Vishvambhar Sheth of the Mayapuris.
With yoga already a household name in the Western World, kirtan—the ancient Gaudiya Vaishnava style of call and response chanting—is quickly gaining the same status. And while ISKCON devotees have been a little late to break into the popular yoga kirtan scene, some ISKCON groups have now risen to prominence, introducing audiences to the founder of kirtan, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
Leading the charge with their own unique energy and styles are second-generation groups Gaura Vani & As Kindred Spirits and protegees The Mayapuris—both signed to Mantrology, a subsidiary of punk hardcore label Equal Vision Records that was born out of fans’ growing interest in yoga.
Bursting onto the scene only last year and already being hailed as “the young tigers of kirtan” by such luminaries as grammy-award winner Jai Uttal, The Mayapuris are releasing their debut album “Mridanga” this June 22nd.
And there’s no better time than now, they feel. Just as a certain mood conducive to spiritual discovery prevailed in the 1960s, when ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada first introduced westerners to kirtan, the current decade brings with it a general surge towards higher consciousness, environmental and community awareness, and spiritual connectivity.
“We’ve performed at some universities where we’ve arrived to see 200 students sitting in lotus position with their backs straight, in a very meditative mood,” says frontman and vocalist Vishvambhar Sheth (Vish). “Because they’re familiar with yoga, they’re already open to that higher consciousness and ready to immediately go deep into the kirtan.”
The Mayapuris are excited about being “little droplets riding the current wave of kirtan,” started 500 years ago by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and introduced to western consciousness by Srila Prabhupada. And “Mridanga” is their offering to this wave.
“A decendent of Advaita Acharya, one of Sri Chaitanya’s closest associates, predicted that the sound of the Mridanga drum would one day inundate the entire world,” says Balarama-Tirtha (Bali), the Mayapuris’ compact, lightning-fast drummer. “My guru, Jayapataka Swami, once commented that ISKCON’s second generation are fulfilling this prophecy—and we want to be a part of that.”
I’m talking to Vish and Bali at Vish’s house in Alachua, Florida, where all the trees in the yard are painted with brightly colored Sanskrit lettering reading “Radhe Radhe” in preparation for his marriage this month to Vrinda, The Mayapuris’ backing vocalist and Bharat-Natyam dancer. Vrinda is doing yoga asanas on a mat when I arrive, but soon heads off to organize the wedding. Bali has run all the way from his apartment in the baking Florida sun, and does the entire interview wearing an Indian towel called a “gumsha” around his neck. Vish, sporting long, wavy black hair and a tattoo of Lord Krishna’s Sudarshan Chakra weapon, greets me with a huge grin and squats like an Indian sadhu as he pours me lemonade into a stainless steel cup. Meanwhile, Bali’s brother and the group’s flute player Krishna Kishor (Kish) participates in the interview over the phone, mostly silent but interjecting with short yet pithy comments from time to time.
The Mayapuris are just as charismatic, energetic and quirky in person as they are as performers. But they’re also sincere, full of devotion and completely in love with kirtan and especially the Mridanga instrument.
“Our group is unique in that we are all Mridanga players,” says Bali. “We called our first album Mridanga because it’s the heartbeat of our sound. The mridanga drum is wonderful—it rumbles, it thunders, it sings. It’s light weight—you can dance with it, you can travel with it, you can play it standing up or sitting down. And it was made specifically to accompany kirtan—it has no other purpose.”
The Mayapuris’ debut album rumbles with the thunder of the Mridanga throughout, and especially in tracks like the instrumental “Conundrum” and the self-explanatory “Mridanga,” which combines vigorous traditional beats with matching mantras. But what truly binds the eclectic mix of songs together is the dedication to following the footsteps of saints in the Gaudiya Vaishnava line.
Exhuberant opener Song of Nadia is a remake of the classic prayer “Bajahu Re Mana” from the 1959 film about Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s life, “Nimai of Nadia.” Through the West Bengali flavor and yearning flute, the message—one line translates as “This tenuous life of mine is just like a drop of water resting momentarily on the leaf of a lotus flower”—is a poetic yet urgent one.
Ramachandra, a heartfelt call to Lord Krishna’s form as the ideal king that showcases the very best of both Vishvambhar and guest singer Jai Uttal’s soaring vocals, induces goose-bumps with its beauty and lyrics that will move the heart of any devotee: “Rama, You are chivalrous and brave. You are strong and immovable on the battlefield. You are my dear friend. Your compassion is vast like the ocean. You are the hero of all dynasties, and the shelter of the entire world.”
