Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Original Screenplay

How do you make Bharatanatyam’s content interesting and in a way that audiences across India – including someone in a dusty village in Uttar Pradesh – appreciate and respond to it? Savitha Sastry says she knows how…

When my husband A K Srikanth and I started our concept of what we called Bharatanatyam Dance Theatre, we faced challenges from two opposite ends of the audience spectrum. On the one side, were the traditionalists, who enter a show expecting the Pushpanjali-Varnam-Padam-Javali-Thillana routine and would cry hoarse at anything else. The farthest end of the spectrum had another - potential - audience that would make a face and walk the other way at the mere mention of a classical Bharatanatyam performance. The latter perhaps accounts for a vast majority of India and the reason for their behaviour stems from the convictions of the former.  

Everything has a time and place. Bharatanatyam delivered beautifully in the age where it belonged.  In the times of the devadasis, this dance form was used by those ‘wedded’ to the Gods to solicit patrons or maintain their exclusivity over them. The raison d'ĂȘtre has faded away. Therefore, synergies are created to equate the dance form to divinity, thus giving it a cloak of invincibility and continuance, for no one would like to be seen critiquing the Nayika constantly pining to seek union with the Gods. It's a different matter that the God had no problems engaging in voyeurous escapades with all and sundry!

Okay, so we have a weak story with the rationale of the devadasis clumsily substituted with the name of the God.  So we turn our attention from the content to the standards of delivery.  Every critic and his/her critiques follow a mandatory four paragraphs extolling the Aramandi, the geometric shapes, the mathematical footwork, the Nrtta and Abhinaya and perhaps one point about a missed step in the thirty-eighth minute of a forty-minute Varnam! The dancers began to dance for critics, teachers, students, and other dancers.  A self-sustaining audience base grew out of it.  And the tradition lived on forever.

I believed this too. For the longest time, I would blame a lack of audience or the lack of interest to some issue with my technique till I came to cities in India that did not know Bharatanatyam. It took a Punjabi lassie to point out "Forget about your footwork, the show is boring any which ways.  I would rather go see a movie!"

The traditionalists and the practitioners of the art form would, more often than not, respond to the call for change by retorting that classical show can still get full houses.  They still get standing ovations and meet an audience that wipes away their tears utterly moved by the depiction of the leelas of the Gods.  If a renowned artiste was to travel to a dusty town in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and present this to the locals there, I wonder how many tear-stained audience they would encounter.  If this art form is divine, then why those in that dusty town be precluded?  Doesn’t divinity surpass geography? 

What is beautiful about Bharatanatyam is its innate ability to narrate any story. Get the story right and the audience will flow in; forget their cell phones, and follow you much like they do a good cinema.

Audiences, across the length and breadth of the country, have validated my beliefs following my experiments with truth.  After every performance of Soul Cages and Yudh, two productions from my production-house, the audience echo the words over and over again, that they are left speechless. Whether it is a Sardar in Chandigarh, a Parsee family from South Mumbai, an intellectual in Kolkata, a trader in Surat, or a chicken farmer in Coimbatore, they all managed to understand an original story, not borrowed from mythology or religion, and yet deeply philosophical. And this, despite being their first Bharatanatyam show! This, in a sense, is the true glory of this dance form. Hip-hop and Salsa can never. Bharatanatyam can.

The way to preserve a tradition is to morph it to be relevant in the present age.  If tradition is preserved without a connection that is relevant, then it is not preservation but destruction. We agree there is a population that would watch art for how it is delivered, rather than what is delivered. Catering to its needs is a large group of Bharatanatyam artistes perhaps larger than what this clique needs. In order that the art form grows, it needs to be understood and relished by the common man, not live in an ivory tower of codified elitism. It is a strange brew of democracy indeed that these very performers seek the validation from the common man without ever bothering to look beyond themselves. 

In my personal journey as a dancer, I have been through the path of the traditionalist and have journeyed to a post in life where I have realised I am nothing compared to those whose validation I seek – the audience. I am happy that I was trained to be perfect in my technique.  It is imperative that a dancer perfects technique.  But only so he or she, can deliver content effortlessly, and not for its own sake. Using novel stories is not a departure for the sake of departure. It has to be a story that will engage the audience and will seize them by their throats and allow them to react viscerally and savour the beauty of the narrative. When they walk out at the end of such a show, they need to have had sensory, intellectual, and emotional fulfillment. Miss any one of these and the experience is incomplete. As a performer, obsession cannot be about technique. It has to be about one thing only – how do I astound my audience today?  

