Photo: Saisen/Mint
Photo: Saisen/Mint

In the beginning was the word

The last decade has seen a surge in young people taking up the traditional arts of upanyasam and harikathadiscourses on Hindu scriptures

Figuring out which of Dushyanth Sridhar’s two lives is the alternate one is not necessarily simple. It might be the one in which he is a product manager at Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, creating PowerPoint decks, dialling into conference calls, and fretting about software.

Or it might be the one in which he sits on a stage, with a white angavastram wrapped around his bare torso, expounding on the wisdom of the Vedas, the Ramayana, and other Hindu scriptures and songs.

“Nanna kettukongo," he will say in Tamil, admonishing his audience to pay heed. A forefinger will often rise and waggle itself, in didactic spirit. He will lament the shortcomings of humanity and extol the marvels of divinity. On occasion, the contents and sagacious tone of his lectures can make him sound as if he’s 75 years old, although he’s really only 28.

One such lecture—or upanyasam—can run to two or more hours. Sridhar gives 200 lectures a year, and he is booked without pause until April 2016. In early March, he embarked on his first tour of North America: two months, 15 cities, 45 lectures, 35 of these in English and the remainder in Tamil. Sridhar’s lectures are thickly attended. Even brief scrutiny of his calendar seems to suggest a strong clamour for moral advice and spiritual direction.

Sridhar has a large host of peers who are as young as he is or younger; the ages of some haven’t even hit double digits yet. There is no way of quantifying this sudden irruption of young artists performing upanyasam or harikatha—discourses augmented by Carnatic music—except by relying upon the memory of someone like Sriram Venkatakrishnan, a historian of music.

A decade ago, Venkatakrishnan says, the field was nearly bereft of new artists. “There were some older people who were still around, but there were no youngsters on the scene at all." Now there are dozens on stage or training to get there—enough, for instance, to fill several seasons of television contests like Bhakti Tiruvizha, or festival of faith, and to populate even junior editions of these shows.

Some aspects of this renaissance trouble Venkatakrishnan. He finds today’s discourses more sanctimonious than those of the artists of five or six decades ago, and the preachiness is particularly dissonant when coming from performers in their teens or their 20s. “What could they have even experienced of life by that time?" he wonders. “How much would they know?"

The art itself is as rigidly Brahminical as its cousin, Carnatic music, and less diverse by way of caste, in fact, than it used to be in the middle of the 20th century. While Carnatic music has managed to appeal to younger listeners, the audiences at upanyasam and harikatha events tend towards retirement and grey hair. “As far as the art is concerned, I’m happy that it is finding all these new platforms," Venkatakrishnan says. “I just wish it had adapted more to the times."

That there are any new artists at all, he acknowledged, is remarkable. The tropes are familiar: In India’s biggest cities and for its middle classes, at least, this is supposed to be an age of variegated distractions, of lukewarm spirituality, of boundless career opportunities, of hardnosed materialism, and of weakened ties to static cultural traditions. Yet, instead of spending their spare time on extra mathematics tuitions or watching television, here are children swotting up the myth of the boy-god Prahlada and the power-mad Hiranyakashipu.

Instead of slaving away at his job and thinking only sporadically about his relationship with his religion, here is Sridhar, on stage, quoting Sanskrit he has learned from one of his five teachers, or describing how the sage Valmiki came to write the epic known as the Ramayana.

***

On many evenings, when Sridhar was a boy, his grandparents would turn off the lights in the living room and play cassettes of upanyasam and harikatha recordings by the old masters of the form: Anantarama Dikshitar, Balakrishna Sastrigal and Mukkur Lakshminarasimhachariar, whose name was a mouthful, and who looked, Sridhar thought, like Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter novels. These were scratchy recordings from the 1960s through to the 1980s, but Sridhar was transfixed by their narration.

“A lot of it went over my head," he says. He is sitting in the living room of his apartment, wearing a lime-green shirt and mustard-coloured shorts—not quite the uniform of the upanyasam. Diamond studs glisten in each ear. “But the storytelling was so good, and there were so many connections to real life. They’d refer to Kapil Dev often, I remember, or to the political situation of the day."

In school, Sridhar participated in elocution competitions; outside school, he took extra lessons in Sanskrit, music and Tamil, at the insistence of his mother. Only in Pilani did all these skills come together, when Sridhar’s vice-chancellor—also a Tamilian—suggested that he deliver an upanyasam.

“It was the second semester—very cold," Sridhar recalls. “I went to the hall in a pair of jeans and two sweaters, and there must have been 40 people there." He told the tale of Sita’s wedding in the Ramayana, its details culled entirely from the recordings he had heard. “My formal Tamil wasn’t very good at the time, so I struggled." By the time he left Pilani, he had narrated the entirety of the Ramayana, expanding in confidence with each of his 12 lectures.

