Storyteller with a difference

Storyteller with a difference

“Vasa  Udupiyali  nelayaadhi Keshavane

Dasa nina pada Dasa, Nina pada Dasa

Salahalu bharrayya...” She entreats with closed eyes and outstretched hands. The spell is cast as Vishaka Hari embarks on yet another journey into the hinterland of Kannada Nadu to tell us the rich folklore of the Dasaragalu who lived and sang in praise of Vittala and his myriad forms. If these memorable words of Kanakadasa moved his beloved Krishna to turn towards him, it is not surprising that this exceptional artiste’s recital should move her audiences to tears. Dressed in her signature attire of a resplendent nine yard sari, jasmine-braided hair, silver anklets and toe rings - all typical of a conventional South Indian housewife – this wonder woman transforms herself into an avant-garde virtuoso on stage with her incredible repertoire of mythology, history and music.

Meet Vishaka Hari, brand ambassador of the 21st century Indian woman -  sophisticated, educated, English-speaking, walking encyclopaedia of scriptures. Trained in music by Lalgudi Jayaraman and in katha-kalakshepam by the eminent Tamil scholar Krishna Premi Swamigal, she has slipped into the role of harikatha exponent effortlessly. When I ask her whether women artistes in this country face gender bias, she shakes her head with conviction: “Not at all. India has respected women more than any other nation.”
 I persist: “In this male bastion where you have excelled, do you feel threatened by competition?”
Again, her answer is stunningly simple:
“If one thinks this is a profession, then there is a threat. I do this for atma thrupthi. There is no question of competition or conquest.”

 We are sitting in the green room of the classy auditorium where she will perform later. I see her, a real diva, reflected in a dozen mirrors as she leans forward and says in all earnestness: “I never  compare myself with others. I merely ask myself, 'is today’s concert better than yesterday’s'?”

 Perhaps, this is the secret of her success as a performing artiste. She gave up a flourishing career in chartered accountancy to don the role of a harikatha bhagavatar, which she practises with elegance and style. She feels that this art, which calls for intense manodharma, has a widespread message for young audiences as it has an added moral significance other than its artistic value. Vishaka sees a great future for this art, greater perhaps than music or dance, because “it’s a theatrical art form where there is music, dance, drama and storytelling – all the navarasas are contained here.” As for audience criticism that there is more music than storytelling in her performances, she quickly retorts: “When I relate the story of Purandharadasa or Thyagaraja, would my audience have me cut out their divine music? What is their life without those exquisite compositions?”

 As if to prove her point, Vishaka Hari teaches only music to her pupils. If they are inspired to learn the art of kathakalapshekam, she guides them and no more. For, this is one art that needs self- motivation. She must have that in plenty, considering she gave her harikatha arangetram when she was still in school. She has now elevated what used to be a mere musical discourse into a fine art, and honed it to perfection.

When she says “this is my life, my passion…” one can understand what drives her performances into divine experiences. She invests each storytelling session with a wealth of erudition and piety that the characters she portrays stand larger than life before us. Whether it is the story of the Dasaragalu of Kannada Nadu, Narayana Theertha of Kerala, Annamayya of Andhra or Meera of Rajasthan, she carries her audiences effortlessly to those lands to depict their lives through song and prayer. As she explains, “My goal in life is to create an awareness and joy in our culture and tradition among young people living far away in other countries.”

 When I heard Vishaka Hari perform to an eclectic audience in the Siva Vishnu Temple in Washington, I understood what she meant. She is not a mere storyteller. Her stories are the props on which she carefully builds and unfolds an entire civilisation that is India. It is a mission she carries with her, whether she performs in New York or Nungabakkam, Singapore or Srirangam. She targets the young and the vulnerable who must know their own culture before imbibing others’. To get her message across, Vishaka chooses the great epics of India. It may be episodes from the Ramayana, Bhaghavatham or Mahabhatha, they leave an enduring impression on the listeners. Speaking in chaste Tamil or flawless English, her performances are remarkable for their clarity, authenticity and charm. Her alluring personality adds to their appeal. It may be a far cry from direct taxes to direction in life, but this commerce graduate and ex-chartered accountant has it all neatly planned and executed. A Vishaka Hari harikatha is always a winner.

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