Jahnavi Harrison is well-known for her mesmerizing kirtans. Magical and somehow otherworldly they transfer us to a realm of divine bliss and happiness. I have heard many times people saying “She sings like an angel.” Here is what she shares with us about her new album, the upcoming concert with the very talented Ananda Monet and her inspirations in life.
Tell us more about yourself.
I was born and raised into a community of bhakti yoga practitioners – at Bhaktivedanta Manor, the country estate donated to the Hare Krishna movement by George Harrison. I grew up there and attended the school, where we learnt about the culture and practise of bhakti alongside our regular subjects. It was really a happy time of my life, and definitely laid a strong foundation for where I am today. In my life I have always been attracted to the arts, and my childhood was full of music, dance and creative expression – but we also learned an essential teaching of bhakti yoga – that whatever you do attains infinite value when it is done as an offering to God. Trying to understand and apply this teaching has definitely helped me to navigate the ups and downs of trying to live a meaningful, purposeful life.
Take us through the moment when you first decided to become a professional artist and musician.
That moment has never happened! In fact, for as long as I can remember, I have found it very difficult to ever think of myself as a ‘real’ artist or musician. Though I did extensively train in music and dance during my youth, I never really thought of it as my profession, just something that I loved to do. When I have to fill in forms, I usually do write ‘Artist’ as my profession, but I think I most strongly identify myself as an aspiring servant of God. My talents tend to be on the artistic side, but basically I am just trying to use what I have to serve Him, and connect others with him. I find that this is very freeing. My observation of the world of contemporary art and music is that most often the artist desires to express their unique perspective. This can range from the deep and profound to the wholly mundane! I think that devotional art offers a unique opportunity for ego-free creative expression.
Share with us any special realizations that helped you to keep going regardless of the difficulties?
I don’t know that I have any special realisation. I think the process of creation is a humbling one – whether you are creating art, cooking, raising children, etc. I am forced to acknowledge the insignificance of myself and my little endeavours. I am forced to realise that I couldn’t even play a note, or have an idea, if not for divine grace. I have to just pray to be empowered; to be of service. I have learnt time after time that when I strive to maintain this mood, all sorts of wonderful things – great and small – can happen.
In this regard one of my great inspirations is a lady named Yamuna Devi (1942-2011). She was a wholly devoted lover of God, an expert artist, award winning chef, musician and writer, a friend to all and a beloved guide to many. She knew the art of devotional service and graciously and joyously gave the gift of this understanding to others. I was very fortunate to spend time with her on several occasions in my teens and early twenties. Seeing the depth of her capability, as well as her unshakable humility, left a very deep impression on me – something to strive for, throughout life.
What inspires you to work with Ananda?
Ananda is a dear friend and sister, and I don’t think we really thought about working together – it just happened naturally. We sing together often, whether at events for the Kirtan London project we help to run, or regularly offering ‘Mantra Music Therapy’ at private mental rehabilitation unit. It is a true privilege to support her in releasing this very special album and I’m immensely proud of her. She is no doubt a gifted singer – I am always moved when I hear her – but more than that she has a most beautiful heart, and that is communicated through her music, and everything she does.
Tell us more about your upcoming album?
Neither of us ever actually had a burning desire to release an album. Somehow the opportunity arose for each of us separately. We began the projects at separate times, and worked on them during different periods. I don’t think we imagined we’d actually be finishing at the same time.
My album is called ‘Like a River to the Sea’ and presents songs from the bhakti yoga tradition, set to original music. Each of the songs carries the voice of a great saint-poet, or sacred mantras. I chose to compose new melodies for them – for those who are familiar with the lyrics, I hope this helps them listen in a refreshed way, and for those who are hearing these songs for the first time, I hope the music draws them in and sparks their interest. The album features quite diverse instrumentation. Along with friends and family who play traditional ‘kirtan instruments’ like the mrdanga drum and harmonium, I worked with a Grammy award winning pianist – John McDowell, a West African kora player named Ravi, and Asha who plays both Western and Hindustani cello – a special treat!
The title alludes to a famous prayer expressed by the historic saint, Queen Kunti. She prays to Krishna that ‘just as the river forever flows to the sea, let my attraction be forever drawn towards you, without any distraction or diversion’.
What were your main inspirations?
My main inspirations were the prayers of the great saints who wrote these songs; my spiritual grandfather, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who said that these songs are like thunder – the rumble is felt within the heart, whether the language is understood or not; and my parents and teachers. Whilst conceiving and recording this album I also had the chance to travel to sacred places of pilgrimage, and made field recordings to give a flavour of the environments that inspired the music.
What message do you like to pass to the people who come your concert?
I’d love people to come to the concert with an open mind and an open heart. I think that it will be a powerful experience, not just because of the wonderful artists, musicians and dancers involved, but mostly because it will be an offering of love and devotion, and I believe that has the power to leave the deepest impression – whoever you are.