The art of the upanyasam is, arguably, as old as Hinduism itself; as long as there have been scriptures, there have been people explaining and dissecting them for the benefit of the public. The harikatha, however, only spread through Tamil Nadu in the early 19th century, brought first by kirtankars from Maharashtra to the Maratha court of Serfoji II in Thanjavur.

“People may not have fully understood the story at the time, because it was in Marathi," Venkatakrishnan says. “But they loved the mode of presentation." Concurrently, the canon of songs in Carnatic music swelled, so the tradition of the harikatha could be imported easily into the southern languages.

In his book A Southern Music, the Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna recounts how, in the late 1800s, “Harikatha was extremely popular and hence financially lucrative; so many… musicians would perform a concert one day and a Harikatha the next." Both the upanyasam and the harikatha depended, to some extent, upon the knowledge of Hindu texts, and performers were drawn nearly exclusively from the Brahmin caste.

The audiences, however, were widely mixed; when a touring artist arrived in a village, for a performance that would begin at 9.30pm and end at 2am, everybody turned up to listen. “I have not spared a single village, and not a single village has spared me," harikatha artist Saraswati Bai told the American anthropologist Milton Singer in an interview in 1955.

Within the dense patriarchy of these art forms, Saraswati Bai carved a dazzling but difficult career. “If I were to list out the ways in which I was insulted and troubled by men," she once wrote, “it would disgust the reader." But in other ways, Venkatakrishnan says, the artists of the mid-20th century were surprisingly alert to their surroundings.

Banni Bai, another female harikatha performer, gave lectures in English, as did the doyen Balakrishna Sastrigal. The life and death of Mahatma Gandhi was transformed into new harikathas. When, in 1955, the Indian government proposed using harikatha to publicize its five-year plan, Saraswati Bai told Singer that although the standard devotional songs perhaps would not suit this end, “I would be willing to compose new songs… This is a matter of patriotism and I would be willing to sing about pits and wells, too."

Careers were inaugurated early even then. Saraswati Bai, married at the age of nine, started performing when she was 12. Navalpakkam Narasimhan, a retired civil servant in his early 70s, delivered his first upanyasam when he was around 31, and he considers that a belated beginning. “Anantharama Dikshitar started when he was 15. There was one Sundara Kumar who was 20 or 22. There was another artist called Kannan Swamy who was 13," says Narasimhan. “There’s nothing new about beginning young."

In 1976, when he was new to the circuit, Narasimhan would print posters advertising his talks, and hire young boys to paste them on the walls of his neighbourhood. Or he would wake up at 4am, slip out into the pre-dawn cool and chalk his publicity onto the surface of busy roads: “Tonight, a lecture on the Ramayana, at such-and-such temple in Nungambakkam." Today, Narasimhan runs a small organization that schools children in the Vedas and that provides a stage for new upanyasam and harikatha performers.

One of these is S. Manikandan, a 23-year-old bank executive with a gentle, pleasant voice, who has a couple of dozen upanyasams behind him. He isn’t bashful about the propriety of dispensing sermons at such a young age. “Spirituality isn’t like that," he says. “You don’t have to have experienced everything to be able to read the scriptures." Every night, after work, he reads for an hour, taking notes and thinking through his material. “Whatever I’m reading, I’m sharing my thoughts on that. That’s all."

Sridhar, who says he studies every night between 10pm and 2am, has heard a particular grumble often. “For some reason, when somebody young says that he or she is in this field, people blink twice in surprise. It’s thought of as something for the elderly," he says. “’You’re doing this at this age?’ they’ll ask. Well, what age should I be?"

If anything, Sridhar insists, his youth gives him an advantage. He can—as he does—command special audiences of teenagers on his tours overseas, addressing them in shorts and a T-shirt, slipping in allusions to horcruxes or summer blockbuster films. He can lace his lectures with his generation’s liberalism, enjoining his listeners to look past the barriers of caste. “I can’t stand casteism, but I don’t make it appear as if this is just my opinion," he says. “I quote people like (the Hindu reformer) Ramanuja, who said the same thing a thousand years ago. If I do that, people can’t question me and my inexperience."

Venkatakrishnan has no quibbles with youth in itself, but he regards with weariness the hectoring tone and energetic moralizing of today’s harikathas. “If you listen to the performances of Saraswati Bai, you’ll hear none of this ‘In those days…’ or ‘We should all behave like this…’ sort of stuff," he says. “They were just beautifully told mythological stories, with maybe some asides about how to lead a good life. And they had a real sense of wit. What we see today is humour of the lowest order."