Even the more adventurous tracks don’t loose sight of Vaishnava sentiment and philosophy. The song Shiva Shiva, for example, while praising the famous dancer demigod otherwise known as Nataraja, also contains a poem by Gaudiya saint Bhaktivinode Thakura saying that Shiva chants the names of Krishna, knowing the Lord to be supreme. With its playful samba rhythm and catchy hooks, it’s also the ultimate party song and impossible to sit still to—Shiva Shiva is the sonic equivalent of throwing a Latin Carnival and a Bollywood musical into a blender with Nataraja himself dancing on the lid.
“We are trying to break into a certain scene, so there’s a certain element of pleasing our audience,” Bali says. “But ultimately we always ask ourselves the question, ‘Would Srila Prabhupada and the previous acharyas (saints) be pleased by this? Srila Prabhupada wanted devotees to do cultural presentations to attract people to Krishna consciousness. And the purpose of our entire existence as the Mayapuris is to get people to chant Hare Krishna, and to give them such a nice kirtan experience that they want to take the chanting into their lives.”
Tracks like two parter Jai Sri Krishna and Jai Sri Radhe, Midnight Dance, and Invoking the Ancients continue the pattern of rousing energy, head-nodding beats, and bowing to the acharyas, with the latter in particular expressing gratitude to those who gave us Kirtan and Bhakti Yoga.
Maha Mantra and Gopinatha, meanwhile, with their deep emotion and slow meditation, show another side of the Mayapuris.
“Our energy is spontaneous and natural for us,” Vish says. “We are young and passionate, and we put all our heart and soul into our kirtan, so sometimes we go a bit wild. And that enthusiasm is an integral part of kirtan, especially in Lord Chaitanya’s tradition. But we also feel that being internal and meditative, chanting japa, and reading spiritual literature, is very important—it gives us the strength to give everything, and the realization that what we’re doing is a service to Lord Krishna and Srila Prabhupada.”
In fact, the Mayapuris’ live performances usually begin in a prayerful, meditative way, building slowly. Kish’s flute and Vish’s harmonium create harmonic melodies, as Bali’s drum keeps the beat. “We try to give people a very unique kirtan musical experience,” Bali says. “For us, kirtan means spirit, prayer, spontaneity and love, and we try to embody that in our shows.”
As well as kirtan, The Mayapuri’s show includes mridanga presentations with acrobatic dancing, complicated mathematical rhythms, and head nodding beats. Meanwhile Vrinda, who studied Indian traditional dance for five years at Kalakshetra—“The Harvard of Dance Schools”—in Chennai, India, tells the kirtan’s story with interpretive dance.
It’s quite an audio-visual feast. But most notable of all is The Mayapuris’ communication with each other while performing, the connectedness and tightness of their group.
This quality is no act—it’s the result of years of Vish, Bali, and Kish playing together, building their craft and their relationships.
In fact, almost a lifetime; the trio first met in the ISKCON community of New Raman Reti in Alachua, Florida in 1993 when Vish was eight years old and Bali and Kish were six and seven.
“I remember I had some tablas—that was the first time we jammed together,” Vish says.
“And then we played with Lego,” Bali jokes.
Over the next several years, the three attended ISKCON schools in the US and India. Upon returning to Alachua from Vrindavana Gurukula at the age of ten, Vish already had the makings of a frontman. “I remember he would lead kirtan at the temple, although he was a small boy and they had to set the microphone three feet off the ground,” Bali says. “And Kish and I would play Mridanga for him, although we were only eight years old.”
Bali and Kish also studied in India, in Mayapur, West Bengal, returning in 2001 at the ages of 15 and 16. They reconnected with Vish, and the trio began to perform Mridanga demonstrations inspired by the acrobatic dances of traditional drummers from Manipur, India. Since they had all spent time in Mayapur, the birthplace of kirtan, and were influenced by its musical style, they called themselves The Mayapuris.
“For the next few years, our lives took us in different directions, but we were always the Mayapuris when we met up,” Kish says. “There’s a connection between us that’s so strong it feels like it could be leftover from a past life.”
Finally, in 2008, destiny came calling. For once, all three of the Mayapuris were living in Alachua—Vish had returned from years of travelling with his guru Lokanatha Swami, and Kish and Bali had both just received Bachelors Degrees from the University of Florida in advertising and psychology respectively—and the trio began performing together again.