The writer is an Indian dancer and choreographer best known as an exponent of 

Monday, 20 May 2013

Divine Intervention

The Harikatha is not only a synthesis of dance and drama but really a synthesis of religion and science, writes Vishaka Hari…

Let me ask you a question. Can you tell me if the Harikatha is merely an aspect of religion or an element of science? It might sound like a bizarre question but in my opinion, it’s one that is very relevant in this day and age. In my personal view, Harikatha is really a combination of the two. “Religion without science is blind,” said Einstein, and went on to say, “Science without religion is lame.” Religion and science are not separate from each other. They are inter-woven and the present era of quantum physics, marine archaeology, planetarium software and archaeoastronomy, are only making the bond between the two elements stronger. Today, Rama and Krishna are not only considered great mythological characters but also they are perceived as legendary heroes of history who taught us significant lessons of divinity through the lives that they lived.

A couple of decades ago, the common notion about religion was that it was the source of all conflict, responsible for the lack of our progress; it was considered a sheer complication and as something that was to be done away with, at the earliest. A few decades later, people began to feel similarly about science; they said it destroyed heritage and culture, it diluted the purity of values, relationships; its focus, they said, was the body and not the soul, that it complicated human life and was a hindrance to the peace of mankind.
Naturally, science was also something that people wanted to eradicate as soon as possible. Today though, people are looking for ways to synthesize science and religion for the benefit of mankind. The world is trying to build technological societies that incorporate spiritual values and do not tamper with culture and heritage. Now, is that possible? The answer is most certainly in the affirmative. Religion and science can prove to be a boon or a bane, depending on how men uses it. Man needs to learn the art of carefully picking the good over the bad. 

A well-known Westerner, Auguste Comte said that knowledge goes through three stages of development. It begins with theological knowledge (religion), in the second stage, it transforms into metaphysical knowledge and in the third, it turns into scientific knowledge. To an extent, we can agree with him. But it’s hard to define the process of development from one stage to another because theirs is really a cyclic relationship. Science leads to theology and so on and so forth. The goals of science and religion might be distinctly different. While science analyzes matter, religion attempts to understand the spirit. While science is the analysis of material quanta, religion comprehends the spiritual quanta. While science attempts to comprehend the nature of creation, religion comprehends the purpose of creation. The ultimate aim of both is to achieve superior wisdom and find deeper purposes. Without religion, creation would be insignificant and humankind would have plunged into an ocean of materialism, a long time ago. At this point, we need to implement a solution to find perfect harmony. Harikatha is an instrument to achieve that.

As the name suggests, Harikatha is the katha of Sri Hari. It is an amalgamation, mixture and blend of different facets - culture, tradition (sampradaya), religion (puranas, ithihasas), fine arts (music and dance), philosophy and literature. In a nutshell, Harikatha is a solo theatrical presentation.

The most essential part of the art is that it gives immense joy and great satisfaction. All the themes within this space are based on the bhakthi rasa because it serves as a medium to build a constructive society. It entertains, educates and elevates the audience to another level. Harikatha exponents are part-doctors and part-psychiatrists, because they have the power to bestow a healthy mind and a healthy body. Through stories and songs, they communicate religious truths, moral values and moral instructions. Truth is always bitter. Harikatha is a coat of sugar that makes it sweet.

In the area of dance, Harikatha is integral to the development of new forms and formats. For instance, the idea of a dance-drama stems from the Harikatha. The Yaksha Gaanam (a dance-theatre form from Karnataka) intersperses music, dance and narration of stories. The only difference between the Harikatha and the Yaksha Gaanam is that in the former, a single
person narrates the story, interprets it as well as sings and dances along, whereas in the latter, there are different performers to perform different aspects. Similarly, Bhagavatha Mela is another classical dance-theatre format. The texts narrated are usually in Telugu. Narayana Teertha began this tradition and composed two dance-dramas - Parijathapaharanam and Rukmangada Charitram. This practice was taken forward by one of
his disciples, Gopal Krishna Shastri who composed several such dancedramas like Dhruva Charitram, Sita Kalyanam andRukmini Kalyanam. His son Venkatarama Shastri, who was well-versed with Bharatanatyam, Telugu and Sanskrit, in turn took this legacy forward. He wrote more than 12 dance-theatre pieces including Prahlada, Harishchandra, Markandeya,
Ushaparinayam, Shivaratri Vaibhavam and Vipra Narayanan.

