Lecture delivered by Dr B M Sundaram in the National Seminar on Katha Keertan
Every religion has its base in the scriptures, many of which were revelations to the great seers. Hindu religion has its base in the Vedas. They insist on Dharma. “Dhriyate janai: iti Dharma:”It implies charity, piety, morality and so on. This message is carried to the man, through the characters in a story and this is the very purpose of the Puranas. Those, who undertook to spread the underlying message of the Puranas among the people, were called ‘Pauranikas’ or ‘Upanyasakas’. Story-telling has been in existence in our country, since very early times. For instance, in the households, the mother induces the child to sleep, with the help of a story. In Tamizhnadu, there were and are people, who extol ‘Maha Bharata’ consecutively for many nights. In Karnataka, it had different names like ‘Katha Vinoda’, ‘Kathana’, ‘KathaPrasanga’ ‘Goshti’ etc. Similar types of storytelling are prevalent in Andhra Pradesh also. It took a refined shape in ‘Purana Pravachana’ (literary discourse) and not much later as ‘Sangeeta Upanyasams’ (musical discourses). Those endowed with sweet voice and knowledge in music, as also, Puranas and Smrtis, became Sangeeta Upanyasakas.
Maharashtra is spoken of by learned men as the ‘Bhakti Land’. There the art of ‘Powada’ (Marathi version of the Sanskrit word, ‘Pravāda’) singing was quite popular, at least from the last part of the 16thcentury. ‘Powada’ in general is a ballad, eulogizing great heroes, mighty warriors and tactful dacoits. Noticing such sessions were in no way beneficial to the people, except being an entertainment, wise men like Vaman Pandit, Moropant, Mayurpant, Amrutaraya Kavi, Chintaman Kavi and some others composed ‘Keertans’, stressing the need of Bhakti, in the footsteps of their predecessors like Eknath, Tukaram and Namdev. When devotion towards God and patriotic feelings among the common people started to dwindle, it became an inevitable necessity to tell them, through moral stories about these, musically. Speech (comprising of stories, mostly drawn from the Puranas, with relevant examples) interspersed with musical compositions in praise of God or His devotees or on a specific theme-an amalgamation of all these blossomed as a new art-form, called ‘Keertan’. The word ‘Keertan’ is from the verbal root ‘krt samsabdane’ – singing the auspicious qualities of God and this, originally, meant only a devotional song. Keertan or Keertanam is one among the nine-fold Bhakti forms. Samartha Ramdoss declares “Kaliyugee keertan karāve- kėvala kómala kuśala gāvė”(In this Kali age, do Keertan). ‘Padma Purana’, as also, ‘Bhāgavata Sāram’, portrays the Keertan performance of Shuka. The name ‘Keertan’, originally ascribed to songs of devotional nature, was adapted to the new art-form of Maharashtra, by its progenitors. Sant Namdev (17.11.1268- 9.6.1350) is considered to be the earliest ‘Keertankar’. Samartha Ramdoss Svami (13.4.1608- 1.12.1681), guru of Chhatrapati Sivaji, at the request of the king composed and presented ‘Keertans’. This helped to invigorate the people, who were at that time, mentally depressed by the terrorizing activities of the Moghul Emperor, Aurangazeb.
With regard to the advent of ‘Keertan’ in the South, let me first take up Tamizhnadu. Marathas came to Tanjavur in 1675. Ekoji, step-brother of Chhatrapati Sivaji came to Tanjavur and after the demise of the ruler, Vijayaraghava Nayak on 3.2.1675, crowned himself as the king on 17.3.1675. With him and sooner or later, a number of Maratha families, from Maharashtra domiciled to Tanjavur. In 1676, Samartha Ramdoss Svami, en-route to Ramesvaram came to Tanjavur and camped there for about a month and later left some of his disciples, namely Bheemraj Svami, Bheem Gosvami at Bhikaji Shahpurkaar and Raghava Svami. These three established their mutts at Tanjavur, Mannargudi and Konur. They, in turn, got many followers and the Samartha sampradaya flourished. All the heads of these mutts regularly did worship and performed Keertans. This was the ‘Ankurarpana’ for the art of ‘Keertan in Tanjavur and around.
