It is midnight. L Krishna Bhat is sitting at a table in his house at Mattancherry in Kochi. In the deep silence all around, there is only one sound that can be heard: the scratch of a pen’s nib on paper.Bhat is writing a play titled Chiranjeevi Markhandeya. So far, he has written, acted and directed 45 plays, and most of them are based on mythological themes and stories from the Puranas. And all his works are in Konkani.
Characters, dialogues and scenes swim around in his imagination. Time passes. Suddenly, he yawns and looks at his watch. It is 12.30 am. Reluctantly, he closes the notebook, puts the cap on his pen and retires for the night.But within four-and-a-half hours, the playwright awakens.
Following his morning ablutions, the 58-year-old heads for the 400-year-old Cochin Thirumala Devaswom Temple, where he has been the head priest for decades. Starting at 5.30 am, he does puja rituals in front of an idol of Lord Venkateswara till noon. Over 300 devotees are there to listen raptly to the prayers even if it is a weekday morning. And following lunch and a nap at home, he is back at the temple by 5.30 pm and says prayers till 10 pm.
But Bhat is a priest with a difference. He is a short-story writer, a lyricist, an actor, a director of plays as well as a dramatist. His next play, Jaglevelo Hanmanthu will be staged at Mattancherry on October 28.
Single-handedly, Bhat is keeping alive the culture of the small community of 18,000 Konkanis in Kochi. “The majority are members of the Gowda Saraswat Brahmin (GSB) community,” he says.
Many people of the community fled Goa in 1560 AD because they faced religious persecution by the Portuguese. They came to Kochi, which was an important trade centre at that time. The Brahmins pleaded with King Veera Kerala Varma of the Cochin kingdom, who, in a humanitarian gesture, gave them refuge as well as a large tract of land behind his palace in Mattancherry. “We have been living here ever since,” says Bhatt.
Bhat is a tenth-generation priest. His son, Jayadev, 21, will take over the mantle, once Bhat grows old or becomes incapacitated. “He is receiving training,” says Bhat, whose popular works, include Varadan, Tharavaad and Bheeshma Prathijna.
Meanwhile, on being asked about how he got interested in art, Bhat says one of his neighbours, VV Naik, would enact a lot of plays. “As a child, I began going to his house. Soon, I began acting. Thereafter Naik Sir told me to write plays. And the journey is still on. I have written lyrics of 300 songs.”
These are mostly devotional songs and lullabies for children. In fact, one lullaby, ‘Rama Bala Jo Krishna Bala’ has also been picturised and it can be seen on YouTube. In it, Bhat plays a writer as well as a doting father.
Bhat has also written short stories. They were initially published in a magazine called Konkan Janatha and later, in a temple journal called Venkata Vani. “I like the short-story format,” he says.What Bhat is doing is unusual. For centuries, the GSB community had stayed away from art and culture.
“They would make others do the performing and enjoyed watching it. As Brahmins, we were not encouraged to sing, play an instrument, or go on stage. The change came only a few decades ago.”
So, when Bhat expressed his desire to write and act in plays, his parents did not object at all. “They wanted me to produce work that brings people together,” says Bhat.
His drama troupe consists of 35 people from varied professions —doctors, corporate managers and dancers.On his future plans, Bhat says, “I want to continue to do plays that will enrich our heritage. I also want digital videos to be made so that the culture is preserved for future generations.”
What’s next: Play Jaglevelo Hanmanthu to be staged at Mattancherry on October 28