Harikatha has also played an integral role in several other fields. For instance, it is the means through which Hindustani ragas like Bhimplas, Kafi, Yaman, Sohini, Bagesri, Behag, Johnpuri, Tilang and Darbari were introduced to the South. Abhangs came into being because of the Harikatha. Taraana, Dhrupad and Bhajan became popular through the Harikatha. Northern and Southern styles of music blend seamlessly in the Harikatha Kalakshepam.  Following the Hindustani kirtana and Varkari Sampradaya formats, the harmonium was adopted as an accompaniment during a Harikatha discourse. All the Sakis, Dindis and Ovis (musical forms used in the Harikatha) are in Hindustani tunes. Thanjavur Panchapagesa Bhagavathar was an expert in rendering Abhangs. Harikatha Bhagavathars have followed suit and are usually experts in Carnatic music, Hindustani music, folk music, English notes and Parsi tunes.

Some very essential qualities that one must certainly posses to qualify as a Harikatha exponent are Guru bhakthi - devotion towards one’s Guru; bhaasha gnanam -  the knowledge of at  least a few languages; shastra gnanam- the knowledge of the ithihasas and puranas for the narration to be meaningful; the knowledge of music – Carnatic and Hindustani music (with perfect sruthignana and swaragnana); eloquence - linguistic  excellence; good memory power; subtle humour; clarity – for the step by step development of a story; the knack of including songs without tampering with the tempo of the presentation; the ability of adding luster by using the navarasas; manodharma and kalpana shakthi – creativity and imagination that plays a significant role in aalaapanas during slokas, kalpana swaras and niraval (improvising on a line that is pregnant with a significant meaning and purpose). Thanjavur Govinda Bhagavathar was an expert in this area. He would sing the same song thrice. Once with the tala, second time without the tala and only with the raga bhava and the third time, as a prose recitation to imply the importance of sahitya.

Dance, music and Harikatha, all of them have religious themes. But the treatment and presentation of each form is different. It also varies depending on the individual who presents it. The themes might be similar but each person treats the narrations, music and dance with a different intensity, depending on the audience, performer’s qualification and the context. Once you master the very first qualification of Guru bhakthi, one can attain all the other qualifications, effortlessly. You grow in your own eyes and begin to respect and revere yourself.

Dr V Raghavan says in the book, The Harikatha that Upanyasam is purely religious, kutcheri (concert) is of the artistic type but the Harikatha is a synthesis of both. It is the best of both the worlds. It is a powerful mode of communication that is interesting and inspiring. Now with all humility, I would like to add that the Harikatha is not only a synthesis of dance and drama but really a synthesis of religion and science. If you dissect the universe from a scientist’s perspective, you will see the universe, the continents, the sub-continents, the countries, the states, the cities, the houses, the individuals, the molecules, atoms, quarks, God’s particle and then the infinitesimal energy. Beyond that, scientists are yet to discover the aspects of mahat tattva, ahankara and avyakthaprakruthi that our Vedanta traces. Our rishis like Valmiki and Vyasa are the ones who have discovered the mahat tattva, ahankara and avyakthaprakruthi. They are the greatest scientists who saw beyond what the eyes could see. They are responsible for the union of science and religion. The connecting point, the starting and ending point, however, is always God. His primordial nature is revealed as the source of all energy, both internal and external and we can learn this supreme wisdom from the Vedas.

People think the Vedas refer to a particular religion called Hinduism. Vedas are in fact, science. The term Vedas comes from the word ‘Vid’, meaning to know.  All knowledge is in the Vedas. To impart this knowledge to a layman, we use the Harikatha. By that, I’m implying that the Harikatha is meant for everyone, not only for a particular section, caste, creed, or religion but is used for the benefit of the entire Universe. This is our Sanathana Dharma which envelops the whole Universe and breaks all barriers.

Thus the Harikatha is just not storytelling, not just music or dance but a form that allows us to share the most reverential knowledge, to save and be rescued, teach and learn, help and be helped, educate ourselves and others and to bring out the power within ourselves for the benefit of the society and in turn the universe.

