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

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