by His Holiness Bhakti Vikas Swami
(This is one of the essays meant for eventual publication in a book about Vaiṣṇava culture and etiquette.)
Public programs are an important means for presenting Kṛṣṇa consciousness to the general populace. Herein are some basic guidelines for the successful execution of such programs.[i]
All aspects of the function should be planned comfortably in advance, and all prior arrangements appropriately executed, so that as far as possible everything goes smoothly at the actual event. Especially major events require much planning and coordination to accomplish successfully. Visitors are likely to be impressed by efficient organization, but even one deficient feature can mar the entire experience.
It is usually best that a competent devotee be assigned responsibility for all facets of the program; otherwise it is quite possible that some important aspects will inadvertently be overlooked. For major programs, heads of various departments – fundraising, publicity, purchasing, cooking, prasāda distribution, kīrtana, altar setup and worship, sound and lighting systems, security, coordination with civil authorities, etc. – should be appointed, and their areas of responsibility clearly defined. One devotee should be assigned to ensure that sufficient musical instruments arrive at the venue in time for the program and that they are collected and returned after the program.
In preparation for the function, regular meetings should be held for overall coordination. It should be impressed upon participating devotees and volunteers that all visitors and hired personnel for the program should be treated with consideration and respect. So much effort and resources expended for organizing a program should not be negated by devotees and volunteers losing composure and dealing roughly with guests.
An important service of the main organizer is to ensure that accounts are kept of the collection (including goods received in kind) and expenses, and to make them available reasonably soon after the program.
The first organizational task is to select a date and time that will be optimal for maximum attendance. There should be no clash with other engagements that would affect attendance – for instance, a major sporting event, elections, or (in India) the Hindu marriage season.
If required, permission (from police, etc.) should be obtained well in advance.
Location is crucial. The venue should be easily accessible, sufficiently spacious, in a good locale, and with sufficient adjacent parking space. Toilets should be adequate and hygienic and, if necessary, cleaned before the function. Indoor programs are best conducted in a well-lit clean hall. In areas where disturbance from mosquitos is common, prior fumigation of the hall may be advisable. In India, rain tends to be seasonal and programs are often arranged outdoors during dry periods, but if in doubt it is best to arrange a hall or paṇḍāla rather than risk being rained off.
The expected attendance should be estimated so that the size of the venue and the quantity of prasāda to be prepared can be calculated accordingly. Planning for the preparation and distribution of prasāda is essential. Not only should sufficient food be provided, but also sufficient drinking water, plates, cups, eating utensils, and facilities for disposing used items. All required activities – purchasing, cutting, cooking, transferring, transporting, serving, etc. – should be enumerated and specific devotees designated for all required services. At least the head cook should be experienced in preparing large quantities of food.
Much of the success of any program depends on advance publicity. However well it may otherwise be organized, a program cannot be considered very successful if the attendance is poor.
The names of principal sponsors, or the name of their companies, may be unobtrusively featured on posters, flyers, and other promotional material. Furthermore, main donors may be briefly felicitated during the program (usually in the introductory or concluding section) by publicly acknowledging their contributions and offering them a garland and a token gift, such as a framed picture of Kṛṣṇa.
For major events, a competent devotee should be assigned to organize and oversee media publicity. A press conference should be held, members of the press invited to the program, and possibly live TV coverage and/or internet broadcasting arranged. A photographer (either hired or a capable devotee) should cover the event, and video shooting should be arranged. Photographers and videographers should, if required, be directed to position themselves not directly in front of the center of the stage (at least not more than briefly), if by so doing they would obstruct many members of the audience from clearly seeing the proceedings. Immediately after the program, photos and a report should be sent (or better, personally brought) to media representatives who did not attend. The photos and report should also be promptly posted on a website, as should the video coverage (or at least clips), after editing.
For exceptionally large programs or where crowd overflow is expected, closed-circuit television may be arranged so that all attendees will be able to clearly see the proceedings.
Devotees should consider in advance what kind of setbacks are quite possible and take appropriate precautionary measures. For instance, in localities where power failures are common, a generator or other alternative source of power should be arranged.
Clear signs should be placed, in advance, for guiding visitors to the venue. A reception team should welcome visitors, especially VIPs, and provide them with required information and guidelines.
Possibly a simultaneous program specifically for children can be organized adjacent to the main venue. Engaging children at their level (for instance, in drawing pictures of Kṛṣṇa) can help keep them happy without their disturbing the main function.
Important people, such as a city mayor or entertainment celebrities, can add prestige to a function and enhance attendance. The inviting of such persons is especially suitable for major functions. Celebrities usually expect to address the audience, and often do so appreciatively but with some misconceptions, so it is advisable to give them a short slot and to not invite persons who might be expected to speak particularly inappropriately. Similarly, devotees who are not scheduled to speak should not be allowed to appropriate the mike. Those who do so should be stopped, unless they are very senior devotees who wish to make a brief and positive remark.
Large gatherings require extra arrangements. A security company should be hired to help direct traffic, control crowds, and so on. There should be a “lost and found” booth, and provision for emergency medical assistance; a separate queue for older and infirm people and VIPs to enter and take prasāda; and a shoe stall to save exiting visitors from having to rummage for their footwear or possibly losing it to thieves.
The best available sound system should be used. Unclear amplification will seriously detract from the quality of the program, and if the sound system is badly defective, the whole program will be spoiled for everyone; almost as bad is if the sound system is of insufficient capacity, leaving many participants out of hearing range. Both during the main program and when playing recorded kīrtana before and after it, the volume should not be too low or too loud. Generally the echo function of the amplifier should be off. For best sound reproduction, devotees who speak or sing into the mike should be requested to keep their mouth two inches from it and facing the mike. A wide-angle mike or a headset is best if the person who is speaking has the tendency to frequently move his head.
