Mantra and Kirtan: First Experiences
My first exposure to kirtan was in 2003, a year after graduating from college. I had just had a powerful dream in which I was “initiated”. I heard sounds all around me which I later looked up to discover they were a “mantra”. At that point in my life, while I knew I was interested in spirituality in general, I had very minimal exposure to it. I didn’t even know what the word mantra meant outside of colloquial use. Telling a friend about the dream, I was told to check out a musician named “Krishna Das”.
I can truly say that after the dream of initiation, every river in my life converged as I stepped whole-heartedly onto a new path, and Krishna Das’s music, and kirtan in general, was the soundtrack to that new life. I went to a yoga ashram that summer to become a yoga teacher (having only been exposed to yoga in a college gym class, but knowing it was related to meditation, and that meditation was something I needed). I thought maybe I would teach yoga during grad school. That seemed to be the trajectory of my life.
My first night in the Sivananda Yoga Ashram, still unsure of where I was and what was going on there, I had a dream of white light streaming from a rose in my heart. The following day, as soon as the swami began speaking about the philosophy of yoga, my heart exploded. Heat rushed up my spine and beads of sweat poured from the center of my chest. I walked around the ashram with bated breath, knowing I was on holy ground. I suddenly had a path to walk, a path toward my Self.
For the following weeks, I was lighter than a feather. I woke at 5am impatient to go to meditation. Kirtan was sung morning and night, and I fell in love with every chant. I tried writing out the melodies on little slips of paper so I wouldn’t forget them. In beautiful synchronicity, Krishna Das was scheduled to do a weekend workshop at the ashram and I got to hear him live for the first of what would become many times. I ended up staying at the ashram after the training ended for many months. During this time, I began dreaming about India, in more and more detail, with instructions on where to go and what to do. I began to meet people who’d been there, and who reassured me that I could make the trip on my own. There were moments in the ashram where certain incense would be lit, or certain food cooked, and I’d be blown away by deeply-rooted memories of a place I’d never been. I knew it was only a matter of time before I would touch that soil.
Finding My Voice
I grew up in a school that had broadway caliber singers. I was not considered one of them. I was, however, a composer. I wrote chamber music and received some recognition for my music, which always, interestingly, had something of an “eastern feeling”. As early as 5th grade I was writing music in modal scales, which are prominent in eastern music. While I sang in the school choirs, I was never chosen for solos. I saw myself as someone with a good ear, but a mediocre voice. I played keyboard in a ska band in high school and they never let me anywhere near the microphone.
Yet suddenly, at the end of the Yoga Teacher Training, when they called us up at random to lead a chant, people began say “you have a really beautiful voice!” I had never heard that before.
One day while I was sweeping the floor of the temple, a tabla player came in and set up his drums. He told me that a great flute player named Sachdev was about to do an Indian Music workshop and I should join them. I didn’t feel particularly insterested, but at the last minute, I decided to go. In the class, Sachdev described a musical scale in cosmic, transcendent terms I’d never heard before. I picked up the Indian scale easily, and improvised on it without a thought. The Swami of the ashram was in the workshop and, hearing me singing, decided I should move to the New York City ashram and begin taking Indian Classical Singing lessons, funded by their organization.
Journeys in India
For the following year, every time I would ask for a sign, I would get it. India… India… I had taken singing lessons with Pundit Ajay Jha for 4 months while living in the city ashram, and when I left to work at a video production company nearby, I was given the Indian TV commercials. I was introduced to the Indian chef making the cooking video. I did the online edit for “Flavors the Movie”, the Indian hit, sitting in the studio with the director. A few months later, waiting for a bus and thinking “give me one more sign and I will go”, I opened my eyes, and turned my head and saw a huge billboard that said one word: “INDIA”.
I have hundreds of anecdotes and stories to tell about the dreams and synchronicities surrounding the beginning of my India journeys, but for now I will just say that I finally made it, and my first moments in India I felt a deeper sense of belonging than I had ever imagined was possible. Around every corner, the music would call to a part of me that I had no words for. The smells, the sunlight, the sense of time… another layer of my identity was peeled back steadily through the experiences and coincidences of the next ten years of my life, during which I spent nearly four years in India.
India and America
Over the next ten years, I returned to America only to see my family and save money to return to India. I had deeply longed for a teacher who could train me on the spiritual path and I am very fortunate to have found not one, but several great teachers, who each showed me different parts of the spiritual journey. I am grateful that I did not have only one teacher or feel tied to any one tradition, as I am called to the essence of all paths. My ultimate teacher is Love.
