With two albums out this year, mega performances to tens of thousands in India, and yoga studio tours across the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa, Gaura Mani and the Vrajavadhus is the biggest kirtan band you may not have heard of…. yet.
For lead singer Gaura Mani, whose parents were originally Brahmins from Gujarat, India, and became ISKCON devotees in the US, the love affair with kirtan began at a very young age.
“When I was two years old, living at the Detroit Devasadan Mandir, my mother would play tapes of Srila Prabhupada’s kirtan while she cooked,” Gaura Mani recalls. “And my sister Gopi Gita and I would just sit on the kitchen steps and sing along all day, even though we couldn’t pronounce the words properly.”
From the early 1980s to mid 1990s, while she went to gurukula schools in Detroit, Los Angeles, and North Carolina, Gaura Mani would start singing kirtan at 4:00am every day, with the traditional mangala arati prayers. And from the age of six, she and her sister would play mridanga and harmonium at Krishna conscious home programs their parents held on weekends.
All this kirtan, coupled with visits every few years to Vrindavana, the land of Lord Krishna’s birth, left Gaura Mani deeply attached to the mischievous cowherd boy.
“We didn’t have a brother, and so I always thought Krishna was my brother when I was little,” she says. “I began to feel a special bond with Vrindavana, and dreamt of living there.”
It was to come true. During one later visit to Vrindavana, Gaura Mani met her husband-to-be Param Dasa, who had moved there from Punjab with his family, and had joined ISKCON at seventeen.
“The first time I met him, he was singing kirtan in the temple, as he did every evening,” she says. “I just couldn’t get enough of his kirtan. Every time he sang it just melted my heart. We were formally introduced in front of my parents, and began to spend time with each other by doing kirtan together!
The couple were married, and settled down together in Vrindavana. Nearly every night, they performed kirtan in front of Srila Prabhupada’s Samadhi on the ISKCON Vrindavana temple grounds. Soon they were joined by mridanga player Satya Narayan, backing vocalist and harmonium player Nanda Kishor, and flute player Gaurangi, all of whom had grown up in the Hare Krishna Movement too—as well as bass guitarist Jaya Mangala Dasa.
In 2008, the group officially launched as a band, adopting the name “The Vrajavadhus” after the gopi girls of Vrindavana, the greatest devotees of Krishna.
“Our mission is to follow in their footsteps, and try to bring that intense love that the gopis had for Krishna in the hearts of anyone who hears our music,” Gaura Mani says.
The moment they started out, the Vrajavadhus had a huge ready-made audience in the thousands of tourists and pilgrims who visit ISKCON’s Krishna Balarama Mandir every day. Many would spontaneously join in with the kirtan as soon as they came across it.
“You couldn’t have a better spot to preach the Holy Names,” Gaura Mani says. “Because everyone who comes to the temple wants to know what is ISKCON, who is Srila Prabhupada, and what is Hare Krishna.”
As India is naturally packed with lovers of kirtan, The Vrajavadhus’ audiences soon grew even bigger. Within their first year, sponsors and event organizers were lining up to book them for performances after seeing their kirtan at Prabhupada’s Samadhi.
Another was Zee TV, a satellite television channel which gave The Vrajavadhus a seven-day live telecast in the city of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh this February, which was watched by over five million viewers every day.
Gaura Mani, now 32, involves all her children in her performances: daughter Radhe, 4, dances; son, Kana, 8, plays the mridanga drum; and older daughter Kishori 14, sings backing vocals and plays kartalas.
She describes the Vrajavadhus’ performances as “a fusion of Indian and Western music” with bass guitar, saxophone, and flute, as well as traditional Indian instruments.
But the main focus of their shows is the Hare Krishna maha-mantra—before going on stage, the band prays that they will be able to chant with deep sincerity.
“In India, when we perform, audiences are attracted because we have a slightly Western style of kirtan,” she says. “They come for the Western feel, and then realize that they’re chanting Hare Krishna, calling out the Lord! The crowd goes completely wild, and their energy bounces back to me. It’s very real, very uplifting. I go into another dimension, like I’m not even in this world anymore.”
Developing their devotion and working on their craft through live performances, The Vrajavadhus finally released their first album “Take Me Home” at a huge release party in Punjabi Bhagh, Delhi, on March 8th, the appearance day of Gaudiya Vaishnavism founder Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. An incredible 35,000 people, including members of the press, attended to chant and dance along as The Vrajavadhus played their album in full.
With more overt Western influences than their live shows, “Take Me Home” features eight tracks combining an Indian classical flavor with tasty sprinkles of reggae and rock.
Gaura Mani’s sweet, clear voice soars, and it’s easy to be moved by her deep devotion on songs like opener Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya, Sri Yugalastakam, and especially the beautiful Mercy.
Elsewhere, the band gets creative with the Bollywood-tinged Hey Govinda and the reggae-infused Jaya Sri Rama, which are sure to have audiences jamming and head-bobbing for all they’re worth.
The Vrajavadhus sound a little unsteady on their feet with the English lyrics in Mercy and the full-on rock of Make Me Dance, which loses its way amongst ‘80s synthesizers and rather flat drums—perhaps understandable for a band that grew up almost solely on kirtan. But they nail the rock anthem in the jubilant, fist-pumping Rock to Godhead, which sounds like the soundtrack to a spiritual summer road trip.
“Our album is mainly geared towards the younger generation, where so much is happening right now all over the world, both in India and in America,” says Gaura Mani. “We wanted to give them something about Krishna that would make a difference in their lives.”
The Vrajavadhus are currently touring the USA and Canada, performing in the Tosa Yoga Center and Yoga Asylum in Wisconsin, Asta Prahar Kirtan in Toronto, and the 24 Hour Kirtan festival in New Vrindaban, as well as Rathayatra festivals in Michigan and Toronto.
While their Western audiences are smaller—fifty to one hundred people at yoga centers and temples—they are no less moved by the experience of kirtan.
“The performances here in America are much more intimate,” Gaura Mani says, speaking to ISKCON News while on tour. “People are very meditative, and you can really feel the love in their hearts. They don’t want the kirtan to finish.”
This summer, the Vrajavadhus’ second album in one year, Golden Jewel, will be released. And at the end of the year, they’re set to tour Australia and South Africa. Other bands might see such opportunities as gateways to fame and money. But the Vrajavadhus are not interested in making an income—only in spreading Krishna’s glories.
“I feel like there’s nothing greater than to sing for Krishna,” Gaura Mani says. “Being united with Him in that way gives me the highest feeling of ecstasy. I pray to be constantly engaged in this service, and I never want it to end. Kirtan forever!”