By Shankar Kandasamy
Swami Shanthanand Saraswathi came to Malaysia in 1970, and like all visiting Hindu monks, gave a series of talks and Bhajans (Hindu hymns) at the Vivekananda Ashram here in Brickfields K.L. His charismatic personality, marked by his charming voice, spiritually uplifting dynamic talks, sweet songs and down-to-earth friendly nature drew large crowds. Soon a group of regular devotees gathered around him and requested for him to return to Malaysia, buying him an air ticket. He returned and taught this group of devotees simple Sanskrit prayers, meditation, Bhajans and methods to celebrate Hindu festivals in a sensible and superstition-free manner, where the spirit and feeling in which worship was done were given importance over blind traditional ritual. The singular characteristic which singled Swamiji out from other monks was that he was so down-to-earth. He became so much a part of the family households of all those who were devoted to him. His simple love for humanity attracted these devotees in Malaysia, who then started to invite him repeatedly to K.L. However, as Swamiji had been to Sri Lanka before Malaysia, his initial following started there. But soon, he had devotees all over Malaysia: Penang, J.B. and then Singapore. There was also a group that formed in Perth, Australia.
Swamiji, after living in an institutionalised Ashram (Hindu hermitage) for many years, was disillusioned with the politics and decided to just have groups of devotees all over the world which he named ‘Shiva Family’ or ‘God’s Family’ – it is family without societal hierarchical structure. The Shiva Family all over met early on Sunday mornings at 6 am for prayer, meditation and Bhajans. The group also celebrated all religious festivals including Wesak and Christmas as Swamiji was non-sectarian and liberal in religious outlook.
Among the devotees that came to Swamiji in Malaysia in the 70s were the two Indian Classical Dance couples, Shri V.K. Sivadas and wife Vatsala, along with Shri Gopal Shetty and wife Radha. These two dancing couples had their separate dance establishments and were to a certain degree friendly rivals competing in the Indian dance arena at that time. Swamiji’s charisma attracted both these couples who began to dance at the religious festival gatherings conducted by Swamiji. Many of their students too became Swamiji’s disciples. Swamiji being an exceptional singer himself, was very drawn to dance and drama and personally used to direct little dance dramas for the festival gatherings of the Shiva Family.
I got to know Swamiji when I was eight. At that young age I was crazy about Indian Classical dance and was constantly seen dancing around the house much to the amusement and displeasure of my parents, who thought it was an obsession. We were living in Penang at that time. Swamiji had just come to Malaysia and was visiting Penang when my parents invited him home for a meal. I was extremely shy around him for some strange reason. My mother introduced me to him saying that I was always dancing around the house. Immediately, Swamiji was excited and said to me, “Would you dance if I sing at tomorrow’s prayer meeting.” I was thrilled to know that he liked dance and could sing, and beyond all that, wanted to see me dance.
The early morning prayer the next day was held at my house, and amidst the crowd of devotees that gathered, Swamiji asked me to get up and dance while he sang. All I knew was that I enjoyed myself and enjoyed the loving attention from this holy young monk. Swamiji was impressed with my dance and gave a talk on reincarnation based on the talent I had displayed, saying how the dance I had came from a previous life. He took it upon himself to encourage me and he did this by making me dance in many bhajan sessions he had. That is how he nurtured my talent. He did not want me to learn formally and said that many technical parts of the dance existed in me in a dormant form, and in time will manifest as I grew and watched professionals perform. His words were true, though in time I also did learn formally. This was the knack Swamjji had in discovering and cultivating talent in many. The affectionate way in which he guided me with wisdom and love is all that I am today.
In 1980, Swamiji suggested the idea of starting the Temple of Fine Arts, where Indian dance and music could be taught to young boys and girls from the poorer segments of society. Dance and music culture were usually associated with elitist groups. He requested Sivadas and Gopal to collaborate forces and subsume their separate schools under the Temple of Fine Arts and serve society using dance and music as worship. One of the devotees, Mrs Kanagasabai, was kind enough to donate her huge wooden bungalow in Brickfields for this selfless purpose and thus was born the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA).
In April 1981, Swamiji staged the first concert of the TFA on a very grand scale at Dewan Tunku Chansellor UM. Swamiji always believed in giving the best and not being stingy about production costs. He adhered to the principle that if we do our best, He the Provider would do the rest; and true to this, donations came pouring in. The dance programme featured classical, semi-classical and folk items of India with an occasional Chinese and Malay number. Swamiji had broad-vision and among the shows he staged are Creation and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, etc. These productions were spiritual and do not pertain to Hinduism alone but have themes common to all spiritually the world over. Swamiji loved the idea of cross-culturalism as it broke down sectarianism, letting the simple truths of all cultures and religions shine forth as one.
