Two weeks after the horrible and shocking 9/11 attacks, in late September, 2001, my partner Gretchen and I flew up to the New York area, from Tallahassee, Florida, where I was living at the time. We went to a five-day retreat at Omega Institute. We spent the week enjoying some amazing stories from Ram Dass, while benefitting from his teachings. Each evening Krishna Das led a beautiful kirtan, which is where I first fell in love with chanting.
Two weeks later, and back in Tallahassee, I received my newly ordered, brand new harmonium, just like the one that KD was making music with. Soon after, I fell in love with playing the harmonium. I learned a bunch of chants that winter, and in the summer came back to my Woodstock home, hoping to find new friends to chant with.
I heard about this guy named Srutiram, who had chanting at his house every Tuesday evening. So I eagerly began to go each week, where I met some very interesting new friends while learning many more wonderful chants, along with lots of information and rituals about the Hindu religion. Sruti, as we all called him, initially appeared like a larger-than-life character, running the evenings with charisma, intensity and ecstatic kirtan energy.
Wow. What a find!
Months turned into years. The chanting community began to grow larger and larger. I started hosting kirtans at my house as did others in town. At one point we met each Monday for a couple of years in a back room at Mirabai, a specialty store right in the middle of Woodstock. The organizers of those Monday kirtans were Jeff Davis and Cory Smith, beautiful and devoted locals who helped us continue to grow the uplifting chanting energy. And as usual, Sruti was one of the main draws. The place was always packed when it was his turn to lead.
Sruti and I became pretty good friends, although our personalities did clash at times. His chants were often high-octane energy, but I resonated more with softer meditative chants that quietly opened the hearts of those in attendance. It took me a while to embrace all aspects of Bhakti yoga, but I learned to respect the beauty and value of all different styles, tempos and intensities.
I also play drums, and went across the river with Sruti one day to support him at a kirtan he was leading. It was a big place with a pretty good group of chanters. At one point during the kirtan, Sruti picked up the shakti. I was totally ready for his faster rhythms, but then he decided to up the energy even more. I was working up a pretty good sweat, and playfully decided to raise the tempo even more. See ya five and raise ya ten!
The place was rocking when Sruti, again, took it to another level. Whoa! At one point he glanced over to me and we both broke into hysterical laughter. Talk about ecstatic. It was so much fun and so uplifting to everybody. Those were some great times, where I developed a better understanding of Srutiram and what made this unique and dynamic man tick!
I also learned that, in spite of his larger-than-life persona, he had such a sweet and tender side. Sruti was always happy to pick me up if I ever needed a ride to a kirtan evening. He enjoyed assisting me, in and out of whatever venues we were going to,and did his best to be supportive to me, and what I needed with regard to my blindness.
At some point the kirtan energy at Mirabai became too much for the store, so the Monday kirtans shifted to Namaste Yoga Center, hosted by me and Gretchen, who now was teaching yoga there regularly. The space was about twice as big as Mirabai’s, and the kirtan community was very happy with their new home. Week after week more and more chanting enthusiasts showed up to enjoy the different leadership styles, while building sweet connections with each other. I took on the job of scheduling, and in a very short time I would have a filled schedule for those who wanted to lead. Kirtan leaders needed to wait ten to twelve weeks before they’d get a chance to lead again.
It was an exciting time. Shyam Das, another wonderful kirtan leader, used to playfully call our community “the Bhajan Belt” because of all the delicious chanting excitement. It was truly a very special time with lots of loving energy.
But times unfortunately change, and the joys from all the kirtans became sprinkled with the sad losses of community members. Jonji Provenzano was the first to leave his body from cancer, and shortly after we lost Shyam Das in a motorcycle accident in India. Then Sahaja was killed in a car crash one morning, and then last December 22nd we all lost one of our most revered spiritual leaders in Ram Dass.
We went from a time where there were three or four kirtan evenings each week, to a once a month evening, more recently held at Woodstock Yoga. And of course, now with the constant threat of the virus, we haven’t been chanting together at all.
During the last few years Sruti developed a well-tuned sound with Ishwari, his new chanting partner. Sri Kirtan, their group name, began to tour. Their sound was dynamic and their albums were well respected in the kirtan world. This was a dream come true for Srutiram, and in spite of the constant drain on his aging body he was basking in the recognition. He and Ishwari made a beautiful team, and our local community was so proud of them.
Srutiram left his body on December 16, another victim to the dreaded virus, and last Sunday, December 20 we had a heartfelt three hour Zoom memorial to honor the man. The evening was so open-hearted, so rich, so painful, but also very beautiful. It felt like old home week with so many members of our chanting community showing up on Zoom from all over the country. They all wanted to honor Srutiram as well as taking the time to express deep gratitude and appreciation for all he meant to them.
Dear Sruti, longtime leader of the Woodstock kirtan community, you will be greatly missed, but your spirit and legacy will be dancing all around our little hamlet forever.
Postscript. Since both Ram Dass and Srutiram left their bodies, a year apart, in December, I’ll always picture them together, enjoying each other’s company. Years ago Omega Institute honored Ram Dass by naming their library after him. The Ram Dass library is a place with lots of treasures as well as with the rich essence of Ram Dass. Wouldn’t it be special if one of our local yoga studios honored Sruti with a name change? How about something like, “The srutiram Memorial Yoga Center!”
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