The Sunday Feast Kirtan
By Sita-pati das
Great thanks to Managalananda Prabhu for his recent article on Kirtan. He has raised some very important points for consideration and made a valuable contribution to the community dialog. In the same spirit of discussion and presentation for consideration I’d like to share the following thoughts on the Sunday Feast Kirtan.
in service, Sita-pati das
Recently I visited the Loft in Auckland, New Zealand (I’ve been based in Brisbane, Australia for the past few years), and I attended the Sunday Feast program there. Afterwards the devotees asked me if I could give some pointers on things that could be done to improve their program.
The Sunday Feast has a been a particular interest of mine for some time, and even an almost exclusive focus of late; as Sunday is the only day I get off work it’s the only program that I can really put my time and energy into.
The first time I ever went to a Sunday Feast program was in the mid-90s in New Zealand. A friend of mine took me to the Gopals restaurant that was then open on Queen St, the main drag in Auckland. The meal cost $2, and he offered to pay for me in order to overcome my reluctance to go. Trudging up the stairs behind him, I was curious to see what it was all about. Without his personal influence I would not have been inspired to go so far outside my comfort zone. The smells were exotic, as was the food on offer. I picked up a flyer for the program at the counter that promised dance and drama. When I questioned a staff member about this I was told that that program had recently been discontinued (my wife to be, Param Satya devi dasi, whom I had not yet met, and Krishna loka devi dasi had just opened the Loft in Newmarket and moved their Sunday program there). I enjoyed an interesting meal, but was a little disappointed that the promised cultural experience did not materialise.
My second experience with the Sunday Feast was the Krishnafest program at the Loft in Auckland a few years later. I arrived to find myself the sole guest, with His Holiness Chandrasekhara Maharaja presiding. Maharaja gave me a set of cartals and played a bongo drum. I remember that I was very impressed with the way that he drummed and played fills all while singing. I, on the other hand, was having a lot of trouble trying to keep the beat, and singing unfamiliar words to an unfamiliar tune (it was the classic Hare Krishna one). I wasn’t used to singing in public, much less seated opposite a strange Hare Krishna monk. After a few minutes Maharaja took the cartals from me and said: “Just concentrate on the chanting.”
Since that time I’ve been to a little over twenty different Sunday Feast programs around the world, and I’ve been responsible for organizing seven of them in three different countries over the past nine years. There’s nothing too spectacular in that alone – read on and see if I have anything valuable to say as a result.
This is a summary of my current realizations and thinking on Sunday Feast preaching. The programs that I have been involved in have followed the same basic outline:
- 1.what devotees refer to as “bhajans” which usually means kirtan of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra sitting down and accompanied by musical instruments such as harmonium
- 3.Kirtan (standing up with mrdanga and cartals)
Generally these programs are run with an “outreach focus”, that is: they are focus on the needs of first time and new visitors, rather than simply being another standard temple program where we invite people to come and observe.
I’ve seen other arrangements, but this is the format that I’ve always worked with, and I suspect the majority of ISKCON centers worldwide work with. I’ve seen another format where they have simultaneous activities going on. I’m not a big fan of this format as a preaching tool, and I’ll explain why later. Let me run through the program from start to finish with a commentary.
Section One – Bhajans
Usually this section is not well attended, by either the devotees
(staff) or guests (including devotee-guests). It’s difficult to muster energy to put into this section of the program because it is so poorly attended – devotees are not inspired to put out when there is so little response. You know the scene: a couple of devotees show up and do a few tunes in a largely deserted room. Usually only the most hardcore of staff and guests come at this time, as well as first time visitors.
If you draw a graph of energy and attendance across the Sunday feast, you’ll find this to be a low point in both senses. First time guests respecting the starting time on the advertising figure out after a week or two that not most other people do not (including the staff), and start to come at the high point – usually just in time for the second kirtan and prasadam. This then further perpetuates the cycle.
The Opening should be strong
The opening should be strong. Whether you are talking about a movie, a class, or a program, the opening should be strong to capture people’s attention and imagination. If you want your Sunday Feast program to be dynamic, and I don’t just mean the elements of the program, I mean strategically in the sense where it actually functions and takes people somewhere other than to “the Sunday Feast crowd”, you have to have a strong opening. A strong opening allows you to have a powerful engaging program with a consistent energy level across it. You want the people settled in and engaged before you deliver your message – not arriving throughout it, missing the information and disrupting the focus of the speaker and the other attendees.
