Late last year, crowds were thronging the large field beside the ancient Shiva temple in Basavanagudi, one of the oldest parts of Bangalore. The makeshift stage, though inordinately tacky, looked ready for the star performer of the evening. The hastily set-up food court, just a few yards away, was seeing brisk business, perhaps the best of the season. Suddenly, the buzz intensified and the next instant, Sonu Nigam was on stage to loud cheers and much thumping, scraping and pulling of metal chairs. The rockstar was here and the show had finally begun.

Like in the movies, if you imagine a scratchy video cassette rewinding a few decades, the scene would have been no different. Crowds would have thronged the same large field beside the ancient temple – only Basavanagudi wouldn’t be old Bangalore, not yet. The stage would have been certainly makeshift; instead of a food court, there would have been pakoda, groundnut and corn vendors and they too would have seen brisk business. The buzz would have intensified as suddenly and the next instant, a rockstar would have appeared on stage to loud cheers and much thumping. And he would have been a storyteller.

Harikatha artistes were the original rockstars of South India who created their own version of ‘Swinging Sixties’ and ‘Sensational seventies’. But in the decades that followed, they saw the kind of sweeping, sudden decline that Greek tragedies would be proud to narrate about. Almost relegated to Bangalore’s growing stockpile of ignored history, Harikatha, that open-air, pandal-happy, Bollywood-before-Bollywood, singing-dancing-narrating-advising-philosophising single-performer act, got trampled and buried under its many imitators and improvisers.

What Bangaloreans once considered three hours (sometimes more) of ‘full timepass-u’ and thus high on the must-do list, was being laughed at as religious mumbo-jumbo fit for bored ‘Basavanagudi oldies’. The artistes either gave up out of sheer penury and frustration or moved on to other creative fields. Meanwhile, their art, which conjured up arrogant kings, repentant demons, love-struck Gandharas, curse-eager rishis, beauteous Apsaras and selfish gods just by the sheer power of dramatic narration, was fading and fading fast.

Retired sociology professor T K Ramachandra, son of one such illustrious Harikatha exponent of Bangalore, T Karigiri Achar, narrates how this ancient tradition grew out of the Bhakti Movement and took firm roots in large parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. But much like the gods and demons it recites about, ‘Harikatha’ or ‘the story of God’ assumed different avatars in different parts of India, changing its garb and altering its form to suit local cultures and beliefs.

During its glory days in Bangalore and many other towns of Karnataka, the art form looked upon itself both as a solemn keeper of traditions and friendly neighbourhood rescuer from ennui. Ramachandra recalls how when his father and uncles held fortnight-long Harikatha sessions during the ‘high season’, life used to come to a virtual standstill in the neighbourhood in the evenings as people thronged the pandals to hear the tales they had heard a hundred times before – the charm was in hearing it being narrated so magically that the ears became eyes. “I was a starstruck teenager who fidgeted if a single session was missed; we were as addicted to Harikatha narrations then as youngsters today are perhaps to a gripping television drama – there’s really nothing like the delicious wait to hear what happened next.”

Ramachandra’s forefathers, in fact, are some of the many unsung pioneers of this remarkable art. His grandfather Venkanna Das, whom Ramachandra describes as a strikingly handsome and tall man with aquiline features, came to Bangalore on a whim and began utilising his natural talent in oration and music to earn a living. Soon, his fame spread and his storytelling sessions that lasted entire nights became the talk of the town. Venkanna Das’ strapping physical beauty and baritone that had no need of a mike, is part of Bangalore’s Harikatha folklore.  His four sons learnt the art from their charmer of a father and tweaked it a bit to suit ‘modern’ attention spans and sensibilities.

“Orthodox Harikatha artistes used a particularly bland form of narration with no voice intonations, minimal music and much didacticism. Venkanna Das was already fighting against this. But his sons went a step further; they were brave enough to adopt a sing-song narrative style. Theyalso trimmed the preaching, sprinkled a dash of soul advice and a topped it off with a huge dollop of wit.”

The result was magical, to say the least. The brothers used to be sometimes so overbooked that they were forced to narrate live at one session while a recorded version would be played at another location.

But Harikatha’s dark days were just round the corner. Plays, music and movies were fast gaining currency and their vivid colour and multi-dimensional nature were big threats to be tackled single-handedly by the lone performer. Ramachandra’s father and uncles perhaps read the writing on the wall much earlier than the rest. They got together to establish ‘Prabhat Kalavidaru’, a dance-drama and theatre company. Needless to say, their Harikatha experience meant they were enormously successful in their new venture.

