- Report by Narayanan Iyer
The art of Katha Keerthana came to life on 23-10-2016 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, where a unique day long national seminar was held. Katha Keerthana, also called Harikatha or Kathakalakshepam, is a pristine art form in which music, literature, storytelling and to some extent dance converge to create a divine experience. The seminar was jointly organized by the Vanamala Center for Art and Culture, and the Shadja Kala Kendra Trust. The seminar was conducted in honour of the great Harikatha exponent Santa Bhadragiri Achyutdas. The goal of the seminar was to sow the seeds of revival of this divine but diminishing art form.
With eminent experts in the field slated to take the stage, the hall was packed from the word go. The event began with an invocation by Ananya Bhagat a Ph D research scholar in Music from Jain University followed by the lighting of the lamp. A journal published by the Vanamala Center for Art and Culture featuring 51 research articles on various art forms authored by scholars from all over the country was released by the honorary guests and speakers. Renowned Gamaka artist and Chairperson, Karnataka Sangeetha Nritya Academy, Smt Gangamma Keshavamurthy, Keertanacharya Shri Lakshmandas Velankar, renowned musician and musicologist Dr B M Sundaram and renowned musician, Dr Choodamani Nandagopal, Art Historian and former Dean Faculty of Humanities and Social sciences, Jain University, Musicologist and Managing trustee of Vanamala Center for Art and Culture, Dr Meera Rajaram Pranesh were among the dignitaries on the dais.
Shri Keerthanacharya Lakshmandas Velankar was the first presenter. Clad in the traditional Harikatha attire, Lakshmandasji’s presence illuminated the stage with a divine glow. He gave a very nice overview of the contribution of the Haridasa Keerthankars. He said that that the origin of Katha Keerthana could be traced to the Vedic times. After the Vedic rituals, the sages would engage in a lively discussion of the scriptures. Perhaps this was the initial form of Katha Keerthana to which music and side stories were added subsequently. Lakshmandasji also mentioned that Sage Narada was the foremost Katha Keerthankar as he used to narrate the latest happenings in the three worlds and also served as the carrier of these news across the three worlds in the form of Keerthans and stories. Lakshmandasji also highlighted that the word Hari in Harikatha refers to the eternal Parabrahma.
Dr B M Sundaram, renowned musician and musicologist, was the next speaker. He explained the evolution and essence of Kathakeerthan in a very subtle manner. He explained the evolution of this form across various regions in India, in a very lucid manner. He mentioned the influence of Maratha rule on the development of the Harikatha form in the South. Shri Krishna Bhagavathar was the pioneer of this art form and Smt Saraswati Bai was the first lady pioneer. She broke the monopoly of Brahmin men over this art form. He said that Santa Bhadragiri Achyutdasji gave Harikatha its modern form. Dr B M Sundaram elaborated the form, structure and evolution of Harikatha beautifully.
After a short tea break, it was time for some engaging music. Dr Meera Rajaram Pranesh and her group rendered the Katha Keerthana compositions of Harikesanallur Dr L Muthaiah Bhagavathar. The selections were from Valli Parinayam. These included Valli Nayakane in Shanmukhapriya and Nive Ituparaku in Kharaharapriya. Melody filled the air and kept the audience glued to their seats as Dr Meera Rajaram took the audience on a Katha Keerthana musical voyage with an apt brief explanation before each Keerthana. Dr Meera was supported by her students Sandhya Ram, Charumathi, Soumya Anil and Shivashankari on vocal; Vidwan Anantha Satyam on Violin, Vidwan Renuka Prasad on Mridangam, Vidwan A S N Swamy on Khanjira and Madhuvanthi on Tambura.
The atmosphere had already been positively charged with all the presentations so far, but the musical treat was far from over.
Pandit Prashant Pandav, a renowned Marathi Keerthanakar, gave a Katha Keerthana presentation where he engaged the audience nicely. All the facets of a Marathi Katha Keerthana were beautifully portrayed in a nutshell, with wisdom and wit. The elements of a Marathi Kathakeerthan like Ovi and Dindi were explained with respect to metre and melody. Prashant Pandav was ably supported by Pandit Gurumurthy Vaidya on Tabla and Sri Madhusudan Bhat on Harmonium. People were so engaged that no one seemed to mind the slight creep of the session into lunch time.
The afternoon session matched the aura created by the previous sessions. Surmani Dattatreya Velankar, a renowned Hindustani Classical Vocalist and Katha Keerthankar, presented a Katha Keerthana on the life of the great Haridasa composer Shri Purandaradasaru. The performance was as beautifully laden with bhava as it was with the pure Nada. The description of Purandaradasa as a suspicious and miserly being and his transformation through Godly experience into a spiritually profound being was beautifully essayed on stage. The seamless and enchanting blend of narration, music and accompaniment was enthralling. The support of Pandit Gurumurthy Vaidya on Pakhawaj, Pandit Prashant Pandav on Tabla, Dr Ravindra Katoti on leg Harmonium added flavour to the program.
Renowned Yakshagana scholar Dr Prabhakar Joshi followed this with a very profound and witty presentation of Katha Keerthana as an ideal communicating form. He raised several important issues that are highlighted via Katha Keerthanas. He highlighted Harikatha as a means of the democratization of the scriptures, and an extension of religious freedom. He said that Harikatha communicated the complex principles of Vedanta in a simple and effective manner. It should be performed effectively as Santa Bhadragiri Achyutdasji did. The audience thoroughly enjoyed the presentation.
Post tea break, Dr Purnima Pande, a renowned Kathak dancer, intrigued the audience with a presentation on the Kathakar tradition in Kathak. She showed a video on a unique informal regional Kathakar performance at a temple in Ayodhya. Ramya Nagaraj and Keerti Kumar, Students of Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography gave a brilliant performance of Tulsidasji’s ‘Shri Ramachandra Krupalu Bhajamana’. This was done in Kathakar style and was a unique display of graceful storytelling through dance.
Last but not the least, the final presentation was by Katha Keertanakar Dr Lakshmandas from Tumkur. He spoke on drama compositions and portray of modern personalities in Katha Keerthan
The valedictory function was graced by Sri H N Suresh, Director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and Sri Chandrashekar, Program Officer, Southern Regional Centre, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Mementos were presented to all the guests and organizers. Participation certificates were given to all those who participated and author certificates were given to those who published articles in the journal.
This brought us to the close of the seminar which also saw the presence of eminent experts like Pandit Vinayak Torvi, M A Jayarama Rao, Dr Gayatri Kassebaum, Vidwan R N Thyagarajan, Prof. Vijaya Marthanda, Vidushi T Sharada, Vidushi Sudha V Murthy, Vidushi Rohini Manjunath, Vidushi Rupa Sridhar, and all the other honourable scholars/musicians/ dancers/katha keertan artists/ research scholars/ students/ connoisseurs from all over the country. The entire gamut of Katha Keerthana was captured and presented beautifully in a day. There was an aura of satisfaction and happiness. More importantly, the presenters, organizers and the audience went back in an introspective mood with a lot of excitement over this divine art form. The seminar truly lived up to its goal of sowing the seeds of revival of the Katha Keertana tradition.