One EnChanted Evening Review. By Gabriella Coslovich - award-winning Journalist and Author
I’d been dreading it for days.
“This chanting thing goes on for three bloody hours!” I emailed a friend after reading the program fine print.
“I hope your friend appreciates your loyalty,” she emailed back.
It was the last thing I wanted to do on a gloomy, wet, Saturday night. Were it not for Harb, a dear friend whom I’d known for years, I wouldn’t have been doing it. It was Harb’s debut as an artistic director, and it was for a good cause – to raise money for research into Type 1 Diabetes. So I bought a ticket, gnashing my teeth. Not that Harb needed my “loyalty”. The event sold out – 400 people signed up for “One En-Chanted Evening”, a mass chant in the Good Shepherd Chapel at the Abbotsford Convent in Collingwood. And I was one of them. Despite my intense dislike of crowds. Despite my suspicion of anything reminiscent of religion, or worse, smacking of “New Age”. A few days later, I emailed my friend again.
“I have to eat my words. It was an absolutely beautiful and transporting night. I loved it!”
Was I in some sort of altered state? Put under a spell? Harb’s good at weaving them. I’ve been to parties at her house. One leaves on a high. She has a way of bringing people together – and food and dance and music. This time she really upped the stakes: a troupe of musicians, singers, meditation guides, dancers, and an audience of hundreds. What could possibly go wrong?
The weather was not on side. Or maybe it was perfect. We queued in the shadow of a towering bluestone church, huddling under umbrellas, swaddled in coats, scarves, beanies. The event started half an hour late. No one complained, no one pushed. As we trailled chilled and soggy into the warm interior of a church flickering with electronic candlelight, we were given a camellia and asked to lay it on the vibrant purple-red carpet in front of the altar and send positive thoughts to the world.
The church was brimming with people, sitting in pews, or cross-legged on cushions around the vivid central carpet that formed the “stage”. And yet there was room for everyone. We made room. On the carpet, musicians and singers shone in shimmering saris of red and gold, or saffron-coloured chemises, sitting in a front of a marvellous array of instruments, things I’d never heard of such as boogie balls, derebouka, heartstrings, and things I was familiar with such as harmoniums, sitar, tablas, cymbals, cello, guitars, ukulele, tamboura, tambourines.
What happened next was so basic that it seems ridiculous that it could have had such a profound effect. As a Fringe Festival offering, the idea was audacious. Not because it would offend, or provoke, or upend, but because of its splendid, subversive, simplicity.
Who would have thought that hundreds of voices chanting in unison could be so powerful? That the manifold vibrations of a simple ‘Om’ could bring me to tears?
I looked around the church – Catholic, like my upbringing – and gazed at a statue of Jesus on the cross, this fixture of my childhood and adolescence, this radical who preached compassion, humility and tolerance. I reckoned he’d be giving us all the thumbs up.
The night’s program was uncomplicated. We chanted six different mantras; over and over, in a call and response, beginning softly and building in beat and volume to an ecstatic end, people clapping, dancing in the aisles or swaying in their seats. There was, at one point, a more formal dance interlude which I found rather amusing – women with distressed hair and ripped tights enacting deities of some sort and reminding me a little too much of 1980s music videos and choreography. But so be it. I was already won over. I was staying till the end. And I’m glad I did. Glad that I was there to hear Harb ever-so-gently recite a poem by the Sufi mystic, Rumi. For me, it summarised the quiet immensity of the night: Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion or cultural system … only that breath breathing, human being.
Glad that I was there for the final chant of rolling Oms, like waves breaking on the shore. I was swept up in those sparkling waves, floated away on them, and would for days afterwards.
That night, boundaries dissolved, time slipped, people smiled and let go. I fantasised about doing it all again in the halls of Parliament House, bringing some sense to the place. I reckon Harb could organise it.
Gabriella Coslovich: https://www.mup.com.au/books/9780522869231-whiteley-on-trial