“I’ve never smiled so much”
says a rather striking-looking young Asian lady who’s just appeared at my side and started stepping stride-by-stride to the beat of mystical mantra music that’s melodiously buoying us into bustling Leicester Square this Saturday evening.
But, as dusk falls around us, it’s the radiance of the girl’s whole countenance, rather than the perfect symmetry of her features, that is so arresting. Her facial expression is either laced with the Divine, or (to put it more prosaically), she’s just had one monumental mood-lift courtesy of something that’s happening right here on the ground in good old Leicester Square.
So Saturday nights are normally buzzing in this neck of the woods, but tonight the ambient feel of WC2H has just been ramped up a notch with the arrival of a ritual flurry whirled up by Krishna-devotee-led congregational music and street-singing known as harinam.
At the Onset – Stepping Out for Harinam
I have, in fact, been with this crew of spiritually focused vocal and instrumental enthusiasts since the onset of their tuneful procession from the ISKON Soho London temple. It’s an outing that has taken us on a route through the heart of Soho and up Shaftesbury Avenue, seen us pitch up for an interim sojourn in Chinatown, and now has us dancing into the core of teeming Leicester Square. This enraptured girl here to my left is ‘merely’ one of many casual passers-by who has come forward to engage with us somewhere along the line. But she’s somehow, in my eyes at least, suddenly acquired the aspect of a demi-goddess.
“Yes, it does create a feel-good factor”
I reply, feeling that my off-the-cuff response doesn’t quite do justice to the levels of energy, focus and commitment displayed by this merry band of Hare Krishna mantra singers and musicians who move as easily through multicultural, multi-faith, and multiracial central London as a trusted old culinary utensil slides though soft butter.
Not only is it uplifting and positively unifying, but it’s as if this special brand of mantra-to-music magic strikes a dormant chord in people, to resonate with them on some subliminally subtle level.
Maha-mantra – Words for Everyone
As an erstwhile occasional onlooker to the spectacle of harinam, I have long been curious as to what it looks like from the inside. Tonight as a first-time full participant, I get to witness first-hand an authentic ‘Pied Piper’ effect as wielded by charmed instruments and enchanting voices, and observe its transformational influence in (even just fleetingly) breaking down social and cultural barriers, perhaps softening inhibitions, as people of a wide age-range from many walks of life draw near to take part in all this swaying, chanting, singing and dancing to the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.
Some members of the public appear to momentarily ‘forget themselves’, moving instinctively towards the epicentre of the harinam so as to become an integral part of it, even for just a short window in time. They’ll immerse themselves mind, body and soul, before tentatively retreating to pick up at wherever point in their lives they were at before this unexpected yet animated interlude.
Other people are maybe more reserved, but nevertheless hang around the peripheries for a while, soaking up the sights and sounds. Select sightseers stop in their tracks and look a little mesmerised – wistful even – before continuing on their way. Certain individuals may try to just walk on by without showing any reaction, but they usually end up smiling in spite of themselves.
No-one, it seems, can totally ignore these goings-on.
Bringing Joy to Gerrard Street
Young people in particular seem to take to the whole harinam scene like ducks to water. In Chinatown’s Gerrard Street we have an entire young boys’ sports team join forces to conga in our midst, shimmying round and round in gleeful unison while seasoned saffron-robed Krishna devotees never miss a beat on their mridangas (two-sided drums) and karatalas (hand-cymbals) to dynamically underline the melodic refrains so deftly meted out by orange-clad companions on their small but potent stringed and keyboard instruments.
The atmosphere is very inclusive. A boy who can be no more than two or three years old is given enough space to take up position in the inner circle and perform his own special dance, while young adults on a night-out ‘up West’ partake with equal gusto around the fringes of the gathering.
Throughout the proceedings onlookers gather round, filming on smartphones, or wielding selfie-sticks from a preferred unique vantage point in order to capture their own individual faces as part of the whole event.
But here and now in Leicester Square, we have a distinguished-looking silver-haired gentleman in our midst. He’s wearing a very smart check jacket and tells me that not only is he “a bit too old for all this dancing”, but he’s “not really dressed for it” either. I haven’t failed to notice, however, that Mr Check Jacket was with us for the duration in Chinatown – where he actually didn’t stop dancing – before he reliably ‘rocked up’ in Leicester Square – and – his enthusiasm hasn’t for a second waned. The man then admits it’s not his first time at harinam, and nor does he in any way intend for this to be his last….
He proudly informs me that he is vegetarian, and confides that he loves to eat at Govinda’s, the Krishna temple restaurant in Soho Street, and enjoys taking his friends there. I commend the man on his good taste, and tell him it really doesn’t matter what age he is or what he’s wearing – isn’t variety, in any case, the spice of life?
Variety is the Spice of Life – Govinda’s in Soho Street
As we sweep through Piccadilly underground, before turning back through Soho for our final furlong, commuters stop in their tracks as we capture their attention just long enough to briefly distract them from the serious business of reaching their end-destinations. But, in passing through the station, I clearly hear an urban traveller bandying the phrase ‘hippie-dancing’, in order to categorise (by any means) the scene we’re playing out in front of them. So it’s a harmless enough name-tag per se. And, Once Upon a Time, a long time ago (- and yet perhaps it wasn’t such a very long time ago -) there likely was more than a token element of counter-cultural cavorting within the Krishna consciousness movement.
But these days a pigeon-hole of a label like ‘hippie-dancing’ is surely based on nothing more than a residual misconception that over-compartmentalises the whole concept of devotional dancing.
(Hopefully these folks will some day learn.)
After all, harinam is not something that was dreamed up in – or restricted to – the 1967 Summer of Love – it’s been successively performed in India for the last 500 years. (Besides which, those San Francisco hippies – unlike the gent who stayed the course so well from Chinatown to Leicester Square tonight – probably are “a bit too old for all this dancing” now.)
Performing throughout The Ages (not just in ‘The Summer of Love’)
As we return to base at Soho Street to reconvene over some tasty prasadam, we realise we’ve been on the move for over two hours. It’s been quite an exertion, and we are, as they say in polite English society, all ‘glowing’ quite profusely. Like anything that’s worth doing properly, this has required a good bit of concerted get-up-and-go.
But what a time we’ve had, it’s been worth every ounce of concentrated effort…
As I side-step back onto Oxford Street and hop straight aboard the ubiquitous 55 bus to Bethnal Green, it seems somehow strange and dull that not a single soul onboard is singing, and, how dreary, no-one (bar me) is wearing any orange…