Dressed in a traditional madisar, she takes centrestage with her accompanists and strikes the first note with an Omkara. The hall is packed with listeners and many others are standing outside to listen to her Harikatha rendition of Prahalada Charitram. For the next three hours, listeners sit lost in the tale of Prahlada, derived from Srimad Bhagavatam and Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam, of Tyagaraja.
Vishakha Hari sees Harikatha as a tool to transform the lives of people. “The tradition of Harikatha goes back to the times of Narada, who sang praises of Vishnu across all the worlds and Lava Kusa, the sons of Rama, who sang Valmiki’s Ramayana before the people of Ayodhya. The idea is simple. Direct advice never goes down well with people but when is told in the form of a story, with the support of music, it strikes a chord in the subconscious mind and uplifts the soul,” she says.
A Harikatha performer addresses various issues. “Tyagaraja condemned hypocrisy of the society then. In his Nee bhakti bhagya sudha, he attacked the idea of clan and class. A story gives a context to the idea,” she says. It is not that Harikatha was used only in one particular context. “Arunachala Kavirayar rendered Harikatha in the context of war with his Hanuman Vairavam. Samartha Ramdas, the guru of Chatrapati Shivaji, evoked patriotism with his works.”
For Vishakha, her thoughts during a Harikatha performance is not pre-planned. With every rendition of stories from the puranas, newer meanings emerge. “It is a combination of what the performer is going through and the mood of the audience. Even if an epic is being rendered for the hundredth time, the content will be new, even though the basic story will be the same,” she says.
Talking about the Ramayana and Mahabharata, she says, “The way a person appreciates the Ramayana at the age of 10, is not the same way he interprets it at the age of 20 or 60. There are various takeaways for you at various points in your life. That is its beauty.” Vishakha compares the process to that of exploring an ocean. “Can someone say that he knows the Pacific ocean? You might know one part of the ocean but there is so much more to know, even though all those parts belong to the same ocean.”
The style of rendition also depends on the venue and Vishakha makes it a point to keep in mind the audience and their tastes. “In a sabha, I focus a lot on the keertanais and in a temple, I focus on the shlokas, from which the stories have been derived. If I perform Prahlada Charitram in a school, I will focus on how much Prahlada achieved at the tender age of five with his will power and devotion. When I perform in Maharashtra, I render more abhangs and in Karnataka, I focus on Devarnamas. When I perform in London, I render the stories in English,” she says. “Once, after a performance in London, a man walked up to me and said that he felt the divine spark listening to the Harikatha. The sages of our country composed hymns which were capable of transcending barriers of caste, religion and nationality several centuries ago,” says Vishakha, who is in awe of the treasure of knowledge in India. “There is so much to be explored here. Several births are required to really understand the depths of the philosophy, art and literature of this land.”
A qualified chartered accountant and a student of the legendary Lalgudi Jayaraman, Vishakha has sought training and guidance from her husband Sri Hari. “My father-in-law has been a strong influence on me and my husband has been a constant critic and guide throughout my performing career,” she says.
Her strong grounding in music from her guru also exposed her to a lot of themes for Harikathas. “Lalgudi sir taught me a variety of themes. I think research is an ongoing journey and one needs to find finer details in a story.” Hence, apart from traditional themes of Harikatha, Vishakha developed her knowledge in Alwargal Vaibhavam, compositions of hundreds of saints of India, including those of many Muslim saints, Sati Vijayam (collation of wisdom of women of India), Ramakrishna Paramahamsa charitram, Sabari moksham, Guruvayurappan Leelaigal and many more.
Vishakha holds a special feeling for the month of Margazhi. “There are festivals throughout the year and there are reasons to celebrate. But there is a different divinity for the month of Margazhi. After all, didn’t Krishna say that he is Margasirsha (Margazhi) among all the months in the Bhagvad Gita,” she says.
(This interview was published in the special curtain raiser feature Margazhi Swaram, in The Times of India on Dec 1, 2014. It can be read here)