Levitating Monkey: How did you first come to be interested in learning traditional chants (bhajans)?
Nina Rao: My grandfather, who was a civil engineer for the British government in south India also happened to be a self-taught talented bhajan singer, bansuri flute player, and chanted bhajans by south Indian composers. When we visited our ancestral home, as a young girl I noticed his harmonium and asked him to play something and
for the first time we sang bhajans with him. Around that time, he also had satsang at home for certain festivals and family
and friends from the village attended and I was enthralled to notice that even the youngsters knew the bhajans and could
lead them easily and it didn’t matter how great a voice you had. Those were my first experiences of the transportive power
of sacred chanting, and then we left India and I never chanted again… until I was in my early 30’s in New York City.
Levitating Monkey: What lead you to start chanting with revered Krishna Das in New York in 1996?
Nina Rao: Krishna Das was scheduled to sing at my yoga teacher’s retreat in upstate New York in 1996. I had registered for the yoga and had no idea who he was. The first night I heard I him sing, all the memories of chanting as a child came back to me and I was transported back to that open-hearted devotional space I had felt over 20 years prior. We got to know each other over that weekend and I had a million questions to ask him about his guru, his practice and we became friends. I started to plan my life around his weekly kirtans in NYC that were happening during those years, and slowly — as he started to be invited to other places, I helped him set-up a simple website, start collecting email addresses, create flyers and also drumming for him.
Levitating Monkey: I’ve read that you lived and moved around a great deal, can you tell us a bit about your background and the key life events that have shaped your passion for life (and chanting)?
Nina Rao: My father was a Air India executive and we lived in quite a few countries around the world. He also made it his goal to take our family on trips to anywhere that Air India flew, (one of the perks was free travel for him and family), and we were exposed to so many different cultures and environments from a young age. About chanting, I’d say that hearing my grandfather was the biggest influence and then chanting with my mother and her sisters at the same time left a very strong impression in my life and mindstream, although I didn’t know how important until much later. In my early twenties, two elder women in my life, my mother-in-law at the time, Yashwant Rana, introduced me to meditation and listening to Indian classical music and some years later I met Sheila Dhar who, herself, was an accomplished and well-respected Hindustani vocalist and she encouraged me to sing. But it was only after meeting Krishna Das and chanting with him, did I realize that I liked chanting by myself at home and he gave me one of his harmoniums to play by myself at home. I also played very simple mridanga, so I could drum for Krishna Das in the early days. I’ve learned so much about intention behind chanting by being with him.
Levitating Monkey: Having worked in the banking world, then going on to organizing and leading photographic wildlife safaris in Africa and India, what motivates you to continue to chant and now for many years, be Krishna Das’ business manager and assistant?
Nina Rao: I couldn’t have dreamt of a better ‘occupation’ for myself, administering Krishna Das’s business and watching it grow and develop, but it all only makes sense because I believe in his chanting and chanting as a practice to help improve our lives by diving deep into our hearts. I have seen the beneficial effects of chanting for the serious practitioner and also the casual listener.
Levitating Monkey: For our readers who are not familiar with Bhakti Yoga and Chanting, can you share with us the value of chanting?
Nina Rao: It’s clear to me that some sort of practice that quiets the mind is necessary for any of us who want to find peace and live life in a better, less-reactive, compassionate way and find happiness within our own hearts. Chanting is a type of meditation practice, with the added benefit of the power of the mantra to transform us from the inside out.
Levitating Monkey: What lead you to become interested in chanting the Hanuman Chalisa at kirtans?
Nina Rao: When I first went to Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram, Kainchi Dham, in India in 1998, Sri Siddhi Ma, my guru, gave us the practice of chanting 11 Hanuman Chalisas each day. Back in the USA, I started to organize an annual chant of 108 Hanuman Chalisas, and Krishna Das asked me to sing my version of Hanuman Chalisa, ’Nina Chalisa’ on his album, Flow of Grace (2007). After that, I was invited by people to lead group chanting and workshops on chanting the Hanuman Chalisa. So I do these workshops, in addition to kirtan which I also lead.
Levitating Monkey: Can you share with us a bit more about your upcoming Maui Retreat w/ Ram Dass?
Nina Rao: It’s not my retreat actually, it’s mostly Ram Dass along with respected teachers such as Krishna Das, Joan Halifax, and many others. I’m leading my own retreat at Kripalu in Massachusetts June 22-24, 2018, called ‘Ocean of Chant and Mantra’. Details here: https://kripalu.org/presenters-programs/ocean-chant-and-mantra
Levitating Monkey: What do you feel the relationship is between chanting and the art of yoga?
Nina Rao: Yoga asana is what brought me to kirtan, and many yoga teachers incorporate some mantra chanting in their classes and yoga studios and the primary hosts of chanting around the country. Chanting is a practice of one yoga path, bhakti yoga.
Levitating Monkey: For those who are just getting interested in chanting, what are a few chants for folks to get started with?
Nina Rao: Listen to my album 🙂 Antarayaami, or the works of Krishna Das, Snatam Kaur, Deva Premal, and so many others who offer so many ways to chant. Any of these sacred mantras of the Divine Name are helpful for us to open our hearts. Once we find the melodies we like we want to repeat them – then it becomes a practice. Everything is on YouTube! Or Krishna Das Yoga Radio on SiriusXM. Spotify and Pandora also have great ‘Yoga’ playlists.
Levitating Monkey: This last question is one we ask all our Experts to respond to, as it’s our way of providing a bit of uniformity to all our interviews. If you could impart three key life lessons to others on their (spiritual) path, what would they be and why?
– Find a practice that you like and adopt it for yourself.
– Once you find a practice you like, make sure it’s not too difficult to dedicate some amount of time to daily practice, even if it’s just 5 minutes.
– Let’s open our hearts and treat others as we would want them to treat us, with compassion.
About Nina Rao
Nina Rao learned traditional chants (bhajans) from her grandfather in a village in south India when she nine years old. The chants quietly stayed with her until she rediscovered chanting with Krishna Das in New York in 1996. For many years Nina has been Krishna Das’ business manager and assistant, often touring with him playing cymbals and singing. In 2007, she recorded the track ‘Nina Chalisa’ on Krishna Das’ CD “Flow of Grace “ and in January 2013, she released her debut album, “Antarayaami – Knower of All Hearts”. Nina regularly leads kirtan, chanting of the Hanuman Chalisa, and sings for yoga classes in her hometown of Brooklyn, NY and beyond.