The writer is a Carnatic musician and an exponent of Harikatha

The Chronicler

Tulsi Badrinath draws from her own experiences in dance and writing to establish the difference between telling stories through dance and, telling stories of a dancer

I have been privileged to learn Bharatanatyam from V P Dhananjayan and Shanta for the past thirty-eight years. While the Dhananjayans broke away from Kalakshetra—a move that shocked everyone way back in the late 60’s—in the classroom at Bharata Kalanjali, there are fond and frequent references to ‘Athai’ or the renowned Rukmini Devi, ‘Periya’ or S Sarada and ‘Chinna’ or Sarada Hoffman. The years my Gurus spent at Kalakshetra, also coincided with the golden years of the institution, and their memories of the many stalwarts at Kalakshetra were transmitted to us as legend. However, much of what they told us lay outside books and the printed word.  

I wanted to capture that hidden world, away from the limelight and the proscenium stage, in my book Master of of Arts – A life in dance. What is the life of a dancer like? What are the struggles they face in establishing a career? What happens behind the magic line that demarcates backstage from the stage?

At the age of eight, when I began to learn dance, I did not know that I was actually learning to inhabit myths, epics, in a different way -- interpreting them through my body, living the truth of those stories, becoming Krishna or Radha while dancing. Nearly forty years later, I can see how that shaped my response to the world, both as a writer and a dancer.

Dancing, the body sweated, tired, cried for rest. Motivated by the mind, the fear of shaming oneself in front of an audience, it re-energised itself. It learnt to keep the pounding heart and aching muscles secret, for the image to be projected by the flying arms and feet circling a small stage was that of a virile Shiva dancing majestically across space, creating effortlessly the universe, keeping in whirling motion the sun, the moon, the stars.

But as soon as the music ended and the dancer retired off-stage, what had been very real and apparent was now non-existent, vanished. So, when Shiva exited into the wings and the dancer was free to relax, no one backstage mistook for Shiva that only too human dancer doubled over, gasping for breath. I soon realized that each dancer had his or her own story, a narrative in which there was an enduring love for the art despite the most discouraging realities of a career in the performing arts.

Dhananjayan with Sanjukta Panigrahi
Over the years, many young men came to learn at BK, inspired both by Kamal Haasan and Dhananjayan. I was always curious about what possessed these ‘boys’ to become dancers, given that it was such an uncertain profession, one where there was no guarantee of fame nor income. Indeed, many of these male dancers came from lower-income backgrounds; unlike the large majority of female dancers, male dancers were often not in any position to pay fees, leave alone fund their performances.

I decided to write about them, focussing on my guru Dhananjayan’s life, which has spanned some six decades in the world of Indian classical dance. I wanted to write about the dilemmas they face, given that the core content of Bharatanatyam is linked with the songs performed by the devadasis, exploring a woman-centric universe of longing, desire, and devotion. I wished to describe the sheer joy of learning and performing Bharatanatyam, something that I had experienced first-hand.

What is the difference between telling stories through dance, and telling the story of a dancer? Well, in the first, the general shape of the story is fixed and the artiste embellishes details with her own imagination. When it came to real life, I had to be patient, to earn the confidence of the person narrating his journey in dance. Being a dancer helped. I could both ask the right questions and understand the importance of crucial details mentioned quite casually in the course of their narrative.  

When 14 year-old Dhananjayan, penniless and unproven, boarded a train at Payyanur for Madras in 1953, he did not know that he was embarking on an epic journey. His school-teacher father, relieved at having one less mouth to feed, had borrowed money for a half-ticket to send his son to Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra. There, playing the hero Rama, Dhananjayan was to discover in himself a masculine but sensitive dancer, fall madly in love with Shanta, taste success, and also notoriety when he quit Kalakshetra.

When mediocre dancer Ravi suddenly became wildly successful as a dance teacher, it unleashed a trail of jealousy and greed that led to his murder. Shafeekudeen never thought his being Muslim ought to interfere with his performing the roles of myriad Hindu gods but he is unwelcome in many temple-shows. Handsome Rajesh had every quality needed by a dancer, including that elusive quality of bhava or emotive feeling, but Time had other plans. At the very peak of his youth, the day after the best performance of his life, he drowned in a lake far away from home.

Equally handsome Satyajit was groomed from age six to inherit his parents’ legacy of dance but he shelved his god-given talents to become a photographer— why? Navtej Singh Johar, from a traditional Sikh family, had to fight many prejudices before he could follow his heart and learn to dance. L. Narendra Kumar walked 14 kms every morning from Villivakkam to BK and 14 kilometres back, after a full day of dance-practise, because he could not afford the bus fare. Charles Ma had to go through many disheartening experiences before he found the right guru. Talented Anand Satchidanandan is at the crossroads, trying to decide between a career in dance or the corporate world. Can he have the best of both worlds, he wonders.

