The Hidden History Of Kusakratha (part One)
Posted October 12, 2005
In 1956, I moved from one area of Brooklyn (near the temple) to the Bensonhurst area, where I entered fifth grade. Peter Viggiani (a.k.a. Kusakratha) was in my class for the next two years. He also attended the same junior high as I, and we shared some of the same classes. For approximately 5 years we were good friends. He was always quite eccentric and didn’t appear to have many other friends.
Those who knew “Kusa” found him to be a bit of an avadhuta, and he was no less so in his early days. There was one other odd fellow who was an artist. We would sometimes associate, and together we once built a sculpture in his yard composed completely of old wire coat hangers. Predictably, other kids would pick on Peter. They would walk by and punch him in the shoulder or hurl some insult his way, but he tolerated it. Although I had varieties of associates, he was a loner as his aspirations were distinctly loftier than the average Jewish-Italian neighbor. Out of thousands and thousands of kids growing up in Brooklyn at the time it would not be possible to find someone similar to him. He had a younger sister, Rosemary. Although her bodily features resembled his in many ways, I recall that they were distant. He seemed to be a bit distant from all of his family members-perhaps because his parents were a bit older than others. His mother once threw an open box of crayons at me, and loudly blamed me for being a bad influence on her son, because he was constantly doodling in his smaller-than-average loose leaf book.
As someone who had taken special art classes in early childhood and visited museums regularly, I can say that these “doodles” were not ordinary. They were amazing and unforgettable. His wonderful and original conceptions remain with me still. How I wish those sketches had been preserved! No doubt the world of art has been deprived of a great genius. The figurative drawings swirled, lifelike, drawing the consciousness into the page more and more. The notes were barely detectable amidst the free unprecedented expressions decorating the pages. A few times I asked him to draw people congregating nearby in Central Park. With astonishing ease, capturing the gesture in perfect proportion, figures would manifest on the paper.
When sometimes the opportunity for an illustrated school project arose, he would stun the entire school, teachers and students alike, by utilizing his skill at watercolor and pencil drawings. In the sixth grade, who among us was able to paint the billowing sails of Columbus’s ships plying the waves in perfect perspective?
His talents were not restricted to the art world. His compositions were not to be rivaled in our tiny circle. Of course, the spelling and grammar were never faulty, but his wit was prodigious and while reading his compositions the teacher would sometimes laugh out loud. After all, by seventh grade he was already writing 60,000 word poems. Yin-Yang is one that I remember.
Kusa had zero desire to engage in sports like all the rest of us. As we rolled by quickly on our bikes, or skates, he was often seated on a bench in front of his house pouring over philosophy and poetry books. He would make his way to the main Library near Prospect Park, which was quite some distance by public transport. There he would take out as many books as they allowed, and then scrutinize them. They would range from the writings of the Ancient Greeks such as Homer, Socrates, and Virgil to modern existentialists such as Sarte and Camus. Kirkegaard, Kafka, and Pound are also some of the names that come to mind.
All of this extra study never prevented him from effortlessly getting the top marks in school. It was always “O” for outstanding, except for maybe P.E., and cleanliness. Whenever there was an oral quiz, Peter was the first one with his hand up, enthusiastically waving his hand, unable to contain himself. He was called on when no one else could answer. It was a syndrome; he would blurt out the answer, neglecting to stand, the teacher would admonish him for not standing, and then he would lean on the desk. When the teacher chastised him for leaning on the desk he would stand, and his pants would begin to fall. He was then instructed to pull up his pants midst the chuckles of the other students. Kusa was the kind of guy that needed a shave even in the fifth grade, which added to his slovenly appearance. His dirty handkerchief hanging out of his pocket, waiting for his next amplified nose blow was another colorful feature.
At that time, I was often penalized for misbehavior and was sometimes locked in the principal’s office. On one occasion I had a chance to peak through the file cabinets. I checked up on everyone’s I.Q. score. Kusa’s was definitely the highest at about 158.At around 12 we were making trips to Manhattan to attend Ginsberg and other “beat” poetry readings and meeting off-beat artists in the “Village”. At that time he decided he would not touch money, so I was carried the subways tokens and change.
On one memorable occasion in about 1962 when I realized I would never be able to read all the books that he had, I pointedly asked him which books he considered to be the most important. He immediately replied,” Just read Bhagavad Gita. You don’t need any other books.”
By tenth grade I had moved to another neighborhood, and rarely saw him. He attended a local Brooklyn high school, Lafayette. During the U.S. attempted invasion of Cuba, the students at his school were required to salute the flag, but he and another boy defiantly spit on it whereupon they were attacked by other students. This incident actually made the newspapers and appeared on the front page border of the New York World Telegram-long defunct. After this period he attended college (Goddard ?) for some time, although he never graduated.
I remember seeing him once at an anti-Vietnam war rally in front of the U.N. He was continually jumping up and down holding hands with an odd woman. I was trying to communicate with him when the police started unceremoniously dispersing the crowd by beating us with their lead- filled clubs.
Some years ago I asked him about some symphonies he had composed and he said that he had never actually heard them played.
From the earliest time that I remember he was practicing hatha yoga asanas, although I don’t really know how he learned them. Sometimes when I dropped in he would be sitting in a lotus position which seemed pretty odd at the time, even to me. He would be listening to a stereo that he had assembled.
I came to the L.A. temple via “Sai” in Hawaii sometime in October 1970. Besides chanting and other service I was engaged, by Karandhar, in painting sets of the parampara for temples on the west coast. One day Karandhar told me he thought I might like to join the other artists who had recently moved from Boston to New York. Anxious to see me, my parents arranged a ticket and I was on my way back to New York. Somewhere in the darkness a chilling premonition came over me. Someone I knew would be at the temple in Brooklyn. Then it came to me-it must be Peter. I reasoned, where else could such a person be?
After my arrival, at about 10:00 p.m., and an almost sleepless night, I was abruptly woken by a loudspeaker blaring Prabhupada singing and sat up for some minutes, groggily in an almost amnesiac daze. Somebody directed me to the tiny laundry room where there was a tangled merge of clean clothes in a few baskets. Standing there was Bhakta Peter attempting to disentangle some extremely knotted wrinkled clothes. He appeared only mildly surprised to see me and I was half expecting to see him anyway. He asked me how I came to join, and I told him about joining in Hawaii with Sai. He asked in his kind of high pitched voice, “How is Sai?” We both seemed to adjust rather quickly to this “surprise” encounter.
...to be continued.