re lost. There’s a lot of drugs, a lot of drinking, a lot of divorce, unhappiness, craziness. Because they’ve rejected everything and have nothing to live with. The old tools don’t work anymore. And they see these westerners doing this crazy stuff. They’re getting a hit back from the west.”

Deva had a different take on this new appeal. “I don’t know, maybe I’m totally wrong – but because it’s so popular in the West now, young Indians are also starting to look into it and see that its something they may have grown up with, but never really saw. Like the fish in the ocean, you know, that doesn’t know the water is there, the water is salty. It’s universal now, people from all walks of life. From doctors to hippies – everybody loves kirtan.”

I asked Das if he’s holding out an easier, mildly hippy path to spirituality that doesn’t require the renouncing of worldly possessions. “Absolutely. The devotional path, by the way, was never about that kind of renunciation. It was always about the inclusion of everything in that love. Certainly the way I do it and the way my guru taught us and loved us, he never asked us to be anything else other than ourselves. When I chant, I’m just being me. So when I chant, other people go, oh, I can just be me? And the answer’s yes. The anxiety, fear, unhappiness is so strong [among the young people in his audience]. There’s a tremendous desire to find peace, if that’s possible.”

Shilpika Jain, who’d been sitting two seats away from me and singing along to the music, told me she was certain that the world was moving towards spirituality – and it didn’t matter to her if it came in the form of an American singing rock-n-roll kirtans. “There’s so much pain, so much hurt in the world. This,” the human resources employee gestured at the trio on stage, “helps make us okay.”

Mirta Kokalj, a young Slovenian freelance photographer based in Italy, danced blissfully before the stage in flowing floral jumpsuit, roses pinned to her long hair. She’d come in a taxi with six friends – also foreign nationals – with whom she is studying yoga in Mysore. The group was going to return the same night after the music ended. “It was so amazing, so beautiful – I cried!” she told me, her hand on her chest. Although it was Kokalj’s first time at a kirtan, she’d been following Das on the Internet, where many of Das’ new fans connect with him on his Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. Tanvi, a slender Indian girl in her twenties with stylish clothes and sleek short hair, said she worked at a car rental company. She’d come to see Krishna Das for the first time as well, and had also been following him for months on the Internet. She said she was blown away by the kirtan – by Krishna Das’ voice, by his presence. She hadn’t danced along with the significant chunk of the audience that did, but she’d cried. I asked her why. “I don’t know…I’ve just moved to Bangalore, and I don’t really know many people. I was feeling really sad…I guess it was all just bottled up inside me until the concert.”

On my way out, when most people had trickled away from the hall, I bumped into three Indian men in their twenties who’d stopped for a smoke outside the compound. Only one had seen Das sing before, in Rishikesh, but they’d all been to traditional Indian kirtans before. One politely informed me that he was “from North”, where kirtans take place regularly – his family has hosted several. All three were effusive about Das’ version, and insisted that it didn’t matter that he was American. Apart from his Western appeal, Das’ newness, perhaps, also offers these young well-heeled Indians a risk-free rebellion in which to conduct their faith.

“I’ve been to ISKCON things before to see what they’re like,” said the tallest man. “They impose things on you – you have to join them, or do what they say. This is different.” Here, they could dress as they pleased – one had a vast, carefully maintained hipster beard, hair buzzed on the sides of his head atop thick-rimmed glasses (I recognized him first because I’d noticed that enormous beard inside the hall). They could dance as if they were in a club – as one of the audience members with a shock of untidy hair certainly had, paddling the air with one arm as if he were dancing to Akon’s “Smack That” with no disapproving elders. Das’ path, strewn with talks on love and humorous anecdotes about honesty, is simple – and requires little of his followers.

As more people streamed out of the hall, I spotted a woman in a white dupatta and top waiting with another man near the exit. She’d swayed and clapped with eyes closed right from the start of the evening, and I went over to ask her about the concert. “Krishna Das doesn’t give performances or concerts. This is a practice, a kirtan practice!” she said, annoyed. Perhaps, but it had been a rather expensive ‘practice’ with tickets at Rs 750 and Rs 950 (the latter had sold out several days ago. In Mumbai and Delhi, tickets were priced up to Rs 1,250). Was this her first time seeing Krishna Das? “Absolutely not!” she drew herself up to her full (and considerable) height. She was a resident of Chennai, and had first seen him in New Jersey. She’d also attended his Mumbai kirtan a few days ago. As Bruggeman passed by, she gave him a warm hug and said, “See you in Jersey. Or Rishikesh!”

Deepika Sarma is Assistant Editor, Grist Media.