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Parvati's desire and the shopping trolley

A mathematician tells stories in English from the Indian classics in the harikatha style.



Ananth Rao: bringing Kalidasa to the English-speaking audience.

IT WAS an unlikely setting (Oxford Book Store, Leela Galleria) and an unlikely language (English) for a katha kalakshepa (or harikathé, as it is more commonly known in Karnataka). Ananth Rao's hour-long exposition on the Kalidasa classic Kumarasambhava was unusual on at least two counts, and last week's event only his second katha kalakshepa in India.

The first was at National Institute of Advanced Studies, which he is visiting in an academic capacity, and where a discussion about the role of stories in psychiatry led him to demonstrate his skill in the storytelling art. Dr. Ananth Rao has been away from India since 1965, when he left for Melbourne to do his Ph.D. in applied mathematics. Before that, he had studied in National College and Central College. He is now Professor of Applied Mathematics, School of Informatics and Engineering, Flinders University, Australia.

"I feel the harikatha is the most perfect of all arts," he said, when it was time for questions, "because it combines music, literature, everyday wisdom, and also a bit of acting."

The classical musicians will of course dispute that judgment, and talk of the harikatha as a bit of a pop art, as they did when the vocalist and classical composer Muthaiah Bhagavatar (best known for his kriti "Bhuvaneshwariya nene manasave" in raga Mohana Kalyani) took to it. But then, within the harikatha tradition, there are the entertainers and the scholars.

The English harikatha was developed for what Dr. Rao calls "mixed company" in Australia. Indian families knew of his interest in Sanskrit literature and often asked him to talk about it. "So, instead of just doing it casually, I worked at this form and developed it," says Dr. Rao. He hesitates to call himself a Sanskrit scholar or a musician, but when in India, he had picked up some music from his mother, and a collection of Sanskrit and Kannada books from his doctor father. Dr. Ananth Rao's style, as seen in Kumarasambhava, is closer to the gamaka tradition (where epic Kannada poetry is sung in Carnatic ragas and then explained) than the harikatha tradition.

Kumarasambhava is just one of the stories that Anantha Rao has been presenting. He has heard Gururajulu Naidu, the most popular Kannada harikatha exponent in recent times, but feels that is a lighter, more entertaining style. "Not that I have anything against it, but only 30 per cent of his discourse would be from the primary text, and the rest made up of auxiliary stories," he said in a chat with Metro Plus.

Dr. Rao's inspiration, and role model, is a harikatha exponent he had heard when he was young: Venugopala Das. The emphasis of this school of harikatha is on poetry, and calls for a somewhat more rigorous scholarship. Dr. Rao uses Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa extensively in the other stories he narrates: Hiranyakashipu, Dhruva, Muchkunda. In Australia, he is usually accompanied by his two daughters, Aditi, who, being an advanced practitioner of the piano, plays a Kawai keyboard with good tones when she performs with him, and Aparna, who sings and plays the tamboori. Both are trained in Western classical music, and have a fair knowledge of Indian ragas, thanks to their exposure to Dr. Rao's harikatha. At his Tuesday harikatha, he was accompanied on the harmonium by Narahari Rao.

Dr. Rao narrated the love story of Kumarasambhava fluently, keeping his English-educated audience in mind and bringing in modern-day parallels to a work at least 1,500 years old. Parvati, devastated by Shiva's spurning of her love, draws his picture, and tells him that she is performing penance for him because her manoratha, the chariot of her mind, goes its own way and still yearns for him. Dr. Rao adds a comparison: "Goes its own way, like a shopping trolley!" Kama, about to shoot his arrow into Shiva's heart to make him fall in love with Parvati, takes one look at the fiery god, and feels unnerved, "like Shoaib Akhtar having to bowl to Sachin Tendulkar in full flow".

But Dr. Rao mainly savoured, and let his audience savour, the beauty of Kalidasa's poetry, his felicity of expression, his delicate metaphors. He highlighted Parvati as the protagonist of Kalidasa's love story. Shiva, after burning Kama with his third eye, comes before her in the guise of a brahmachari and taunts the man she wants to marry, and Parvati comes back with an angry but well-argued defence. The story ends when Shiva shows his true form, and is united with a bashful Parvati.

Dr. Rao stays in Chamarajpet, and is in town till July 9.

S.R. RAMAKRISHNA

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