Bear with me for a little flashback.
This happened somewhere in the late eighties …
Our house was getting spring cleaned and the children (especially us girls) were told to be in the best of our behavior for the next two to three days.
It was because we were expecting a guest.
It was because we were expecting a guest.
Our guest was related to us from our Maternal grandfather’s side. Apparently in his hey days he was a much respected Harikatha (also referred to as Katha Kalakshebham) exponent. He was a direct disciple of the famous Mangudi Chidambara Baghavathar (whose famous name we had not heard until then).
We were told that our great grandfather and later my grand father patronized this artiste till bad times fell upon them in the form of urban migration and old age caught up with all of them.
Our guest arrived and within hours his presence was overpowering. My mother who at that time was in her late thirties apparently grew up being cradled in his arms as an infant and in his lap as a toddler. He recalled many of her antics as a little child and was amazed at how that little one had grown up so soon.
She was still being treated like a toddler by him despite being the mother of three young children at that time. This amused us girls to no end. He addressed her with endearments like the ‘naughty girl’, ‘the plump little imp’ (all loose translations from Tamil) that sent us into bouts of suppressed laughter, behind his back.
Clearly the old man was stuck in a time warp.
He chided her for falling for the trap of modern gadgets when he saw her cooking rice in a pressure cooker and using a mixer grinder to grind coconut for the sambar. His view was that the modern consumer driven gadgets were the root cause of all diseases and she should get rid of them.
He concluded that Amma wasn’t conceiving enough children (she had borne more than her quota of government allotted two children) because she was leading a ‘modern lifestyle’. He took Appa aside and advised him to steer clear of all the modern family planning methods that the government was so aggressively pushing down their throat.
Later he asked Appa for my Horoscope and said that he would help find alliances in good families who hosted him as he travelled all over.
When Appa said that I was barely fourteen and that he was not planning to marry me off anytime soon, he did not realize what he was in for.
With his typical story telling abilities in full exhibition, he sat Appa down and explained why he should not go against the will of nature. Young girls, he said are like freshly sprouted paddy saplings. They need to be transplanted at the right time in the right place for them to thrive and give a good yield.
He was very vocal and made it clear that in these modern times, young men like Appa were getting carried away by the Modern day moralities and lifestyle, that did not carry much of the wisdom and knowledge that our own culture has imbibed upon us.
As young girls growing up in a nuclear family we felt he was a massive intrusion into our privacy. My sister lost her cool when he tied up a clothes lining right in the middle of our drawing room and hung his dhoti, angavastram and loin cloth over there after washing them off himself in tap water (without any soap).
To say he was a storm that swept us over for the two three days that he visited us, would be an understatement. But like in all Indian families where the guest is like a god (athithi devo bhava), especially an elderly guest like him who enjoyed much admiration and respect in his hey days had to be respected and served as long as he was our guest.
As his train that was woefully behind schedule by two hours finally departed that afternoon, when we went to send him off, the entire family sighed in relief and laughed out loud.
‘What a character he is, in this age and time, behind schedule by 30-40 years’, Appa remarked.
‘I hope he does not go and give a scathing review to my parents about how I run my household’ a slightly worried Amma remarked.
For a long time thereafter, Appa quoted his ‘Paddy sapling’ example and threatened to marry me off if I did not do well in my examinations. That in itself was deterrent enough to study hard and get decent marks.
Thus was kept alive the memory of MDB , the old, slightly senile and arguably the most regressive Harikatha exponent whom we hosted at our home in the late eighties. Others forgot him soon but for some reason he remained etched in my memories.
Many years later in a quiz the question was asked. ‘Which art form originated from Maharashtra and flourished by the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur'' ?
That was when I again heard Harikatha or Katha Kalakshepam mentioned. It was an art form of oral story telling that Saint Samartha Ramadas from Maharashtra brought to Thanjavur in 1677, when he visited Ekoji, Shivaji's step brother, who was the Maratha ruler of Thanjavur at that time.
The mention of Harikatha re-kindled the memories of that rather old, senile, overpowering, country bumpkin of a man who visited our home many years ago.
How that perception of a typical Harikatha artiste would change and transform me on that hot and rather humid evening at the auditorium at Udupi Sri Krishna mutt …
She had me teary eyed and left me with goose bumps all over as she concluded her show.
I am in Udupi.
Intricately carved wood work, delicately designed entrances and grandly lit facades speak of an ancient culture that must have once thrived in this temple town giving artistes and art forms prestigious platform to express and showcase their art.
As I step out of Uttaradi Mutt in Udupi where I am staying for the day, I take in views admiring the grandeur of the Vaishnavaite temples and their architecture. Around the temple are institutions run by various Mutt’s who are headquartered in Udupi, one of the top five Krishna temples in India.
I would witness one such art form in a short while that would blow my mind over.
This is off peak season and pretty early in the evening. A ‘darshan’ of the richly decorated idol of Udupi Shri Krishna gets over in no time.
I have nothing much to do and so I walk in to the temple auditorium, attracted by a performance of a young girl with two accompanying artistes, one on the harmonium and another on a tabla. The plastic chairs are all taken, so I sit on one of the stone walls, far away from the stage.