- The opening sets the tone for the program.
- A weak opening will be harder to recover from and will tend to lead to a weak program.
- A strong opening will contribute to a strong program.
It can be difficult to break this cycle because your existing crowd, including the devotee-guests are conditioned to this. Don’t expect them to lead change. The new people are your best bet. They come and experience the program as strong from the beginning and continue to come back on time to participate. As momentum builds more of the people who are used to coming late will become enthused to come earlier.
When you have a low energy opening followed by an energy and attendance ramp what you communicate to the people is: “Don’t come on time.” Your flyer says to come at 5 pm (or whatever), but when they get there your actions speak so loudly that it drowns out what you’ve said. Don’t expect the public to respond with a level of commitment and enthusiasm higher than yours. If you want them to commit, you have to model that commitment.
Once you make a commitment to the opening of the program, and realize that the new guests are your target audience, you have to look at some further considerations.
First of all, with the first kirtan is you are not offering anything uniquely valuable. If people want kirtan, they can get a better one later on – with more people taking part. Unless people are really into the chanting, there is no compelling value proposition for them in the opening kirtan.
Since first time visitors are your target audience here, don’t expect them to perceive value in chanting. Even devotees, who know theoretically the value of congregational chanting, often do not come for this section of the program, what to speak of people who are unaware of its transcendental value.
The other thing that you have to take into consideration here is this: the majority of people who come at the beginning are first time visitors. These are your target audience. In order to come, these people have often had to muster up the courage to come into an unfamiliar environment. They slide in and hope to be as unnoticed as possible. In the book Harinam Sankirtan Yajna, in the section that deals with seating at the Sunday Feast, I made the observation that people want to sit at the back, where they can observe without being observed, therefore devotees should sit forward to allow the new guests to sit where they are comfortable.
Now, visualize this: you are a first-time visitor to the Sunday Feast. You have been convinced to come and check it out by meeting a sankirtanero in the street or by receiving a flyer. At this stage if you come by the invitation of a friend you probably come along with them later on in the evening, towards the end of the class. So you’re one of the ones who comes alone, or with other first-timer friends, on time. You’re nervous – you don’t know what it will be like. You’re hoping to slip in unnoticed, sit at the back, and check things out, get your bearings.
You find yourself sitting in a sparsely populated room – there goes your chance to blend into the crowd. There are a couple of devotees struggling to lead a kirtan, and horror of horror – they are expecting you to sing. Of course you don’t. You’re in an unfamiliar environment, with unfamiliar people, being asked to sing unfamiliar words to unfamiliar tunes – and the only time you sing is in the shower, or after a few drinks on a Friday night.
You feel uncomfortable. The devotees who are leading the kirtan feel uncomfortable. You feel uncomfortable because they feel uncomfortable. You feel uncomfortable because they feel uncomfortable because you are not singing. In short – it’s really uncomfortable.
Are you getting the picture? It’s not an attractive value proposition.
Go outside your comfort zone to put the guests in theirs
In Harinam Sankirtan Yajna I recommended that devotees go outside their comfort zone in order to make the guests comfortable, by sitting at the front (hey, no-one wants everyone’s eyes on them). You need to do the same thing with this opening section of the program. You need to take all the pressure off the people. You will have interactive chanting at the end of the program – you are not adding any value by doing it (especially like this) at the beginning, and you’re hammering anyone who is inexperienced enough to show up at this time, punishing them for their naivety. Let me reiterate – the only people who show up at this time are precisely the people who will be most uncomfortable with this!
What we have done with this section of the program is convert it from interactive chanting to make it more a musical performance. Yes, this puts more pressure on the devotees – they have to practise every week, and because the format is one of “musical performance” there is a heightened expectation of quality. It means that devotees have to practise, and you have to field a competent band. What this does is it transfers the pressure from the audience and allows the devotees to take on their anxiety. Yes, it means more pressure for you – and less for the guests! Take it!
This also raises the bar on the opening. It puts a lot more energy into it. All the practise and preparation that you put in during the week is leveraged on the opening of the program. Each week we have different songs from the songs of the Vaisnava Acaryas, none lasting more than 10 minutes, with different singers. We project the words on a screen and give everyone a handout with the English translations. We introduce each one with something like: “Now we present Kabe Habe Bolo, When, O When Will That Day Be Mine, a song by the 19th century devotee and preacher Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur. It is a song that speaks about the inner sentiment of a devotee, and will be sung be so-and-so.”
