Last week I was blessed to be granted an interview with devotional music veteran Nirantara Das, a direct disciple of Srila Prabhupada, practitioner and preacher of bhakti-yoga for nearly 40 years.
I first heard his music on cassette, back in 1992. Without minding being heard, I would sing his irresistibly catchy tune ‘Books’ as I brushed the floor and washed the pots in the canteen where I worked, it made work fun. To this day he remains crystal clear that he has a momentous message to share and that his work is inspired by Krishna. Here’s how it went…
How do you occupy yourself on long flights?
On long flights I listen to music and lectures on my iPod and, if possible, read from the Bhaktivedanta Vedabase on computer.
The music is either my own or Srila Prabhupada‘s and the lectures are my own.
What’s your favourite time of the day and why?
My favorite day is Sunday and favorite time of day is morning up until late afternoon.
I find this time very conducive for hearing and chanting. Most of my day is spent hearing and chanting, I can afford that luxury because my wife works and supports my full-time preaching status.
Do you have a favourite album of devotional music?
My favourite album of devotional music is what i call “Prabhupada’s Greatest Hits”. I have all of Prabhupada’s bhajans and kirtans on my computer and iPod. Over the years i have put together the best of all those recordings and listen to them almost every day. My favorites of these is a particular version of Jaya Radha Madhava where Prabhupada changes the line to “gopi-jana-ranjana” instead of “vraja-jana-ranjan”. Then there is a kirtan from 1969 where Prabhupada is singing on the disappearance day of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, and then there is the best one of all, one that is only on cassette and was not carried over to the CD versions, which i call “Lost Kirtan” from 1970. The first part “Vande’ham” is on CD but the 2nd part, which has the Panca-tattva-maha-mantra and Hare Krishna maha-mantra is still only on cassette, so i transferred it to my computer and that one is my favourite.
Mostly the Beatles, although I do have a wide range of very select songs from 40s-50s-60s-70s which I listen to from time to time to get inspiration for music and singing.
Did music play an important role in your first coming to spiritual life?
Yes, most definitely. hearing George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was surely my first introduction to the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Also, since i joined the movement I wanted to do music for Krishna. Although i was repeatedly discouraged, I never gave up the desire. Gradually Krishna gave me facility and i started incorporating guitar and songs in my preaching, now it has become part and parcel of what i do.
How did you first use your musical skills in Krishna’s service?
I started to write songs about Krishna consciousness in 1979 while in New York Manhattan temple on 55th street. Right from the get go I wanted to write songs DIRECTLY about Krishna consciousness. Others before and after me always tried to hide the direct message so that it appeals to everyone but I wanted it to be out in the open and “in your face”. My wife joined me in 1980 and I told her “if you want to be married to me, then you have to write songs.” she replied “I do not know anything about writing songs.” so I told her just to write poems about Krishna. So i took those poems and put them to music. She wrote about two dozen songs with me in that way.
Can you explain the phrase ‘just add Krishna’ and how you apply this in your own life?
That is the essence of what i do. One kind of song I write is all my own, words and music. One is with my wife, where I do the music, but then there is a third kind, which is definitely all about “just add Krishna”. I have hundreds of popular songs by non-devotees which I took their stupid words about maya and re-wrote them to express the teachings of Srila Prabhupäda. This is called “yukta-vairagya“. It makes Krishna-consciousness much more accessible to those kinds of people who otherwise would want nothing to do with Krishna. I have heard so many stories from devotees all over the world how their parents and grandparents liked this kind of music. They are hearing about Krishna and don’t realize they are getting purified.
My associating with Srila Prabhupada is almost exclusively through his books and recordings. Yes, I did see him several times and I did have some brief personal encounters. The one I am most famous for was in Atlanta in 1975. Prabhupada is giving the Sunday Feast lecture and he asks for questions. At this time i was a brahmacari on traveling sankirtan. So i thought to myself, ‘this may be my only chance’. So I raised my hand and I was recognized and I said, “Srila Prabhupada, what pleases you the most?” I am quite sure that the entire temple room full of brahmacaris and book distributors was expecting Prabhupada to say “Distribute Books” because that was all you heard back then in ISKCON 24/7, but to everyone’s surprise, especially mine, he closed his eyes, tilted his head and said “when you love Krishna.” About 10 years later my wife wrote a song “To Love Krishna”, which is one of her best.
Beatle songs, hip hop, punk and orchestral music have all been played by spiritual practitioners but how do we know when we’re going to far and just being self-indulgent?
All one has to do is remember that this is simply another form of the brihat-mridanga. We are only trying to preach. There should be no other motive. All we are trying to do is bring Krishna to yet another audience. Not everybody can join a temple, not everybody can even appreciate a kirtan. So these types of music and songs simply give access to an audience who would otherwise be left out of the merciful flood of Lord Caitanya’s sankirtan movement. If one simply has the motive that I want to preach, then it does not matter the method or style. But the message has to be Krishna-consciousness. That is all.
Apart from those you’ve written yourself, many of your songs have been co-written with your wife or with others. Is there a particular process you follow to complete each song?
Generally the words come first then I try to find music that suits the message. Sometimes it is the opposite. I honestly feel that my own music is inspired. I do not sit down and try to write a song as a project. All my songs come from inspiration. I even have one song called “It All Comes From Krishna”. My songs come, when they come. I cannot force it. My latest song, “Help Me, Krishna”, which Titikshava-karunika dasa says is the greatest song every written, took several years to write.
You’ve recorded ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Bhagavad-Gita’, reciting all 700 verses over a backdrop of classic tracks from across the years. You bring two seemingly different worlds together, but are they compatible?
Yes,that one was an experiment. Again, it was an inspiration. It is one of those things that you just don’t know how it will be received. It is for someone who might not even be interested in hearing Bhagavad-Gita but because of the music they may hear something of transcendental knowledge. That project started off with a section of Chapter 11, the Universal Form, and i used the instrumental song of Jimi Hendrix entitled “Third Stone From the Sun”. It worked so well that from there I tried different clips and tried to match them with appropriate sections. Listening back years later I realized that some of it was really Krishna’s inspiration. Some of it is amazingly appropriate for the verses being narrated.
Your catalogue of recorded material is enormous, how many songs have you recorded to date?
Several hundred, I stopped counting before the millennium began.
Are there any future projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?
My recordings have dwindled over the past few years because I am doing so much preaching on a weekly basis and traveling to Mexico, Panama and Chile every year. So I just don’t find so much time these days. I do have a few songs that have not yet been recorded properly and to me my songs are bhajans. I like to record them in different ways over and over. I do not get tired of my original songs because to me they are 21st century bhajans. It is a question of time.
Every day begins with proper hearing and chanting. No question of doing anything correctly unless I have put in a few good hours of hearing and chanting. Japa and studying Prabhupada’s books is my daily diet. Without that I am dead and useless. Music comes after that.
Please visit www.nirantara.com for music, lectures, Bhagavad-Gita seminars and more from Nirantara Das, Hare Krishna!