On a balmy evening in Bangalore, Chowdiah Memorial holds a packed audience. Though women clad predictably in Kanjeevaram saris and men in crisp white dhotis fill up a large part of the hall, young office-goers too are conspicuous, rushing in just on time.
They’re here to watch Vishaka Hari perform the harikatha—a traditional art form that combines music and storytelling. On a raised platform, Hari begins with the Nada Tanumanisham, a keertana by Thyagaraja that holds the audience’s attention almost immediately. Trailing out of the song, Hari begins to talk about Thyagaraja, one of the greatest composers of Carnatic music, and his devotion to Hindu god Ram. She narrates this, not in Tamil (her mother tongue) but in English. Sprinkling anecdotes from everyday life, about IT jobs and its associated stresses, Hari weaves in stories from the Ramayan, keeping the audience transfixed to her melodious renditions.
Hari’s art goes back to the 19th century, and in its traditional form is still practised in several villages and towns in south India. “I don’t consciously weave in modern references, they exist there to be spoken about,” says Hari, who has been trained in Carnatic music by violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman. Hari learnt her skill largely from her father-in-law Krishna Premi, a well-known and respected raconteur. Kathakalakshepam, the harikatha format she practises, is one that combines music and narration to form a concert-discourse. “I generally uphold the way my father-in-law delivers his harikatha, while the musical aspect is directed byLalgudi Jayaraman...I am just mixing them both,” says the 32-year-old whose stage presence in a traditional nine-yard silk sari—known locally as the Madisar—has been a topic of discussion as few Tamilians wear it, except during festivals and weddings. “This is not a stage attire, this is what I wear every day,” smiles Hari, who has lived in the religious town of Srirangam since her marriage at age 22. A chartered accountant by education, she muses if that might be an undercurrent in her understanding the minds of working people. “I don’t ever read the newspapers,” she says.
The narrator: Vishaka Hari performing a harikatha that combines music and storytelling. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Hari’s discourses are also sold as DVDs and are widely popular on YouTube, indicating the comeback of the art form not only among the older generation, but also the younger generation that seems keen to rediscover its cultural roots.
The Kathakalashepam originated in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district in the 1850s, with heavy influence from the resident Marathi population in the area. The discourses remained popular for more than 100 years, receding in the 1960s, only to make a comeback about a decade ago.
“At the beginning, the storyteller would stand in the middle of the stage, sing, and talk, sometimes even dance and act. It was the ultimate art of communicating stories,” says Premeela Gurumurthy, head of the music department, University of Madras, whose expertise is harikatha. Gurumuthy adds: “It was a superb show; there was dancing, they had instruments on stage for sound effects. This style of harikatha can still be found in parts of Andhra Pradesh.”
Though Hari is seated during the discourse, more in the style of a Carnatic music concert, she communicates by switching to a language which her audience understands, yet maintaining all the sensibilities of the Kathakalakshepam. “If it has to be in English, which is not my mother tongue, I have to be 200% sure, it calls for a lot more preparation than I would need usually,” says Hari. Given the age group (20-35) of her audiences, there is often a need to simplify the narration. According to Gurumurthy, what works in Hari’s favour is her ability to sing well, and her selection of short, crisp songs that take the story ahead.
Traditionally, harikathas go beyond entertainment and narration. “A harikatha often involves the artiste dispensing some advice, so it used to take years before one could be respected as a harikatha teller,” explains Gurumurthy. She speaks of Kalyanapuram Aravamudan, now a well-known harikatha teller, who quit his job in IBM in 1979 to dedicate himself to the art. For three years, Aravamudan dedicated himself to the study of texts and music.
“I sat and wrote out narrations and songs for 8 hours a day,” Aravamudan recalls. Choosing to stay with the old method of standing during his performance, he says that from 1991, there has been an immense demand for harikatha. Like Hari, he also switches languages, when required, in order to communicate with his audiences.
Unlike harikatha tellers, Delhi-based dastango Danish Hussain, who along with Mahmood Farooqui revived the Persian art form of storytelling called Dastangoi, believes a performance is not constrained by language. “We are an intuitive species,” says Hussain, adding that though his audiences rarely understand the exact meaning of his narratives, they comprehend it through gestures and acting. “A lot of the words are not in parlance today but they somehow exist in your consciousness,” says Hussain.
It is a view Hari shares. “One does not need to understand and learn music, or know the Ramayan to understand my narration,” she says. “They just tell themselves.”
Vishaka Hari will perform at Sri Ramakrishna Bhajan Samaj, Bangalore, on 12 June