Turning Over A New Buckeye Leaf

Adventures in Kirtan With Durga Das

Wil Burton

“Sita Ram Ram Ram Sita Ram.”

Kirtan is a call and response devotional chanting or “praise that which is exalted.” Before I got to experience my first Kirtan session, I had the opportunity to sit down with David Newman, a professional Kirtan practitioner and performer. Newman, also known as Durga Das, first felt his initial yoga spark in New York City in 1990. But it was not until later on in that decade when his practice truly accelerated. His leap of faith came in the form of opening his studio, Yoga on Main, in Philadelphia. The studio, which was a small two-man operation, came to be “at the right place and at the right time,” Newman explained. The studio quickly began to flourish, but Newman sought to do more. Drawing on his music influences of Todd Rundgren and Peter Gabriel, Kirtan was a natural progression for Newman. His goal was to promote a greater sense of open-heartedness, and he hoped to touch others with the positive vibration of the practice.

I had no idea what to expect from the Kirtan experience and was pleasantly surprised to find about forty other people in attendance at Studio 11, a yoga studio in Tremont, a Cleveland neighborhood. Had it taken place in a different setting, I might have been inclined to describe the Kirtan session as a big tent revival. The “concert” lasted 2.5 hours, consisting of only 4 songs. Newman was accompanied by his wife and sideman as well as a guest violinist. Along with playing acoustic guitar, Newman lead each call. His wife, Mira, lead the response while playing percussion. What started out as a timid crowd of only a few dancers culminated in at least a dozen dancers by the end of the concert. Each song was followed by a deafening silence lasting about five minutes meant for meditative reflection.

The songs, consisting of lyrics such as, “Sita Ram Ram Ram Sita Ram” and “Hari Om Namah Shivaya” were called and responded to repetitively. They induced a trance-like state among the guests. Although several people chose to dance, many remained seated and casually sang along with smiles on their faces or with their eyes closed. The energy of the songs promoted a common spiritual bond among all those in attendance. And while the individual interpretation of the overall experience likely varied widely, everyone thoroughly seemed to be having good time.

At the conclusion of the meditative reflection following the fourth song, we all shared two plates of food, one sweet and one savory. This food had been “blessed” by the vibrations and energy of the group as a whole during the Kirtan session. Newman and band remained for questions and answers and informally chatted with individuals after the performance, further solidifying the bonds they had created with their music.

Newman’s Kirtan name, Durga Das, translates as “in service of the divine Mother.” Though religious in nature, there was no talk of conversion or theology during or after the Kirtan session. Admitting that some people have fixated on Kirtan’s relationship with the Hari Krishna, Newman emphasized again his goal of creating a greater sense of open-heartedness for all people, regardless of their faith.

I left Studio 11 that evening full of gladness for having taken part in my first Kirtan concert. Though initially unsure about Kirtan in general, I definitely had a positive experience. But to be honest, I am not sure if it was because of the music or because of Newman’s infectious smile and personality.