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 A life dedicated to Nama Sankeerthanam

                 ………. Cuddalore Gopi Bhagavatahar


Great saints through ages have given us an outpour of devotional songs which have laid a strong path for us  to travel to our destination, which  is God realization. In this Kali Yuga, the simplest and best way of attaining God is through Nama Sankeertanam, which is singing the glory of God.  When this is done as a congregation, the effect can be truly magical and miraculous. 

Shri K. Govindarajan, popularly known as 'Cuddalore' Gopi Bhagavathar is a phenomenal personality who has taken the onus upon himself to spread the glory of Nama Sankeertanam through his organization “Bhagavan Nama Prachara Mandali.” His singular focus, strong convictions, boundless energy, amazing sprightliness and  dynamism, encouraging attitude  and most importantly, his sense of  modesty and humility are all truly inspiring and offer valuable life- lessons for all. And what is most fascinating is that he professionally, he holds a high official post and is Assistant General Manager at State Bank of India, Chennai. How he makes time for conducting Nama Sankeertanam  throughout the year amidst his hectic official schedule is indeed a revelation of the fact that commitment and dedication to any work can make us push our own boundaries and do wonders.

The members of the Mandali have been testimony to how Gopi Bhagavatar has performed Bhajans till late night in so many places and travelled  home the same night to be back to office the next morning. This he does purely because of a sense of commitment and gratitude to give back to the society something of  priceless and of immeasurable value.

Gopi Bhagavatar was born in Cuddalore and was attracted to 'Nama Sankeerthanam' even at the tender age of seven, He  was much impressed by the Sampradhaya Bhajans of Brahmashri Venkatrama Bhagavathar of Thiruvidaimarudhur and Kumbakonam Shri Balu Bhagavathar and was deeply involved in the Sampradhaya Bhajans.

In the year 2000, he formed 'Sri Bhagavan Naama Prachara Mandali' with the bountiful blessings of Paranur Shri Krishnapremi Swamigal. In order to involve the younger generations into Nama Sankeerthanam and inculcate Bhakthi amongst young minds, he started presenting a unique style of Bhajan known as 'Anukarana Bhajans' in a dramatised form. This innovative mode  caught on well with Bhakthas and was also widely appreciated. This style of Nama Sankeerthanam not only explains the essence of the songs but also makes the viewers understand the content and context in  a larger perspective. His  'Sri Panduranga Leelai' as an Abhang Bhajan in a dramatised  form has been very well received by the public and this has been performed widely all over India and abroad.

His Mandali orrganises a unique event; the annual 'Bhajan Mela' every year to propagate Naama Sankeerthanam. Every year, around1000 devotees and nearly 300 Bhagavathas participate in this event which is a roaring success. Herein, several leading Bhagavathas from all over India are invited for the programme and  honoured in a befitting manner, for their services to Nama Sankeertanam. This Mela serves to create unity among all Bhagavathas and devotees.

In an interview with Dr.Radha Bhaskar, Cuddalore Sri Gopi Bhagavatar shares many fascinating experiences of great interest and value…….


 

 

 

      

 

How did you actually develop interest in  Bhajanai ?

I was very interested in Bhajanai right from my childhood. Of course, the initial motivation was the “Pongal” which was given after the Bhajanai in temples but slowly, I developed a fascination for it. It was purely by listening to the stalwarts of yesteryears that I imbibed the Padhathi of singing. In those days, we were also open to corrections and if we did a mistake, it would be pointed out by our senior Bhagavathas and we would try to rectify it. In fact, they would stop us midway if we did a mistake and that was also the only way we could learn the right method of doing it. We never felt bad about it.  Such mentors are a rarity in the present day and people now  don't really care much about what is being sung.

Has the Padhathi changed over the years?

It has changed very much, akin to our own life style. We used to sit down on the floor and eat in plantain leaves. Then, we moved to plates and today, standing and eating is quite common. We also stand on the roadside and eat.