Let us judge a thing by its results: by creating high energy, varied content that takes the pressure off the guests and offers a significant value proposition (it’s engaging, entertaining, and you never know what it will be until you come, or if you don’t come), we have gone from an average of 2 devotees struggling to engage and entertain 4 new people at
5 pm to an average of 6 devotees engaging and entertaining 40 people at
And something else, that was unexpected, is that now people sing more enthusiastically during this section of the program than ever before. Taking the pressure off people and creating more momentum “from the stage” combine to make a more relaxed atmosphere for the guests. Devotees have started to cotton on that there is value in coming on time, and momentum is building. Let me reiterate – you have interactive chanting at the end in a much more effective and engaging package – the final kirtan.
Some notes on volume
An important aspect that is often neglected in the presentation of Kirtan is volume. Visualize this in your mind. A Harinam party is coming down the street a few blocks away from you. You can’t see them, but you can hear them. What do you hear?
If you have any experience of this, you know what you hear: cartals.
High frequency sounds are experienced as disproportionately loud, which is why you need a powerful subwoofer to get some bass action happening on your stereo. High frequency sounds do not penetrate walls as easily as low frequency ones, which is why the neighbours hear, or feel, the bass when the doors and windows are closed, but in an enclosed space, and on the street, cartals are going to wash out the chanting.
In Harinam Sankirtan Yajna I gave the rule of thumb – how loud do you play an instrument? Less loudly than you can chant. The chanting is the main thing. Cut back on the cartals. Find someone with a musical ear and get rid of the dissonant clashing ones. Use small ones with a sweet sound, and use them sparingly. Have less in the kirtan, and even consider trying it with no cartalas.
For first time visitors excessive cartal racket makes the experience of the kirtan more like a rock concert. Trying to project over the sound of cartals can cause the entire kirtan volume to rise to excessive levels.
Attention to detail is a symptom of both the mode of goodness, and love.
Here are some quotes that relate to these considerations.
“Musical ability is nothing. Devotion is everything.” “The idea of the chanting is not to attract a crowd. If the chanting is done purely to glorify Krishna then Krishna will arrange for some sincere souls to come.” “People should not misunderstand that we are professional musicians. Whenever we chant there should be some impression in audience of devotion to Krishna.”
– Srila Prabhupada, who spent six weeks personally training three grhasta couples in kirtan before sending them to London to preach.
People have already made up their mind that they will hear anything but Hari-katha. For their benefit, we have to perform Hari-kirtan. As mustard cake and salt is mixed with a cow’s food when she doesn’t want to eat, so we mix some pleasing songs with Hari-katha so that it will be attractive to all. In this way, people can curb their propensity to hear film songs by hearing songs about Sri Sri Radha-Krishna. Kirtana is meant for attracting the audience towards hearing… As deer and snakes can be charmed by music and songs, if Hari-katha is presented in the form of songs then even the minds of materialists will be attracted.
– Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, quoted in Srimad Bhagavat Tatparya, p. 59.
If we are going to present Krishna Consciousness to the public, we should do it to the best of our abilities, giving it 100%. Especially if Sunday is the day for preaching, there is absolutely no excuse for not putting in a serious effort. If the staff are not proficient at performing kirtan, they must become proficient. They have to practise.
Another point related to this is punctuality. One day we were 15 minutes late in starting. Because of circumstances we started at 5:15 pm rather than 5 pm. Before we could begin I had to go in front of the guests and offer a formal apology. 15 minutes for 40 people means 10 person-hours.
10 person-hours. 10 person-hours. They have donated 10 person-hours, and we just wasted their time. One of the worst things you can do with volunteers is waste their time. Remember that our audience are all volunteers. They don’t have to be there, and if we disrespect their time, they won’t.
- The public will respond with a level of commitment and enthusiasm that approaches, but trails, the level you model. If you can’t be on time, you can’t expect them to be.
- The opening sets the tone for the program. The opening should be strong. A strong opening will help to create a consistent energy level across the program, which will lead to increased effectiveness of the program in achieving its strategic preaching objectives.
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