Indeed, the art also became virtually extinct not just because of competition but also because of a distinct lack of nurture. The foremost reason was the very nature of Harikatha, which asked a lot from its practitioner. It expected him to understand music and have a singing voice; be able to dance occasionally, comprehend poetry, indulge in histrionics, be an arresting orator and have a sense of humour. Little wonder then, let alone training apprentices, merely finding them was proving to be increasingly difficult.

Which is why, a few months ago, when Sharath Prabhath, all of 22, strode on to the stage in full saffron splendour, lustily crooning a 14th century Bhakti saint’s song and dancing to the rhythm of the ‘ektara’ he himself was strumming, it ceased to be just a tribute to his grandfather and Harikatha exponent Jayasimha Das, perfect though it was.  It felt instead like a clarion call of resurgence of an art that had suddenly rediscovered itself. The spellbound audience who cheered and clapped through his nearly two-hour performance were certainly in agreement.

Sharath is just one of many youngsters in Bangalore who are part of a growing band of enthusiastic and young Harikatha performers, who whether through their sheer gusto or through genuine talent, have brought about a happy revival of interest in the art form in Bangalore.

Dancer and former Kannada film actress Hema Panchmukhi along with T K Ramachandra have in fact formed a group ‘Kathakeerthana’ under which they not only conduct a four-week training programme for children between the ages of 6 and 20, but also insist that the trainees give a public performance at the end of the course. Surprisingly, these performances have been very well received and not just by adoring parents.

Twenty-year-old Varshini Vijay, who is part of this group and who also has begun to give solo performances, says learning Harikatha was “the best thing that happened to her ever.” She says she has gained in confidence, her interest in music and dance has spiked and her knowledge of her ancestral traditions is only growing. Varshini often narrates just like how she speaks to her friends in college – in casual ‘Kanglish’ with a few Sanskrit verses thrown in.

Ramachandra explains that to ensure Harikatha’s survival and get more youngsters interested, it is important to give them freedom to experiment and evolve. Further, to tackle the problem of multi-talents that Harikatha demands, he has hit upon a ‘relay race’ solution.

So in a ‘Kathakeerthana’ programme, the Harikatha no longer remains a one-man show but becomes a collective rendition. Children as young as six sing a few lines and pass on the baton; the story gets woven more densely by older and more experienced performers while those keen on playing instruments or singing the chorus are allowed to do just that.

Elsewhere, in further evidence of this revival, a 12-day Harikatha festival was held in several cities of Andhra Pradesh this March while Chennai-based artiste Vishaka Hari’s YouTube videos garner thousands of hits. Vishaka’s combination of Carnatic music with Harikatha narration in English has worked like magic and today, she gives regular national as well as international performances. In Bangalore too, Harikatha performers, who mostly hail from families that have traditionally practiced the art, are seeing a renewed demand. Mention must be made here of Shobha Gururajulu Naidu, daughter of renowned Harikatha exponent Gururajulu Naidu. Shobha, like Vishaka, is amongst the few women who are keeping alive an art traditionally performed by men and has been doing so since she was 12. In Chennai, organisations such as Narada Gana Sabha and Chennai Fine Arts regularly come together to organise Harikatha performances; the festival organised last year to celebrate the birth centenary of Banni Bai, another renowned female performer, garnered much positive press. While stalwarts like Kalyanapuram Aravamudachariyar and Bhadragiri Achuthadas continue to give performances to packed houses all over South India, what has been unique about its resurrection in Bangalore is that it is being done by and through children.   

“Harikatha runs in my blood and training children in this art gives me more satisfaction than anything I have ever done,” says Ramachandra who not only directs the performances but also works on the scripts. Hema Panchmukhi, who handles the dance direction, says their ambition is to get more schools to participate and explore thematic variations – a little removed from Harikatha’s strong mythological roots. Varshini pipes up, “why not a performance on universal brotherhood using bits of reggae, jazz and lounge music?”

Why not, indeed. If they had heard her suggestion, the rockstars of Basavanagudi, who were quite happy to jazz up the art form during their heydays, would have certainly clapped in delight.

Published in the July issue of Avantika, a magazine on the world of performing Arts. Find its website here: www.avantikamagazine.com


 
 
Small-town Wales is the last place I expected to face a barrage of questions about Kathak from a Pole, a German, a Kenyan and an Egyptian, their keen faces turned towards mine, the journey of mystification they had just been through reflecting in their eyes. “But you said it was an Indian dance form! So you should know!”