If we look at the original Bhajanai Padhathi, it  was devised by Marudanallur Sadguru Swamigal. He travelled all over India and gathered songs from all states. Pudukottai Gopalakrishna Bhagavatar modified this Padhathi a bit and then, Haridas Giri Swamigal brought about a revolution in Bhajan singing. He made modifications to suit his group. Padhathi is something which has come down to us through generations and it is always open to changes. Also, due to our fast paced life style, we do not have the space or time to sing along the lines of the original Padhathi. But, things have been moving on.

For example, while eating lunch, generally, it is a convention to  have rasam rice and then finish off with curd rice. Now, if someone wants to have curd rice and then rasam rice, nobody can stop him! So long as it is digestible for him, it is okay.

How much time does it take to sing the Bhajanai in a typical Padhati?

It depends on how we sing it. For example, in earlier times, the Ashtapadis were sung in an expansive Kalapramana and it would take at least one hour to complete one Ashtapadi. Today, we are in such a hurry and complete 10 Ashtapadis in one hour! But even today, we do have Bhagavatas  like Trissur Ramakrishna Bhagavatar, Chalakkudi  Soundara Bhagavatar who sing Bhajanai continuously for 16 hours. They start by 8a.m and sing non-stop till 12 midnight. Earlier, one person would sing and others would repeat and this was a great way to learn new songs as it would get registered well in the mind.

Talking about Ashtapadis, we usually cut it short while singing it in a Kutcheri and often sing the Mudhra charana only. Is it the same in Bhajanais also?

We do not cut it short but sing it in a fast pace so that we can complete it. This is in contrast to how  I actually learnt all the Ashtapadis in a  Vilamba Kalapramana. But, we  do cut it short sometimes due to several constrains. Now, do we blame ourselves, the audience or organizers for this? We really do not know! It is we who should stick to the principle of not deviating. I am happy that at least Bhajanai is vibrant and happening in many places and we must do all possible to keep it going.

How important is Bhasha Gnanam (knowledge of language) important for Bhajan performers?

We see that saints of yesteryears were experts in various languages and by observing and following them, one can acquire a knowledge of various languages.

Do you get new audience for your Bhajanai each time?

It is mostly the same set of people who keep coming regularly but that does not deter us in any way. We also spend a lot of money on all these Bhajanais but all with the hope that we can instill Bhakthi at least in a few people.

What are the themes you take to perform your Bhajanais?

First of all, I object to the statement that  all these saints “composed” songs. Composing is something you do in a pre-planned manner after some thinking. These saints were “Swayambhu” who burst into an outpour of songs instantaneously. It was a spiritual conversation with the Lord.

You have devised a unique format of Bhajanai presentation called “Anukarna Bhajan.” What is this?

I actually feel there are instances which instilled these saints to sing songs and I felt it would be nice if apart from singing them, if I could explain the context, it would be more meaningful. So I took up simple Abhangs and tried to enact them. Panduranga Swami is central to the theme here and there are many stories woven around him. One is about caring for one's parents and this story reminded many people about their own parents. I would narrate life incidents as well, so that people could relate to it. Also, there is no caste or creed when it comes to Bhakthi and this we see in Panduranga Charithram. In Bhaja Govindam, Adi Shankara mentions the importance of Nama Mahima and this we have tried to narrate through a story by enacting it. We have also told the stories of Bhadrachala Ramdas, Purandara Dasa, Thyagaraja, Nandanar Charithram etc. through our Bhajanais.

What was the response from the audience?

They really enjoyed it thoroughly as they could relate it in many ways to their own personal lives. It became so sought after that even when we went to do Bhajanais, people requested us to enact these stories.

Probably, the simplicity in narration makes it easy to assimilate…….

We do not know what motivated these saints to sing these songs or the actual context of singing them. We can only visualize it and enact it. But as you said, simplifying and demystifying many things has been the key to the success of this concept.

