Friday Review

And the story goes on…

And the story goes on…
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As the Season winds to a close, Chitra Swaminathan looks at how the ancient art of kathakalakshepam not only held its own this year but also raised the bar with outstanding performances

The bravest battle that ever was fought;

Shall I tell you where and when?

On the maps of the world you will find it not;

It was fought by the mothers of men.

Vishakha Hari recites these lines from American poet Joaquin Miller’s ‘Motherhood’ at a harikatha performance this Season. She is explaining the Vedic maxim ‘Matru devo bhava’ as being not just about the umbilical bond but also the passion with which men like Bhagat Singh fought and gave up their lives for the motherland.

“Harikatha,” says this chartered accountant, “is not simply narration of a katha. It is exploring the many angles to a thought. It is a seamless blend of music, drama, literature, history, philosophy and science.”

Clad always in a silk madisaru with a large, gleaming brooch pinned on the talapu, Vishakha, student of violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman, intersperses her narrations with short, melodious songs, giving the audience the experience of both katha and kutcheri.

Harikatha, a folk form with its roots in Maharashtra, first gained popularity in Thanjavur where the Marathas settled in large numbers. Practitioners would stand in the middle of the stage as they told stories, sang, danced, and played instruments.

Harikatha artists today perform sitting down, not all of them sing and none dance. But they have yet widened the appeal of their art with refreshing new approaches.

“I connect as deeply with the characters in my stories as Harry Potter fans do with the tales spun by J.K. Rowling,” laughs Dushyanth Sridhar, chemical engineer-turned-upanyasakar. Talking on his way back from delivering a lecture at a school, where he drew links between Krishna, calculus, history and geography, he says the effort is to create relevance and realistic associations.

He video-records each performance and uploads them on YouTube. “These videos are movie teasers to get the attention of the social media generation. I don’t want to be preachy, but I want them to realise that harikatha is not just for the old; there’s a lot that youngsters can take from it,” he says.

This season, Dushyanth’s performances included a katha-natyam with Bharatanatyam dancer Ramya Ramnarayan and a katha-kutcheri with vocalists Carnatica Brothers. “Like every other art, it offers enough scope for creative experiments.”

Having grown up listening to Beatles and Harry Belafonte, Dushyanth’s foray into the art of kathakalakshepam was accidental, when he was asked by a professor at BITS Pilani to talk on the Ramayana because of his knowledge of Sanskrit. “My mother had enrolled me in Sanskrit class during my school days in Bangalore as she thought it would help me learn languages. I would also accompany my grandparents sometimes to harikatha performances. But I never imagined that I would one day take it up myself. My professor, I think, was the trigger.”

Sudha Seshayyan brings the probing mind of a doctor to her discourses and researches for thematic productions. A medical professor, her lucid explanations of the various aspects of the scriptures and texts seem a result of her methodical study of the human mind and body. She imbibed the love for medicine and literature from her parents.

Her father’s well-stocked library introduced her to the world of religion and philosophy. Besides her command over Tamil, she is well-versed in Sanskrit. “I used to listen to a lot of lectures and in the midst of it all discovered my own oratorical skills. But it’s hard to explain how I took to harikatha,” she says.

She attributes harikatha’s growing popularity to the way in which texts are deconstructed, the logic and reasoning in narration, and the ability to establish a connect with changing audiences. Also, as harikatha artists collaborate now with dancers and vocalists, they create effective ways to help audiences understand the lyrics and relate to the emotions. All of them weave in contemporary issues and references into the tales from the epics, upanishads and puranas.

For Carnatic vocalist B. Suchithra, what started as the upkeep of a legacy has become an exciting way of reaching out to people, especially young people. “This Season,” she says, “I met an 18-year-old boy from California who said he had been attending harikatha performances to understand its nuances. When abroad, I have even given discourses in English. After all, it’s about sharing and being understood.”

Granddaughter of veteran harikatha exponent Thanjavur T.R. Kamalamurthy, Suchithra was in the second year of her Commerce degree when she gave her first performance.

From the days when venerable bhagavathars held village squares in thrall through long moonlit nights to the floodlit and savvy performances of these modern-day raconteurs, kathakalakshepam has shown that storytelling will always survive. All it needs is a twist in the tale.

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2018 10:38:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/And-the-story-goes-on%E2%80%A6/article14012131.ece

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