I should perhaps. But I was in a state of suspense myself; confused, stunned, enthralled and spellbound – no state really to explain how Kathak, which I was supposedly familiar with, tossed me mercilessly into an alien world, beautiful yet distressing, where shadows and light created havoc with memories, where there was no escape from a cold wind that ripped through senses, evoking, despite myself, a visceral sense of delight in agony. I was grappling with established notions of gravity, of rootedness and what might happen when they are snatched away without warning.  

We had just been witness to a befuddling yet spectacular performance of ‘Vertical Road’ at the Welsh town of Swansea by Akram Khan, one of Britain’s most feted dancer-choreographers, hailed as a shining ambassador for ‘new Kathak’. My inability to provide an ‘Indian’ context and explanation for a performance that was billed as ‘contemporary Kathak’ left me wondering whether Kathak today is indeed on its way to achieving the impossible – becoming the perfect bridge between the old and the new, acquiring a global cloak that flows sinuously around its traditional Indian form.

It could be argued that Kathak, with its history of temple and Mughal court influences and its open-hearted embrace of Sufi and Persian elements, is a form that naturally lends itself to experimentation. Nevertheless, practitioners of traditional art forms are always faced with this eternal dilemma – how do you make your art relevant to a modern, younger and perhaps more demanding audience without losing the essence of your art or worse, without succumbing to the temptation of merely showcasing a ‘museum piece’?

Whether it is because of the very fluidity of Kathak itself or because its new-age exponents have decided to tackle this dilemma head-on, there has been a happy resurgence of interest in the form and an explosion of new ideas and creative Kathak-inspired renditions on both the Indian and the international stage in the past few years. Some astonishing talents from Britain deserve a special mention here. Birmingham-based Sonia Sabri is much lauded for the emotive quality of her contemporary spin on Kathak. Pakistan-born Britisher Nahad Siddiqui too has been more than successful in bridging the cultural divide between her home and adopted countries with ambitious fusion productions like 'My Motherland'.  

But it is the movement vocabulary of Akram Khan, trained in classical Kathak as well as contemporary dance, that is often credited to be the break-out effort for ‘contemporary Kathak’, a label rejected by most of its practitioners. His unique brand of Kathak-infused contemporary productions, be it the transformative ‘Vertical Road’ or his new solo ‘Desh’, which abstracts the ancient rhythms of the dance form to go on a journey into the past, Akram’s work has puzzled some but fascinated most. Though not the first artiste to combine classical influences with contemporary movements, even his strongest critics do not deny the liquid, throbbing intensity he brings to his performances. I ask him whether it is Kathak that brings about this power of expression or it is a deliberate attempt to merge, fuse and evolve. “I never set out to modernise the classical form – being trained in two art forms, I started out with confusion rather than fusion. It is this confusion I have embraced. For me, Kathak is like water – both formless and with form. It is for me a starting point and I gradually let in other influences, almost ritualistically,” he tells me.  

Indian exponents are not too far behind either. Kathak-duo Nirupama and Rajendra, gradually gaining recognition for their sustained efforts to “entertain their audience with their creativity” as they put it, take pains to explain to me the difference between their attempts at contemporisation of Kathak as compared to say an Akram Khan or a Sonia Sabri production. “Akram’s work stems from a Western sensibility; it is contemporary dance with a dash of Kathak but what we are attempting is exactly the opposite. We aim to present classical Kathak with a dash of modernisation. His work is undoubtedly brilliant but nevertheless, I feel his productions expect the audience to come armed with a certain level of art education,” says Nirupama, who along with Rajendra, runs the Bangalore-based Abhinava Dance Company. Their innovative interpretations of Kathak, be it the jesty ‘Ta-dha’ choreographed by their guru Kumudini Lakhia and set to Indo-Afro percussion rhythms by Praveen D Rao, or the ‘Ram Katha Vismaya’, a Disneyesque interpretation of Ramayana,  has brought them considerable fame in the region. Is she referring to the much-debated theory of the artiste’s arrogance versus reaching out to the audience? “I wouldn’t go so far as to call it artiste’s arrogance. That would be presumptuous of me. I will only say that as performers, we believe that the purpose of Indian art is to connect with the audience, to evoke an emotion and transport him to a different world at that very instant. The creator’s ego is no doubt a force within every artiste but at the same time, he or she should also recognise that the ultimate responsibility of a performer is to entertain the audience through art and not just showcase talent.”

