Drama Festival

(from June, 1981 Issue of the Brijabasi Spirit)

(left to right: Lokamangala dasa, Sankirtana dasa and Ganendra dasa)

“The Transcendental Actor Thinks, Feels and Relates to Krsna”

Last week, the Brijabasi Players journeyed to New York City to participate in the First North American Asian Indian Drama Festival. The festival was held at Columbia University in the School of International Affairs. The Players were awarded first place for their performance of “The Pandavas Retire Timely.” The “Brijabasi Spirit” interviews Sankirtana Dasa and Ganendra Dasa after their triumphant return from the Big Apple. Lokamangala Dasa was still in New York at the time of the interview.
SPIRIT: Sankirtana Prabhu, did you have an active background in the theater?

SANKIRTANA: Well, in college I majored in Drama. After graduation, I conducted theater workshops in Soho, New York, then in Canada and Madison, Wisconsin.
SPIRIT: What school did you go to?
SANKIRTANA: CCNY. There I was involved in several college productions. We also performed a series of children’s plays in the elementary schools.
SPIRIT: Ganendra, did you have a background in theater?
GANENDRA: Just in high school. I joined the movement when I was seventeen. SPIRIT: How has Krishna consciousness helped develop your acting?
GANENDRA: It provides a real purpose for acting-to glorify Krishna and His devotees. The materialists have so many TV shows, movies, plays, and in this way they are glorifying so many mundane people, so many Willy Lomans. What are they all based on? They are based on the bodily conception of life. Krishna consciousness not only gives you the opportunity to act, but it also gives you the proper channel for expression. We did “The Pandavas” play, about the devotees relationship with Krishna, whereas the other plays at the festival were basically about the Indians adjusting to the Western way of life.
SPIRIT: How many plays were there?
GANENDRA: There were six plays.
SPIRIT: Who sponsored the competition?
SANKIRTANA: The Federation of Indian Associations. We found out about it from Deva Deva
in Washington, D.C. He heard that I had developed a one man play about Krishnadas Kaviraja. Acyutananda Swami suggested I enter that piece. Then we called up the coordinator of the program.
SPIRIT; An Indian gentleman?
SANKIRTANA: Yes. Ram Gadhavi. He didn’t want a one man show. He wanted a one act drama with a minimum of three characters and a maximum of twenty minutes.
SPIRIT: Sounds like it was right up your alley.
SANKIRTANA: Well, we have three men; Ganendra, myself, and Lokamangala, who also directed the play. Pavana is our sound man. So, we did “The Pandavas” even though earlier we had decided not to include it in our repertoire this year. Krishna had His plan.
SPIRIT: That’s the first time you did it?
GANENDRA: Yes. A full length version had previously been done by Govinda’s American Theater Company with a larger cast.
SANKIRTANA: We only did the concluding act which Lokamangala and I revised. SPIRIT: What takes place in this act?
SANKIRTANA: It’s from the First Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam where Maharaja Yudhisthira and Bhima are observing different omens.
GANENDRA: The inauspicious signs at the dawn of the age of Kali, the age of quarrel and hypocrisy. They were noticing so many things that were amiss in their kingdom. Things they had never witnessed before.
SANKIRTANA: Irregularity in the seasons, people becoming prone to cheating, anger, and strain in family affairs. Observing the symptoms of this age, they became very fearful, thinking that Krishna had left the planet. In the course of the drama, Arjuna returns from Dwaraka and informs his brothers, “Yes, Krishna has left.”
SPIRIT: Who played who?
GANENDRA: I played Bhima. Sankirtana played Arjuna. Lokamangala played Yudhisthira. It’s amazing that we take these things as so ordinary today. The quarreling, stealing, ecological disturbances, terrible weather conditions—they are all every day occurences. We are amazed to hear that in the previous ages these things hardly existed, but the Pandava brothers were amazed from the opposite point of view, because these symptoms had never occurred in their kingdom before.
SPIRIT: Were the other plays done by Indians?
SPIRIT: I’m amazed. It’s like white people going into Harlem..,
GANENDRA: And doing a play on black culture.
SANKIRTANA: But we are not presenting it as outsiders. We are living this Vedic culture which Srila Prabhupada has spread all over the world.
GANENDRA: And the people in the other plays are trying to get into Western culture.
SPIRIT: How many people attended the drama festival?
GANENDRA: About four hundred.
SPIRIT: Were you nervous before you went on?
SANKIRTANA: Yes. That’s always there before a performance, but you can use it to help you.