During the course of writing Master of Arts—A Life in Dance, I discovered other issues that came to the fore. To name just a few— the fear of being perceived as gay; the distaste for men who do not ‘dance like a man’; the rise of the ‘contract’ or ‘freelance’ male dancer; the wish for a new set of songs that explored the reality of male desire; and disappointment with the way sabhas, and other patrons, operate. 

In narrating their stories, as also mine, I hope to usher the reader backstage, taking him or her close to the bejewelled male dancer in silken costume and maroon lipstick, as he waits in the wings ready to dance as Shiva.

The writer is a classical dancer, writer and author

Monday, 13 May 2013


The well-embedded story of Carnatic music, Sangeetha Shivakumar hums, is layered with narratives that are beyond the literal 

We, as Indians, love to tell stories. We also love to listen to them.  As a child, I have beautiful memories of my grandmother narrating stories of Hindu gods and Goddesses while putting us to sleep. It was fascinating to hear them, also somehow comforting. I felt a deep sense of security, and this feeling continues for most of us even as we grow older, and wiser. Many anthropologists believe that stories rooted in tradition are an enacting of the human desire to experience, that is ‘to tell a story, and to tell it as others have told, is simply that the reality is one, then and now’. 

This is the cover of a book,
Tyagaraja, Life and Lyrics by William J Jackson
Carnatic music, the form as it exists today, is not more than 500 years old. This is an art form, which has been well-embedded, in our traditional society, and it has numerous stories to tell. We have the life-stories of composers who lived around the 17th and 18th centuries, and the stories of the compositions they composed. William Jackson, in his brilliantly written book Tyagaraja – Life and Lyrics talks about the memory narrative, which is historical-minded and the meaning narrative which is mythological.

To take the classic example of the great composer Tyagaraja, the earlier records of his life correspond to the memory narrative, whereas the later stories as told by Harikatha artistes are more in the form of a meaning narrative. So we have many stories from his life – a story of him being attacked in the forest by thieves and Rama saving him when he sang out to Him, or his dejection when he lost his favourite idol of Rama and his ecstasy on finding it in the river bed… These stories have been reiterated time and again, enacted through oral traditions like Harikatha and they have come to be impressed on our minds.  

Usually these stories are also linked to the compositions themselves. For instance, if you take the famous story of his composition, Tera Deeyaga Rada, the literal meaning is, “Won’t you draw back the curtain of arrogance within me?” whereas the story which has been enacted by Harikatha performers is that when Tyagaraja sang this kriti, in Tirupati, the curtain in front of the Lord was drawn back and he could get darshan. Thus, the latter story is stuck in our minds. Similarly, the narrative that the Tamil composer, Muthuthandavar had a skin disease which was cured when he saw the Lord, is more established than the actual historical facts like the date he was born or how long he lived (though there are dates mentioned, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the authenticity).  We, as a traditional society seem to find more comfort in the narratives told to us over centuries which keeps the tradition along with its values and morals strong. These are usually with the motif of a hero or a saint guiding us and inspiring us.  Hence, we have stories of most of the composers of Carnatic music as vehicles of devotion or bhakti, with a strong mythological narrative. But sadly, these seem to take away or diminish the importance of the high level of music that these composers had to offer. So today, when we discuss a Tyagaraja or a Muthuthandavar, how much are we studying their art purely for art’s sake, without glorifying their personal life?   

The Carnatic musician has been performing on the concert stage for the last 100 years and we have stories of so many brilliant musicians, who have adorned the music world for many years. Whether it is the story of the great musician Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar who actually gave shape to the concert format as it exists today, or the stories of the Devadasi tradition giving us outstanding musicians like Brinda, or the eccentric genius on the flute, Mali, all of them are stories of legends, which continue to inspire us.  Each of them had their own personal stories of struggle, rejection, acceptance, achievement, tragedy, triumph…. All this was part of what and who they were, it was also part of the music they sang. That is their story.

But, when we listen to the recordings of these giants, it is the music that goes straight into our hearts and minds and stays there forever.  And this is the listener’s or the rasika’s story…

Many times, I come across these expressions from people – “You brought tears to my eyes when you sang Mayamma”, “I saw Lord Krishna in front of me when I heard Krishna Nee Begane Baaro and so on. It is a fact that music evokes such reactions from the listener. The human mind revels in memories and the various emotions attached with them and music provides a very natural trigger to experience these. What we experience, we experience spontaneously, and that music which gives us a lot of comfort and security, we go back to it again and again. That which does not, we put in the backburner.

