Sunday, July 19, 2009

RAJA GOPURAM MAHOTSAV: BELIEVE IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE

I’m a bit late with this update to the Naadha Rasa blog. For some time it has been feeling to me as if there aren’t enough hours in the day to fit all the things together that I wish to accomplish and when I let the momentum of that thinking take over, much falls by the wayside. It is now the middle of July and I’m finally getting my thoughts together, reflecting upon a phenomenal experience that I along with many others was so privileged to be a part of.

The Hindu Mandir commemorated the completion of the Temple construction on the weekend of June 26th-28th, naming it the Celebration of the Divine Gateway. It was an occasion which drew people from all over the United States, Canada and as far away as India in order to come together to witness a once in a lifetime event.

A bit of history (as written by Shashikant M. Sane, MD and paraphrased by me) is in order to understand the significance of this particular Mandir. It existed in dreamtime 30 years ago and was birthed into solid reality with ground breaking ceremony in 2003. The land was carefully purchased and the Mandir was constructed according to principles laid down in VAASTUSHASTRA under artistic direction from Padmashree Muthiah Sthapathy. In order to harness the maximum amounts of Cosmic Energy the temple was placed at the highest elevation on the land with the adjacent land sloping east and to the north where the fresh water reservoirs and water brooks are located. The central Deity of Sri Varadaraja faces east and the rays of the rising sun stream through the main doors shining brightly on his face during the summer months. The initial groundbreaking ceremony took place according to the principles of Vedic Astrology using the appropriate rising star constellations (Nakshatras) for the main Deity Varadaraja Vishnu, the city of Maple Grove and the Hindu Society of MN.

The mini-temples housed within the Mandir contain Deities which have been sanctified by the aforementioned waters and brought to life through the Praanpratishthaa Mantras and continuous services called Mandala Abhisheka- they are then able to exhibit the Eternal Divine Glory and bless devotees in perpetuity. The temple structurally represents the various parts of the human body and is spiritually integrated such that the entire temple becomes a living organism worthy of worship. The central Vigraha/Sculpture in each temple represents its Heart and Soul which is none different than the same Supreme Divinity called Brahman. The final piece to the Mandir came about with the completion of the Gopuram (tower).

I arranged to leave work early on Friday so as to attend some of the opening events- I had brought a favorite salvar kameeze to change into before departing and my female co-workers gathered around to exclaim over the colors and fabric- my bindi was of great interest as well! (Smile) On our drive, Steve and I exclaimed over the brightness of the blue skies, reveling in the moderate heat of a long anticipated summer. We got to the temple, threw our shoes in the coatroom and headed upstairs to be part of a pooja in the central area, chants and bells invoking Sri Ganesh and Sri Vishwaksena to eliminate obstacles and bestow auspiciousness. The floor was covered with blue and gold cloths, laden with offerings of fruit, coconuts and brilliant flowers, surrounded on each side by a good attendance of devotees. A man next to me introduced himself as a Hindu from Afghanistan (for the most part a Muslim country) who worshiped only Krishna, telling me he liked to keep it simple by worshiping one god. The priests and congregation offered prayers to Vishnu and then walked about to each mini temple offering up prayers to each Deity.

***At this point I want to interject with a HUGE THANKS to the gracious and lovely Leela for pulling rank and getting the kitchen opened a bit early so we could have a much needed meal- neither Steve nor I had eaten anything substantial during the day so we had to get our energy back on point for the remainder of the evening.

After some delicious food we spent time in the Yaaga Shaala- priests chanting/ringing bells while we gathered around sacred fires absorbing the energies. After the poojas had been completed the priests then led a procession around the temple blessing the completed Gopuram. We walked back into the temple and suddenly saw Nirmala’s parents, Chandra and Ram who were here visiting from India. It was delightful to see them again and feel how excited they were in anticipation for the Naadha Rasa concert which was to take place in the upper temple later in the evening.