Sound and lighting systems should be fully tested in advance, not at the last minute while many guests are assembled. This includes mike stands, which often cause difficulties; they should be fully functional, able to be placed into the desired positions, and should not droop. If the sound system and the lights are powered by the same generator, care should be taken so that the switching on and off of lights does not cause an unpleasant noise from the loudspeakers. If the sound system and heavy kitchen equipment (such as grinders) are run on the same generator, then it should be verified that when all grinders are running, the generator still has sufficient power for the sound system without reducing the quality of sound reproduction. Otherwise, it is advisable to have two separate generators of smaller capacity (one for the kitchen, one for the stage program) instead of a single large one. Temples and preaching groups usually have portable sound systems, which, although generally inadequate for large public programs, should be brought as a backup in case the main one fails.
Signs requesting participants to switch off their phones should be prominently placed around the venue.
It is essential to exhibit Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books for sale. The display should be sufficiently large, in a prominent venue, and announced at the conclusion of the program. Other books and devotional paraphernalia may also be sold. Additional stalls (for instance, to highlight various ISKCON projects) may also be featured.
Punctuality and efficiency are essential. On the day of the event, devotees should arrive at the site well in advance to make all arrangements and ensure that the program begins as scheduled, without guests having to wait for the devotees to organize themselves.
Sufficient portable chairs are required at venues that do not have fixed seats. Portable chairs are best arranged with an aisle in the middle. Some space may be left at the front for devotees (those who are neither part of the stage program nor engaged in other services) and others who may prefer to sit on the floor. If required, devotees who are occupying chairs should be asked to make them free for incoming guests. It may be that simply mats on the floor is sufficient seating in Indian villages and other locations where people are accustomed to sit on the floor; yet even in such situations, a few chairs may be made available for the infirm and for any dignitaries who might attend. Large rugs (such as of the type called satarañji in Bengali and Hindi) or mats, or individual cushions or mats, should be spread on the floor for people to sit on.
Devotees or volunteers may act as ushers to facilitate the systematic allocation of seats, by requesting (not pressuring) arriving visitors to first take seats at the front, and to keep passages and especially the entrance clear. Persons standing around the periphery should be invited to occupy spare seats. Often, latecomers stand at the back, unable to see that seats are free at the front, so they should be informed of these available seats. Among people who understand such culture – which should include all devotees – men and women may be asked to sit on different sides if they haven’t spontaneously done so.
An altar should be set up on the stage, with pictures of Sri Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa (most prominent), and also Śrī Gaura-Nitāi (or the whole Pañca-tattva) and Śrīla Prabhupāda (or all recent ācāryas). It would be inappropriate to display Śrīla Prabhupāda’s picture either alone or more prominently than that of Kṛṣṇa; doing so is likely to give the impression that Śrīla Prabhupāda’s followers are another guru-cult who extol their leader above Bhagavān Himself. The pictures should be neatly placed on a cloth-covered table, not simply stuck on some chairs. Pictures should be in good condition, sufficiently large as to be clearly visible to all attendees, and garlanded. Plenty of incense should be burned throughout the program. Especially in programs for congregational devotees or that mostly Hindus are expected to attend, ārati should be performed, usually at the end of the function (before distribution of prasāda).
Everything should be first class. Essential features are kīrtana, lectures, and prasāda. The kīrtana should be tuneful, the devotees and translator (if required) who address the public should be competent in doing so, and the prasāda should be appealing. Devotees should be neatly and tastefully attired so as to be presentable to the public.
A competent devotee should be appointed as MC (master of ceremonies). He should in advance become well acquainted with the program's schedule and the guest's names, and should understand his expected role (for instance, via the internet he may review guidelines for MCs).
The schedule should unfold lucidly. Each presentation should follow the previous one without inordinate gaps. If gaps do occur, the MC may have to ad lib or call for an impromptu kīrtana. The main organizer or his right-hand man should be present at the event and available in case of any unexpected snag or miscoordination.
The overall tenor of the program should be pleasing yet not cheap; both the joy and the seriousness of Kṛṣṇa consciousness should be communicated. The lecture may be accompanied by a slideshow. Dramas are usually a highly attractive feature. A short skit could be a lead-in for a lecture, by drawing the audience’s attention to certain philosophical points that the speaker would thereafter elaborate. But it is usually difficult to get audiences to concentrate on a lecture after they have sat through a lengthy drama, so these should generally follow (not precede) the main lecture.
The program should not continue so long that guests become restless. A short final kīrtana should be held in which all visitors are encouraged to participate. Prasāda distribution should begin immediately after this, or possibly simultaneously if people start to leave. Prasāda distribution should be well organized, with sufficient servers and space for everyone to comfortably partake of prasāda without having to wait inordinately.
Devotees should not come to the program hungry, and at the venue they should not take prasāda until after all or most of the guests have been fed.
After the function, devotees should not rush off. The facility at which the program was held should be cleaned, not that devotees leave a mess for others to deal with (cleaning may also be assigned to hired staff). Some devotees who are not otherwise engaged (for instance, in cleaning) should be designated to meet and discuss with guests who wish to inquire and learn more. Contact information of interested guests should be taken to facilitate follow up. At the time of their exiting, guests may be asked to fill out feedback forms to elicit their reactions and to solicit suggestions. After a major event, devotees should have a meeting to review the feedback forms and to themselves proffer observations and suggestions for future improvement.