Toronto’s all-singing, all-dancing 5,000 person Ratha-Yatra parade cascades down Yonge Street as devotees and onlookers joyously worship Jagannath, a form of God revered for thousands of years in India.
Suddenly, the crowd is plunged into darkness, with only a few street lamps casting an atmospheric glow.
They’re under the downtown highway overpass known as “The Toronto Tunnel.” It’s the moment all the devotees have been waiting for. They pack closely together in a spiritual moshpit, their mridanga drums and cymbals amplified by the space’s acoustics and reverberating with earth-shaking rhythms. The names of God echo out dramatically. Devotees bounce gleefully, and beads of sweat fly.
Then internationally renowned kirtan singer Madhava Dasa raises his mridanga high above his head. He’s just trying to keep it safe in the crowd, but all the other drummers instantly copy him and raise their drums too, creating a colorful, beautiful and surreal scene that embeds itself in the mind of Toronto Festival of India committee member and artist Manish Thorat.
A few months later, Manish is drawing a stylized image of Madhava in that moment, and the eye-catching art becomes the inspiration for Festival of India 2011’s entire marketing campaign. Following the image of Madhava which he’s sure will draw the ISKCON devotee crowd, Manish also paints Jagannath on his chariot to draw the South Asian community, a Bharat Natyam dancer to attract the big Toronto arts scene, and a girl practicing yoga to draw the yoga crowd.
This is what makes the Toronto Ratha-Yatra festival—or Festival of India as it’s dubbed—stand out in a summer full of them. The predominantly second-generation team behind it is ambitious and creative in its promotion, and unswervingly dedicated to reaching beyond the devotee world into the mainstream.
The shift in how the festival was organized began in 2000, when current Festival chairman and then youth Keshava Dasa joined a committee consisting mostly of middle-aged devotees. Gradually, more and more second generationers joined him, bringing their fresh and out-of-the-box ideas. Over a decade, the festival snowballed into a popular, accessible family day out for Torontonians that is organized mostly by youth.
“We made the shift to realizing that Ratha Yatra is a festival for the public, rather than an internal event for the devotees,” says Keshava. “I remember the turning point: one of our main events used to be two hours of Srila Prabhupada memories by sannyasis and senior devotees on the main stage, which was wonderful and moved devotees to tears. But one day Madhuha Prabhu from the national Festival of India team sat us down and asked us, ‘Does this really speak to newcomers and inspire them in their personal spirituality?’ And that got us thinking.”
Working on their approach, the Toronto team has turned Ratha-Yatra into an event that is recognized by Torontonians as one of their city’s major festivals. And they turn up in droves: up to 6,000 people are expected for this year’s parade, while the festival afterwards on Centre Island could be attended by as many as 40,000.
The team is conscious of professionalism and accessibility in everything. Festival of India Toronto’s website presents a bright, attractive, newcomer-friendly face, and uses different imagery and language for each demographic they’re trying to attract.
“Language is a fundamental thing,” Keshava says. “The common layperson probably doesn’t understand half the language devotees often use—from ‘Come pull Lord Jagannath’s Chariot’ to things like ‘transport yourself out of the ocean of material misery and into the spiritual world.’ So we put a lot of thought into that.”
Advertising is also first class for the Toronto Festival of India. Large professional posters add a splash of color to the Yonge and Bloor subway lines, while devotees give out flyers during promotional street chanting events. Because of its professional approach in the past several years, the Festival has also attracted plenty of corporate sponsorship, advertising and cross promotion from South Asian website mybindi.com, TorontoHotels.ca, and the Toronto branch of national TV station Global TV.
“Last year, Global TV came and broadcast their weather on the six o’clock news live from Centre Island with kirtan in the background,” Keshava says. “And this year, they’re providing a tent with Global TV branding all over it where people will be dressed in saris and decorated with gopi dots. It really legitimizes what we’re doing in the eyes of the public.”
The Festival of India Toronto team will kick off celebrations this year with a host of pre-festival events before the Ratha Yatra, that will help to build awareness for it and will be aimed at different demographics.
There’s a yoga class at Evergreen Brickworks yoga studio on July 3rd for the yoga crowd; a festival celebrating South Asian culture at Mississauga Celebration Square from July 8th to 10th, with face painting, mridanga demonstrations and more for the mainstream and the Indian community; and a 12-hour kirtan at Toronto’s ISKCON temple on Friday July 15th, featuring kirtan singers such as Madhava, Niranjana Swami, Bhakti Marg Swami, and Guna-Grahi Swami.
The kirtan is being promoted by a hilarious Facebook campaign called “What’s Your Excuse?” in which various reasons for getting out of work to attend it are submitted along with comical photos. There’s “My car broke down—at the temple,” “I have a heart-ache, and the doctor prescribed kirtan,” and “I have to step out of the office—I’ll be back in 12 hours.”
Creativity and ingenious campaigns continue to be a theme in the Festival of India itself as well, which runs from Saturday July 16th to Sunday July 17th. For the parade down Yonge Street, which of course features the Toronto Tunnel and kirtans by many senior devotees, participants are encouraged to wear not just any clothes but their best blue or yellow.
“Bhakti Marg Swami, our resident sannyasi and inspiration, is always reminding us about presentation and coordination,” Keshava says. “So a few of the girls on our committee have launched a campaign on Facebook and in the community. We don’t know how it’s going to go, but even if a few hundred people out of the 6,000 attending the parade wear blue or yellow, it will make our presentation look a lot more polished and coordinated to the public.”
After the parade, a great family day out will be held on Toronto’s Centre Island, featuring more kirtan performances, top quality entertainment, a South Asian Bazaar, exhibits on ancient spiritual culture and heritage, delicious sanctified food, and spiritual seminars.
“One of the biggest things that we focus on at the festival—which often isn’t thought about much—is signage,” says Keshava. “We’ll have a large, professionally printed board next to the Deities of Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra explaining who Jagannath is, what Deities are, and why Deity worship is important. And similar boards will be everywhere. For instance, if you go to the reincarnation exhibit, there’ll be one explaining what it is and adding, ‘If you liked this, check out the book tent and the Q&A tent.’ So all areas of the festival will be linked and be very newcomer-friendly.”
The Festival of India team also make sure their event features highly polished ‘bridge attractions,’ which draw newcomers who then stay for the kirtan, prasadam or philosophy.
High profile South Asian Dancers who are well known in the Canadian arts community perform in a huge 650-capacity tent, such as Menaka Thakkar, the first Bharat Natyam Dancer to be recognized on a national level by the Canadian Council for the Arts, and others have danced professionally for twenty years or more.
They are often followed by ISKCON artists, such as Bhakti Marg Swami with his dramas portraying Krishna conscious themes, and the Krishna Culture youth bus tour, which are appreciated by the public and the professional artists alike.
Probably the biggest bridge attraction at Festival of India is Yoga Meltdown, which is presented in cooperation with several Toronto Yoga studios and draws 500 to 700 people for yoga classes in a separate area of the event. While ISKCON purists may object to the sight of people in white pants and tank tops doing yoga at a Ratha Yatra festival, organizers feel that it builds ISKCON’s relationship with the huge yoga community, and that it is clear about its Krishna conscious priorities.
“We’re clear in our messaging that this is a spiritual yoga event presented by Toronto’s Hare Krishna temple, and we’re careful to make sure studios we’re partnering with understand what we’re about, and only teach philosophy or chant mantras in accordance with our mission,” Keshava says. “We ask the yoga teachers to speak a bit about bhakti yoga, and we have vegan cooking classes taught by an ISKCON devotee, as well as a mantra meditation tent run by ISKCON Toronto’s yoga outreach arm Urban Edge yoga.”
With the yoga community’s current growth, and its popularizing of kirtan, Keshava feels that it’s important for ISKCON to create a mood of working together, rather than of competing and trying to prove its superiority.
“We want to create an atmosphere that will result in them having a healthy respect of Krishna consciousness, and regarding us as authorities on yoga,” he says.
With all this coming up next weekend, the Toronto team are already looking to Festival of India 2012, which is set to be the biggest yet! The dedicated team of second generation and first generation devotees will be working hard as far as seven months in advance to prepare for the event, which will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of both the Toronto Ratha Yatra and the installation of ISKCON Toronto’s Radha-Ksirachor Gopinath Deities.
“It’s such a great bonding experience,” says Keshava. “It’s just a great opportunity for us to do service together and give the best offering we can to Srila Prabhupada. And I think that’s why it has become such a success.”
For more information, please visit http://www.festivalofindia.ca or http://www.facebook.com/festivalofindia.toronto