Inspired by the Marathi Keertankars, Varahur Gopala Bhagavatar (1815- 1878) was the first one to do the discourses, standing. But it was not real Keertan or Harikathakalakshepam. His accompanists had their seats among the audience. When songs were sung, members of the audience joined as a chorus to repeat each line and it appeared more like a congregational Bhajan, but speech by the Bhagavatar added to it. Invariably all songs were only Sanskrit verses and musical pieces of the ‘Keertan’ like Saki, Dindi etc. were missing.
The bunch of songs, ‘Guccha’ used in Keertans, was called Nirupana. Keertan and later Harikathakalakshepam are inter-related with Nirupana. The term ‘Nirupana’, in Sanskrit, means form, shape, definition etc. According to the Marathi ‘Sabda Kosa’, Nirupana is an exposition of stories pertaining to God, employing sweet music and simple lyrics. Samartha defines ‘Harikatha nirupana’ as some discussions on Dharma and Puranas. Be what may the grammar, the Sants of Maharashtra had devised a systematic repertoire of songs. It consists of Saki, Dindi, Arya, Abhang, Anjanigeeta, Lavani, Khadga, Mattakokilam and many more. But it is not necessary that all these should find a place in the presentation and not also in a fixed order. Almost all these musical pieces indicate verses in the respective metres (Chhandas) “Chhandati pruṇāti róchatė iti chhanda:” (That which pleases the ears is Chhanda:), according to Panini. Song forms, in meters like Vārdhika, Bhāmini, Bhóga Shaḍpadi and Kaḍak were handled in Karnataka. Such Marathi nirupanas were composed in the Tanjavur region by Nandan Gosvami, Ananda Nandana, Bheemraj Gosvami, Madhava Svami, Merusvami, Chintaman Pandit, Udke Govindacharya – all lived between 1700 and 1830 and by some others.
The works that helped Maharashtrians and later the early Harikatha artistes of Tamizhnadu to choose and perform Keertans are ‘Keertana Mala’, ‘Keertana Roopadarsika’, ‘Keertana Kaumudi’, ‘Keertana Tarangini’, ‘Keertana Masika’, ‘Keertana Muktahara’, ‘Akhyana Samuchchay’ and some others.
In ‘Keertans’ practiced in Tanjavur, the audience would be seated on two sides, ladies on one side and gents on the other, leaving a gang-way between them. The main performer would stand at the centre of the gang-way, while accompanists would be seated on the floor, at one end, where the idols or portraits of the deity were kept. The Keertankar, wearing a ‘Kafni’ (a long coat like apparel), a headgear called ‘Peta’, anklets and holding a Chipla in the hand, would move from one end to the other, while speaking and would station at one place, during singing. Only Marathi Nirupanas were used, though at times, there might be an inclusion of one or two Sanskrit slokas or Hindi Dohas (couplets). The Chipla served to reckon the tala. Whenever the Keertankar felt so, he would tap on the floor by foot and the anklets would produce the jingling sound. Sometimes he would dance. The Puranic characters and dialogues would be dramatically presented to enthuse the audience.
The invocation in ‘Keertan’ is the ‘Panchapadi’. This is a set of songs or verses in praise of Ganesa, Vishnu, Sarasvati, Guru and Anjaneya in order and hence it gained that name. The song addressed to Ganesa has three sections or verses, each rendered in a different gati and speed. Many started with the song “Moresvara Mauli’ or ‘SreeRama Jayarama’ or ‘Himagiritanaya tanayam’. ‘Tandava Nrutyakaree’ is a verse by Samartha Ramdoss. This will be followed by ‘Nama Siddhanta’ (efficacy of God’s names), which has a preceding song called ‘Prathama Pada’. Then comes the ‘Poorva Peethika’ (Introductory part) and then the actual story. Inclusion of a ‘Dhrupad (different from the North Indian Dhrupad) in between the Naama Siddhanta and Poorva Peethika would be complimentary. This Dhrupad, though resembles a Tillana, is different. The four important items usually found in Keertan are Abhangs of Tukaram or Namdev, Ovis of Jnyanesvar, Aryas of Moropant and slokas of Vaman Pandit. This structure was strictly adhered to by all Keertankars.