What has been your input to make Bhajanais more contemporary?

I read the newspaper regularly and this has been my habit right from childhood. There will be some news which may catch our attention every day and I try to integrate that into my story. I can give you a very common example. Take the mobile. A youngster likes it so much and is always hooked on to it. A senior member in the family may hate it and think it to be a nuisance. Thus, the same mobile  is loved by one and hated by another. The mobile is actually an instrument only and has nothing inherent in it to be branded as good or bad. It is the user who determines what it is. Similarly, when it comes to people also, we can never brand anybody as good or bad. Even the so called bad people get reformed at some point of time and become good on hearing the Charitharm of great saints.

Has any such reformation happened in real life after hearing your Bhajanai?

Yes, once a Mami came to me after my Bhajanai and started weeping profusely. I asked her what was the matter. She said that her son had left her in the old age home four years back but after listening to my Bhajanai, he realised his folly and brought her back  to his house. That man was actually in a high position officially and it was indeed gratifying that I could bring back happiness into a senior person's life. Another incident was when a drunkard came and sat to listen to my Bhajanai at Karaikkudi. Many people objected to that but I said that there is no rule that one should not come to a Bhajanai after drinking. I felt happy that at least, he  had the inclination to come and sit for my Bhajanai. As it was nearing midnight and my Bhajanai was drawing  to an end, he got up and said that he needed to go somewhere urgently and needed Rs.50 for that. When I probed into the matter, he told me that he had driven his mother away from home and sent her to some other village and now, he wanted to go and bring her back. He promised to return my money later and also broke down emotionally and said , “ If I do not change for the better after hearing your Bhajanai, then I am not a human being at all!” Now, what can be more gratifying than all this?

How do you practically involve the people in your Bhajanai  and motivate them towards spiritual upliftment? This I am asking, especially because your Bhajanais do not target a specific community and aims at reaching everybody…..

In a class, there are brilliant students who  study well and they will shine by themselves. They also get the special attention of their teachers and parents. But, in the same class, there are back benchers and if these students  also have to come up well  in life, the teacher has to reach out to them.  They  have to be patted on the back and encouraged. Some teachers do go out of the way to do that.

Similarly, I don't sit static on the stage and sing like you do your Kutcheris. This is because then, I wouldn't know who  is listening and who is not paying attention. Hence, I mingle with the audience and interact with them by asking simple questions. For example, we all know Newton's law. I once called a boy and asked him if he knew it and asked him to explain it. He did it and I asked him, “It is okay that your teacher told you about this, but why did you not try to ascertain it yourself?” He said that it was already proved and hence, there was no need to verify it. I then asked him that when we have proof of  the existence of Mahaans like Andal, Bhadrachala Ramdas and others, why don't we believe in them? He became a bit panicky and started thinking about it!

I also see that you make people dance and sing along with you and that makes them really happy and involve more……

Well, it is very simple. When you call somebody to dance or sing along, they feel recognised. In fact, recognition is something we all yearn for as human beings. If you ask them to sit passively and listen to you, they may not even want to come  as they feel totally disconnected in that context. So, I make everyone clap and involve themselves. I cannot expect them to come forward by themselves to do this. I have to motivate them. Of course, it may not seem to be organised like a classical dance,  but it is the outcome of their intense Bhakthi. It may look disorderly  but when in a state of Bhakthi, all this is trivial. If we are moved by devotion, we lose ourselves and dance out of ecstasy and joy. Also, Vittal is a name that is common in villages and villagers have lot of stories to tell about Lord Vittala. I am only instrumental in kindling them.

There is also a challenge in bringing youngsters into the fold of Bhajanais as they are pre-occupied with so many other things. What have you been doing to remedy this?

