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From commerce to katha

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

Visakha Hari's remarkable eloquence is matched only by her delightful singing.



MESMERISING: Visakha Hari. Photo: R. Ragu.

As a daughter-in-law in a traditional household in Srirangam, she gets up at Suprabhatam time, wears her nine yards silk or sungadi, helps in the kitchen, and in puja. But her world does not end there. The past four years have seen Visakha Hari grow as a mesmerising harikatha artiste, enchanting audiences in Tamil Nadu, India and abroad. Her remarkable eloquence is matched only by her delightful singing. Neither is used to astound the listener. Rather, the skills are geared to move hearts. Visakha Hari's style bears the unmistakable stamp of humility.

After a State rank (Commerce) in school, and an all India rank in Chartered Accountancy, why did Visakha opt for harikatha? "It just happened," she says. Accompanying mother and grandmother to hear their guru Sri Kishna Premi in childhood shaped her taste, but not any ambition towards harikatha performance. When he became her father-in-law and guru, Sri Krishna Premi suggested that Visakha start telling the stories from the Ramayanam and Bhagavatam, and the lives of Meera, Tyagaraja and Purandaradasa.

Well-versed in music

Trained by Lalgudi Jayaraman in vocal music, Visakha had won gold medals and tamburas, as also a Central Government scholarship.

So she had the huge impeccable Lalgudi school repertoire to draw from, for a radio or sabha concert. She had no formal training in harikatha but there were role models in husband and father-in-law. The process of absorption became one of discovery and self-discovery. She realised the power of the kritis in evoking, embellishing and enhancing moods. True, they are drenched in bhakti. "But then, the navarasas are inherent in bhakti. Also, bhakti enables you to probe into different characters and situations." She realised that harikatha was both education and entertainment.

"The Ramayana continues to be relevant today. Why? Because those ancient texts teach us how to live. Vyasa, Valmiki or Tyagaraja, they are our guides to the values of righteousness, truth, compassion, courage, and contentment." Stories of Meera, Andal and Nandanar emphasise the same verities. `Ramayanam' is the mainstay of harikatha but presenting a 10-day Tyagaraja Ramayanam (for Vedic Sangeeta Foundation from July19-27, at Asthika Samajam) is a challenge.

Visakha had to assemble a magnificent blend of Tyagaraja's Telugu kritis with Valmiki's Sanskrit slokas, Arunachalakavi's Tamil Ramanataka kirtanams and Purandaradasa's padas.

The saint's greatness

"You have to work for years to learn, understand and fit Tyagaraja's kritis in the right contexts in the story." Why Tyagaraja? "Because his compositions refer to incidents, situations and characters. In what wonderful ways he uses them! Talking about Bharata he says, `You gave liberation to only those who worshipped at your feet, but you gave yourself to Bharata who worshipped your paduka?' He can sympathise with Surpanakha too, asking, "What crime did she commit in loving you."

How did the Chennai-born academic achiever adjust to small-town life? "Small? Isn't Srirangam a mahakshetram," she asks. "No pollution, and you have all the tranquillity for thinking, learning, practising." After all, multiple language skills and a thorough knowledge of profound texts are essential for her art. You also sense her relief at having exchanged the commercial world of accountancy for spiritual pursuits. "Our culture is not so poor that we must model ourselves on others," she shrugs.

Are current socio-political happenings also her source for storytelling? "Too much exposure to topicalities distracts you from basic truths. The causes of violence and terrorism have not changed from then to now. Harikatha is concerned with promoting goodness, to develop strength to oppose evil, remembering great souls and cleanse ourselves of evil, if not in this birth, certainly in the births to come."

Trained by Sudharani Raghupati in Bharatanatyam, does Visakha miss dancing? "I dance for myself at home, I love it," she says. Since dance had been a part of harikatha in the past, can she not include it in her recitals? The response is a shy smile.

Visakha's future plans include harikatha in English, to reach out to the young. "Only, I must manage to get the same emotional effect and power in that language of reserve and reticence." Finally, ask her what she does to recharge herself during the hectic, year-round performance schedule, and she exclaims spontaneously, "What I do has to do with eternal truths. What can be more refreshing?"

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