The year beginning August 31 this year is Adibhatla Narayana Das’ sesquicentennial as he was born on August 31, 1864. Over the next few weeks we will present you interesting snippets (excerpts from a new biography) from the life of the great man. The biography is planned to be released during the sesquicentennial.
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Those were the days when a performing artiste was tried, tested and stretched in every performance. The aesthete audiences expected nothing less than avant-garde performances. It was an unrelenting ambience with its inexorable demands for excellence. It was also the perfect setting for an artiste who vowed to himself that he would be second to none!
The fields chosen by Narayana Das were such that they required a combination of faculties to be brought into play far more than in the case of other performing arts.
For instance the audience of a music concert seeks in the artiste, melody in voice, the ability to delineate ragas and innovative rendition of the finer points of music. The audience of a dance performance seeks in the artiste, radiance of beauty, fluidity of grace, nimbleness of foot and expressiveness of various emotions. The audience of a drama seeks in the actors, the ability to express and evoke suitable emotional responses for various moods in them apart from dialogue delivery which includes accent, clarity, intonation, mood and modulation of speech.
An audience of Purana Kalakshepam seeks in the exponent, an eloquence of speech, a felicity of expression, an encyclopaedic knowledge of the scriptures and allied literature and the ability to annotate examples from them to illustrate a moral or philosophical point. The performance of an ‘avadhanam’ requires firstly a phenomenal memory, the ability to compose and recite poetry extempore and an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature, scriptures and men and matters.
On the other hand the performance of ‘Hari Katha’ requires almost all of these faculties – story-telling, singing, dancing, acting and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the scriptures - to be employed simultaneously to make it a delectable treat. And Narayana Das used to enliven his performances by customising his performance to suit the tastes and talent of the audience.
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It was while Narayana Das was studying for matriculation examination that the seeds for the creation of Hari Katha were sown in his prolific imagination. He happened to see Kuppuswami Naidu, a bhagavatar from Madras performing a Hari Katha. It was in the Tamil tradition in which the bhagavatar narrated the story and there was a ‘second fiddle’ to render devotional music during interludes.
Narayana Das described his creation as a ‘yakshagana prabandhamu’ in his introduction to several Hari Kathas and in his magazine/newspaper articles. He elaborated the definition of Hari Katha as a ‘performing art that comprises dance, music and acting (of the various characters in the story) by a single artiste’. Improvised poetry (asukavitvam) was a necessary component of a Hari Kadha exponent’s repertoire.
Narayana Das explained that there were references to a form of Hari Katha in the Vedas. The ‘Vedic’ Hari Katha was a performing art involving narration of a story with music, singing accompanied by veena and dance by two artistes. The performer of a Yajna was enjoined by the rules of the ritual to keep awake throughout its course. Hari Katha was performed to facilitate this and entertain the other participants.
The acting part is as germane to the performance of Hari Katha as defined by Narayana Das as are singing, dancing and pleasing narration. How then does an actor whose manliness is all too apparent, impersonate female roles in his narration? This is what Sthänam Narasimha Rao, the veteran stage actor who specialised in portraying female roles - in more than 1500 stage performances – had to say of Narayana Das:
“All of us stage actors make an attempt to internalise the physical and mental attributes of the roles that we portray; the script, makeup, props, dress, hairdo and change of voice etc play no mean role, and especially while playing female roles…Yet at times during a performance, if one is not up to it, the actor’s masculinity peeks out. It is not so with Narayana Das. He enlivens each character that he narrates…he sings, dances and ‘talks’ them and carries his audience along with him. Remember, in his case he did not use makeup or any props. His audiences physically saw the well-built, six-foot, moustachioed figure in male garb but were so transported by his acting that they saw in him a shy Rukmini, a demure Sita, an angry Viswamitra, a villainous Ravana or a heroic Rama. And that is, the acme of acting!”
A consummate actor exhibits as much skill in evoking similar emotional responses from the audience to the rasas (emotions or moods) he enacts as much in enlivening the various characters he portrays. Narayana Das’ enactment of the karuna-rasa during a performance of Harischandropakhyanam so moved Maharani Appalakondayamba (Rewah) to tears that as soon as the performance was over she begged him to present in future only those Hari Kathas which did not make her cry.
The ‘Hari Katha’ Narayana Das practised during his lifetime was not only a performing art for entertainment. His stated objectives for ‘Hari Katha’ were deliverance of Bhakti, Jnana and Moksha – or the paths to attain them.
For Narayana Das, the creation of Hari Katha was both a boon and bane at the same time. He elevated the erstwhile folk art form to a higher pedestal on par with classical music and literary colloquia. There were many instances when his Hari Kathas went beyond the musical and narrative kernel of a performing art to provide a platform for discourses on scripture, literature, literary criticism, dance, music and musicology - depending upon the composition and tastes of his audience.
On an occasion while performing a Hari Katha at the residence of Somina Kameswara Rao in Rajahmundry he observed the famous poet Chellapilli Venkata Sastry and other litterateurs among the audience. While narrating a scene in which Sita propitiated Durga he ‘enacted’ the puja explaining the process in lucid in Samskrit, exhibiting his erudition of the language, its complex grammar and rich idiom.
Narayana Das had a rich voice, which in those days when there were no microphones reached the farthest of an audience of ten thousand. An interesting anecdote illustrates the richness of his megaphone voice. When he was performing a Hari Katha near a railway station no one except the signalman noticed the passing of a train, the thunderous rumble of its wheels or the Doppler effect of the engine’s shrill whistle failing to register on the consciousness of the audience which was captured by the artiste on the dais.
Hari Katha helped Narayana Das lead an independent life by providing a means of livelihood. It entertained and educated millions of his countrymen from Calcutta to Kanyakumari and earned him the title “Hari-Katha-Pitamaha”. But Hari Katha, which was only a small part of his oeuvre, obscured his other major achievements in literature and music.
Narayana Das wrote Dhruvacharitra, his first Hari Katha in 1883 when he was just nineteen. In it he included not only his own compositions but some verses from Bammera Pothana’s Bhagavatam and fables from the Panchatantra. Blessed by his elder brother Seetharamaiah who tied strings of bells (ghungroos or gajjelu in Telugu) across his ankles and accompanied by another elder brother Peranna on Tambura he debuted with a performance of Dhruvacharitra at the Venugopalaswami temple in Vizianagaram.
The debut performance did two things: firstly, it won him encomiums from the elite audience who prophesied that young Suryanarayana was on his way to eternal fame and secondly, it well and truly launched - Narayana Das - on his artistic odyssey! He acted, danced and sang his way into the hearts of his audiences in thousands of Hari Katha performances for the next six decades.
Narayana Das wrote twenty-one Hari Kathas - seventeen in Telugu, three in Samskrit and one in Atcha-Telugu but it was only in his first Hari Katha that he incorporated verses from other writers. The rest were all his own hand-crafted master pieces; literary, characterised by a richness of creativity, idiom, imagery, language and figure of speech and musical in their use of melodies and rare and innovative ragas.