We walked about and some of the people we immediately came upon were: Balaji & family, Sriram N. & family, Jaya & family, Sandhaya & family, Venkat & family, Kamalakar & family, Ganesh along with Mahati and Ram and our friends Pavan and Pooja. There was many more Naadha Rasa “family” who showed during the evening which made it feel like a true fellowship of Spirit. Please don’t feel left out if I’ve missed any names as I was feeling a tsunami of emotions and wasn’t able to catalogue everyone and everything. I love to write but must also be able to be part of the experience I find myself in and that’s when pen and paper gets put aside!

There were two musical offerings on Friday evening- one was Nirmala presenting Carnatic Indian music and the other was Pooja, Pavan and their ensemble presenting North Indian music. Nirmala was grandly introduced as a world famous artiste with references to her performance at Carnegie Hall and places of note around the globe. She was dressed in a purple/gold sari with pink & white roses in her hair sitting in the center stage in a pool of ambient light coming from the skylight above. Shruthi and Mahati sat directly behind Nirmala keeping tala. Both young women were radiant additions with Shruthi dressed in complimentary shadings of blue with deep pink roses in her hair and Mahati in a very becoming red and cream combination. Balaji and Sriram sat on either side of Nirmala appearing like solid musical bookends!

I sat on the floor in front of the stage next to a woman with whom I’d had a previous conversation. She introduced herself as Suma, sharing with me a gorgeous scrapbook she had put together of previous Mandir events and we spent time poring over pictures before the concert got underway. Jaya was close at hand as well with an obvious cell phone pointing in the direction of the stage. I inquired if it was Srini sitting in India on the other end and she laughed saying "yes." We all miss him a lot and when he joins us via phone it makes the distance between us more bearable. Those are the times we remember to thank the God/ess of technology! (Smile)

Nirmala began by greeting the large audience with a brilliant smile along with a few words of welcoming/invocation to Ganesha and then led off with her veena exploring an 8th Century composition in ragamalika (garland of ragas). She proceeded to then perform approximately eight compositions ranging from Purandara Dasa (Grandfather of Carnatic music) and Tyagaraja to a North Indian bhajan for Krishna. Among the concert highlights was a beautiful alapana which included quotes from a variety of some of Nirmala’s favorite songs. At one point in a song for Krishna, Nirmala appeared transported while singing “how beautiful the mind can be” spontaneously executing gripping and elegant notes with her veena, punctuated with gorgeous vocals pleading and cajoling her love for the Deity. Another surprise was the joy of hearing a recently discovered Tamil song from text manuscript dating back to 7953 B.C. by Sri Chakra Raja Simhasaneswani. The melody was haunting and gripping... conveying the timeless magic that is music. Nirmala’s virtuosity and ability to give expression to any composition is definitely her trademark in this writer’s opinion. The Mridangam and Ghatam added color to the concert with Sriram and Balaji showing their awareness as to what percussive support a veena concert requires. As always, kudos to both of these fine musicians!

Pooja and Pavan with ensemble were next rendering an enchanting program of Hindustani vocals and instrumental arrangements. I cannot say enough about the talent of these highly pleasing accomplished individuals who took the evening to a grand finish.

On Saturday morning we woke up early to pouring rain and made it to the temple around 9:30 in order to locate a close parking space. Steve brought along an expensive white with gold trim dhoti that Shobana had gifted him at the end of our last trip to India. He came with the intent to have Venkat assist him in correctly maneuvering it into place and Venkat rose to the occasion. He arranged the material so handsomely that Steve got accolades off and on during the day from various friends and strangers! We hurried ourselves to the Yaaga Shaala for poojas dedicated to purification of the site and location. We, along with others, sat around the three ritual fires-our bodies bathed in wind and smoke listening to the chanting of a variety of priests. There was one young priest who appeared possessed by a spiritual fervor as he chanted- his intensity was palpable and as consuming as the fire before him. And once again, to my utter delight, there were live Nadhaswaram and Thavil attending the day’s temple rituals, leading and punctuating the chants. We went inside to observe some of the poojas and rituals involving the Murthis. The Murthis had been removed from the pools of water they had been bathing in and were placed upon a covered floor with pillows under their heads in wait for the opening of third eye ritual.

