The art of storytelling

The art of storytelling

I got a chance to attend a Talamaddale  performance at my friend’s place recently. The rich baritone of the bhagavata (the singer) singing with the accompaniment of harmonium and chande was audible from a distance as I reached the venue. After the bhagavata finished singing, one of the arthadharis (the interpreter) started speaking, to the great enjoyment of the audience and I got a chance to witness the much-hailed oratory skills of the Talamaddale artistes.

He was in fact, acting out the part of Krishna, who had just received a love letter from Rukmini. Then there was Rukmi, the brother of Rukmini, rendering a soliloquy with verve. In his speech, he spoke of his disdain for the cowherd Krishna, and his love for sister Rukmini. The audience could sense Rukmi's arrogance and intolerance by the words he used and the voice modulation.

My mind went back 30 years as I recalled the same story told by a Harikatha exponent. Unlike Talamaddale, where there are numerous actors, Harikatha is a single-person performance. The Harikatha exponent, called dasa or bhagavata, has a violinist and a mridangist accompanying him. He is a man of parts, well-versed in the epics, poetry, narration and classical music. He is also abreast with the times and uses topical themes to illustrate his point. He intersperses his narrative with humourous anecdotes. A Harikatha, which lasts for three to four hours in the evening, has music, dance, drama, poetry, humour and moral values woven into it.

Harikatha, also called Katha Kalakshepa, has its origins in the Vedic times when storytellers known as Suta-Puranika used to sing tales of bygone kings and their heroic deeds. During the course of time, the art of storytelling evolved into different styles.

Harikatha got a fillip during the reign of the Vijayanagara kings. Poets and musicians like Purandara Dasa, Kanaka Dasa and Vijaya Dasa propagated the bhakti movement through song and storytelling.

Katha Kalakshepa was also influenced by the keertan tradition of Maharashtra. Thus, a Harikatha exponent would weave Marathi abhangs, Telugu proverbs and Sanskrit shlokas along with Kannada songs and vachanas into the fabric of his story telling.

Though Talamaddale belongs to the genre of storytelling, it is quite different from Harikatha. Talamaddale is an offshoot of Yakshagana. To be precise, it is Yakshagana without costumes, dance and other stage conventions. It has its origins in the coastal and malnad regions of Karnataka. Yakshagana, which is an outdoor dance-drama, cannot be performed in these regions during monsoon due to incessant rain. That is when they conduct Talamaddale, which is performed indoors. Artistes sit on a platform and enact their roles through facial expression, voice modulation and hand gestures. The language of Talamaddale is Kannada and the finest elements of the language come out when the artistes bring in comic effect or sharpen their arguments through an elaborate play on words, puns and juxtapositions. The bhagavata of Talamaddale sings the verses in the unique style of Yakshagana, whereas in Harikatha, the songs are set to classical Carnatic ragas.

Sadly, Harikatha is now a declining art, although there are still some great artistes who continue to give performances. Talamaddale, on the other hand, is flourishing not only in the coastal belt, but also in cities like Bengaluru and Mysuru. It is heartening to see young professionals practising this art form as a hobby.

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