It is this itch to make the audience go ‘a-ha’, even if it is just for a moment, that has always ensured that they look at Kathak differently, says Nirupama.

“It is not that we set out to infuse novelty in Kathak…for us, the kick is in being creative,” adds Rajendra.  “Even way back in 1995 when our solo production ‘Parampurush’, which looked at masculinity as a creative, preserving as well as a destroying force, was premiered to mixed reactions, we were undeterred. Critics questioned us even then whether we indeed were performing Kathak or it was merely a ‘show’ that employed stage, costume and light effects. We were never interested in a demonstrative performance of Kathak where the dancer spends 55 minutes of a 90-minute performance displaying her footwork to the accompaniment of a tabla and a harmonium! We always wanted to employ the skill the dance form taught us to entertain and make audiences think – not just showcase our mastery over the technique,” he explains.

The response to their latest Kathak-based production ‘Kathakitathom’ has convinced the dancer couple that they are on the right track. The neo-classical production explores the two aspects of 'Katha' (story) and Kitathom (the rhythm) through two basic human emotions of love and valour. It has entertainment written all over it. It is fun, it is young and it is interactive. Unafraid to depict on stage what can be loosely termed a Bollywoodian concept of love as infectious happiness or valour as soul-stirring enthusiasm, the production is a splash of colour and light, enhanced many folds by the foot-tapping gypsy and jazz-based music interludes. "If audiences can sing along in a rock concert, we don't see why they shouldn't clap along with us when we say our bols," says Nirupama.

Aditi Mangaldas, incidentally the Kathak artiste Akram Khan told me is one of his favourites, agrees wholeheartedly. "Kathak for me is not something that pulls me back but is a form that sets me free. It is a dynamic form which I look through the prism of modern sensibilities. This is not to say that it must be uprooted from its origins. Instead we have to tend to its roots by pouring water from different wells, thus allowing it to grow beyond and explore the wide space outside," says Aditi poetically.

She passionately detests being called a 'contemporary Kathak' dancer. "Kathak has always been contemporary," she argues. "It is one form where change has been constant, right from its inception. What some of us are trying to do now is merely imbibing it with 21st century nuances instead of recreating the ambience of the old." Aditi believes no matter how hard one tries to recreate the atmosphere and ambience of the Mughal courts or the temples where Kathak originated, the result will not match up. "My approach to contemporary Kathak, for lack of a better terminology, is simply this – why try to imitate when the form gives you so much freedom to create?" Which is why, she believes, in a production like ‘Timeless’, she used Kathak as a means to an end. A critic calls it 'using Kathak as a springboard' to jump to a different realm and Aditi doesn’t disagree.

I wonder whether these attempts at reaching out or contemporisation of the form, laudable they well might be, irk purists and whether they face accusations of dumbing down. Akram Khan dismisses such criticism outright. Perhaps with his stature he can afford to do so but what about budding performers? “To me, dance is pure. I am not enthused by dancers, budding or otherwise, who imitate their gurus; I am keen on dancers who are willing to use their training to discover new truths within themselves. Nobody said this is easy but this is what is essential for growth.” Aditi believes if new energy isn’t infused in a dance form, the performer cannot hope to take his art to a varied global audience. “I am not claiming that there are no takers for a strictly-coded performance. There surely are but there are several others out there who would like to connect with you and your talent. You simply lose out on an opportunity.” Rajendra vehemently denies that they are ‘simplifying’ to entertain. For him and Nirupama, he says, dance has always been about honesty. "Even the traditionally stiff-lipped audience in Chennai has loved our contemporary Kathak performances. We have observed that true connoisseurs have applauded us and so has the unbiased man in the hall. It is the mediocre in-betweeners who are the problem," Nirupama says wryly.

But mediocre in-betweeners have never really been able to create a chink in the creative armour. While Akram Khan is dreaming of sailing back to his roots and “reveal the rhythm of the people in Bangladesh, the colours of their country, the smell of their chaos, and the unshaken sense of hope against all odds”, Aditi is hoping to journey into the unknown with a new creation that she wants to be tight-lipped about. Rajendra and Nirupama’s biggest ambition is to take Kathak to Broadway.

If Kathak, whether in its traditional or contemporary avatar, is inspiring at least a few of its exponents to conjure up such creative visions, something is reassuringly right even if in the process it ceases to be ‘Indian’ and ends up mystifying a few. For Kathak, perhaps the journey of discovery has begun all over again.

Published in the July issue of Avantika, a magazine on the world of performing Arts. Find its website here: www.avantikamagazine.com