We were decidedly hungry so made the decision to leave and went downstairs to have a deliciously prepared lunch and to visit with friends before Naadha Rasa performed. During that timeframe we had another great adventure which was a once in a lifetime opportunity-most likely never again to be offered/repeated. We had been talking to the lovely Shivanthi Sathanandan who insisted we do the 101 step climb to the top of the Gopuram. Steve and I, Nirmala, Shruthi, Sriram P., Sandhya & Ram walked, singing songs, step by step up a slightly swaying scaffolding until we reached the pinnacle. We surveyed the land surrounding the temple, marveling at the breathtaking beauty, the sun’s warmth and the feel of wind caressing our skin. There were multi-colored flower petals in containers for us to pick up and throw as we individually sent our personal blessings to the event. The feelings of friendship with those of us gathered were magnified ten-fold as we shared this powerful spiritual experience.

The Naadha Rasa singers chosen for the Mandir performance were: Jaya, Steve, SriVidhya, Poornima, Sandhya, Mahati, Nandini, Shruthi, Shanta and Shruti I. Earlier in rehearsal Nirmala gave her pep talk encouraging all to take the Spirit and spread it! She emphasized what a great honor it was to be chosen for the Raja Gopuram Mahotsav….and, as always, "EVERYONE SMILE!!!" She told the girls to spread out the edges of their skirts prettily for stage effect and for Steve to do whatever it took with his dhoti but to "just keep it on!" Ha ha! As for Nirmala, she looked beautiful as always in a pink/goldish green sari trimmed in gold.

Naadha Rasa were arranged on stage with Steve, Jaya, SriVidya and Poornima in the back and front line up presented Sandhya, Mahati, Nandini, Shruthi and Shruti I. The compositions they chose to showcase were Sri Rama Jaya Rama, Krishna Mukunda Murari and Sita Kalyana. The ease and fluency with which they performed was notable and I could see the tireless and intense self-study and effort really paid off when these singers were put to the test. I am very proud of each and every one of you!!! I must also compliment everyone on the way the individual introductions were handled- the only exception being the percussion musicians who were pretending to be shy and reluctant to introduce themselves when offered the mic!!! (Smile)

It is my pleasure to compliment Sriram Pidaparti on Temple Glory, his most recent composition for the Hindu Mandir. He performed it on stage accompanied by Shruthi, Shruti I., Ganesh, Mahati and Nandini to thrilled applause. It is an honor to be a friend of whom I feel is a true resident Temple Composer. It has always been most apparent to me that Sriram offers his devotion, love, soul and heart to the Mandir with each piece he has written. When talking with him he told me he feels the Spirit of the Divine in the musical notes of composition and that the lyrics are of high importance as they attempt to put into words feelings of the Soul in its attempt to join with Spirit.

Later in the afternoon there was time downstairs dedicated to cultural programs and we were implored to attend. One of the performers not to be missed (Sri Siva Chandra) was here for the event from India- he is also the guru of our friend Venkat’s daughter Srilalitha. We found our
seats and had a delightful time watching kids represent the Mandir Deities, others performing the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu including the Kalki avatar who is yet to appear on earth, Bharat Natyam dancers and most especially Sri Siva Chandra dancing on a brass plate showcasing perfection of skill in Nritta (pure dance).

We thought to go home but before leaving I wished to make one last visit to the Yaaga Shaala and found fire poojas being made along with Nadhaswaram. Steve and I decided to stay for the rituals and later went downstairs for dinner. We eventually made it home around 11:00 that evening.

On Sunday we arose early to make it in time for the poojas so arrived at the Mandir by 8:00. It was very sunny and windy- so windy that the ashes from the fires in the Yaaga Shaala blew all over us and the other devotees sitting in the area. Bells and chanting put me in a calm receptive mood, ready in anticipation for the ceremonies yet to occur. We went back into the main temple space and immediately Prema (one of Nirmala’s ex-students) grabbed Steve and told him she wanted to invite him to be part of the procession of the Uthsava Murthis around the outskirts of the temple proper. The Deity he helped carry on his shoulders along with the other men was Sri Dattatreya, a powerful three-headed god, the incarnation of the Hindu Trinity.

