Damodar das Remembers Srila Prabhupada

Following Srila Prabhupada

Interview DVD 01

Damodar: Srila Prabhupada was lecturing on the Chaitanya-caritamrta at 26 2nd Avenue. He was talking about Krishna and the cowherd boys. It was very juicy. He was just talking about their pastimes and their playing in the forest, and it was so wonderful to hear him talking about that. Then he would talk about how the cowherd boys were thinking, and he said that they were always thinking about Krishna. They were always thinking, “Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Krishna,” and he just kept going on, “Krishna,” repeating it, “Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Krishna.” I guess people would say he went into a trance. He was just saying, “Krishna, Krishna, Krishna.” I remember particularly Brahmananda, who was sitting at Prabhupada’s feet right next to him and looking up and Prabhupada, and Brahmananda started trembling. And then he let out a gasp, he just went “Ohhhhhh!” like that. I don’t know if Prabhupada stopped when he heard that or not, but it was an extraordinary moment. Srila Prabhupada was just…he was there, he was with the cowherd boys thinking nothing but “Krishna, Krishna, Krishna.” But we used to say—it was, I suppose, innocent of us—but anyway, we used to say that Prabhupada had Krishna painted on the inside of his eyelids so whenever he closed his eyes he would see Krishna. It was simple-minded, but it showed something of our appreciation for him.

When Srila Prabhupada first settled into 26 2nd Avenue, he put a sign on the door saying any young man who wants to follow these rules and regulations can stay here and learn from me. That’s a paraphrase. So, of course, some young men came in—he had already had some disciples—and they moved in and stayed in the storefront. They would take a shower up in the apartment. The storefront was in a front part of the building that had apartments above it, but then there was a courtyard in the middle. Then there was what’s called the rear court building, and that’s where Srila Prabhupada’s apartment was on he second floor with windows looking out onto the courtyard. We used to chant our japa walking around and around in the courtyard; and Srila Prabhupada would look out the window and see us doing our japa, and he’d be very pleased to see his disciples doing that. At that time, the only record, the LP, that had come out was the Krishna Consciousness LP. We would play that—Srila Prabhupada speaking and his singing of the Samsara Prayers—and also the kirtan on the other side. We would play them in the apartment but with the speakers right up on the windows going out onto the street so that the sound of the kirtan was blaring out up and down the block so everybody could hear it. So we weren’t at all shy in those days about presenting Krishna consciousness to the masses. But many became introduced to Krishna consciousness or at least the chanting of the Maha-mantra through those speakers because people all up and down the streets, when they saw us walking up and down they would go “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna…” And that’s how they got to know us.

“Swamiji” was shot in the early summer, 1967, in Srila Prabhupada’s apartment at 26 2nd Avenue. He had recently returned to New York from New Jersey and San Francisco. He had had a stroke, he was not in good health, and he decided that he wanted to go to India to recuperate. We were really distraught because we felt if he goes to India he’s going to stay there. He doesn’t want to come back here because it’s bad for his health, the cold winters, and we didn’t know what to do. We thought, “Well, we’ll never see him again, or if we want to see him we’ll have to go to India. How can we keep him here?” Of course, we couldn’t keep him there. So the devotees asked me to make a simple documentary, just pictures, moving pictures of Srila Prabhupada. We had photographs to look at – the devotees wanted a film to look at, a movie of Srila Prabhupada, simply something to meditate on so we could feel close to him. So I asked Srila Prabhupada if I could do that, and he said yes. So I’m simply in his room with him, and he very kindly tolerated my presence there as I made the movie. I didn’t direct Srila Prabhupada at all, I didn’t ask him or tell him to do anything, I just followed his lead. This was with an 8 mm camera, very simple means, and this was the last day that Srila Prabhupada was in New York. He was leaving the next day for India. Kirtanananda was preparing his packing cases to go on the plane – bigger than suitcases, they were trunks. You see, this was really our Prabhupada murti while he was away in India. The devotees would look at this film, we would just chant our rounds or we would play a tape of Srila Prabhupada singing a bhajan or have a kirtan while looking at it. So really not much happens in this movie except we’re looking at Prabhupada and he’s looking at us. I would have to change rolls of film, and as I did that one time Srila Prabhupada asked me to show him how the film—which was Agfa black and white film, high speed—how the film was clipped onto the reel with a little plastic gripper, and Srila Prabhupada asked me to show him how it worked. After I showed him, he said, “They think of everything.” When Srila Prabhupada arrived in India—he was going to India for his health—and when he arrived in India and got off the plane, Kirtanananda, who was with him, who went with him as his servant, said that it was like walking into an oven in a letter that was sent to us. Kirtanananda’s comments were there, and then Srila Prabhupada followed up with his comments and he said, “I find it quite bracey myself.” So that was why he went to India, to get braced up. So it’s a pretty simple film, but the beauty of Srila Prabhupada is what makes it fascinating.