Generally these Keertan programs were esoteric restricted within the confines of the Mutts and those who attended them were mainly the devotees of that particular mutt. Not all people had an access to it, until the advent of Morgaonkar Ramchandra Bawa (Buwa) (1812- 14.2.1881). It was only he, who served the very delicious ‘Keertan’ to everyone, in the Tanjavur soil.
After King Sivaji, the last Maratha ruler of Tanjavur, who died in 1855, the Royal representation and guardianship of the entire property were vested with Kamakshi Amba Baisaheb, the coroneted queen of Sivaji. She was a very pious lady and spent most of her time in religious pursuits, renovation of temples and establishment of chowltries and so on. Ramchandra Buwa of Morgaon, a village in Maharashtra, who lived in Gwalior for 2 years, came to Tanjavur in 1864, on his pilgrimage to Ramesvaram. One great scholar has said that Ramchandra Buwa migrated to North Karnataka from Maharashtra, though this statement has no authenticity. Buwa, a Keertankar of high caliber, stayed, at the first instance, in Tanjavur for two months and during his camp performed Keertans in the palace, on the invitation of the queen. Fascinated by his performance, the queen requested Buwa to continue his stay for some more time. Buwa consented, since he felt that his mission was to propagate Keertan in the Tanjavur land. The happy Rani built a mutt especially for Buwa in the North Main Street and the mutt still stands there. Initially, his troupe consisted of his son, Vishnu Buwa (vocal support), Tanjavur Davoodsa (who played Sarinda, a stringed instrument like Sarangi) and Pudukottai Nannu Miya (Dholak). A regular attendant to the programs and an aficionado of Buwa was Krishnasvami Naig (addressed as Sakha Naig), a former courtier and a wealthy connoisseur. Even today the street, where his mansion stands, is called Sakha Naig Street. When Davoodsa fell ill after some time and Nannu Miya wanted to move over to his native Pudukottai, Sakha Naig sent word to the Mrudangam celebrity, Tanjavur Narayanasvami Appa (1839- 1907). Appa was born in Tanjavur and learnt the art of Mrudangam from Sivasvami Appa and Heeroji Rao, but stayed in the Merusvami Mutt at Mannargudi, for some reason, better known only to him. On receiving the message from Naig, he returned to Tanjavur and became the Mrudangam accompanist to Buwa. After few months, Krishna Bhagavatar joined this troupe in 1866, as a Swarabat player (another stringed instrument) and a year later, he switched over as the vocal supporter to Buwa.
Krishna Bhagavatar, well-versed in many languages like Marathi, Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, besides his native tongue Tamil, as also some musical instruments, learnt the art of Keertan from Buwa, much by listening. Buwa passed away on 14.2.1881 and Krishna Bhagavatar started to perform Keertan, but with the name ‘Harikatha Kalakshepam’.
