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Return of the sacred ballads
When Suchithra Balasubramanian was 15, she asked her grandmother to teach her harikatha. But Kamala Murthy, the oldest living exponent of the ancient art of storytelling in Tamil Nadu, was reluctant. "She told me to concentrate on Carnatic music because there was not much of an audience for this form of storytelling that uses a lot of music, " says 22-year-old Suchithra.
Three years later, Suchithra went back to her grandmother, asking for lessons. This time, her grandmother happily agreed. What changed for this 17th century tradition of religious discourse to become a viable option? "In the last few years, more people have taken up harikatha and so she accepted me as her student, " she says.
Suchithra has since given about 500 harikatha performances, travelling all over Tamil Nadu and across India - New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore - telling ancient stories of Hindu deities and saints set to music and to the accompaniment of the chipla (castanets ).
It isn't an easy art to perfect - you need not only musical skills and familiarity with religious texts but also the ability to keep the audience engaged. Though there are only a few harikatha exponents today, there has been a revival of interest in this art which was introduced in Thanjavur during the Maratha rule in the 17th century. "South India always had a storytelling tradition in the form of discourses based on old texts and stories, " says music historian V Sriram. "The lively Marathi keertan with melodious music later became popular with the locals though they couldn't understand the story. " Humour was also an important part of Harikatha.
Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavathar, who combined the Marathi keertans with the south Indian storytelling tradition, is considered the pioneer of harikatha. Staged in temples, in the houses of rich patrons and at weddings, harikatha shows were held late in the evening and went on all night. "It was more popular than Carnatic music concerts, " says harikatha artiste Vishaka Hari.
Sometime in the late 1930s, the art started to decline. Experts attribute this to various reasons. "A standard harikatha performance takes about five hours. It was too long a format and people didn't have that kind of time, " says Sriram. The arrival of cinema also contributed to the decline. The rationalist movement of Tamil Nadu and the association of harikatha with the Brahmin community hastened the decline of the tradition.
In the past few years, there has been a renewed interest in harikatha and its history. Cultural organisations such as Narada Gana Sabha, Sunaada Trust and Chennai Fine Arts have got together to celebrate the birth centenary of Banni Bai, one of the most renowned female harikatha performers in Chennai.
"My teacher, was one of the most wellknown artistes and we decided to celebrate her birth centenary which falls in February next year, " says Premeela Gurumuthy, head of the department of music, University of Madras, and founder-trustee of Sunaada Trust. Discourses and harikatha shows are being held once a month since this February and will continue till February next year.
Youngsters and even working professionals are taking to harikatha. Suchithra, also a Carnatic vocalist, has given numerous harikatha performances in the last three years. Vishaka, a chartered accountant, learnt the art from her father-in-law and harikatha exponent Krishna Premi. Her husband Hariji also conducts discourses.
"I was a concert musician, " says Vishaka, a disciple of violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman. "It was easy for me to combine the content created by my father-in-law and husband with the music of my guru Lalgudi Jayaraman. " Today, she is a much-soughtafter artiste, though purists say she does not stick to the traditional form. But there is no denying her popularity - the halls are always packed when she performs.
"There is an increasing audience for harikatha. What matters is not just the number of people who turn up but also the amount of attention they give you, " says Vishaka. In the last three years, many eager harikatha enthusiasts have approached her to learn the art form. Others, however, feel that the art continues to remain in a state of decline. "There is no great renewal and there are very few exponents left, " says Sriram. Kamala, 80, bemoans the lack of good teachers. "Only a few good exponents left like Kalyanapuram Aravamudachariar, " says the artiste based in Thanjavur.
However, artistes and organisations are trying to ensure that the art does not die out. "All Chennai sabhas make it a point to host harikatha performances, " says Sriram.
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