Well, as you said, youngsters are pre-occupied with so many things. Then, why can't they be pre-occupied with Bhajanai as well? Corporates are under a lot of stress and tension and they need relaxation. What could be a better way than through music and Bhajans? I think, “Instead of asking them to come to us, why not we go to them?”  I have gone to offices and do Bhajanais there also. I do try to make it relevant and include things which may be of interest to him. Similarly, when we perform in a remote village, we cannot quote Sanksrit passages and expect them to understand. We have to go down to their level and see how to make them come under the fold of Nama Sankeertanam. We can't be rigid in our presentation. We also need to be careful not to hurt anyone through our sayings.

Any incidents where you have been questioned about your messages to the public?

Well, I did have one youngster come up to me and ask, “you always pin- point at youngsters and advise them to take care of their parents. Why don't you advise seniors also to do the same in their role as mother-in laws or father-in laws? For this, I must have a convincing answer and make them understand. I cannot brush it aside.

Recently, you did a unique theme of Nandanar Charithram; quiet an off-beat subject for that matter. How did you conceive the story and enact it?

This was a very interesting experience. We were asked to do Nandanar Charithram in a Bhajanai in Trichi. As we were busy in our annual Mela before that, we didn't have time to think about this.  We had actually booked train tickets to go there. Just a day before the programme, I asked my Secretary Shankar to cancel the tickets and book a car to go to Trichi. We bought a book and CD on the subject and watched the video while travelling in the car. Then, on the spot, we allocated roles for all our troupe members. Of course, we knew many of Gopalakrishna Bharathiar songs and hence, that was not a problem. The programme was a super hit and well appreciated by the large audience.

You also did a Bhajanai on Badrachala Ramdas recently with Sengottai Hari Bhagavatar…..

Yes, it was a unique Sangamam. He is well trained in music unlike me but together, the programme turned out to be a phenomenal success. We as Bhagavatas cannot have complete  perfection in sruthi and as I keep maneuvering between singing and speaking, it poses some challenges as well. But in this joint venture, we had a very good musical exchange.

Do you have your own fixed troupe to perform Bhajanai?

No. It is a “Friday, walk-in interview!” That is, on Friday only we get to check who all are free that weekend to  join the programme. I also have my official commitments and hence cannot decide till Friday evening whether I will be in a position to travel and go for the programme. We do need to pay our accompanists as it is their profession and livelihood. So, whoever is free that weekend, we engage them and that is how we function. I don't commit with anyone, lest I may disappoint them by cancelling in the last moment. As for singing, we have our own set. We also involve the local people in this and inform them well ahead.

I have seen your presentations and they are extempore, in the sense that nothing seems pre-planned and things take their own course…..

In this, there are several issues but there should be at least one person, who can manage the situation and link the whole concept coherently. Many years back, we had a big programme in Adambakkam and I was officially posted in Cuddalore then. On the day of the programme, some members who were scheduled to participate, backed out suddenly and I really didn't know what to do. I was in a fix as I did not want to disappoint the organizers. At that time, my elder daughter was studying in fifth standard. She questioned me, “ Is there any rule that ladies should not participate in your programme?' I replied that there was nothing like that. She then expressed her willingness to join and do a role in the programme. Since it was my own daughter coming forward to do this, I agreed. She was also open to do whatever was required. We were scheduled to do the story of Chakkubai and within the one hour available while driving by car from my house in Triplicane to Adambakkam, I explained the story to her. I also instructed her about what she should say. Of course, small mistakes may be there but ultimately, the content is only important for the audience. Sometimes, I have done three Bhajanais continuously in a single day and that has resulted in throat problem. But, people who come to listen to us do not bother about all this. It is only the Bhakthi Bhava that  is important. It may seem weird, but we cannot have rehearsals for our programmes as nobody has time for all that. Also, we ourselves do not know who will be joining us on a particular day. But. all my team members are aware of all our themes and stories as they have attended all our programme regularly. Carrying across the message is most important to us. Other things like perfection in dialogue delivery etc. are only secondary.