Krishna Bhagavatar was born in 1841, as the son of Venkatesa Sastri, a clerk in the Tanjavur palace. The family belonged to Tiruppoonturuthi. The father left the family and went after a concubine. Krishna Bhagavatar was entrusted by his mother to Tillaisthanam Narasimha Bhagavatar for musical studies. Then he came to Periyanna, the former minister of King Sivaji and was tutored in playing the Swarabath, Violin and Mrudangam. Later he came under the guidance of Morgaonkar Ramchandra Buwa. After the demise of Buwa, he himself started to do Keertans with the name Harikatha Kalakshepam and his maiden performance was ‘Radha Kalyanam’ in 1881. Portraying any character life-like was an important aspect in his Harikathas. Once he was performing ‘Prahlada’ and when he came to the part of lord Narasimha, a Narasimha-Upasaka in the audience stood up and started to shout in frenzy. In ‘Bhakta Ramdoss’, he as Taneshah was uttering the prayer, “Allahu Akbar”, when a Muslim in the audience started to repeat the prayer loudly and later he became the perfume supplier to Bhagavatar. He was once performing ‘Draupadi Vastrapaharanam’ in Vellore and when he, as Duhsasana enacted removing the saree, a policeman standing in a corner shouted, “Arrest this rogue! He denigrates the modesty of a woman. ‘Chamatkara’ (savoir faire) was in-born in him. He was doing ‘Rukmini Kalyanam’ and while singing the seven slokas, purported to have written by Rukmini in a letter to Krishna, he, inadvertently, forgot the last sloka and managed with some suitable words. Kappanamangalam Svami Sastrigal, a very learned one in Puranas and Sastras, got up from the audience and asked the Bhagavatar to repeat the line. Bhagavatar replied, “You are a great person. Don’t you know that we have no propriety to open the sealed cover and go through the love letter of a girl? It is between her and the lord and we have no business in that”. Always he was admired and praised by one and all.
He simply christened it as Harikatha Kalakshepam, but the term Harikatha Kalakshepam was not coined by him. The term Harikatha is found in many earlier works also. A verse in Srimad Bhagavatam runs as: “Dėvadattam imām veeṇām swarabrahma vibhooshitam | moorchayan Harikathām gāyan charāmi bhuvanėshvaham”. Potana’s Bhagavatam in Telugu has many verses in which the word Harikatha finds place. “Kalidósha nivārakanaiyalaghu yasul pogaḍunadi Harikathanamu nirmalamati”, “Ātmaroopakuḍagu Harikathāmrutamunu’ and so on. Chaturlaksham Krishnamacharya (12thC) in one of his vachanas says “Vėdamulu chadiviyunu vimukhuḍavai Harikathalunādarinchina”. Sreepadaraja has sung “Karṇa Harikathena kėḷali enna” (Na ninagenu beduvadialla). Purandaradasa (1482- 3.12.1564) has said, “Harikathā śravaṇamāḍo-paragatikė idu nirddhāra” Tallapakkam Annamacharya (1408- 1503) has mentioned this in some of his Sankeertanas E.g. Harikathalanādarinchanai (Konchemunu ghanamunu). The dasa in an Ugabhoga avers: “EIIi Harikathā prasangavu alli Yamunā Gangā Gódāvari Sarasvati – ella teerthavu bandu eṇeyāgi nillalu”. Sant Tukaram (1568- 18.3.1650) says in one of his Abhangs that if Harikatha is listened to, all the miseries would go far away (Śravaṇakadā Harikathā kada tumhė doorkara avavyadha). In another Abhang, he says, “Yamadharma sānge doota tumhā nahee tethe satta | jethe hóya Harikathā sada ghósha nāmācha” (The lord of Death has instructed his messengers not to go near the place that reverberates with the sound of Harikatha). He speaks about Harikatha in not less than 20 Abhangs. We may go on quoting such verses. Samartha Ramdoss says that Keertan’s another name is Harikatha “Sagun Harikathā yā nāva keertan (Das Bodh 4.2.23). Dr R Satyanarayana says that Katha Keertan acquired the name Harikatha in Karnataka. In the case of the Dasas, Harikatha means nothing more than the story of Hari and not definitely the art. “Na hi śabdamātram arthasvaroopam sambhavati śabdārthayórbhėdāt”, says Bhagavad Geeta. Astigmatism should be eschewed in dealing with the subject. A same term, at different periods of time, gets different meanings or used to indicate different things. For instance, the term ‘Pada’ in Sanskrit means only a word; but it came to be used to mean a particular type of song form. In fact, the compositions of the Haridasas were called Padas (Dasara Padagalu); Annamacharya is adored as the ‘Padakavita Pitamaha’. But today pada means a different type of song and the compositions of Annamayya are indicated as Samkeertanas. Simply because the term ‘Harikatha’ has been oft-mentioned by the members of the Dasakoota, we cannot take it as the art form, Harikatha Kalakshepam. V.S. Sampatkumaracharya states that Harikatha took birth in Karnataka, travelled to Maharashtra and from there to Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu. This only seems chimerical and the author’s presumption, because there is no authenticity to prove this. The regions of Tamilnadu and Karnataka have a musical affinity since earliest times of history. The languages Kannada and Tamizh are more inter-related. It may not be necessary to tell anyone that Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh were only different geographical constituents of a homogenous ‘Dravida Desa’ and the whole regions were called Madras presidency. Parochial affinity is a matter to be commended only to a certain extent. Vidvan V Ramaratnam wrote: “Any story with Sangeetabhinaya coupled with anecdotes is called Katha kalakshepa. This has had its origin in Maharashtra”.
