Parvati's desire and the shopping trolley

Mathematics professor Ananth Rao gives harikatha discourses in English


Bangalore: It was an unlikely setting (Oxford Book Store, Leela Galleria) and an unlikely language (English) for a katha kalakshepa or harikathe, as it is more commonly known in Karnataka. Dr Ananth Rao's hour-long exposition on the Kalidasa classic Kumarasambhava was unusual on at least these two counts, and the Tuesday (17 June) event only his second katha kalakshepa in India.

The first was at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, where he is visiting in an academic capacity. A discussion at the institute about the role of stories in psychiatry led him to demonstrate his skill in the storytelling art.

Anantha Rao has been away from India since 1965, when he left for Melbourne to do his PhD in applied mathematics. Before that, he had studied in Central College and National 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."

Classical musicians will of course dispute that, and talk of the harikatha as something of a pop art, as they did when the vocalist and composer Muthaiah Bhagavatar took to it. Also, 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. In India, he had picked up some music from his mother, and a collection of Sanskrit and Kannada books from his doctor-father. His 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 his 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 after his discourse.

Ananth Rao’s inspiration, and role model, is a harikatha exponent he had heard when he was young: Venugopala Das. The emphasis of this school is the poetry, and it calls for a more rigorous scholarship. Anantha 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 daughters are trained in Western classical music, and have a fair knowledge of Indian ragas, thanks to their exposure to Ananth Rao’s harikatha. At his Tuesday harikatha, he was accompanied on the harmonium by Dr Narahari Rao.

Ananth Rao narrated the love story of Kumarasambhava fluently, keeping his English-educated audience in mind, and bringing in modern-day parallels to a work that is 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. Ananth Rao adds a comparison, "Goes its own way, like a shopping trolley!" Kama, about to shoot an arrow into Shiva’s heart to make him fall in love with Parvati, takes one look at the fiery god, and feels unnerved, "like Shoab Akhtar having to bowl to Sachin Tendulkar in full flow".

But Ananth 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, and the coming together of two dissimilar individuals. Shiva, after burning down Kama with his third eye, comes before her in the guise of a brahmachari and taunts the man she wants to marry, and Parvati responds with an angry but well-argued defence. The story ends when Shiva shows his true form, and is united with a bashful Parvati. Kalidasa's understanding of social dynamics brought out some sociologically perceptive remarks from Anantha Rao as well.

Ananth Rao next plans to try out some "secular discourses" using the work of Australian Nobel laureate Partrick White.

S R Ramakrishna