So, then I wonder, is that all a rasika gets from this art form? When a musician sings on stage, is he telling the stories of the composers?  Are we literally conveying the meaning of the compositions we sing? Are we just expressing our skills in the form of manodharma (creativity)? Is the listener just experiencing a myriad of emotions triggered by memories?

I feel that the story of Carnatic music goes beyond the literal. The story is not just about gods or devotion, not just the mythological tales woven in the texts; it’s also not just about the memories. If we look at the magnificent works of the great composers which we render today, we see how much of musical insights they must have had to bring out a Thodi, a Bhairavi, a Kambhoji, a Begada, a Varali and hundreds of more ragas and present them in the form of kritis. These have been handed over from generation to generation with an underlying continuity in the thread which links us with the past. So the Yadukula Kambhoji which I sing today may not sound exactly as it did 100 years ago, but the raga has evolved from its origin, undergone whatever changes and modifications on the way which was relevant to each time and finally has its present shape, yet it can be connected to the original one. This is the story of Yadukula Kambhoji, or any other raga for that matter.

Every story has its own narrative and each is true to itself. Mythology, history, society, religion and each individual, is part of every story and one is not seeking departure from any of this. But to view every story in a dispassionate sense is the real discovery. Every musician goes beyond all these narratives as soon as the music begins but to stay within that music is the difficult task. Each of these threads touches different chords, jostling for space within the music. Therefore, finding the right story is not the journey of any musician; it’s really about finding his or her own that truly reflects the depths of music that goes beyond narratives.

The writer is a Chennai-based classical musician

Saturday, 11 May 2013


Many years ago, watching her Shri Sanatan Das Baul, perform the story of Kalia, Parvathy Baul had a moment of epiphany. She re-visits that moment and experience and reiterates the power of a good story, well-told

Radha Kohe, Koho Koho Sakhi aro Krishna Kahini,
Lokkho shabodo shunileo jaha puron nahi goni.

Radha says, “Sakhi please tell me, tell me more, the stories of Krishna,
Million words do not suffice to bring his story to a completion”

As long as mankind will exist, stories too will continue to be told. Though weaved in familiar human emotions, every story has something new to open our minds to. There are stories to take us off with imagination beyond the familiar; there are those that make the unexpected, happen. Stories are memories of those which took place and of those that didn’t. The Native American Shaman said, “Stories are told in the silence of memories of a rock since the creations.”

Stories of men and women; of birds, trees, rivers, oceans, mountains and hills… Stories make us cry and laugh. They gift us with food for thought. For me, my songs are my stories; they are are the spiritual history of generations of Baul Gurus, their insights and experiences, their lives and times are reflected in these songs. Their songs/stories are handed down by them to the next one who will keep on singing them, remembering them, re-inventing them. Coming from the depths of self-realization, these songs/stories are ever relevant to each of us. In a sense, ours is a ‘Living Story’.

I grew up with my grandma’s stories, comics, graphic novels, books of short and long stories, movies, theatre, etc, like any other child. But the true power of storytelling was revealed to me when I saw my Baul Guru, Sanatan Baba (Guru Shri Sanatan Das Baul) performing a story of Kalia. For the uninitiated, Kalia is Krishna. For me, all that existed around him - the stage, decorated background with hanging flower garlands with names of sponsors, the musicians, the spectators, everything - became irrelevant. I was not aware of the ambience around me anymore; subconsciously, I entered a new arena through his story. I could, in a sense, see, visualize, what he was singing about - the lanes of Vrindavan, the cowherd boys, Radha’s friends with earthen water pots, the dawn  breaking in Vrindavan... I saw Radha’s window, I pictured her sitting at her window, I saw the trees, the birds sitting on the tree singing to Radha, and her looking at the sky which reminded her of Krishna… I could even see the colours of her Chunri.

It happened again when I attended a Vaishnava festival of Padhavali Kirtan (that has been happening for the last 500 years at Shreekhanda in Burdwan district in West Bengal). Padavali Kirtan is basically a set of Vaishnava poems sung in a storytelling format based on a specific style of Dhrupad composed in very intricate rhythmical patterns. The singer was Saraswati Das of Nawadweep and her spectators/listeners were sitting on all three sides, surrounding her.