I am awe-struck by the performance. I decide to hang around for a while. Besides me comes and sits a middle-aged woman and tries to strike conversation with me. She asks me where I am from and how long I am here for. As much I am interested in striking conversations with strangers, the performance is too good for me to get distracted. I do not pay her much attention after the initial few minutes.
Later she is joined by another woman who comes and sits besides us. They are talking about some shopping and are inviting me into the conversation.
That is when the antenna of the solo traveler in me rings the alarm. I surreptiously check my gold chain and the gold ring in my index finger. They are safe. I embrace my hand bag closer to my body and get a a little extra vigilant.
I always wear some gold when I am travelling because it is the best insurance, when you need strangers to help you in case of an emergency like an accident. Arguably it also makes it unsafe to travel for the fear of getting mugged. But I would any day absorb the collateral damage of being mugged, to not being attended to by strangers, for want of money if you are caught in a nasty accident, when you are travelling solo.
At the next chance I get, I tip toe my way out without excusing myself from the chatty middle-aged women and move towards an empty plastic chair closer to the stage that has been vacated by someone.
I am enthralled by the Harikatha performance by this young girl would could be in her teens. She wears absolutely no makeup, sans her bindi. Her short, slightly curly hair is oiled and plaited into a single braid. Dressed in a blue long skirt (Lehenga) and pink blouse, she is standing at the middle of the stage reciting the ‘Srinivasa kalyanaa’. The marriage of ‘Tirupati Venkatesha’ to his consort ‘Padmavati’. While the format traverses through the various avatars of Sri Vishnu, Rama and Krishna being two among them, the story telling is interspersed with teachings from the Bhagavata Puranam.
As she bursts into songs, stories and anecdotes while reciting the story her expressions, her tone and her demeanor change. On her right hand in a cymbal that she plays in order to keep the rhythm and add music to her recitals, she is accompanied by two men, much older to her, one on the harmonium and the other on a tabla.
Her recital is in Kannada, a language that I have just begun to sparsely understand. But the story of Vishnu Avatar’s and Bhagavata Puranam is universal. So, I have no problem understanding it. Moreover, that universal language of music can enthrall anyone and language can never be a barrier.
I am mesmerized.
When she bursts into ‘Venkata chala Nilayam … vaikunta pura vasam’, the composition by Sri Purandaradasa describing, Sri Vishnu’s abode in ‘Vaikunta’, there are tears in my eyes.
With such a talent, she should have found national level recognition, is what I think. I do not even know her name or where she comes from. I am a stranger, who just passed by and happened to sit for the performance.
As the performance draws to a close, the father of the young artiste is introduced. The audience, as mesmerized as I am, put together their hands for a huge applause for nurturing this young talent. I walk up to him and let him know that despite not knowing Kannada, despite not being familiar with this art-form (which is only partially true) I was spell bound with his daughter’s performance.
Sraddha, from Kasargode learns Harikatha from her Guru Sri Adiga. She is studying for her bachelor’s degree at the local college in Kasargode.
I congratulate her for a wonderful performance and let her know how talented she is. A very shy and introverted Sraddha thanks me for the compliment and moves closer to her father, while busying herself packing her backpack with her belongings as they wrap up the show.
I ask her if she has plans to pursue this art form as a full-time career.
She says she would do her Master’s degree after her Bachelor’s degree.
I let her father know that he should not let her talent go wasted and take leave.
Not sure if Sraddha will ever get to perform at a bigger platform to a wider audience.
All I can say is she has the potential.
There must be many like her in small towns like Kasargode and beyond, whose talents may be lost to the world.
But it opened my eyes to what depth of talent lies hidden in a rich ancient culture that promoted story telling as an art form for many centuries over.
I am glad that the art of Harikatha did not die a slow death with opinionated artistes like MDB. It is alive and kicking among millennials like Sraddha from Kasargode and various other more glamorous exponents like Vishaka Hari, who add a contemporary twist to the good old Bhagavata Puranam and keep the centuries old tradition of oral story telling alive.
As I walk out of the temple auditorium that evening in Udupi, I feel small and humbled.
Had Sraddha appeared for an interview as a fresh graduate in the ITes industry that I come from, we may have possibly rejected her for ‘lack of confidence’ and ‘below average communication skills’.
When you free yourself away from the narrow confines of those glass buildings, where you are constantly sizing up others or getting sized up, is when you realize the vast expanse of how there are so many unsung heroes whose talent will sadly remain unseen by the larger world.
It is in that moment, that the ignorant soul cringes. It cringes out of shame and out of sheer awe and bows in utter admiration for all those less recognized art forms and unsung artistes that have ever existed.
Involuntarily, I hum
Endaro Mahanubhavu .. anthareeki vanthanamulu
Saint Thyagaraja’s famous composition, which he is supposed to have spontaneously composed when he saw great people assembled in a hall as he entered.
Loosely translated from Telugu it means
There are so many great people in the world
To all of them I offer my salutations.
For more on Harikatha as an art form and its history and tradition please visit the blog by Sriram V .
He is the expert on these matters. Salutations to him as well.