HG Simheswara Das prabhu, the regional secretary of ISKCON Malaysia and chairman of the temple building project called all the BCC youths for a meeting. Unknown to us, he had already planned to give us a project to glorify Srila Prabhupada. His Grace wanted people to know about Prabhupada’s life and especially on His Divine Grace travels in Malaysia back in May 1971. Simheswara prabhu told us that we have to come up with a proposal to achieve this project. Although we have taken on projects larger than this, none came close to being as artistic as this project. We were taken aback that prabhu had faith on us to achieve this honourable project. But, there was significance to the time the project was announced to us. It foreshadowed the unexpectedly successful opening of the Art Gallery, as it was also the exact same date 44 years back when the Malaysian soil was blessed with Srila Prabhupada’s arrival.
We kick started the project by having a competition among the younger youths to present Srila Prabhupada’s life and journey in Malaysia. This competition had all the youths doing research work and more so deepened their faith in Srila Prabhupada. They were all enthused to serve His Divine Grace and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mission. These youths were firm in creating a first class art gallery in honour of Srila Prabhupada for the upcoming Jaladutta Yatra celebration.
Ideas started trickling in as to how the project will be taking shape. It was unknown to us that it was going to be an art gallery. Was it to be a photos-only project? Or are we to have exhibits as well? Then we figured why not both with, splashes of other forms of art to create a one of its kind art gallery that will unveil the greatness of Srila Prabhupada to both local and international audience. Since the gallery was to hosted in the mezzanine floor of the temple, we had to work within the constraints of space. Given the layout of the floor, there existed four distinct zones: the areas to the left, right and front of the lift, and the immediate area around the lift. These zones enabled us to create four different themes for the gallery: Srila Prabhupada’s Historical Journey, Srila Prabhupada’s Room, The Hidden Jewel and Srila Prabhupada in Malaysia.
For the Srila Prabhupada Historical Journey, we decided to portray His Divine Grace’s early childhood till departure to the west in pyrography art which is the process by which designs are burnt on the surface of wooden panels with heated metallic points. These pyrography art works are then hung on a wall in historical sequence together with henna art in an Indian setting. The next idea was to convey two historical milestones in Prabhupada’s journey to the west. We decided upon exhibiting the Jaladutta journey, via an interactive moving cabin to recreate the struggle that Prabhupada experienced in those rough seas; and the Thompkins square park with the dancing hippies and with Prabhupada leading kirtan. The third piece is done based on the quote ‘he built a house for the whole world to live in’. We asked ourselves what is the foundation of ISKCON? What actually holds ISKCON till today? We then realized that it is none other than Srila Prabhupada’s contribution to us. This house is built using all of Srila Prabhupada’s achievements. The walls are all made of more than 50 books he had published, and translated into more than 28 languages. The strong base that is supporting the whole house is the harinama sankirtan which was re-introduced by His Divine Grace and which was predicted by Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Thanks to Srila Prabhupada that the chanting of Hare Krishna is now heard in every town and village.
The dome of the house consists of the three main programmes that Prabhupada gave importance to – cow protection & farm community, Food for Life, and Gurukula. The four strong pillars in this house represents the disciplined life that Srila Prabhupada instructed his disciples to follow- no meat eating, no intoxication, no illicit sex and no gambling. Meanwhile the floor is designed like an annual clock to symbolize two significant mottos: ’Always remember Krishna & never forget Krishna’; and ‘Chant & be Happy’, depicted by various miniatures of major festivals in each month. ISKCON is all about preparing, celebrating or reminiscing the festivals throughout the year. We also highlighted all the 108 temples that Prabhupada built together with the current temples that have been established worldwide. Rounding out this zone is a collection of 1300 rare pictures of Srila Prabhupada, that when put together is an art of an amazing mosaic of His Divine Grace’s profile. This was the easiest way for us to portray Srila Prabhupada’s struggle in spreading the message of Lord Chaitanya to the Western world on the instruction of his spiritual master. And His Divine Grace also had his own personal desire spread the same message to the entire world risking his life having to travel at such an advanced age when his physical form was already deteriorating.
The next zone is for the Hidden Jewel book and a television playing various different videos. The Hidden Jewel is a coffee table book which highlights the significance of Malaysia in Vedic context, and how the Hare Krishna movement flourished, from the very beginning when Srila Prabhupada landed in Malaysia on 3rd May 1971. Among the videos that are played on the television are interviews with fortunate souls who had met or were present at the time Srila Prabhupada was in Malaysia. Although only here for 5 days Srila Prabhupada had left an impact on these people enough to change their lives and to take spiritual lives seriously. Some recalled those memorable moments and in tears regretted that they never had such experiences ever again after that meeting with His Divine Grace. Having never personally met Srila Prabhupada the youths who were doing the interviews felt like they were transported back in time, back when Srila Prabhupada was here only because of these wonderful and fortunate souls.
