As a young lad in the 60s and 70s, I used to look forward eagerly to the Ganapati and Dasara festivals. But while I enjoyed the festive gatherings and jubiliation, my real interest lay in the Harikathas, which were a part of the cultural programmes organised at the Durga and Ganapati temples during the “Navaratrulu”, or nine nights of celebrations.
Harikathas, a folk art from Andhra Pradesh, are essentially a flow of stories about Gods and Goddesses from Indian mythology and Hindu religious epics, narrated vividly through dance, poetry and drama by a “Haridasu”.
The traditional art was a form of Hindu discourse through which the storyteller explores a theme, usually on the lives of saints or an excerpt from an Indian epic.
The composite art form conflates poetry, drama, music and dance, enthralling the audience. Any religious theme can be a Harikatha subject.
These Harikathas used to be conducted at late in the nights, usually after 9 pm and lasted for three or four hours. A large number of people, both literate and illiterate, the poor and the rich, from every community in the neighbourhood would rub shoulders as they sat uncomplainingly on tarpaulin sheets spread out before the wooden stage to watch these Harikathas. I would join these “nocturnal multitudes” and our eyes would light up when the Haridasu — with a garland of flowers around his neck and a pair of cymbals in his hands -would get up on stage accompanied by a mridangam (drum) artiste and a violinist.
Whether it was Parvathi Kalyanam or Venkateswara Kalyanam, the Haridasu never failed to mesmerize us as he danced, twirled, and thudded his feet on the stage in magical rhythm and ecstasy, singing and chanting padyalu (poems) loudly and mellifluously, backed by the music of drums and violin, and the ceaseless clapping of hands by the audience, which would hoot, laugh and giggle as the Haridasu cracked hilarious jokes reflecting contemporary social and political events in the midst of his story-narration.
I was always amazed by the inexhaustable energy of these Haridasus, keeping us enthralled for hours on end.
That’s the indelible impact of Harikatha on the minds of my generation, before the advent of cable television and the internet. Today, Alas, Harikatha is no longer heard of even in the rural areas of Andhra Pradesh. But it will always remain etched in my memory, and surface during the festive season.