South Africa – Grahamstown National Arts Festival 2013 Report
By Brhat Mrdanga das
It is that time of year again. Time to saddle up for one of our big endeavours for the year. The Grahamstown National Arts Festival is upon us.
Grahamstown is located in the Eastern Cape, just under two hours from Port Elisabeth, and if you were to visit there during any time of the year, you won’t see much. Big, quiet streets. Not much happening, but come end of June every year, there is a national convergence of musicians, tricksters, hipsters, hippies, poets, know-its, artists, scientists, boere, bums, wanderers and seekers. Only for eleven days. Despite the freezing cold temperatures combined with the biting wind and the guarantee for rain for at least some of the days, thousands of people come to bear witness to this remarkably successful festival.
There are lots of things to do on offer. Dramas, musical performances, street acts, poetic recitals, stand-up comedy, art galleries, clubs, pubs, food and all kinds of trinkets, antiques, cloths, gadgets and gimmicks are available.
On 25 June, we left the Cape Town temple at about 09h00 ISKCON time with our old faithful Food for Life bakkie, fully equipped with Bain-maries, bhoga and two devotees comfortably situated at the back. Three devotees had already left the previous day. We arrived in Uitenhage in the late hours, but only after picking up one more warrior from George, and spent the night there with a devotee, after which we made the short stretch to Grahamstown. We met the devotees from Bloemfontein, who had already arrived and it is always such a nice reunion. We usually only get to see each other once a year on this occasion.
We got settled in and took some rest in preparation for the hard work to come. We used to have to pay for our own accommodation, which amounted to quite a bit, but after making friends with the local Hindu community there, they have been very kind to us by housing us in any way they can. Jack Rama prabhu has a little flat at the back of his house in which six devotees would stay. It’s pretty cramped and some devotees find it very austere. One devotee stayed at a house one block above us and later, when two more devotees arrived, I stayed at a house just down the road with one other devotee. We are also allowed to use the facilities of their temple, which is about a one-round japa walk away from our house. There we can cook, have a small morning program, take prasadam and embark on our mission every day.
From 05h00 every morning, the Bloemfontein devotees start cooking and Mother Bhakti Devi and Mother Syama make sweets. Rice dhal and two subji’s are always cooked, with hundreds of roti’s, banana puri’s, laddhu, burfi, bundi laddhu, date balls, and gulab jamuns. From 10h00, we start selling prasadam and end at 17h00. The Cape Town devotees man the stall which is accompanied by a book table, while the Mothers make hand rolled samosas, papadams and brinjal pakora’s all day long. There are devotees doing books all day and also a devotee running around, getting supplies for the next day. Everyone is always busy doing some service. After packing the van, we rendezvous at the temple, take prasadam. Usually there was prasad left over from the stall which we would go and donate to a children’s home. It was always accompanied by a healthy helping of the Holy Name. Immediately after that, we hit the streets for some killer Harinama. On the nights that we didn’t do Harinama, we did house or temple programs. We did two 2 house and two temple programs in total.
After a few days, two more devotees arrived, one from Stellenbosch and another from East London.
The prasadam stall is very successful. We sell hundreds of plates of prasadam every day. The laddhu is very famous in Grahamstown and many people approach us asking, “Is this were the chick-pea fudge is?” We have a lot regulars who come every day, without fail, often more than once a day, buying sweets, wraps or full meals. A lady that interviewed me, to collect information for community research, said that we are one of the most successful stalls there. We always get so much amazing feedback. One guy said “I always come to your place to get food, despite not being vegetarian, because all the other guys are disturbed and miserable, but you are always happy.” Srila Prabhupada said that the best preaching is a happy devotee. One man said, “Please do something so I can stay away from this stall! Every day I come. Sometimes I come twice a day. Everything is good.” A Muslim lady said, “This food is filled with love!” The devotees dealt very well with the public and it made a very good impression on them. One man also said “I wait all year just to eat your food.”
It is clear, from serving at this stall, that the people are attracted simply by the spiritual quality and atmosphere of the food. It does not make sense that our stall is so successful. How is it possible? One can see how these jiva’s are aimlessly wondering around, they float past the stall and when their heads turn towards our stall, even from a distance, one can see the Supersoul say “Hey, go and check it out.” Sometimes I can see that a person does not want to buy something and that he is having an internal argument whether he should buy the samosa or not. How can one resist the remnants of Krsna? Krsna is so merciful, that anyone who takes Bhagavat-prasadam can immediately make advancement. If they don’t want to take it, then Krsna tricks them to take it. So merciful.
