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When Krishna slayed the multi-hooded snake

Why does 'harikatha' remain a popular cultural phenomenon even today?

A still from ‘Sri Krishna Maya’ (1958), depicting a ‘harikatha’ performance.
A still from ‘Sri Krishna Maya’ (1958), depicting a ‘harikatha’ performance.

You are NEVER alone!" thunders the performer on stage. Prema Pandurang, Chennai-based founder of Kshetropasna Charitable Trust and full-time storyteller, is narrating the tale of Krishna and Sudama. Then she bursts into song, “Tum akele nahin hai re manav (You’re not alone, man)". The mostly grey-haired audience at the RV Dental College in Bengaluru joins in, clapping their hands to keep time. Pandurang’s telling of the story, of two childhood friends meeting as adults, is filled with humorous anecdotes interspersed with Hindi bhajans and has the audience nodding their heads in appreciation.

Harikathas (“stories of Hari") are a pan-Indian phenomenon and are just as often stories of other gods or humans as they are of Hari. For anyone who has grown up in India, the tales of Vali and Sugriva in the Ramayan, Abhimanyu or Eklavya in the Mahabharat, or the numerous leelas (plays) of Krishna are not new. Even those of us not lucky enough to have grandparents narrate these tales, have read them in the Amar Chitra Katha comics or seen them on TV.

Even today, harikatha performers draw large audiences. Whether narrated in English, Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil or Telugu, harikatha represents a uniquely Indian phenomenon, that is yet to receive its due. And the art of harikatha has its share of stars. Gaur Gopal Das, an Iskcon monk based in Mumbai; Morari Bapu who has a global following that has taken his Hindi kathas from the Amazon to New Zealand; Dushyanth Sridhar, a BITS Pilani graduate, and now a full-time Sri Vaishnava storyteller in Tamil; and Prema Pandurang are some of the popular ones.

While many books promise to teach us how to tell stories well, they can easily be daunting. Harikatha exponents show us that storytelling is an art and as with any art, no two artists need go about it the same way.

One of the popular stories of Krishna, Kalinga Narthana—the slaying of Kaliya the multi-hooded snake, has been narrated by a wide variety of katha performers. Yet how Pandurang narrates the story never fails to move her audience to tears. Even though many of the stories are ones that the audience have heard all their lives, by weaving in the familiar, harikatha performers make them relatable. Good harikatha exponents do this in three distinct ways—through the use of music, references to contemporary sociopolitical issues and placing them in contexts relevant to their audience.

The incorporation of familiar music and having the audience sing along to the accompaniment of cymbals can make the harikatha experience hypnotic. The songs often through their chorus, such as Pandurang’s Tum akele nahin hai re manav, reinforce the central message of the stories. When Sridhar weaves Harry Potter or a TV news anchor into his katha, or Gopal Das speaks of the difficulty of exercising, the audience invariably breaks into laughter. All good katha exponents incorporate common themes such as the adventures of school-going children and familial dynamics into their stories. The effectiveness of these techniques is evident at a performance where the audience sighs, weeps, laughs and sings along.

It would be a mistake to dismiss harikathas as merely a religious or spiritual activity, despite most stories being set in the Hindu epics. Whether it is Sudama hesitating to offer poha (flattened rice) to Krishna, or Arjuna vacillating on the eve of the Kurukshetra battle, kathas present dilemmas. In this, of course, they reflect the issues all of us face in our own lives.

“Katha has made me come closer to realizing who I am," says Gokul Agarwalla, a Los Angeles based business owner. “What is the purpose of my life, how should I conduct myself and how should I interact with others?" he adds. Agarwalla, who is in his 50s, listens to live kathas frequently, especially those by Morari Bapu. “As a management consultant, I have applied all that I have learned (from kathas) when counselling on interpersonal relations, corporate governance and resolving conflicts."

The good news is that neither harikathas nor its exponents are standing still. Much like spoken word poetry or stand-up comedy finding new audiences thanks to social media, harikatha performances too are available at a URL near you. Better yet catch one in person. The sense of community and the sheer entertainment value, even if you don’t draw any deep insights, will make you wonder why you didn’t do so sooner.

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