In this view he directed all the early dance dramas, giving seemingly mundane fables and folk tales a depth of spiritual truth, which kept these stories immortal for all time. He directed Swan Lake, Mahsuri, Legend of Lady White Snake, Ramayana – an Asean Perspective, Buddham Sharanam Gacchami, Taj Mahal, A Mid-summer Night’s Dream and many others, which he, in subsequent years, conceptualised while letting the creative team of TFA realise them fuller. Examples of these are Butterfly Lovers, Vishwa Vinayaka and many more which are down the pipeline, yet to be produced.
In Swamiji’s direction of cross-cultural productions, I think it was the universality of truth and a closeness to this truth which guided him. In Lady White Snake, Swamiji was drawn to Kwan Yin the Goddess of Mercy, the female aspect of the Buddha. He learnt and taught us a Chinese prayer chant on the Kwan Yin, which we all chanted before and after each rehearsal and choreography session. This prayer guided us and led us to many videos, books and persons who became our resource in developing our ideas further. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and so it was with Lady White Snake, which received rave reviews from many local Chinese newspapers and the Chinese community at large.
With the Legend of Mahsuri, Swamiji believed that the spirit of Mahsuri exists even till today and she was a saintly, angelic being who possessed many divine virtues. The unjust killing of Mahsuri brought disaster to Langkawi and it so happened that the seven generations of curse on Langkawi ended around the time we staged the production. It is interesting that Swamiji taught us a prayer on Mahsuri and seeked her guidance in staging the production which, in an eclectic move, blended Indian folk music with Malay music, the two having many similarities in certain genres. Again the success of Legend of Mahsuri was marked by encouraging responses from the Ministry of Culture and from none other than our Bapak Malaysia, Tengku Abdul Rahman himself, who was the chief guest on the opening night.
The singular feature of his works was that they were not professional, at least not in the regular meaning of the word, but that they breathed professionalism simply by the commitment and devotion he poured into them and into all those committed to the works. He would take people with seemingly no talent and cast them in a main role; he would take the risk in building grandiose sets and making expensive costumes with the unflinching conviction that the Divine would provide. The work was totally selfless and no one was to gain name, fame or profit. This was his secret to success.
The productions that germinated in K.L., the TFA headquarters, would also tour Perth, Colombo, Chennai and in recent years, Mumbai and New York. In our last tour of New York, he commented that we should reach the quality of Broadway musicals, except with purely selfless motives, which is very difficult in this dog-eat-dog material world. We did perform a variety of dances at the prestigious Lincoln Center, January this year 2005. This was the last major show which Swamiji witnessed while in his physical body.
His health began to deteriorate from January due to extensive travel. I was given the privilege of being near him the last eight months preceding his passing. Swamiji, typical of holy men, always exuded the fragrance of kindness, compassion and friendliness right till his last breath. Even in the last eight months he talked about dance, drama and music. He loved good movies, be they in English or any of the Indian languages or otherwise. He was always choreographing and directing something mentally. He had many ideas for the production Meera – the life of a famous Indian lady saint. He also wanted the Ramayana re-done in a simplified manner with an all children cast.
Many were his dreams, large and small, not just in theatre and stage productions but in other areas such as medical service (Siva Santa Health care), handicrafts (Lavanya Arts), aesthetic cuisine (Annalakshmi Restaurants), travels and tours of religious pilgrimage (Hamsa Vahini), publications of inspired works (Hansa Designs), and even computer systems (Sankhya).
His 35 years in our contact was dynamic and inspiring in a superlative sense. He made us churn out so much work, making us realise the infinite potential that lies within us. He had a knack of extracting talent that lied dormant within us and made us use that talent for a higher purpose. Prayer and spirituality was integral to his work and was the obvious power that activated all.
His centrality to all our personal lives and work has been so crucial – and beyond everything he has been our most beloved Guru, in whom all of us confide and consult. Strange is Divine love that is selfless. Even though many of us felt in the past that his passing away would be the most catastrophic event, the immortal nature of his subtle presence has held us in good stead. We know for a fact that he is still there around us, behind the curtain of ether, guiding us perhaps through the language of the heart, unheard by physical ears.
We miss him terribly though. Time and grace will have to heal the void he has left and then we have to be receptive to his abiding Love and Wisdom guiding us through eternity.
Shankar Kandasamy is the assistant director of the Temple of Fine Arts, and is head of the Bharata Natyam department.
First Published: 30.09.2005 on Kakiseni