You went to Dubai for a performance some time back. How did you manage the programme with a limited number of people?

Yes, our team consisting of four members went to Duabi for the programme. Though we required twelve members to enact the show, we had to do with four due to budget constraints. Thus, the same person had to do multiple roles but the programme was a grand success. We never negotiate remuneration with any organizer and happily take what is given to us. In fact, there have been organizations who have not even given bus fare for our programme but we have hired a car on our own and gone to perform.

Have you accepted to perform sometime and not been able to make it ?

Once, by oversight, I accepted programmes on the same day in Tamilnadu and Kerala. Both were Mela programmes and I didn't want to disappoint the organizers. I deputed my team to do the programme in Tamilnadu and went alone to Kerala.  Since I was the only person there, I  made it as a mono-acting , in a Harikatha format and managed the show. I engaged local artists for harmonium and mrudangam. Since, I cannot pay anything much  to my team, or guarantee any amount,  I cannot except them to come committedly all the time. They have their own family to take care of. Luckily, I have a good job and hence I do not have to bother about the remuneration aspect.But by God's grace, things have been moving well and we have had committed people supporting us all the time.

What have you done to propagate Nama Sankeertanam in schools?

I have done Nama Sankeertanam  in several schools,  but sustenance is a big issue. Children want to participate in competitions and win prizes but they do not look at Nama Sankeertanam beyond that. I have seen school students singing beautifully but all that goes into oblivion once they reach college.

Do you have any schools devoted exclusively  for Bhajans?

Yes, in Tambaram, we have a Bhajan school where we train children. Srivanchiyam Murali Bhagavatar conducts classes for Bhajans regularly there and he has about 100 children learning from him. Tukkaram Maharaj has been training about 200 children. Like this, there are a few  dedicated Bhagavatas who are doing their best to teach Bhajans to children.  But if we have a centralized school for Bhajans, it will be more productive.

How do we get the next generation involved in this?

This is an Athma Anubhavam and we have to make people come into its fold. Youngsters are stressed all the time and we have to make them understand how Bhajanais can help in their overall well-being. We can have some people sponsor a few youngsters and make them attend. Of course, in the beginning, we had a meager audience but today, we have a minimum of 500. You need to make people understand that our music is divine. As  long as people feel that they have got something by attending the Bhajanai, my mission is accomplished. Youngsters should be motivated in various and means and ways to come into the fold of music.

A special mention must be made of the marathon Mela that you conduct every year in different places. How do you  plan and execute the event?

Actually, I started off years back with a Mela in my hometown Cuddalore. I knew all the Bhagavatas and so, invited them. Seeing this, somebody in Neyveli requested me to conduct a similar Mela there. There, we did it in a Mandapam of the Thirupati Devasthanam. Some officer from the Devasthanam who had come there was so impressed that he wanted us to do one the next year in Tirupati. During the Mela there, one friend of mine from Mangalore attended and he asked me to do the next Mela in Udupi. Actually, I was not even aware where Udupi was but I ventured to do it. I met the Swamiji there and he asked us to do Bajanai. I requested for some Prasadam  to be made for the Ashtapadi and Swamiji asked what I wanted. I requested for 24 Mysore Pak to be made and believe me, they made each of them in the size of a brick! I have never seen Mysore Pak of this size all my life! But, most importantly, the deep involvement of people in the Mela was astounding. This motivated me to carry this Mela to other places as well. We have conducted in Puri, Brindavanam, Rameswaram, Guruvayur, Mantralayam, Dwaraka etc. Initially, we had about 200 people enrolled for the Mela, then it became 500 and today , we have more than 1000 people joining us. Most of them are senior citizens and it gives us immense satisfaction to take personal care and make them see all these wonderful, holy places. Now, this has become an annual affair for us.

What about the Bhagavatas?

They get a great opportunity not only to sing but also to visit various Kshetras. We bear all the travel expenses of the Bhagavatas and also give them a decent remuneration.  We give equal opportunity to all and there is no discrimination. We encourage all those who come. Bhagavatas also understand my purpose and hence, do not have any ego. They adjust  to the situation and sing accordingly. As a principle, our group does not perform in the Mela as we play host to all and need to attend to everybody's needs.

How do you manage the financial aspects of such a mega project?

All purely through public money only. We do not charge anything from people for the food provided by us. We charge a very nominal amount towards their travel expenses. You must also understand that many people have money but they have no one to take them around to such places. Once, a Mami paid Rs.2500 for coming to a Mela and then, her daughter- in law came and asked me why I had taken the money. I was shocked and replied that it was the Mami who had  voluntarily given the money. She then asked me who would take care of her small daughter if the Mami went off to the Mela ? It dawned to me then that money cannot get us everything in life. Of course, the Mami somehow managed to attend the Mela. Why I am saying this  is that senior people throng to our Melas because of two things. Firstly, they know we will take good care of them and they will be safe with us and secondly, the food that we provide is better than homemade food! In fact, the variety of  food  items that we serve is simply astounding.

As a principle, we serve food in plantain leaves only. Last time, during our Mela at Dwaraka, there were no plantain leaves there and we brought 10,000 plantain leaves from Delhi by flight. In the morning, we serve breakfast, then an elaborate lunch followed by snacks and dinner as well.

It is indeed a great responsibility…………

Yes, if we go in 25 buses, till all of them return safely, we are anxious. It is a big responsibility indeed. We cannot take it lightly thinking we are experienced in organizing Melas, as each place offers new challenges and experiences. We plan from one year ahead for each Mela. In fact, we just finished a Mela but my team has already left for Ayodhya (where our next Mela is scheduled) to see the place and fix the venue.

You have had several miracles happening in your Melas. Can you share something?

In the Dwaraka Mela, one Mama came and told me that his Mami had a heart attack and was very serious. I immediately arranged for their flight ticket to return home and also a car to take them to the airport. But a few hours later, I saw the Mami and Mama sitting right in front of me in the Bhajanai. I was shocked and then came to know that on the way, the Mami suddenly became alright and so they both returned to attend the Mela. It was indeed a miracle and a true blessing of God!

In another incident, we were travelling by 25 buses to Badrinath and on the way, one bus stopped suddenly  as it got stuck in a pit. It was night time and raining heavily. There were 28 ladies in this bus. We could not track it as our mobile also did not work there. I also realised very late that this bus had not come along with us. It was 1pm midnight and all them were panicking. I came to know later  that one boy came there from nowhere and took the bus to some mechanic shop, got it repaired and brought it back as well. After that, he went off and nobody could track him. God is there to help us during  obstacles if we are sincere in our intentions. God  is always there with us and comes to our rescue  in some form or the other !

How is the response for this Mela from the people?

We solicit support only from people who come for the Mela as our purpose is also to make them experience it. We provide the basic comforts to all and there is no disparity with regard to the participants or the Bhagavatas. We also pay the Bhagavatas equally and do not make any discrimination according to their age or cadre.

Finally, the question which is there in the mind of many. How do you manage so many activities amidst your hectic official schedule?

I would say that this Bhajanai is what gives me the impetus to execute my official work with more energy.  As a bank professional,  I move with the public and hence, have to take care of  my temperament. I need to be polite, kind and soft-hearted. For that, my battery gets charged  by engaging myself through Nama Sankeertanam. When you have a role in society, you should not bother about the struggles and difficulties. Moreover, I have taken this up as a mission by choice and nobody has compelled me to do it. So, I cannot blame anybody. We have also been serving Bhagavatas and their families in our own modest way and for all that, we need funds.

If we have to do something worthwhile for the society, we have to work hard and not bother about the obstacles that come our way. I am now into Bhajans  for  the past 50 years and feel gratified about it.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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