“Then we got the call to play with As Kindred Spirits at the Chant for Change event Gaura Vani and Mantrology had organized in Washington D.C. on January 19th 2009, the day before President Obama’s inauguration,” Vish says. “Something magical happened there. The combined dynamic of As Kindred Spirits kirtan, our Mridanga demonstration, and Vrinda’s Bharat Natyam dancing created a wave in the yoga kirtan scene, and we knew we had something special.”
A mutual agreement was made instantly. In the Mayapuris, Gaura Vani saw talent, energy, and potential—kids who could really go somewhere and who could boost Mantrology with their appeal. And in Gaura Vani and Mantrology, the Mayapuris saw a home—a support system of friends that had the facilities, resources and networks they needed to reach their full potential.
That year, the Mayapuris and As Kindred Spirits embarked on a whirlwind tour of the world, traveling across the United States, Canada, England, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, and India, and visiting six continents in all. Finally in November 2009, after nearly a year of constant touring, the Mayapuris were signed to Mantrology.
“We’ve played in every kind of venue imaginable,” says Vish. “If we had a job application ad, it would just read ‘Have Mridanga, will perform!’ Mostly, we play yoga studios, with crowds ranging from good for the yoga scene—300 people—to small—less than the number of our band and crew. But we’ve also played universities, ISKCON festivals, temples, home programs, theaters, corporate offices, and even nightclubs.”
Vish laughs at the recollection. “We played one club in LA, were people were just grooving to us, singing ‘Rama, Rama, Rama!’ with their drinks in their hands and everything,” he says. “At one point we announced, ‘Okay, now you’re Hanuman’s monkey army,’ and they all started leaping about like monkeys while still chanting Rama’s name.”
“And afterwards, a lot of people approached us to say, ‘You guys are the best! We’ve never heard anything like this before!’” Bali adds. “Regardless of the environment, the sound vibration is spiritual—so whether it’s an academic institution or a recreational nightclub, people always respond to the chanting, even if they’re not familiar with it.”
The Mayapuris have also had a case of being in the right place at the right time, appearing at some of the new breed of mega yoga music festivals that took off in 2009: Bhakti Fest at Joshua Tree near Los Angeles; Wanderlust in Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border; Burning Man in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert; Harmony in Oregon; and the 24 Hour Kirtan Festival in New Vrindaban, West Virginia.
After an entire year of touring, you’d think the Mayapuris might be ready for a long rest.
Not quite. This June, even before their album hits online stores and ISKCON outlets on the 22nd, they’ll be on the road again for a European tour, performing at London Rathayatra and Birmingham’s 24 Hour Kirtan Festival.
Then they’ll barely have time for a breather before heading off on another North American tour from late July till mid September, visiting Florida, New Orleans, Texas, Arizona, California, Vancouver, and more. They’ll also play multiple dates with renowned yoga teacher and trendsetter Shiva Rea, and stop off at Bhakti Fest and the Wanderlust festival to play alongside chart-topper Moby. In between, they’ll lead workshops and introductions to kirtan at Princeton, Rutgers, Penn State, and the University of Florida, as well as retreat centers Kripalu and Omega.
In the fall, they’ll play some more yoga festivals, with plans to return to South Africa and Australia to renew connections there. And next year, they plan to tour India, where they hope Indian youth will be inspired to see Western youth taking up their traditions.
The Mayapuris think big—although their show is already a well-developed audio-visual presentation, they have plans for major expansion in the future. “We’d like to develop a Broadway-style production, with drama, elaborate choreography, more thunder drumming, and more dancing,” Kish says. “A big, colorful musical that’s also a full, well-rounded cultural presentation. We want to give people something that’s visual as well as ear candy, an experience that they can take home with them.”
The Mayapuris also hope to delve more into World Music as they grow, and to embrace the musical influences that have been with them throughout their lives—Bali is a hip-hop fan and MC, Kish loves the reggae sound, and Vish played in a Boston punk rock band. Bali and Kish’s South American background also brings playful Latin rhythms, jazz and salsa to the mix, while the group already perform different Indian schools of music such as Carnatic and Qawwali, a Sufi devotional music from the Middle East. “We want to be able to connect with people no matter where they’re from, to be able to speak in their particular language and culture,” says Bali.
“Ultimately, our future is in Krishna’s hands,” concludes Vish. “But we hope that we can do this forever—sing kirtan, be inspired, try to inspire others, make and record music, travel, and attract lots of people to chanting the Holy Names.”
For more information and to pre-order the Mayapuris' debut album "Mridanga," please visit www.mayapuris.com