After a ground-breaking debut in London, the gurukuli musical theater phenomenon Burnt Ladhu has finally come to America. This controversial full-length theatrical extravaganza features a 15-member cast and includes accomplished gurukuli performers (many from Florida) along with some of the first generation's legends of devotional theater. The musical, written and arranged by the gifted young author and musician Madi Brinkmann, ranges from such well known favorites as Mangalananda (Michael Cassidy) and Gaurangi (Pia) to classic, modern rock songs from Pink Floyd, Sting and U2.
Not a dry eye graced the house. The Friday evening, May16th performance of "Burnt Ladhu," held at the Santa Fe Community College auditorium in Gainesville, Florida, was a sold out show. Friends who recently returned from New Vrindavan had spread the word--it's a must see! The nearby Alachua community of devotees has dozens of gurukulis and parents of gurukulis so it was the appropriate venue for such a performance to take place.
From the very first scene, the audience was stunned at the professionalism of the performance. "Burnt Ladhu" falls into a new genre of stage and screenplays that has recently emerged--the tragi-comedy. The entire performance was tight, and the contrasting moods, from illumination to grim darkness, quizzical humor to wrenching grief, took the captivated audience on an emotional roller coaster ride from beginning to end. With each scene like a flower strung on a string, "Burnt Ladhu" was a sacred garland of love offered at the feet of Lord Syam.
The drama told a story of several tattered and struggling youth of our Krishna consciousness movement--Ladhu, Syama, and Gopal, the tragic heroes of the play. As children they were separated from their moms and dads and sent to Gurukula boarding schools. Their pain and loneliness, their mistreatment and abuse, their shared experiences may be likened to that of soldiers in a foreign land, fighting an enemy they cannot defeat. But soldiers are not usually children aged as young as 5 years old. Their mutual background has created among them a bonding much like shell-shocked veterans of war experience. After all, often they only had each other for shelter from the pain.
The scenes portrayed the struggles they endure after Gurukula--drug addiction, divorce, and even suicide. Their values confused, their progress in life truncated, their inability to fit in, in the material world as well as in the temple, left their lives in shambles. Yet the message they tried to give to each other was "If you don't take control of your future, you will be controlled by your past."
The anger and sadness from their lost childhoods seems irreconcilable. How could they heal from such an experience of powerlessness? Can they be retrieved from the abyss of torment they feel inside from years of separation from their natural environments? How could they trust anyone in life after their lives had been forever scarred by the convoluted sense of stewardship offered to them by their parents and spiritual leaders? Yet through it all and in conclusion, it was plain to see that there glows within each one of them still a hope and longing for the deep sense of love and belonging they missed in their early years. The refrain throughout the show was "Mata, I know why you sent me away, because you wanted me to love God. And I do." (In spite of it all.)
It may be hard to imagine where the humor could be found in this grim scenario, yet paradoxically there were laughs imbedded in and among the tears--from the muchi meat stool, to the prasadam Nazi, to the stolen ladhu as big "as his head," to "the Cookie Man."
The songs and music chosen for this production were excellent choices to deliver the full emotional impact of the story. From, "I'll be watching you," to "Zombie," to "Kind and Gentle Soul," each emphasized the message of the moment.
Their story ends with hope--a plea and a prayer for something illusive that has perhaps even yet not been fulfilled, inter-generational acceptance. As the only third generational devotee in the play, Mallika proclaimed, "Give a little bit" (of your heart to me). This is their hope--that perhaps, in their persistent endeavor, we can learn to love and accept each other through our common connections--Srila Prabhupada and the Lotus Feet of Sri Sri Radha- Syamasundara.
This production was a major step in fulfilling that dream. The audience and the performers were united as one through the exchange of deep, heartfelt emotion. The gurukulis on stage were the spokespersons for the audience, and the mothers and fathers wept for the past and present pain of their children. We were all bonded by the mutual experiences we shared during those early days, and those who have come more recently on to the scene in ISKCON had no trouble interpreting the message through the medium before them.
We are eternally grateful for the brilliant creators of this production, as well as the very talented performers and production crew. Please make this the first of many plays that would attract, intrigue, and entertain us while teaching us the valuable lesson we must learn in order to break free from the illusory energy and get back to home, back to Godhead.
Cast: Gourangi devi, Madhi, Gaura Vani, Ananta Vrindavan, Caitanya dasi, Chitralekha, Jvalamukhi, Yamal, Phani Bhusana, Janaka Risi (JR), Vrinda, Sraddha, Bali, and Kish
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