By Satyaraja Dasa

An early film about Srila Prabhupada in New York, misplaced by his first disciples, resurfaces at just the right time.

After first arriving in America in September of 1965, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada – soon to become the founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) – stayed at the Agarwal home in Butler, Pennsylvania. A sponsor from India had made arrangements for him to stay there. Some months later, he relocated to New York, where he was given a room at a prominent yogi’s ashram in uptown Manhattan. He then moved in with a hippie acquaintance in the Bowery, on the Lower East Side, because his small group of followers told him the young folk downtown would be more receptive to his message. By March of 1966, Prabhupada, known then as “the Swami,” had in fact gathered regular attendees – young people who liked to hear him speak philosophy and were enamored of his kirtana of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

In May, with the help of several young followers, he rented a “temple” of his own in the East Village, at 26 Second Avenue. The simple storefront had previously been a curio shop called “Matchless Gifts,” its name boldly displayed on a plaque out front. Enjoying the double entendre – for the considerable gifts of Krishna consciousness would soon engulf the world – Prabhupada left the sign in place, just over the main entrance.

Later that summer, Prabhupada’s following grew and he officially incorporated his “international society.” By this time, he had initiated almost two dozen students into his newly formed movement, which always seemed to garner good news coverage – almost as if Krishna Himself had written the articles. Even while in Butler, shortly after Prabhupada arrived from India, The Butler Eagle announced his journey and mission (September 22, 1965). Then, after a brief period in New York, The Village Voice ran an article on him (June 1966). A New York Post op-ed piece followed toward summer’s end (September 1), along with one in The New York Times (October 10) in the fall. Shortly thereafter, The East Village Other (October 15-November 1), a local underground newspaper, honored him with a cover story. [See BTG, July/August 2014.]

What is often left unsaid is that in those very early days of the movement three films emerged, seemingly out of nowhere: (1) A black-and-white project by Richard and Susan Witty, known as Matchless Gifts (22-plus minutes); (2) the similar Happiness on 2nd Avenue (8:22 minutes), introduced by CBS news anchor Reid Collins, produced and photographed by Edmund Bert Gerard, and edited by Gloria George. This was an official CBS News presentation, broadcast on national television; and (3) a four-minute clip by Jonas Mekas, a popular figure in the American avant-garde film movement of the mid 1960s. Mekas’s film was distinguished by its quickly alternating images (psychedelic style) and its soundtrack, which featured Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky chanting “Hare Hare” throughout. The present article is about the first of those films.

Spiritual Serendipity

What were the odds that The New York Times would happen to have a reporter and a photographer in Tompkins Square Park when Prabhupada and his early disciples were there chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra outdoors, perhaps for the first time since he founded his movement? How is it that within the space of a week, one of the original editors of The East Village Other, which had just started publishing, also stumbled upon the chanting in the park? Whether one believes it to be divine arrangement or mere coincidence, it seems undeniable that the fates had somehow conspired to document the beginnings of the Hare Krishna movement, and especially the historic first outdoor chanting sessions in the Western world.

Richard and Susan Witty, a husband-and-wife team who had recently returned from a Peace Corps mission in the Philippines, had developed a newfound interest in film and happened to be in Tompkins Square at the right time. Several months before, Richard had taken two film courses at Columbia University, and almost immediately thereafter, he and his wife landed jobs with Leacock-Pennebaker. (Donn Alan “D. A.” Pennebaker was a pioneer documentary filmmaker, credited as being one of the preeminent chroniclers of the 60s counterculture. Richard “Ricky” Leacock was also noted for his work in documentary films and is known as one of the founders of cinéma vérité ) The Wittys, between the two of them, would learn their craft well.

Brahmananda Dasa, an early disciple of Srila Prabhupada, remembers how the two young filmmakers came in touch with Krishna consciousness:

Witty and wife came to Tompkins Square Park on a whim, and they saw the devotees. Gargamuni used to pass out “Stay High Forever” invitations, a leaflet that was meant to attract young hippies to the movement, and when Richard read it, he asked if he could film the Swami. It was perfect for Richard – he needed to tackle a short film project to show his employers that he and his wife could do a solid documentary on their own, and there we were: a colorful, unusual sight and the perfect subject for a documentary film. Gargamuni agreed to arrange it, but he stipulated that Witty would have to give us a copy of the end result as compensation. So the Wittys came to 26 Second Avenue and filmed a lunch, and they came back to the park to film the kirtana too. He and his wife were young hipster types like us and inquisitive. Srila Prabhupada was very accommodating when they interviewed him. Witty did make a copy of the finished product for us, giving us a 16mm film in a can. We misplaced it; that was our tendency in those days.

Prabhupada’s enthusiasm about the Wittys’ project can be gleaned from a letter to disciple Kirtanananda Dasa, dated Friday, February 10, 1967 (a few months after the filming): “I am glad to learn that the film taken by Mr. Richard Witty has come out very successful. It is all Krishna’s blessings. . . .”

That chapter in ISKCON history quickly closed. The short film was made and shelved. Prabhupada’s movement went on to spread around the world, and Richard and Susan produced several popular commercial documentaries, some focusing on Eastern mystics. No one in ISKCON heard from the Wittys for over a decade.

