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The raconteur’s raga

VATSALA VEDANTAM

Vishaka Hari, a chartered accountant and committed musician, takes the ancient art of kathakalakshepam forward



PASSIONATE It is a form that elevates the soul because of its lyrics feels Vishaka Hari

“Chukkala Raayanee” she sings with her eyes closed in the ecstasy of seeing Rama with “Sudhathee Seethamma Soumitri……” in that exquisite Karaharapriya composition of Saint Thyagaraja. She weaves seamlessly into her story as she describes Hanuman beholding Sita for the first time in the Ashoka Vana of Lanka. Her rasikas in that vast audience must have had the same picture as they listened in rapt silence. The spell is cast.

Meet this 29-year-old Gen X chartered accountant - with ranks and distinctions tucked under her belt in commerce and direct taxes. Clad in nine yards of resplendent green and gold silk, her hair braided with fresh jasmine, she extols the virtues of epic characters from the Ramayana with the expertise of great kathakalakshepam vidwans.

She is the latest arrival on the music-harikatha scene; she walks up and down rocking her 12-week-old Rajagopala, as she talks to me. Vishaka Hari is the new wonder performer of this antiquated art form of “musical discourse”. She has swept audiences off their feet in India and abroad with her matchless rendering of age-old narratives like the Ramayana, Rukmini Kalyana or Sri Ranga Vaibhava – stories that will never lose their charm and appeal. The venue can be Cleveland or Chicago, Singapore or Srirangam. Vishaka feels at home in any setting as long as she is sure she has reached out to her rasikas through her katha kalakshepams, which she delivers in impeccable Tamil and English, combined with sublime music.

Great tutelage

A disciple of two great maestros of classical performing arts – Krishna Premi and Lalgudi Jayaraman - the young artiste asserts modestly: “This is an art that calls for manodharma. I choose the kritis and improvise on the stage as the story moves along. But, I do have my doubts.” Vishaka uses lyrics from several composers in her performances – beginning from Purandara Dasa to Narayana Theertha, from Tulasi Das to Meera Bai, from Jayadeva to the Alwars. Although her favourite ones are from Saint Thyagaraja “because of the intense bhakthi element one finds there.”

Vishaka has elevated the art of harikatha, which used to be a mere religious discourse infused with music. Born into a family of music lovers, tutored by great gurus and married into a family of harikatha exponents, Vishaka also performs with husband Sri Hari, who uses his English literary background to supplement her kathakalakshepam performances. All of which makes it easy for them to perform in the House of Commons in London with the same comfort level as in the Aasthika Samajam in Chennai.

Her profession is still a male bastion and does it threaten her, : “If one thinks it is a profession, then there is a threat. I do not think so. This is my life, my passion….” And adds: “My goal is to create an awareness and joy in our culture and traditions among young persons living in far away countries.”

So, with that guiding philosophy, our young ambassador has carried her art to several countries as far removed as Dubai and Singapore, England and Canada. She has performed in the temples of America and the cultural centres of London. Her passionate approach to her subject is the same everywhere.

It may be a Thyagaraja Aradhana in Cleveland. It may be a lecture demonstration in London. It may be the music season in Madras. Or just a harikatha evening at the Venugopalaswami Temple in Bangalore for seniors. Simple, unaffected and in total control of her setting, Vishaka adorns every stage with her presence, whether it’s a music kutcheri or a kathakalakshepam. Her preference for the latter is made clear when she explains the essence of harikathas and musical discourses.

“It’s a theatrical art form where there is music, dance, drama and story telling. All the navarasas are contained here. And it elevates the soul because the musical stanzas are soaked in devotion,” she says.

The shift in emotions and the power of storytelling, all bathed in stirring music, makes Vishaka Hari an essential part of the mosaic in today’s performing theatre.

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