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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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!
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
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.
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.
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.
*** *** ***
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
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
“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
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.
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