At one point in the story, when she was humbly singing of the surrender of Krishna to Radha, tears started flowing from her eyes, and yet there was not the slightest snap in her voice. A man amongst the spectators, sitting on the other side of Saraswati Das, attracted my attention. He was sitting with a straight spine in the lotus posture, as if he was meditating. He was so untouched, sitting still in that eager crowd of listeners. His eyes wide open fixed on the singer, he was equally present in the space as the storyteller herself. His tears too started flowing at the same time as the storyteller, his body trembled in bhakti but his facial muscles didn’t alter his outer expression of stillness. His hands were wide open as if he was embracing the sky. 

Being the outside-eye to this unique relationship of the story, the storyteller and her spectators/listeners, I realized that they were experiencing what is called Sahaja Kumbhaka, a state of unconditional Love/bhakti in their bodies through the love-epic of Radha and Krishna.  I became aware of the far-fetched potential of storytelling to transcend the border of mind or even its imagination.

From being a witness to both my Guru’s storytelling and Saraswati Das’ rendition, I felt like returning home after a long day of wandering. It is unique in the bhakti tradition of storytelling to use story as a medium to transcend the layers of the mind or thoughts into an open space of abundance in true surrender. Unlike other forms of storytelling that are based on the series of incidents that take place, this form is based and composed on Bhava and Rasa. The stories of Baul are based on Asta Swattik Bhava or eight divine qualities. These qualities represent direct experiences in a Sadhaka’s body. In Chaitanya Charitamrita of Shri Krishnadas Kabiraj, we find that Mahaprabhu Chaitanya reaches a state of divine oneness by listening to Vaishnava Padavali. The bhavas expressed in a story are a transitory passageway to accomplish the much-enduring state of Rasa. In both Baul and Padavali, Rasas are five - Shantya (peace), Sakhya (courteousness), Dasya (eternal servitude), Batsalya (compassionate innocence) and Madhur (sweetness of divine love).

The other part of storytelling in Baul is connected to the life-stories of great Sadhakas. These inspiring life-stories deal directly with the different stages of spiritual journey of a Sadhaka, a radical spiritual quest and attainment of a Bhakta/Sadhaka.

I have often found different patterns, symbols and images connected to the Baul story/song in my Guru’s notebooks, and in some other master’s note-books, but paintings are not used in Baul storytelling. While singing these stories, the storyteller envisions all the imageries connected to the story. I started painting the mirror images of these images that I had envisaged during singing these stories in my presentation. That’s really how Chitra Katha Geethi was born in the year of 2001. Since then, I have been looking after and working on every detail, exploring different ways of conveying stories to a range of audiences, beyond the borders of Bengal… 

The writer is a singer, painter, storyteller and practitioner of the Baul path from West Bengal

The Dark Knight

In the tradition of the Therukoothu, the story belongs to the listener, and it grows like a live creature, writes V R Devika attempting to re-live the many dark nights and dawns she has spent witnessing them in the villages of Tamilnadu

The story is a collective memory. Mahabharatha lives through narration, ritualization and enactment in the villages of North Arcot districts in Tamilnadu. It is a Koothu, generic term for play; some call it Therukoothu as the enactment spills out into the streets (Theru means street); some others prefer calling it Kattaikoothu (Kattai means wood) to give it some respectability and to distinguish it from the modern street theatre. The bottom line is, it is total theatre here…

Kattiakkaran is the one who binds the story and gives it to us as a package. In a traditional Therukoothu, it is the Kattiakkaran who helps the narrative gain speed if it is trudging along or slow it down if it is doubling up speed. He is the proverbial Sutradhara (narrator) who has no rules to behaviour or costume while all other characters are bound by what they must do.

Let me take you to an overnight Ramayana Koothu. It is perhaps 2am, dark all around. Some in the audience are fast asleep while others are soaking in the atmosphere. Rama and Lakshmana have just entered the play. The singing welcomes them as Gods. The Kattiakkaran prostrates with full body but with his legs to Rama and Lakshmana. The lead singer, who is also the Annavi or the teacher shouts, “What are you doing? You are doing Namaskaram on the opposite side with your legs to the Gods?” the Kattiakkaran replies nonchalantly, “Who said they are Gods? This is my friend Subbiah simply donning the role of Rama. Where is the story happening and where is really the divine Rama present? It is in the minds of the audience. So, my Namaskaram is in that direction.”