Srila Prabhupada had been leading these sankirtans in Tompkins Square Park at the beginning; and then when he was away in India and San Francisco, the devotees continued on their own. This Lord Jagannatha doll really—it isn’t really a Deity but a little doll of Lord Jagannatha. The devotees at one point all had Them hanging around their necks. We had a lot of questions for Srila Prabhupada, like is it all right to go into the bathroom with Lord Jagannatha hanging around your neck? He said, “You should take Him off before you go into the bathroom.” So we had some very basic questions about etiquette at that point. We didn’t know anything.

It’s the late summer of ’68, “The Full Nectarean.” Nayanabhiram and I cooperated in making this film. He concentrated on the acting and the costumes and finding some of the sets. Most of the film was shot in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and here we have a devotee dressed up as Krishna. This particular aspect of the film earlier on had been a cause of some agitation because we had two brahmacarinis…these two brahmacarinis are supposed to be gopis. So we’re showing a little scene from Vrindavan. Here is Radha and Krishna walking through the woods of Vrindavan. Before making this film, these same two brahmacarinis had been made up in the same way and we had gone to the same place. We told Srila Prabhupada, who was not in New York at the time, what we had done with two devotees dressed up like Radha and Krishna and how we were worshiping them, and Srila Prabhupada blew his stack at us. He said, “That was the greatest offense of all,” and we were just stricken with despair. But somehow we recovered, and Srila Prabhupada allowed us to do the same thing again later on for this movie but with a new understanding that these people, of course, were not Radha and Krishna.

The film “Gurudev” was shot in the spring of 1969. We were waiting for Srila Prabhupada to arrive in New York at the airport. The chair was prepared for him, a vyasasana of sorts, and everybody was gathered. The United flight came in. The kirtan got ecstatic. There’s Subal, there’s Kancanbala and Lila-sukha, and Srila Prabhupada arrived. Of course, there was a great deal of commotion and I couldn’t get right at him immediately, but there he is walking down the aisle and, of course, a furious kirtan going on. Everybody else in the airport wondering what was happening. Srila Prabhupada is arriving from Los Angeles. These airport arrivals were certainly the most ecstatic and intense times because we had been away from him, he had been away from us, and the preparations were frantic and everybody is rushing out to get there on time and waiting and the plane arrives. And then Srila Prabhupada’s lotus feet make their landing on our ground, and we were so happy. The camera that I used couldn’t compensate for the strong lighting in back of Srila Prabhupada, so when I was at that angle you get a silhouette. I tried to get that word United on the tail of the plane in the shots because once again we were united with Srila Prabhupada, and that was our life.

Srila Prabhupada got in the car in the airport and went back to Manhattan. Srila Prabhupada’s apartment was still at 26 2nd Avenue, and the devotees had repainted it and refinished it, redid the floors, so it was all gleaming and beautiful. Srila Prabhupada walked up the stairs – his apartment was on the second floor – and as he looked in the door into the apartment, he turned to us and said, “My old home,” and that really made us happy. We had painted the ceiling blue to look like the sky, and it was a wonderful reunion.