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