Those years were incredible. Traveling all over the country, I stayed in some of the holiest pilgrimage places and met incredible yogis. I lived like a sadhak, spiritual seeker, climbing the Himalayas with few possessions, staying in family homes, pilgrim houses, and sometimes living in caves to dive into the meditation practices and mantras I’d been given.
Me writing in a cave, 2009, Gangotri, India
Near Yamunotri, India
One of the most powerful experiences of that time was in 2007 when I experienced Kundalini Awakening. It started in a deep meditation, where I was concentrating internally on an image of a Yantra (sacred geometry) and suddenly I started to hear a high pitched tone. It wasn’t until after this experience that I started to learn about the appearance of subtle sound in meditation. That night I had a dream featuring a golden serpent, and the following day I began to experience overwhelming movements of energy and flashes of divine visions that lasted for about 10 days.
Shortly after this, I became a student of the tantric philosophy of subtle sound, and the incredible Sanskrit language. These teachings seemed to be following me, or guiding me around, as at every step of the way, experiences and teachings about music and the power of sound would find me. I was also very drawn to devotional yoga, whose main practice is singing the divine names.
During this time, I also followed my dreams up to Tibet and around the sacred Mt. Kailash (Kang Rinpoche) in an epic adventure, during which I found a small crystal pyramid submerged in the desert sand.
As I would travel between India and America, great synchronicities would allow me to participate in the movement of yoga music that was growing in America, and I had the great fortune of supporting on stage and/or recordings some of the kirtan musicians who I loved: Sri Kirtan, Prema Hara, Kirtan Rabbi to name a few. I also joined an a cappella group called Prana that did Tibetan overtone music and, with them, I found myself on stage with Krishna Das several times in what felt like a divine completion. I was encouraged to do more leading, but I didn’t have my own “repertoire”. I had known kirtan as a traditional practice. I had never had a need to create new melodies, but I also knew that a unique offering would come through me at the right time. I had also been shown in dreams and visions that I was not meant to stay in the caves, nor even in India. I had something to share.
Entering the Studio
Finally, in 2014, after leading my first group to sacred sites in India, I decided it was time to bring in my own vision of devotional music. I booked myself a week in a studio in New Delhi. Returning to the holy city of Vrindavan to prepare, I told one of my teachers, a great saint, that I was going to make a recording. He hardly looked me, but I felt his blessings. As the recording began, I watched everything the engineer did. After a few days in the studio, I not only had the beginnings of an entire album, I also learned how to use the industry standard editing equipment. By the end of the week the engineer would sometimes sit in the lobby while I ran the ship.
Before returning to America, I received an invitation to dog-sit on a farm for the remainder of the winter. I took that as an opportunity to immerse myself in my music without distractions. I set myself up in the un-insulated barn, which had nothing but a wood stove to heat the space through the coldest months of year. I bought a used music-studio computer and continued teaching myself how to edit the music. Back in India, the engineer surprised me one day by inviting a photographer to come take photos and video of the recording. I had no idea he would do this, nor any idea of the value of it, but I graciously obliged, and once I was set up in the barn, I began to prepare a kick-starter campaign. The video was another gift of grace. I filmed the remaining pieces and edited the kickstarter video, and over the following weeks, word began to spread. With the support of some of the musicians I’d worked with in the past, particularly Kamaniya of Prema Hara, people began to take an interest. I spent every day in the freezing cold barn bundled in blankets, promoting my kickstarter, and editing the music, moving the ice-cold mouse with numb, swollen fingers. After that month had passed, I not only had the money to continue shaping my musical vision, but I had fans taking an interest all over the world… this was the beginning of Just One Drop.
A year and a half later, White Swan Records, the foremost kirtan record label, released the album, publicizing it to tens of thousands of people, with these words:
“It’s rare to see a new musician break onto this scene with such a polished and beautiful original album already under her belt. That’s why we were so blown away by Radharani. Her unique, mysterious voice has melted our hearts and we are thrilled with her debut kirtan album, Just One Drop.”
With deep gratitude to the many, many people who contributed to my spiritual and musical education, I continue the journey of offering back the glimpses of divine grace I’ve been blessed with. My deepest hope is that the music conveys a sense of purpose, and incubates a longer for revelation. The mystery continues to unfold in my own life, and for now, it reveals itself in the sharing.