I was walking alongside Steve when I heard my name being called, turned around and saw my friends the Damania family who are also Hindu Mandir Saraswati Sponsors. They invited me to help carry Saraswati with them and the others in their group so I became an official participant of the procession. It was a personal privilege which turned an already outstanding morning into an extraordinary blessing. Saraswati is the Deity sacred to Nirmala and to Steve as he is dedicating himself to the study of Veena which is Saraswati's instrument of choice. There was a couple from North Dakota helping to carry and we had a highly pleasing discussion- they are living and working in an area with no Mandir available so this was a very happy event for them to come to and be a part of. I did ask their names but forgot to write down immediately so have to apologize if they read this. I am not the best with name recall but give me a face and I almost always remember if I’ve seen it!

The temple had a black and white cow and a brown calf for the ceremony- at one point the procession halted and the animals were lead up to the Yaaga Shaala where they were showered with flowers and holy water from the priests standing on the top of the temple where we had stood the day before. When the animals were led back to the yard the procession re-started and we took the Murthis up into the temple through the Yaaga Shaala where it had originally begun. People were lined up on each side of us who were carrying the Murthis, coming forward to touch the wooden planks and throwing handfuls of flowers over our heads. I heard a singing voice ringing clear as a bell, greeting the procession with songs as we entered the temple and instantly recognized the voice as belonging to Nirmala. At that moment I felt as if some unearthly and unknown light was illuminating me and all those present sharing the experience. Unforgettable.

We took the Murthis to their proper mini-temples, gave our personal poojas, found our group and then went downstairs for lunch. After eating we went back up to the main temple, took part in Aarathi for all the mini-temples and sat for the ceremonial acknowledgement of Sponsors, Committees, Shilpis and Priests. A shining highlight was Sriram Pidaparthi’s composition Temple Glory sung this time by Sriram, Ganesh, Shruti I. and Nandini after which brought a close to the three day long celebration. Without a doubt this weekend was a momentous occasion in my life with momentous emotions and realizations. I am blessed.

Additional Notes:

I wanted to mention how happy we are to see Ram walking with the cast removed from his foot. It healed perfectly and no need for surgery was required as previously thought. It was also fun to see/talk to all the little Naadha Rasa kids and hear Sam tell me, “ I think my dad played well and best of all, REALLY FAST!” I truly enjoyed observing Neeraj take control of the Mandir tours and hearing how he smoothly incorporated his own bits of lore to the fascinated sightseers. Congrats on being a college man, Neeraj- apply yourself but don’t forget to have fun and joy on a daily basis! It was a pleasure to see Shanta and Sudha, the many Naadha Rasa parents… all that was missing was the physical presence of Srini along with the Three R’s! (Roopa, Raghu and Ruthu) They were certainly with us in Spirit.

On July 18th Steve and I were among those present to honor the Bharatanatyam Arangetram of Srilalitha Akurati at the St. Paul Student Center. She performed in a way that belied her age, giving depth to emotional arenas more given to dancers seasoned with years of living. It was a night of stunning achievement for this bright young dance star. Her skill and dedication to the art is unmistakable and there is no doubt Srilalitha will be a real Presence in whatever endeavor she chooses to undertake in her life. It was a joy to be part of her debut, to see Nirmala, Ram and Sriram P. honored on stage in her group of Gurus and to see her dance to Sriram’s Velasithiva maa gudilo-keertana composition. Our own Sriram Natarajan was one of the four stage musicians for the occasion and he was magnificent with supporting the much defined Bharatanatyam rhythms required. Thank you Venkat and Sujatha for your ongoing inspiration, support and invitation to this auspicious event!

1 comment:

SriVidhya said...

Thanks Marie Aunty for writing this beautiful article! It was really fun to look back on the RGM festival!