Just as inexcusably, in Venkatakrishnan’s eyes, harikatha and upanyasam artists are reluctant to engage seriously with the role of religion in modern India. This is what he means when he says that, beyond jocular references to pop culture, new performers have not adapted their art to their times. It is not enough merely to contend that the Ramayana’s stories can be told again and again because they are timeless. Rather, the Ramayana must be shown to be timeless precisely by having it speak to particular aspects of our time, as it spoke to other aspects of other times.

***

When Venkatakrishnan dates the beginning of the ongoing surge of young artists to a decade ago, he is thinking of Vishakha Hari, who gave her first harikatha performance in 2004, when she was 23. Hari electrified the field. She had keen dramatic flair, a musical education of high pedigree and inexhaustible energy. Audiences flocked to her lectures in droves; she made frequent television appearances and released DVDs, converting her avocation into a bustling career.

Hari had never dreamed of doing this for a living. Growing up in Chennai, she was more serious about Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music, but her mother often listened to the popular upanyasams of a performer named Krishna Premi. “We would go to one of his talks and sit in the corner, in the midst of thousands of people," Hari said. She finished her B.Com. and then cleared her chartered accountancy exams, but turned down the job offers that came her way—one of them promising, she said, as much as a lakh a month. Instead, she got married—to Krishna Premi’s son, another upanyasakar—and moved to the family home in Srirangam, near Tiruchy.

Hari is prone to attribute much about her life to “divine will", but her harikatha career began at the instigation of her father-in-law, who urged her to pair her musical education with his own style of storytelling in prose. “Only after I got married did I even begin talking extensively in Tamil," she says. “Even now, I sprinkle a little English in my talks. That’s how we all tend to speak, after all."

Hari’s success has cleared the way for the artists who came after her. She demonstrated, for example, that top-flight performers could carve out lucrative careers, particularly once foreign tours became a possibility. Artists are unwilling to reveal how much they charge, insisting that they often perform free for temples and non-governmental organizations; but in Chennai, a well-regarded artist can charge between Rs25,000 and Rs50,000 for a two-hour event. Schedules are hectic; some months, Hari finds herself on a stage 25 out of 30 days.

Over the past decade, the number of platforms available to an artist to perform, but also to market herself, has exploded. Sridhar tells the story of one performer who quit his job as an accountant in the mid-1990s and had to struggle to build his career, going from house to house and giving upanyasams to audiences of 10 or fewer. Today, a similarly placed artist would, in all probability, set up his own YouTube channel and then make for one of the many television stations that feature religious programming on heavy rotation. “Every parent wants his kid to appear on TV now," Sridhar says. “In fact, I’m not even sure if this is a sudden outburst of talent or a craving for media attention."

Some parental pressure has definitely shaped the career, such as it is, of K.S. Saidharshan, aged 10. He delivered his first, 15-minute upanyasam at the age of four, but he has no memory of what it was about. He refers the question to his mother: “Amma, what was that story?" A moon-faced boy with a quick smile, Saidharshan prefers to fiddle with a pair of USB drives throughout the conversation; when his father takes them away, he finds another to occupy his hands.

Saidharshan has given 50 talks, his mother Sudha says, the longest of which lasted an hour, on a televised contest a couple of years ago. She researches and scripts his presentations; he memorizes them, over five days if it’s in English and two weeks if it’s in Tamil. Last year, he was flown to Singapore for three performances. He juggles all this alongside school and extra-curricular swimming, music and karate lessons. “I think I may want to be a cricketer," he says. “But also maybe a judge or an MBA." Not an upanyasakar? “I don’t know. I’m not very religious, you see. I go to malls and watch movies."

Narasimhan, the Vedic teacher who knows Saidharshan, admitted that “parents today push their children hard. They want to find out: In which field can they excel?" It isn’t ideal, he said, that children were being pulled into the field only to be groomed for television contests. “But at least they’re learning this way, if in no other way."

Under all these other reasons for the resurgence of the craft, however, Sridhar and Venkatakrishnan think they sense a wider and deeper disquiet that is propelling people to seek out spiritual guidance. “You should see the size of the crowds going to temples now," Venkatakrishnan says. “And the number of religious magazines in Tamil. I can count four about horoscopes alone. It’s a worrying world: H1N1, accidents, financial troubles. People want to be reassured."

Sridhar perceives “a certain confusion in Hinduism now, a certain insecurity" about its future, which he says he tries obliquely to address in his upanyasams. “People in this religion have always been open-minded, I think, but something is closing off minds now. That insecurity isn’t required at all. A religion will take care of itself by its broad-mindedness."

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