The Film Reappears

When Baladeva Vidyabhushana Dasa, a disciple of Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, arrived at the New York temple on West 55th Street in the summer of 1979, he was excited about the possibilities of conducting research for his spiritual master’s forthcoming biography of Srila Prabhupada, the Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita. One of his first orders of business as chief researcher was to make an announcement to the devotees: “We are currently looking for people in New York who may have had some interaction with Srila Prabhupada. So when you go out into the streets and meet people, please ask them if they ever met His Divine Grace or if they knew him in any capacity whatsoever.” Baladeva asked them to at least get phone numbers from people, and to bring the numbers back to him.

Sure enough, a devotee met Richard and Susan in uptown Manhattan and managed to secure their number. Baladeva immediately called and invited them to the temple. The Wittys soon told him about the film, and he offered them free Life Membership in ISKCON in exchange for a copy and permission to use it. They were pleased to contribute their work, yet again, and the enthusiastic Baladeva naturally arranged for an intimate screening the next day. All the resident devotees ooed and ahhed upon seeing the early footage of the movement.

Puru Dasa, then custodian of the Prabhupada Museum at the New York temple, became caretaker of the film and would often host the Wittys at the temple restaurant, which they would now frequent. Aware that Yaduvara Dasa and his wife, Vishakha Devi Dasi, were completing a movie about Srila Prabhupada – Your Ever Well-Wisher – and that they were looking for previously unseen footage, Puru handed the Witty film over to them. Yaduvara already had some Prabhupada movies he had shot on his own, as well as additional material by Australian freelance cinematographer William Kerr. He had accumulated bits and pieces from others too. But this was different. What a find! Here Yaduvara discovered excellent-quality clips of the very beginnings of the Hare Krishna movement in New York – Prabhupada chanting in the park and conveying his teachings in his own inimitable way, the early devotees speaking about the philosophy as they had learned it from him, and so much more. Matchless Gifts fit perfectly into Yaduvara’s film biography. He says,

At one point in time, [Richard] decided to donate his film Matchless Gifts to the devotees. That point in time exactly coincided with the time that we needed his film to insert in ours. Had it come a month later, our film would have already been released. Who can orchestrate such synchronicity? Certainly not me.

In regard to Matchless Gifts, then, we see spiritual serendipity in at least three respects: First of all, Richard and Susan happened to be in Tompkins Square as Prabhupada’s movement was just getting off the ground. Had they been there a little earlier or a little later, they would not have seen Prabhupada and the devotees chanting in the park, and there would be no film. In addition, years later they happened to meet a devotee on the streets of New York, who got their phone number. As a result, they gave Baladeva their Matchless Gifts movie at just the right time – both for the Lilamrita and for Yaduvara’s film.

The Wittys Remember Prabhupada

Years later, Yaduvara met Richard and Susan in New York City. It was the summer of 2004, and Yaduvara had undertaken to combine all the existing footage of Srila Prabhupada and his movement from 1965 to 1977, putting everything in chronological order with overlaid commentary by those who were there. The Wittys immediately expressed an interest to take part in the project.

Yaduvara took the opportunity to interview them about their film, and they were happy to talk about these early experiences, when they had visually and audibly captured Prabhupada and his disciples.

“With Leacock-Pennebaker,” says Richard, “I learned to edit, to tape sound, and this film that we’re talking about was my first venture as a cameraman. This was entirely on our own, funding from our own pockets, and we selected this because this was a movement that was different. We liked the Eastern flavor, the otherworldly attitude – the devotees were outside the mainstream, and they had substance too. Something resonated with us.”

Susan Witty remembers the experience as well:

We went to the storefront, Matchless Gifts, and I’ve always been so taken with that sign. I can still remember it. It was beautifully done, so artistic, saying “Matchless Gifts” – wonderful colors and swirls and everything. So we entered. It was quite a simple room, and they were eating on the floor . . . My feeling about the Swami is that I think he was in some kind of a mystical state and yet very down to earth, and I think that perhaps he passed something to us in that interview. I felt something. But at the same time, I was having a very good time. I actually thought we were onto something big. I have a journalist’s instinct, but I also have . . . a spiritual instinct. After all, this was a very small little room, and the Swami was interviewed by us in the back in a smaller little room with a curtain over it. So to me, that’s where it started. Now, maybe it started before in someplace else. But amazing, we were there! And for me, that’s very significant.

Richard told Yaduvara that for Matchless Gifts he had used 16mm film and Susan had used a Nagra tape recorder, the standard recording system for motion picture and single-camera television production at the time. But it was heavy equipment, and they lugged it all – lighting, backdrops, and so on – both to the park and to the temple at 26 Second Avenue.

Susan notes that you can see her in the film, with black turtleneck sweater and horned-rim glasses.

“I was eating this rice preparation,” she says, “and we had become accustomed to such food in the Philippines. We had also become accustomed to the basics of Eastern philosophy. It was as if we were being prepared for meeting the Swami. Also, I was a dancer, and so, seeing the devotees dance in the park – it touched me on a very deep level.” Her recollection of Prabhupada has stayed with her:

I remember [Prabhupada’s] face. I don’t remember his body, it’s interesting. I remember his face. We did get these wonderful close-ups of his face. That’s where his power, his focus, and his calm presence were all gathered – in his face. But here it was the beginning for us for meeting many spiritual masters, and it was also the beginning of the Hare Krishna movement, and it was also the beginning of a trend that grew towards the appreciation of Eastern religions in America.

Richard Witty concludes: “It was rewarding for us to give this film to the devotees, so many years later. It’s something we really wanted to do. In that sense, it was ‘matchless gifts’ for us too.”

The Wittys’ film Matchless Gifts can be viewed here: