Sunday, April 27, 2008

Prabhupada's Melliferous Voice

I've been listening to a lot of the Vintage series of recordings produced many years ago by the BBT. It's a collection of kirtan and bhajan recordings that Srila Prabhupada made, either singing solo, leading kirtans, or sometimes, singing in response to one of his disciple's leading kirtan.

Prabhupada was very humble about his own singing. He insisted his lectures be recorded, for the benefit of his disciples and future generations. But i think it was more by the initiative of his disciples that his singing was also recorded. I was in L.A. in 1972 when he recorded some bhajans at a small studio we had there. We had to ask him to record them. After finishing a bhajan, he asked us if it was all right, and went on to sing the next one. Everything of course was just one take. Sometimes he added his own mrdunga (drum) or kartals (hand cymbals) part on another track. That same year, he also sang the first couple of chapters of Srimad Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita-- specifically for me-- to engage me. He suggested that i could go to the temples and teach the devotees how to sing Gita and Bhagavatam verses.

What strikes me most about Prabhupada's voice is how comforting it is. It's like a giant banyan tree, offering beauty and shelter to anyone who comes close to it. Late last nite i was lying in bed, half or 3/4 asleep while a kirtan led by Visnujan Swami was softly playing on my iPod speakers. Then there were some excited sounds, and all of sudden, Prabhupada's voice was leading the kirtan. Hearing his voice gave me a sense of great relief. There was nothing wrong with Visnujana's singing, but somehow it did not pacify me; there was some effort to it. But as soon as Prabhupada started singing, there was no more anxiety. It felt like Vaikuntha.

Prabhupada's voice, for me, is the most distinct and richest voice i have ever heard. It is a voice saturated with love. Effortless and intense at the same time, it's soaked in the honey of prema. Prabhupada was not a trained singer, but his melodies and the inflections of his notes are very unique. In all my travels in India, i have never heard anyone else sing in that way. He had his own mode of expression, based on his pure heart and his inner life, not on a musical style or a desire to imitate or to show off. Prabhupada was never "trying" to be anyone other than himself. He was never a "wannabe" as so many of our godbrothers have become. He never even played the role of world acarya. He just was. And it shows in his voice. The sound of a voice does not lie if one's ears are open. Even if you cannot understand the meaning, a pure voice alone can enlighten you. An impure voice may entertain, but it can never purify anyone.

Many times he told his disciples that we are not musicians but devotees. He warned us that the quality of devotional feeling is what matters; not any technical skills. Yet, he had both: his honey-saturated voice could easily melt one's heart, and his melodies, inflections, mrdunga and harmonium playing were extraordinary and gifted. And Prabhupada did all of it as naturally as a bee takes nectar from a flower.

Prabhupada, please give me this blessing: that i can continue to hear your singing and your melliferous voice in every one of my coming births.


Carlo Ananda said...

Very, very beautiful Nava. Really, the last part brought tears to my eyes. You hit on a fundamental truth--to be oneself--and you coined the perfect antiword to explain its essence, "wannabe". Thank you.

Swarup Das said...

Only somebody who has a deep love for Srila Prabhupada could appreciate him like you do. Just a few days ago my wife and I were discussing what an amazing musician Srila Prabhupada was -- expert with harmonium, mrdanga, kartals -- and how his voice was indescribable (and yet you found the words to describe it).

Thank you for pouring out your heart -- a heart filled with appreciation, gratitude and love for our eternal spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada.