Friday, June 19, 2020

200 & Beyond

Its a Saturday morning and my phone rings. On the line is Ashrita Furman asking me, if I might be available to help video tape for him, a potential new Guinness record that he is about to attempt.
It is all very low key, and he suggests that if at all else it would be a good practice. He tells me the record he is attempting today will be for the most revolutions of the (11 1/2 foot inside diameter) hula in one minute. Let's just say I am out the door in a flash.
The question than comes up, as to where to attempt the record, and the not so simple question of how to get the 11 1/2 hula and Ashrita, to this place. What is decided initially, is to simply walk over to Flushing Meadow where the 10 day race is being held and also where Ashrita set a previous record with a giant hula in July of 2005
Vinaya, who is often one of Ashrita's helpers suggests, "maybe there is a record for carrying a 11 1/2 foot hula."

The reality is that it is something like 3 miles to get there. We walk for awhile along the pleasant Jamaica streets and it is decided to try a location much closer. In fact we stop at a small parking lot of a pre-school, just across the street from the Panorama coffee shop. A place where Ashrita has already set some 8 Guinness records.
Like lemon eating.

The atmosphere has been understated, but I am curious as to which number, this record might be, as Ashrita has done so many over the past few years. I am astonished when he tells me that this will be, if he is successful, his 200th. His first was in July 79 and it took him to the summer of 2005 in England to reach 100 Guinness records. Now in just 3 years he is on the verge of 200.

The record for revolutions of this size Hula is 61. He thought he broke the record 2 years ago in Vermont but did not realize at the time that his effort was not within the strict rules set by Guinness.

When you watch this video you can count the revolutions. What you might not hear is a small boy shooting out with joy at about 20 seconds and saying, "wow cool." There will also be a crashing sound as the Hula hits a metal pole at both 53 and 59 seconds slowing it down.
To observe one of Ashrita's record is an unbelievable experience. His concentration and focus are extraordinary. If you click on the pictures you can also see the amazing effort that went into it as well.
When he hears the one minute count and he finishes, he is elated, it appears that he has set a new record by 5, totaling 66. He tells everyone present that he is offering this record to his teacher, Sri Chinmoy. He gasps a bit and says, "that was incredible, it has taken us 2 years to break this record." He speaks intimately about his gratitude to Sri Chinmoy. He concludes with, "Thankyou for your inspiration and teaching me the path of Self-transcendence."
All those who are witnessing the event cheer. Vinaya, who has been counting says, "how is that possible, 36 in 30 seconds." In previous practice the most he had done was 33 and the total revolutions as well was always less than the record, at 61
Now the job of verifying the number begins. A look at the video tape outdoors is not satisfactory, so the team reassembles in Ketan's cafe across the street.
As Ashrita, Bikshuni, and Vinaya check and recheck the tape for accuracy,I talk to Ketan, the proprietor of the Panorama cafe. He has helped with many of Ashrita's records over the years. This will be the 9th either within or near his premises. He tells me, of Ashrita, "He is a huge part of my life. He is an extremely inspiring and encouraging friend." He describes his gratitude and being able to help in any way with these phenomenal records.

After checking and rechecking the tape the number of revolutions is confirmed at 66. He describes breaking this record as, "It has been a journey." Bikshuni is so pleased and says, "this is my first record."
Ashrita also has the record for the most records and currently has 81 still existing records. When I ask what happens now, after just setting his 200th record, he tells me, "we just keep going."

I must begin my life
Once again
By dreaming the impossible.
— Sri Chinmoy

Eternity's Singers

It has been a monumental musical journey, and there has never been anything like it before. I am in awe as I listen to Kailash and his singers rehearse with equal parts sweetness and precision in a driveway near the tennis ground. In a few days he and his group of 22 boy singers will at last complete a pledge that started to take shape 9 years ago. During that August Celebration Sri Chinmoy had invited Kailash to form a group of German singers and to learn 1000 of his songs.

In April of 2000 the group then came to the April celebrations and were able to perform 700 songs. This was done at a time when most groups would have been challenged to sing even 20 of Sri Chinmoy's Bengali songs. Over several days the group performed its way through the enormous number of songs. When the 700 were finally completed and barely before the tumultuous applause had faded, they were immediately blessed with an even greater challenge. Could they sing 7000 songs? I asked Kailash now what this very long adventure has meant to him over all these years. He laughed gently at my question. He answered simply, his eyes twinkling, "I still live."

The membership has changed somewhat over the years. Since shortly after the group formed the number has been kept steadfast at 22 boys. Which happens to be the exact number that can fit comfortably into his New York apartment and be able to rehearse. An undertaking which is as routine as clockwork when the boys are in New York for 2 weeks twice a year in order to perform. Kailash's house is just up the block from my own and every morning, at just before nine, the boys in white clothes can be seen making their way to his house from every corner of the neighborhood.

The group is now made up singers from many parts of the world. 10 from the original group are still performing while the rest have joined at different intervals as some have dropped out. It is true that the great percentage are either German, Swiss, or Austrian, but now they also come from America, the UK, and other parts of Europe. What surprises me when I talk to some individually is the gauge they use when remembering when they joined the group. None give me a date but rather state the number of songs the group had performed at that point.

One day I come across Adarsha and when asked when he joined he says, "I came at 1,500 songs." He tells me that, "it never occurred to me to join." He says that being a part of the group is a very real commitment. It means for him practicing every day from 1/2 hour to 2 hours. It is also not about the end product of actually performing. For him rehearsing creates a unique relationship to Sri Chinmoy's music, of which there are something like 23,000 songs.

In each instance a member will speak of a deep camaraderie they experience with the others in the group, as well as what an opportunity it is to be able to experience Sri Chinmoy's music in such a very real and tangible way. It is not just a test of mental memorization but it is also a divine opportunity to expand one's heart.

The strength of people's musical ability has never been seen as a requirement for membership either. Mohiyan, who says he came in at 1,500 songs and admits to being less gifted musically says, "I am by far the worst singer." When he says this he laughs with ease, and adds, "I feel fortunate to be part of it. You always have something to work on." Whatever their individual musical capacities might be whenever the group performs the audience nonetheless experiences a profound sense of spiritual and musical oneness that defies and transcends ones worldly considerations.

In April of this year the group performed 200 songs which left them with just 100 more to sing in order to complete 7,000. This also leaves them with the rather obvious question of what happens next after having traveled so far together. They will sing those 100 on August 27th, which would have been Sri Chinmoy's 77th birthday. But at this point as I sit with the group they have not decided what to do next. Pratul tells me, "I could not imagine not practicing."

The practice has now finished and I am sitting with a small group discussing the history of the group and what it has meant to them. There is a precision to their rehearsals but also there seems little pressure either, all seem attentive yet relaxed. People come prepared and the songs are sung apparently with ease, at least to my limited ears. I am told however that Pratul hears every mistake and he nods with some confidence when this is said. It is obvious that Kailash is the leader but others also perform significant roles in making sure everything progresses smoothly. Before the practice disbanded, a brief discussion was held, over which shirts the group should wear.

One thing seems evident about the group is that the music of Sri Chinmoy could not be experienced in a more profound or intimate way than when it is rehearsed as often and with such love and care as these 22singers from around the world. They also feel deeply that the music itself is universal and that when the songs are sung they are somehow have an effect on the Universal consciousness. They say that one of the unique aspects of having to perform so many songs over the course of April or August, or during the Christmas celebrations is that they each had to ensure they were always ready to sing at a moments notice and also to be themselves in a good consciousness. I am told, "we never knew when we would sing, we had to be ready."

Bikash who has been with the group from the very beginning has told me many times over the years how much he enjoyed the experience. He says to me simply, "You get used to singing." He feels that it has profoundly changed him in many ways. He tells me that one has to have confidence but also how important it is to listen to the others and also be in a good consciousness.


Some of the Voices

The group will sing the final 100 songs magnificently on the evening of August 27th. It is a performance that carries with it a joyous strength and intensity built on many hours and years of work done both within and without. The last song is sung with such love and joy and grateful self offering, it is almost as if a chorus from heaven itself has touched down to bless the earth.

The Final song.

They are celebrated as true champions. 7,000 songs now have been sung. One long journey now over a new one is about to begin.

The group of 22 decides to continue once again on an almost equally lengthy musical journey. I am told, "Nobody wanted to stop." They have all agreed to press on and accept the challenge of singing 6,000 more songs in order to perform a grand total of 13,000. It is an almost incomprehensible daunting task that will take many more years to complete.
This soulful endeavour will not just be about perseverance and self transcendence but about drawing their hearts ever closer to the Supreme musician within us all.

Performance in August 2000....courtesy of Piyasi