GANENDRA: I wasn’t nervous.
SPIRIT: Will you be traveling to other temples to perform?
GANENDRA: It’s possible. We performed at the New York temple during our stay. The response was very good. Tosan Krishna wants to line up some engagements and invite us back in the fall.
SPIRIT: What’s your favorite type of play? Scriptural pastimes or contemporary?
GANENDRA: The pastimes are the best.
SANKIRTANA: Yes, the scriptural plays are the best. Look at the karmi (materialist) theater. The plays deal with people who have powerful emotions, strong feelings about something, and definite goals. People in general don’t understand spiritual life. In Krishna consciousness, the devotee also has very strong feelings. He has goals, aspirations, and desires. They are not mundane feelings or desires, but fully transcendental. We want to present this —that spiritual life is not dry, void, or impersonal, but it is very dynamic. There is individuality, feelings, thoughts. Everything is there on the spiritual platform.
GANENDRA: But even to a greater degree.
SANKIRTANA: In the plays we are presenting genuine people. The Kazi and Lord Caitanya, Sanatana Goswami, the Pandavas. That’s what we go for. Not something vague or stereotype. When people talk, they want to communicate their thoughts and feelings. In our rehearsals, we are working for the characters to be alive, to communicate. It’s not just a matter of learning a bunch of words. I say my lines, and then he says his lines. No. It’s a matter of staying connected with what your character is trying to achieve, what he’s trying to communicate.
GANENDRA: it’s wonderful for the audience to see the Bhagavatam on stage, to see it come alive. The characters are feeling, thinking, and relating to Krishna. One guest who saw the play at the Palace, a student from Ohio, commented on how inspiring it was.
SANKIRTANA: Lokamangala told us that when Srila Prabhupada saw the play some years ago, he was very pleased. Prabhupada said, “You can take this everywhere, and everyone will appreciate.”
GANENDRA: “Even on the professional stage.”
SANKIRTANA: He said it would be successful wherever it was presented. So, Prabhupada benedicted the play.
SPIRIT: I heard a drunk caused some commotion.
GANENDRA: He was a little upset that we won. He was backstage before we performed. He didn’t object to our going up and doing it, but when we won, he came up to protest.
SPIRIT: What was the prize?
GANENDRA: Two hundred fifty dollars. Not anything big. The main thing is that we are being recognized as a viable theater group that is serious and going somewhere.
SANKIRTANA: Like Prabhupada said, everyone is appreciating. We had the same response with “The Age of Kali,” and of course, with “The Ramayana.”
GANENDRA: This award will help us get engagements. The Brijabasi Players is another aspect of the preaching here at New Vrindaban. We’re also hoping to travel to India this winter. The temple in Bombay has a very nice theater where we can perform.
SPIRIT: We’ll miss you then.
SANKIRTANA: It is Prabhupada’s desire, and it is also Srila Bhaktipada’s desire.
SPIRIT: Let’s get back to the drama festival.
SANKIRTANA: After the program was over, one of the judges came backstage. Mr. Malik. He is an actor himself, star of “Indian Wants The Bronx.” He said the performance was very moving, “Every word was dripping with devotion.”
SPIRIT: Jai, very good. What about the other man —when did he start up?
SANKIRTANA: When they announced that we 1 won first place, we came up on stage. Then there was the commotion. This man was yelling, “Why are they getting the prize”
GANENDRA: He kept yelling, “They are not Indian, they are not Indian,” but everyone was telling him to sit down and be quiet.

SANKIRTANA: He was like Sisupala. That same envious mentality.
GANENDRA: Sisupala became very envious when Krishna was chosen at the rajasuya ceremony as the most worshipable personality. Everyone was pleased, but Sisupala started to create a disturbance, and Krishna cut off his head.
SPIRIT: What happened to this other fellow?
GANENDRA: He was restrained by three or four men. Then, as he was being dragged off, Sankirtana said a few words of thanks. He especially thanked Srila Prabhupada.
SPIRIT: Had they heard of Prabhupada?
GANENDRA: Yes. He went on to say, “We are not American, Russian, or Indian. We’re not black nor white. We are not any of these material designations. We are spirit soul, atma, servant of Krishna.” The other man was still yelling, “Don’t you talk.” Afterwards, many people came to congratulate us. They said, “Yes, you are right. We are all atma. We are not these bodies.” They apologized for the disturbance. They are appreciating. The Indians grew up with this culture, and though they have come to the West and given it up more or less, when they see it again, it moves them. Their dormant Krishna consciousness is awakened.

SANKIRTANA: The plays bring out their devotional sentiments immediately. Even before the play was over, the audience began to applaud.
SPIRIT: Is there anything about being at New Vrindaban, as opposed to another temple, that enhances your activities as Brijabasi Players?

GANENDRA: Srila Bhaktipada.
SANKIRTANA: Yes, that is the main thing, because of his purity, his guiding force, his patience. All the devotees here are fixed and steady. This is enlivening to see. We are also trying, so that through the medium of the theater, we can present Krishna consciousness.

GANENDRA: In the different departments, so many devotees have learned their skills from the ground, so to speak. The devotees have learned so much after coming to the movement, and particularly after coming to New Vrindaban. Why not with the theater? None of us were professional, but by Krishna’s grace, we can become expert in this field also.
SANKIRTANA: In the Bhagavatam, Prabhupada writes that expert players in drama are “required for the spiritual enlightenment of the common man.”
GANENDRA: We’d like to have a full-length production this summer, keep developing our repertoire, have evening performances, and have a theater where people can come.

SANKIRTANA: We’ll have the amphitheater with one thousand seat capacity.

GANENDRA: This is Bhaktipada’s plan.
SPIRIT: One thousand! You’ll be nervous then
SANKIRTANAN: We played to that many last year at the Rainbow Festival.
SPIRIT: How long have you been performing together?
GANENDRA: For over four years.
SANKIRTANA: Yes, Lokamangala came here last summer. He’s been working with us, directing. He’s helped us grow. We are performing at festivals, at people’s homes, at colleges, and of course, here at the Palace.
SPIRIT: Thank you. Hare Krishna.

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