Harikathas – the story of the Divine

Dance, music and story come alive in India’s unique story telling traditions, writes Asha Malatkar of Story Walks

Harikatha is a very demanding art form in that it borrows from dance, storytelling, music and has different flavours emanating from a variety of genres. Harikatha performers have a deep understanding of Indian mythology and their evocative performances are immensely popular with international audiences too because of their style and creative expression.

A three day Harikatha festival in Bangalore recently, curated by Shrivatsa Shandilaya saw six women showcasing their craft.

The Harikatha culture has been known to be in existence for hundreds of years and it is difficult to say if the various dance forms had their own origins or had their genesis in Harikatha or vice –versa. This question led dancer Rajeshri Shirke, a Kathak dancer to research the origins of Kathak which she found was in the Harikatha tradition.

Shrimati Rajeshri Shirke from Maharashtra

Hailing from Maharashtra, she has amalgamated the art of Harikatha, and Kathak with the energy of lavani to infuse meaning and emotion into her perception. Rajeshri and her expressive team members had excellent percussion and vocal accompaniment and the audience was on their feet with tears of joy and appreciation for the beautiful story of Kanopatra, a beautiful courtesan who gave up her life to Lord Vithoba rather than submitting herself to the ruler of Bidar.

In contrast Parvati Baul’s bucolic version of man seeking the meaning of life, was quiet and very stirring. In pursuit of the meaning of life the poetic presentations were touching in their appeal. The simplicity of the ektara providing both drone and rhythm was a rare treat for urban music lovers.

Parvathy Baul from Bengal

Parvathy Baul’s long matted hair touched the ground and her saffron clothes are complimentary to her deep and emotional voice, accompanied by the ektara and the duggi drum tied to her waist. Her dance movements are enhanced by the sound of the ancient anklets that adorn her feet and her face wore a faraway look, transcending her from the here and now. The never ending exploration for the divine is a blissful preoccupation taking her away from the mundane world.

Parvathy’s expression is based on poetry about deep philosophical questions in simple words, phrases and metaphors and songs of the baul singers who seek to spread the message of love of music. Lalon Fakir, one of the Baul traditions best known poets in the late 1700’s, is credited with hundreds of compositions. The single-minded pursuit and devotion to the divine is a blend of Hinduism, Sufism and Buddhism’s – syncretic approach. As a result, the Bauls find everything in this journey of life commonplace and their lives are most unconventional because of their singular pursuit.

The Harikatha tradition from Tamil Nadu by Suchithra Balasubramanian evoked great interest and her musical abilities along with the sense of timing were fitting. A great performer and a keen student of Carnatic music and tala, her talent of putting across the characters of the Vatsala Kalyanam were apt, witty and focused at once. The audience heard her eagerly and she engaged them fully throughout the katha. In the Harikatha tradition in Tamil Nadu, there is the pundalikam or an introduction, panchapadi where the praise of Ganesha, Vishnu, Sarasvati, Guru and Anjaneya are sung, and the prathamapadam which gives the description of the protagonist and the last part where the storyteller has to prove the heroic descriptions given earlier.

Shrimati Suchithra Balasubramanian from Tamil Nadu

Further north in India, in Mahararashtra, the word kirtan was used for devotional songs earlier and then came to be used for a new format of devotional musical recitation in Maharashtra and the first kirtankar was Sant Namdev in (1268-1350). The Marathas then went to Tamil Nadu in 1675 and Varahur Bhagavatar who gave discourses standing was the first person who started this tradition there. The main body of the kirtan was the Nirupana which detailed the story and used songs set to different metres such as the Dindi, Ovee, Abhang, Lavani and others. Normally the Jalra or cymbals and chipla or castanets were used as accompaniment and the anklets on the feet had bells used as rhythm. The beat of 7,5 and usi, common in dance is used in the Harikatha performances.

The Marathi kirtan is of two types, the erudite Naradiya and Varkari style. The first is divided into two types, the Purvaranga and Uttararanga in which stories are told. The Varkari has compositions mainly by saints, with Padas and the Abhangas, and are sung in groups and referred to as Namasankeertanas but there is no story telling.

A celebrated Harikatha artiste, Uma Maheswari from Telangana also brought her talent and vast experience to the stage. She is the only woman who can perform Harikatha in Telugu and in Sanskrit. With a garland around her neck and the chipla in her hand she related stories around Rukmani Kalyanam. Her voice modulation interpreting the characters in mythology was superb. She is steeped in Carnatic music learnt from her father and has a beautiful rich voice. Swaying with the lilt of the music and tapping her feet to the rhythm provided more focus to her dynamic storytelling instilling the importance of dhyanam, chintanam and smaranam like Swamini Swathmabodananda Saraswati, the chief guest, held.

Shrimati Uma Maheshwari from Telangana

V Malini, a Harikatha artist from Karnataka has the unique distinction of reciting the Ramayana in 1minute and the Mahabharatha in 1minute and 30 seconds. With nearly 30 years of experience she has developed a good rapport with local audiences and had an energetic style of presentation. Her explanation of the various characters made them come alive and the witty asides were appreciated by the audience. Saraswati Bai, she said was the first woman harikatha artiste in India and that in earlier times women artistes were discouraged from taking up this art form but are now accepted by audiences.  Nearly 30 years ago two women artists – Shrimati Bhagirathi and Shrimati Vasanthi, trained by Shri Upadhya Krisnamurthy a veteran Harikatha vidhwan of yesteryears, from the temple town of Belur enchanted audiences with their talent, ensuring continuity and a future for this art form.

Shrimati  V. Malini  from Karnataka

The Pandavani performance by Ritu Verma from Chattisgarh, was conveyed with great emotions and her voice brought the various characters out alive. The craft of Pandavani uses no props at all and the artiste has only the ektara adorned with peacock feathers and small lilting bells. The ektara functions as Bhima’s gadha, the flute of Krishna or Arjuna’s bow depending on the character depiction. The accompanying music is provided by the harmonium, kartaal, dholak, manjira and the tabla.

Shrimati Ritu Verma from Chattisgargh

The episode she presented was the dice game and the sequence of events that led to the vastraharanam of Draupadi. The story is taken forward with a song or prasang, with descriptions of the various characters of Duryodhana, Shakuni, the Pandavas and Draupadi which were very expressive. Draupadi’s hurt conveyed to the Pandavas was touching and her questioning of Shakuni’s support and berating of the Kauravas brought out her amazing histrionic talents. Her pleas to Lord Krishna to come to her aid, was heart-rending and peppered sometimes with light-heartedness bringing the audience into the present.

Pandavani presentations are in two styles or shaili. The vedamati style where the performance is done kneeling and the story is in the doha-chaupal metre, like in the case of Ritu Verma. However Teejan Bai’s shaili is Kapalik where the performer is free to improvise on the basic content in both the songs and the storytelling methodology.

India’s vast story telling traditions are alive and thriving thanks to these artistes who bring together several musical and dance forms to tell a story.

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