For the purpose of innovating a new art form, out of the earlier Keertans, Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar didn’t discard ·the basic format of his predecessor like Panchapadi, Dhrupad, Naama Siddhanta and such other segments, as also the musical forms like Ovi, Dindi, Abhang etc. On the other hand, he included songs in Telugu, Kannada and Tamizh and discoursed in Tamizh. Some changes too were brought in by him.
The Bhagavata (formerly Keertankar) should wear a dhoti in Panchakaccha, an upper garment (Angavastra) in the fashion of a Yagnyopaveeta, garlands of Rudraksha or Tulasi beads on the neck. Kafni and Pėṭā were discarded. Holding the Chipla, he should stand only at a single place, not moving to and fro, while the sidemen should be positioned behind the Bhagavata. The Sadhaka (vocal supporter) and Upasadhaka (assistant vocal supporter) should stand behind the Bhagavata, separated by a bench and the mrudangam player sitting on the bench. The sadhaka should keep time with Gundu tala (smaller cymbals) while singing and the Upasadhaka strumming the Tambura and singing. Almost all songs used were in Carnatic tunes, though, at times, some Hindustani ragas also for relevant songs. Occasionally one or two folk songs like Kavadi Chindu and Temmangu found a place, if need be. These are the changes envisaged by Krishna Bhagavatar and observed by all Harikatha Kalakshepa artistes, until recent years.
Somesvara II in his ‘Manasollasa’ (1129) prescribes the qualifications of a Kathaka, which is applicable to the later Harikatha artistes also. The Kathaka must be ‘an orator, skilful, mature, youthful, yet older in wisdom..’ and so on. Samartha Ramdoss in his ‘Das Bodh’ also speaks of this. An extract is: Rāgagnyānee, tāḷagnyānee sakala kalā brahmagnyānee nirabhimānee..’ “Man ṭhevoon eesvaree jó kóṇee Harikathā karee tóchi ye samsāree Dhanya jāna”. Katta Achayya of Vetapalem also gives the qualifications “Vararoopamu sangeetamu sarasa kavitaya madhuramagu svaramu prasatócchāraṇamunrutyambun bhaktirasamu gala Harikathakula Keertinchuḍan” (Sree Krshnavatara Mahabharatamu). Many of these lakshanas may not be found among the Harikatha performers of today. While Krishna Bhagavatar and his successors presented Harikathas in their native language, some others did in other languages. Tanjavur Veerasami Raju, the mentor of Adibhtla Narayanadasa of Vijayanagaram performed in Telugu. Embar Vijayaraghavachariar had done in Sanskrit, Marathi and Hindi; Padmasani Bai in Sanskrit; Munainjipatti Subbayya Bhagavatar and T.S. Balaksrishna Sastri in English; Tanjavur Nanayya Bhagavatar in his mother tongue, Saurashtram; C.Sarasvati Bai in Kannada. Similarly, in Karnataka, Bhadragiri Achyutadasa has discoursed in Kannada, Tulu, Marathi and Hindi, while his younger brother, Kesavadas in Konkani, Tulu, Marathi, Hindi and English, besides his native language, Kannada.