For starters, Therukoothu takes narration to an entirely different level. The story belongs to the listener, the one who celebrates it. In the Therukoothu tradition, it grows organically, like a live creature.  The ownership stays hidden somewhere between the lines of a narrative.  A village in North Arcot district of Tamilnadu in the vicinity of a Draupadi Amman temple is always awash with stories of the Mahabharatha.

Season after season, people listen to the stories of the Mahabharatha; first, by the story teller who narrates it in the Katha Kalakshepa mould with the icon of Draupadi as a witness to her story and then visualised by the professional Koothu group that enacts the story with dialogue, dance and music and fantastic costumes. Finally, the villagers become a part of the story by taking part in the rituals connected with the Mahabharatha.

Mahabharatha gets bound with people’s emotions, values and attitudes to life in a way that the story becomes an expression of a reality as felt and experienced by the people. The story becomes a medium through which people learn their history, settle their arguments and come to make sense of the phenomena of their world.

The narrative begins with the hoisting of a flag in the village. This means a ten-day Bharatha Koothu has to be conducted in the village. First, a narrator has to be fixed. His group and he will tell the story of the Mahabharatha during the day. Each day, a portion of the story is narrated - with the Draupadi icon in front - listening to it all. There is song, interpretation, explanation, and plenty of humour.

Nights are all given to the enactment of the story in the Koothu format with all its spectacular costuming and drama. The days are filled with rituals connected with the Mahabharatha. Five men in the village take a vow to atone for the sins of the Kauravas who caused the humiliation of Draupadi. They begin to observe austerities and wear clothes drenched in turmeric water. The cattle are decorated for the cattle show when the drama in the night is Virata Parva (a chapter from the Mahabhrata where the Pandavas are in disguise). A bullock cart gets cleaned up and gets ridden in the streets with an actor as Bhima in the guise of a Brahmin and Bakasura trying to fight him. Village people fill the cart with food prepared at home and this gets partaken later in a community feast.

The whole narrative is blended into people and their participation in its act. Each one present there becomes part of the myth. The whole scene becomes the story enchanting the participant and the spectator who is now part of the spectacle.

There is another spectator whose head is ritualistically placed as a witness to the Kurukshetra war. This is an interesting interpretation, courtesy the Tamil Mahabharatha, written by Villiputharar. Arjuna has a son with the Naga Princess, Ulupi. Aravan, as he was called, was convinced by the Pandavas to sacrifice himself before the war to appease Goddess Kali and ensure victory for the Pandavas. Aravan’s last wish was to be married even if it was for just one night. So Krishna became Mohini and united with Aravan.  In the village of Koovagam, this incidence, this incident is re-enacted in the form of a festival, by a ceremonial marriage of Aravan to Allis (third gender) and male villagers (who have taken vows to Aravan) and followed by their widowhood after a ritual re-enactment of Aravan's sacrifice. It is believed that Aravan also requested an opportunity to witness the Kurkshetra war. So Krishna allowed Aravan’s head to be alive as a witness.

For this, the village hosting a Bharatham (as the ten-day festival is called) goes looking out for special potters to procure a huge clay head of Aravan, and bring it into the battle field ritualistically. The head of Aravan is a common motif in Draupadi temples. Often, it is a portable wooden head; sometimes it even has its own shrine in the temple complex or is placed on the corners of temple roofs as a guardian against spirits. Aravan is worshipped in the form of his severed head and is believed to cure disease and induce pregnancy in childless women.

The Kattiakkaran makes sure no one misses the narrative. A stylistic form of question and answer - just as in the Upanishads - is adopted to explain the background of the character giving a complete cue to the point in the Mahabharatha where this narration begins. The dialogue is repeated as song and chorus by a group consisting of all the actors, musicians, the tea boy and the odds and ends person repeating it with full throated singing.

Tamil Koothu, like the Mahabharatha, is never a single story. It is always a tree with many branches. Unless you take into account all the possible events associated with it, you don’t really get the full picture. The narrative is ritual and drama completing the architecture of myth thereby establishing a connection with the story. To get a sense of the two essential words - consciousness and narrative - you must look at the Koothu’s holistic narration. You never find anything as enlightening.

Everything hinges on participation and faith. There is a sort of wondrous fever that can go on and that is a feeling of ardour that is deeply connected with the narration of the Mahabharatha in ritual, drama and spectacle. Story, in the context of the Koothu, is the durable text of life. Koothu itself becomes a monument to the power of the story. The story as it unfolds unravels a world view.

The writer is the founder of Chennai-based Aseema Trust and a cultural activist