Grahamstown is heaven for the sankirtan warrior! The people are so friendly and easily approachable. Almost everyone you approach will stop to talk to you. There are very intelligent, pious people there and to get someone to give a donation for a book is not difficult. Often you get more than you need for the book, which makes distributing the next one even easier. Some people will even come to the prasadam stall regularly to discuss the books. The book table at the stall which does quite well too. Our recipe books are very much sought after. There is a university here, the Rhodes University, and as soon as we have a centre here, we will immediately open up a BYS. There is a lot of dry grass here, ready to be ignited with Krsna-consciousness.
The harinama’s are always sublime! People dance and chant spontaneously, even from a distance, and many of the fast food shops wait anxiously for us to arrive. We make frequent stops by various stores to do some dancing and passer-by’s eagerly join in on the fun and chant loudly. It is not possible to get back early from Harinama. How can you leave them when the ecstasy keeps flowing? Our Harinama party consists of about six devotees. Sometimes the party grows as large as 20 people or more when pedestrians join in. We also enter into clubs. Dark, stinking clubs where people are waiting to die with a beer and cigarette in the hand. The Holy Name is transcendental and is not influenced by the material modes of nature. Subsequently, the effect on the person is the same. People eagerly dance with us and sometimes most of the pub is chanting with us. After spending some time chanting in this trance/hippie joint, called “The Monastery”, one guy said out loud, “This is the highlight of my week!” We were chanting with them by their fire and everyone was in bliss. The harinama’s are very powerful and sometimes some members of the Hindu community would come with us. This elderly lady, whose house I was staying in, also came with on Harinama sometimes. She never said “Haribol” when I greeted her. She would always say “Harinam, Harinam.”
On Saturday, the 6th, we had a big day. The weekends are always the busiest for the obvious reasons, but this particular Saturday was different.
Today, we would have Grahamstown’s 5th annual Ratha Yatra! The previous night, HH Rama Govinda Maharaja arrived with devotees from Durban and other places, fully equipped to feed an army. From early in the morning, they would cook in a pot, big enough to take a swim in, over a wood fire. Our book order had arrived with them, just in time as our books were running out, and also there were many donated books for free distribution. The Ratha-Yatra was successful, the weather couldn’t have been better and after the procession we distributed more than a 1500 plates of prasadam. Lord Jagannath had bestowed tons of His mercy upon all the fortunate people. Hundreds of free English and Xhosa books were also distributed.
The very next day, we headed over to East London for another special occasion. On that day, East London’s first annual Ratha-Yatra took place! HH Rama Govinda Maharaja graced us with His association there as well. We started in front of the local Hindu temple and made our way through the neighbourhood. Every now and then, the cart would stop and someone would come out of their house with a tray with bhoga and laksmi on it. It was amazing to see that culture still happening so naturally. The route ended back at the temple. After which everyone was sumptuously fed with prasadam.
We headed back to Grahamstown, discussing how we would do a Ratha-Yatra in King Williams town next year, in addition to the Grahamstown and East London one, over a two day period. Things are progressive.
After assembling at the temple for one last time, we started preparing to depart the next day. The town had already lost it glitter and glamour. Most of the people had left, to continue in their existence some other place. The next morning, which was Monday the 8th, we went to the temple for one last time. We were lucky to bump into the Bloemfontein devotees one last time before offering our obeisances and departing. On the way back, we stopped in Uitenhage again to visit some devotees, who have given their fair share of service in the pioneering days. We left there in the early afternoon and arrived safe and sound back at Cape Town temple at 01h30. Everyone was still in ecstasy.
The Grahamstown experience is such an amazing thing. It is very challenging, the conditions are austere, there is lots of movement in little spaces and purification is guaranteed! Every year, this being my third, I get to look back at how I was exactly one year ago, facing the same challenges, and how I deal with them now. I always get a fresh look at my myself with all my anartha’s, but also I get to see what wonderful changes this process of Krsna Consciousness is bringing in my life and how fortunate I am to have received Srila Prabhupada’s mercy. It is amazing that so much change can take place over such a short time.
Grahamstown is place for maha purification, stacks of service, inmost introspect, a school for surrender and an avenue for advancement. There is nothing like it.
The devotees who surrendered to this amazing outreach program this year were:
Rupa Raghunatha das
Vraja Krsna das
Madan Gopal das
Brhat Mrdanga das
Bhakti Devi dasi
Bhakta Cronjé (Stellenbosch)
My humble obeisances to all these devotees who came to help in this endeavour, as well as HH Rama Govinda Maharaja and all those devotees who came from Durban and other places to help with the Ratha-Yatra. Also all respects to our well-wishers who donated laksmi, bhoga, prayers and helped with organising and to the kind help of the local community. Thank you kindly for all your contributions and efforts.
Please accept my humble attempt at sharing our experiences at this festival as an offering to Krsna, to my Guru Maharaja and to the devotees and that it may inspire everyone who reads this to push the spreading of this Harinama-sankirtana movement of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
Brhat Mrdanga das