‘Sivakatha’ is the name used by some for their discourses. ‘Jinakathe’ and ‘Sivakathe’ are names used in Karnataka. Mukkavelli Narasimhadasa of Bobbili titled his Harikatha, ‘Parvati Parinayam’ as ‘Sivakatha’. There is a general notion that Harikatha is a story only about Vishnu or on Vaishnavite themes. Actually the word ‘Hari’ has a number of meanings. ‘Amarakosa’ gives 25 meanings, Lord Vishnu, Lion, Monkey, God and Divinity in general and so on. There may be Harikathas on Sakti, but, so far none has titled it as ‘Sakti Katha’. Moreover, it is generally considered by many that Harikatha is meant solely for topics of Hindu religion. Stories like ‘Anjani Bahubali Vruttanta’, ‘Neminatha Vairagya’ and ‘Yasodhara Charitre’ were Jinakathas. Jainism has its strong hold in Karnataka and the earliest available Kannada literature ‘Vaddharadhane’ (10thcentury) depicts stories of some Jains. But there was a staunch Hindu, who composed and presented Harikathas with stories from “The Holy Bible”. He was careful that his nirupanas wholly adhered to the Harikatha format – Panchapadi, Saki etc. He performed it on one day or in a series. He was Tanjavur Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar, generally addressed as Siva Rao. It was his close friend, Raosaheb Abraham Panditar, of ‘Karnamruta Sagaram’ fame, who inspired and induced Siva Rao to try his potential with Christian themes. Siva Rao used to present his Harikathas in a local church during the Lent period. He also trained Panditar’s sons and daughters in the art. ‘Yesu Charitram’, ‘Daveedu Charitramu and so on. Later, Manḍapāṭi Abraham Bhagavatar – 1926, performed ‘Yesu Charitramu’. Attoṭa Ratna Kavi of Gurupupalem did “Christu Janma Rahasyamu’, as also ‘Samson and Delailah’. ‘Muhammadu Vilasamu’, highlighting the life of the prophet by Khadar Khan Sahib (1912) also came up. Some Hindu composers of Andhra Pradesh like Chevoori Lakshmeenarayanacharyulu and Dāmerla Nagendram have also composed Harikathas with Christian themes.
It was not un-natural that composers of other religions have performed Harikathas with Hindu themes. Tonḍapi Kasimdas, a Muslim regularly performed ‘Bhakta Kannappa’, ‘Markandeya’ and such others. Shaik Nabi Sahib of Andhra Pradesh had composed ‘Ambareshopakhyanamu’ and ‘Dhruvopakhyanamu’. In Kerala, there was Sebastin Kunjunju Bhagavatar (1901- 1980) of Alappuzha, who was regular in performing Harikathas of Hindu stories. In 1954, he presented a series of Harikathas in Srilanka for about 20 days. For the first fifteen days his Harikathas were on ‘Seeta Kalyanam’, ‘Jatayu Moksham’, ‘Bhakta Dhruva’, ‘Ambareesha Charitram’ etc allotting the remaining five days for Christian themes. Religion was never a hurdle in the artistic and cultural activities, which is a matter for great appreciation and heart-warming.
Harikathas, for many days, consecutively, in series were also done and the trail-blazer was Tiruppazhanam Panchapakesa Sastrigal. His ‘Ramayana’ Harikathas were in series. The ‘Tiruttondar puranam’, also called ‘Periya puranam’ dealing with the 63 Saivite saints (Nayanmars), in series was performed by Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. Tiruvaiyaru Pandit Lakshmanachar was the only one who performed “Bhagavad Geeta” for a number of days.
Purana Pravachanam in Kerala was in existence since a long time, with the name ‘Pāṭhakam’. It was Merusvami of Mannargudi, who introduced Keertan, for the first time, in that land. On listening to them, King Svati Tirunal composed ‘Ajamilopakhyanam’ and ‘Kuchelopakhyanam’.
