From a CA topper to a sought-after harikatha artiste. Vishakha Hari tells Chitra Swaminathan that kathakalakshepam is a way of life for her

Vishakha Hari is in her early thirties but walks in a madisar (nine-yard sari) with the élan of a veteran. She is an all-India rank-holder in chartered accountancy but revels being a raconteur. She grew up in Chennai but prefers the spiritual aura and serenity of Srirangam. She travels widely for her performances but leisure is spent studying scriptures and rehearsing upanyasam and sangeetham.

In this e-driven world, Vishakha is an anachronism; drawing full houses with her musical discourses. And at a time when snazzy pictures and sound bytes are a must for success, Vishakha insists “what have I achieved, why are you clicking so many pictures? One small photograph and a short write-up focussing on harikatha should do.”

So the brief photo shoot-cum-interview begins late in the morning at Nageshwara Rao Park, (after we convince her that the outdoors would be better) where walkers stop to greet her with a namaskaram. After a few shots are taken, she is ready to leave. “Enough?” she asks and we nod rather hesitantly. It's time anyway for the park to be closed. We then gently suggest taking a few more pictures at the nearby Kapaleeswarar temple tank. Anxious about the packed day ahead and her late evening trip to Bangalore for a performance, Vishakha reluctantly agrees. And as she alights the steps to the temple tank, her face suddenly lights up and with child-like charm she remarks, “Oh, this is so serene and wonderful. I could read and sing here the whole day.”

Evidently, she instantly connects to places with spiritual vibrations. Vishakha then turns to tell you she never visits beaches or parks. Anyway, there is not much scope for sightseeing in her hectic travel itineraries.

Does she not think about life beyond the humdrum of performances and practice? “For me, kathakalakshepam is not just about performance. It stays with me even when I get off stage. There is no such thing as professional or personal life. They blend seamlessly. And I have chosen this way of life out of passion for the art form. So where is the need to think beyond it?” she philosophises with flair.

Inspiration from home

She was 22 when she took to this age-old art form after marrying into the family of celebrated harikatha exponent Krishna Premi. Vishakha's husband Hariji also conducts discourses.

A disciple of violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman, Vishakha's early and elaborate training in classical music helps her convey eloquently the essence of the ancient texts.

“Home is where inspiration comes from. I draw from my father-in-law's experience, rich repertoire of stories and the numerous books penned by him. Observation, reading, research and rehearsal are essential to upanyasam,” says Vishakha, clad in a blue pattu sari with a bold peacock-shaped brooch pinned on the talapu (pallu). The simple accessories — mookuthi and jhumki — have the same old-world appeal as her art.

Doesn't she find draping the nine-yard every day cumbersome? “It is all in the mind. In Chennai or Cleveland, I am always clad in it. It was extremely cold when I visited the U.S. for a recital, but I stuck to my dress code,” smiles Vishakha.

Though kathakalakshepam conjures up images of a serious religious discourse attended by a small gathering of elders, Vishakha's harikatha performances have a huge following. Her distinctive and vibrant style of coherently weaving stories from the past, peppering them with contemporary metaphors and punctuating them suitably with classical compositions keep the audience, comprising the old and the young, engaged till the last word is uttered. Her reach is wider because she performs in English outside Chennai. She spoke on “Role of education in international development” at the House of Commons in the U.K. She has also released six DVDs that are quite a sell out.

How does she react to criticism that there is more music than discourse in her upanyasam? “There are such evocative verses and compositions by great saints that lend themselves beautifully to the stories from epics and mythology and make it easy to convey the inherent message or philosophy,” she replies with schoolgirl-earnestness.

Does she plan to introduce new elements into her performances to make them more appealing to the young? “That's not warranted if youngsters have a basic awareness about our arts. They will eventually learn to appreciate their beauty. Parents need to introduce children to our heritage, art and culture. You know the phrase ‘catch them young' has reference in mythology too. Prahlada talks about it in ‘Koumara achareth pragyaha' when he reforms asura kids and talks about inculcating good achar in children for them to lead a wholesome life,” she says lovingly patting her son, Rajagopala.

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