Last night the Rothko Chapel's famous black canvassed walls played host to an evening of traditional kirtan, which is a form of Indian devotional chanting. As a part of the chapel's Summer Sounds Concert Series, Mahamandaleshwar Swami Nityanda, renowned monk and speaker, took the center stage at Rothko to share his theories on spirituality and honoring the self, while delighting the audience with customary devotional music.
Swami Nityanda is a devout follower of Hindu guru and Siddha Yoga founder Baba Muktanda. Muktanda is well known among those who are versed in Hindu teachings. His theories are simple yet profound: Love yourself and see God in each other. More or less, he was a "do unto others" type of preacher.
The evening consisted of a series of chants performed by Swami Nityanda and his two accompanists, Devayani Cable and Naveen Upreti, playing classical Indian instruments. Cable played something called a harmonium, an intriguing little instrument. It is a small keyboard powered by the pumping motion of the player's hand. Picture the little piano that Schroeder from the Peanuts plays and mix it with an accordion and you can get a visual on this strange musical device. It sounded more like a harpsichord though. Upreti kept the rhythm, tapping expertly on a tabla, or classical Indian drum.
The three chanted together as well as taking turns soloing. Upreti, who has studied this art of chanting for 12 years, performed a solo chant that can only be described as intoxicating. At the same time, his performance was almost uncomfortable. It was as if the audience was voyeurs sitting in on what should have been a private session between one man and his spirituality.
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The three then performed a long kirtan together, which melded all of their voices and instruments into one lovely concoction. Swami Nityanda's booming baritone echoed throughout the chapel. In the most visceral sense, the music and chanting was rhythmically inviting. People bobbed their heads and tapped their toes to the beat as you might find at a rock concert. On a deeper level, the words being sung are prayers and the chanting is not to be taken lightly. I imagine understanding the language behind the music heightens the appreciation level. For a moment I wished there were subtitles.
As the chant continued the repetition became more apparent, which gave audience members the opportunity to join in. You pretty much knew the words by that point. There is a certain camaraderie to this type of chanting. It begs you to sing along and, seemingly, this is part of its appeal on a religious level.
Swami Nityanda spoke to the audience about meditation and how to calm your mind, music being a way to drown out the bombardment of random thoughts we have going on at all times. His message came through loud and clear in between my musings on what vitally important emails I was missing while my phone was under duress from Rothko's "no cell phone" policy. Oh, right, back to the music calming your mind.
Whether sitting down for an evening of traditional kirtan is your thing or not, the entire experience was yet another notch on the belt of how wonderfully diverse and culture-rich Houston is every day.