In Karnataka, there were and are many Harikatha exponents like Belur Kesavadas, Bangalore Krishna Bhagavatar, Hande Sreepadadasa, Gamaki Ramakrishna Sastri, T.K. Venugopaladas, Sosale Narayanadas, B. Sivamurthi Sastri, Gamaki Narayana Sastri, Hebbani Krishna Sastri, Honnappa Bhagavatar, Bhadragiri Achyutadas, Bhadragiri Kesavadas, Gururajulu Naidu, Lakshmandas Velankar and many others. Adibhatla Narayanadasa, Neti Lakshminarayana Bhagavatulu, Musunoori Suryanarayana Bhagavatar and many others were Harikatha artistes of Andhra Pradesh. Gavai Visvanatha Bhagavatar, Prof. R. Srinivasan, Alappuzha Sebastin Kunjunju Bhagavatar, Alappuzha Annasvami Bhagavatar, Ochira Raman Bhagavatar and Tiruvanantapuram Narayana Bhagavatar may be mentioned as some Harikatha artistes of Kerala.
Harikatha Kalakshepam or the earlier Keertan were exclusively male-dominated art form. Women had no place in these, since it was considered that they were not fit to speak about Dharma. Only those, who have studied Vedas and Sastras were eligible, according to many male Harikatha performers. But, aeons ago, women were performed Upanayana, they studied Vedas, kept fire (Agnihotra) and took alms (Bhiksha), a fact made known by ‘Harita Smrti’, quoted in ‘Smrti Chandrika’. In spite of great oppositions, Ilayanarvelur Saradambal (1884- 24.11.1943) boldly set her foot in the Harikatha world in the year 1901. One, who followed her, was C.Sarasvati bai (1994- 1974), who did Harikatha, for the first time, in 1908.
Before concluding my speech, I wish to say a few words about a phenomenon in the field of Harikatha Kalakshepa. Embar Vijayaraghavachariar was born on 2.11.1909, as the son of Embar Sreerangachariar in Chidambaram. He got the degrees ‘Advaita Siromani’ and ‘Sahitya Siromani’ from the Annnamalai University. From 1933, he worked as a Research Scholar in the Oriental Research Institute, Baroda for four years. He became well-versed in Marathi and Hindi. The he returned to his native place and worked in Lutheran Mission High School, as the Sanskrit teacher. After learning Harikatha from his father, he made his debut in 1935. Very soon he outshone his colleagues. Like his father, he brought in new charitras. He was the first to do the topics, ‘Sri Sadasiva Bhrahmendra’ and ‘Sri Ramana Maharishi’, the latter spontaneously, when he was asked by the saint to do some Katha. Similarly he performed ‘Sri Desika Vaibhavam’. He was the first to dispense with the traditional Panchapadi. Instead he used to sing various other songs on the respective deities. A number of awards he got. This preternatural genius, who was in the apex of the Harikatha world attained eternal rest on 2.6.1991, at Srirangam, where he lived from 1951.
Many others excelled in this art. Harikesanallur Muthayya Bhagavatar, Karandai Govinda Bhagavatar, Mangudi Chidambara Bhagavatar, Tiruppazhanam Panchapakesa Sastrigal, Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Palakkadu Anantarama Bhagavatar, Pandit Lakshmanachar, Tiruvaiyaru Annasvami Bhagavatar, Sarasvati Bai, Padmasani Bai, Banni Bai and Tanjavur Kamala Murthi may be mentioned as some among them. In the present times, only Kalyanapuram Aravamudachariar performs the true Harikatha.
Harikatha Kalakshepam is a composite art that requires good music, knowledge in the Vedas, Sastras, Puranas, Histrionics and proficiency in many languages, oratory skill, imagination and many more. It has three aspects – literature, music and acting or dance, as they say in Tamizh – Iyal, Isai, Natakam. Day by day, the requisites of an ideal Harikatha performer have marched towards the decrease and the very art-form has been speeding up towards entropy in many places. Any art requires a forum and unless there are rasikas, there cannot be artistes. The responsibility of saving this great art from entering into the grave vests equally on the people. It is the duty of the people to encourage, patronize and foster this noble art, so that they could reap a rich moral harvest for themselves.
I very heartily thank Vanamala Center for Art and Culture and Shadja Kala Kendra Trust for having invited me to take part in this wonderful seminar.