Harikatha: storytelling through mime and music

It is drama soaked in bhakti that a Harikatha exponent performs

July 26, 2018 03:38 pm | Updated 03:38 pm IST

Kalyanapuram Aravamudan performing Harikatha

Kalyanapuram Aravamudan performing Harikatha

Devaduttam imam veenam swarabrahma vibushitham

Moorchayitva harikatha gayamaanaha charamyaham

(Srimad Bhagavatham – I-6-32)

Athau keerthana aarambathilae… bala bheema… Jaya Janaki kantha smaranam… Anjaneya swamikku jay…

Harikatha as an art form can be traced back to the Ramayana days. Lava and Kusha had sung the story of Ramayana in the Ashwamedha Maha Mandapam in the presence of Lord Rama Himself. The first Harikatha singer was Narada. Harikatha flourished in Karnataka, Andhra and Tamil Nadu. Yakshagana, Burrakatha, Kathakali of Kerala were all adapted from the style of Harikatha. It is different from Pravachanam or Upanyasam or the music concert.

Harikatha involves narration of a story intermingling songs relating to the story. It involves numerous sub plots and anecdotes. The main story teller is assisted by a co-singer, a violin and a mridangam. A pair of cymbals keeps the beat. Kalyanapuram Aravamudhachar, exponent in the field rightly describes it as one-person theatre. The exponent has to dramatise and his narration should make the listener visualise the anecdote. Samartha Ramadas, the guru of Chatrapathi Shivaji, introduced this art form in the 17th century. He prescribes the qualification for the Harikatha exponent thus: knowledge of Sanskrit, erudition in Vedas, sastras and puranas, narrative skill, memory power and clarity. He has to be an ashtaavadhani. Kalyanapuram Swami traces the roots of Harikatha to Thanjavur, the cultural capital of South India. Swati Tirunal composed Harikatha Nirupana of Kuchelopakyanam after hearing Harikatha from Kirtankar Meru Swami of Thanjavur.

Krishna Bhagavatar of Thanjavur was trained in the art. He incorporated songs from Telugu, Kannada, Marathi and Tamil in his discourses. He was accompanied by Narayanaswamy Appa on the mridangam. Yesteryear stalwarts would include Mahavaidyanatha Sivan, Panchapakesa Bhagavatar, Panchapakesa Sastrigal, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, Mangudi Chidambara Bhagavatar, Srirangam Sadagopachariyar and Tiruvaiyaru Annaswami Bhagavatar.

The veteran considers the recognition Embar Vijayaraghavachariyar got from the Music Academy in the form of Sangita Kalanidhi, a highlight. Among women, he mentions Saraswathi Bai and Banni Bai as pioneers. He recalls Srirangam Srimad Andavan Sri Rangaramanuja Maha Desikan, stressing in a lecture at Sanskrit College Tiruvaiyaru the importance of brigas and karvai. He even specified the nadai, sankeernam, tisram, chatusram, misram, etc., in which the songs are to be rendered to effectively convey the bhava.

The storyteller has to be a gayaka kalanidhi in order to be accompanied on the violin by sunaada kalanidhi and on the mridangam by sulaya kalanidhi. Palghat Mani Iyer started off his career at the age of nine, accompanying the Harikatha exponent Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar, Kalyanapuram Swami points out. The Harikatha artiste narrates in a musical form epics and puranas and also divya prabandhas. The mixture of music and katha makes it unique and evokes Navavida Bhakti — Shravanam, keerthanam, smaranam, pada sevanam, archanam, vandanam, sakhyam, dasyam and finally aathma nivedanam.

Many qualifications

The Harikatha exponent must have the qualification as a musician. Kalyanapuram Swami points out that Sangeetha Ratnakara refers to 22 srutis, prakrithi vikruthi swaras, 21 moorchanas, 72 mela kartas, dasa gamakas and numerous janya ragas. He must have acquaintance with Natya Sastra . Sangeetha is based on Nadha. It is Nadopasana. Narada was ‘veda janitha vara veena vadana tatvagya’ as described by Tyagaraja.

The exponent should be conversant with the differences between swaras, jathis and moorchanas.

“Sangeetha sastra gnanamu sarubya saukyathame,” said Tyagaraja. He defines the kriti in ‘Sogasuga’ as ‘yathi vishrama sadbhakthi virathi draaksha rasa nava rasa vida krithi.’ Nadopasana is Moksha Sadhana. The Harikatha performer should be able to convey Navarasa through music, slokas and kirtans. No wonder such an excellent art form is difficult to cultivate or propagate.

The Burrakatha in Andhra originated from Ajjada Adi Bhatla Narayana Dasu and the Haridasus go round villages singing devotional songs.

The Harikatha exponent conveys intense spiritual emotion in a musical way. Kalyanapuram Swamy remembers T.S. Balakrishna Sastrigal rendering Tyagaraja’s ‘Alakalalla’ in Madhyamavathi to describe Rama lifting the bow at a glance from Sage Viswamitra, then goes on to describe Rama’s glory in ‘Lavanya Rama’ in Purna Shadjam and breaks into ‘Sita Kalyana Vaibhogame, Rama Kalyana Vaibhogame’ sending the audience into raptures. On another occasion, when he describes Karna in the battle, his voice breaks down and the audience cries with him.

The exponent shares an interesting anecdote about Bannibai. Once, invited to perform, she started off with the slokas and then told the audience that they knew everything and there was nothing more for her to teach them. Those who did not know could learn from those who knew. As she was about to leave, the audience laughed and insisted on a full performance.

In our own times, the genius that he is, Kalyanapuram Aravamudhachariar combines slokas, kritis and Divyaprabandha verses. As he describes the paratva, saulabya and saucheelya of the Lord, he quotes Nammazhwar:

“Makarakundalathan kondal vannan sudar mudiyan

naanku tholan kuni sarngan on sangu gadhai vaal aazhiyaan.”

He goes on to describe the vision that Tyagaraja had of Rama and Lakshmana — Balakanakamaya — and then concludes with ‘Ra Ra Rajivalochana’ in a melodious voice bringing out the spirit of the scene. At once, you are transported to the world of Nammazhwar and Valmiki.

Kurukshetra scene

The piece de resistance of Kalyanapuram Swami’s Harikatha is the description of Kurukshetra. Bheeshma on a bed of arrows renders sahasranama. The Pandavas wonder who the hero he is referring to. Bheeshma glances at Krishna standing by and both smile.

Bheeshma remembers how Krishna graced him by almost breaking his promise not to take up arms and came running with Chakrayudha and Bheeshma disarms himself and bows before the Lord. As Kalyanapuram Swami describes the scene, even Rajaji’s Vyasa Bharatham pales into insignificance.

The sonorous voice of Kalyanapuram Swami rises pitch perfect:

Vande bRindAvanacaram vallavi janavallabham |

jayantisambhavam dhAma vaijayanti vibhUshaNam ||

Is it not time, Chennai’s premier institution remembers the genre of Harikatha and rare gems such as Kalyanapuram Aravamudachariar?

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