I remember buying my first piece of pop music. With a thump in my heart and a thrill in my step, I picked up Britney Spears’ ‘Baby One More Time’ off the shelf at WH Smith. I was about 12 years old and I had to date steered completely clear of all the music other kids my age were listening to. Part of it was growing up in a sheltered community, which already boasted enough music to drown out everything else. And that music was so deeply emphasised as a vehicle for spiritual experience, that to have it any other way seemed pale and insignificant.
But curiosity got the better of me. For a few years I recorded songs off the radio, and mouthed the hopes and dreams of teenage girls around the world. The beats were catchy, the melodies wrapped themselves around my tongue. But eventually I got bored.
I started to look back at the songs I had sung through my childhood, and noticed that so many of my favourites were written by the same person – a saint-poet named Bhaktivinode Thakur. Til that point all I really knew of him was his distinctive face in photographs, broad featured and with a grave expression.
His songs were written in his native Bengali, familiar soft sounds that I could sing but not immediately understand. The translations expressed profound spiritual sentiment, sometimes full of joy and sometimes a sincere regret.
An encounter with some dear mentors provoked me to look more deeply at his vast body of work. I felt I was being pulled up a sand dune, beyond which stretched a sparkling expanse of ocean. Even the spray flying off the water’s surface had a taste that I had never known before.
I discovered his writings in English, rich, refined and nuanced, and learned more about his extraordinary life. They taught me how to connect with him in living relationship, diving into his poetry and songs as a source of nourishment and illumination.
I still feel I am just standing on the edge of the dune, tasting spray. But I am infinitely grateful even for that, what to speak of the chance to dive in. I appreciate all songwriting that is genuine and honest, but once you’ve had a view of the ocean, its hard to be satisfied with small ponds, however beautiful.
One of his most well known songs is an appeal to every great lover of Krishna, to share just one drop of faith. He says that, “Krishna is yours. You have the power to give Him to me. I am simply your servant running behind you shouting, “Krishna! Krishna!”
Here it is, sung at the home of Bhaktivinoda Thakura by Yamuna Devi, who shared these songs with me so profoundly.