Towards the other end of the mezzanine floor the theme changed to Prabhupada in Malaysia. As mentioned before, he arrived in Malaysia on the 3rd May 1971, at the Subang Airport in Kuala Lumpur. He visited many places in Malaysia during these 5 days whirlwind tour, starting in Kuala Lumpur, moving on to Teluk Intan, Ipoh, and Penang, before departing for Australia. The youths chose to present 5 significant events from the tour, in the form of miniatures; they are: the actual arrival, with Srila Prabhupada alighting the aeroplane; an interesting episode in Teluk Intan; Srila Prabhupada’s observation and comment made at a Krishna temple in Ipoh; having ‘first class kachoris’ in Penang; and a lecture at the Kuala Lumpur City Hall. This section is expected to be opened by the end of this year. Before Srila Prabhupada departed Malaysia, he left an instruction, “I want a temple like this” to a well-known politician’s wife. She, however, didn’t succeed in fulfilling the instruction. Nevertheless, this instruction was also for the devotees in Malaysia to take to heart. After tirelessly searching, an opportunity presented itself in Seberang Jaya, Penang which therefore brought his instruction into reality. This instruction was presented by the youths in the form of a graffiti art, with Srila Prabhupada envisioning a temple to symbolise the instruction he left behind. Since the temple was brought to reality by the devotees themselves, the youths decided to have the temple model exhibited to glorify the devotees and well-wishers who brought Srila Prabhupadas mission alive.
The final zone houses the crown jewel of the gallery: The Prabhupada Room & Rooftop Tulsi Garden. Initially it was to be done by the temple authorities themselves, but the project was passed on to the us, as we were making considerable progress. The space was unique in the sense it consisted of a sheltered region in between two open areas which housed an ornamental dome each. Immediately one realisation struck us: Make a room in the middle, and have those outdoor areas become gardens where devotees can do their Japa with Tulsi Devi. However, creating the room also changed the façade of the temple, and we were very fortunate that the temple authorities were very supportive and accepted our decisions. We started off by asking, what do we want them to experience when they enter the room? We wanted them to feel Prabhupada’s presence, and that presence is one that is pure, blissful, and spiritual. We decided this to be the mood in the room. The room will be white with a splash of soft colours, and its glass walls will allow a view of the garden, in addition to making the room look wider. We decided to have a Srila Prabhupada murti, sitting down on his chair, with a typewriter & tape recorder on his table, along with his beloved spiritual master’s photo. Surrounding him are sitting areas nearby the window, which allow guests to spend more time in the room, doing their japa or reading Srila Prabhupada’s books arranged in two large cabinets. By Krishna’s arrangement, we managed to get our hands on a collection of vintage Back to Godhead magazines, going as far back as the 1970’s!
Meanwhile, for the gardens outside, we were able to get hold of the Penang Street Artists, who are world-renowned for their outdoor murals and arts, to depict Srila Prabhupada’s famous morning walks. This brought more life to the gardens, in addition to being a photo opportunity for the guests who visit. In fact, in one of the gardens, Srila Prabhupada would seem like he was walking towards Tulsi! Everyone who visited the gallery should take back with them a memory; so we decided to have a photo booth where they can snap pictures of themselves with something that defined the gallery. The photo booth ended up becoming a photo wall, or more precisely, a motion hyperrealism artwork, where you could appear to be in the same scene as Srila Prabhupada dancing ecstatically with his disciples.
The next concern was is finding the funding required to materialise the ideas. Initially, we were under the impression that the funding would come from the temple building fund, but some youths realised that we should play a part in lightening the burden of the temple management, by finding our own sources of finance. They had a head start by the time it was told to us that the temple would only provide partial funding, and that we needed to make up the rest. Looking back, finding enough donations was the most difficult part, as we were collecting from our congregation members in Malaysia, who know the significance of having an art gallery dedicated to Srila Prabhupada. However, they were already committed to the temple, having given for years towards the temple building fund. It was tricky convincing them to donate, as this was to be our first project of such scale, and also because they’ve already given so much, many were questioning the need for yet another fundraising, as it was already a part of the temple. In that front, we had mixed reactions from the congregation: some were very supportive of it, while others were reluctant to give, having already given a lot. This became a cause for many sleepless nights, and got the youths thinking about how to raise funds for the gallery. Due to the slow trickle of incoming funds, the youths had to think of a way to minimise expenditure while also producing a quality gallery. A simple pledges program was established, whereby devotees or the general public could pledge any amount from RM108 up to RM20001.
This pledge program was spread around via social media and word of mouth, and a walk-in booth during the launching of Jaladuta Yatra celebrations in Kuala Lumpur. Funds started coming in, and we could now commission the works. Still, although the work had already begun, there was still the anxiousness as to how it’ll be paid for in full. But, two miraculous incidents occurred within the last month before the opening of the gallery. We saw for ourselves just how much we are mere instruments in the hands of the Lord, and how He’s already got a plan to glorify His dear devotee. Nearing the end of the timeframe we were given, we ended up with more donations than expenses, due in part to a few generous, last-minute donations, as well as a drastic reduction in costs of a few exhibits. This brought much relief to us, and also humbled us as we realised, that in the end, what matters is the sincerity & effort placed in doing service to please the Vaisnavas, gurus, and most importantly our Founder Acharya, Srila Prabhupada.It was no walk in the park, finding the talent and resources needed to realise these ideas, but by Krishna’s grace, everything fell into place wonderfully, and we would like to extend our sincerest appreciation and thanks to our artists, some of who were still perfecting their masterpiece right up to the opening of the gallery, or working under seemingly impossible deadlines.
And to round it all up, we wish to offer our deepest gratitude towards the donors of the gallery, who entrusted us with their donations and expectations to complete the gallery with outmost care and accountability. Also, a special mention of thanks to His Grace Simheswar Das, whom without his guidance, the gallery may have never taken shape; and the Vice Chairman of the building project His Grace Kalesha Das, for contributing his experience and knowledge in various technical fields towards the creation of the gallery and its exhibits, and also for being very patient and supportive towards the youths.