August 16 marked the 47th anniversary of the passing away of a legend who stood tall in concert halls in his time – Harikatha exponent Annasami Bhagavatar. A recipient of the fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, he was a man worth not only remembering but emulating as well.
Harikatha is literally the telling of stories of God. This art of storytelling, mixed with music (and even dance for those who could do it) came to Tamil Nadu from the Maratha kirtankars and was extensively adapted to local tastes. It was for those who wanted to have a good time listening to a story interestingly told as well as serious-minded people keen on furthering their spiritual journey. It demands prowess in storytelling, grasp of facts, expertise in music and above all, the ability to enrapture the audience.
Rendered with élan
Bhagavatar did all this with élan. Born in 1899, in Bikshandar Koil, he belonged to the Jatavallabhar family. Jata is a superior method of Vedic recitation and the large family had several scholars who served in the Maratha court. When his father died young, Kailasanatha, which was his real name, his mother, five brothers and a sister, were left destitute. The sister was married of as the second wife to Subramania Iyer, a wealthy landowner of Thirupalathurai. Iyer took charge of his second wife’s family and enrolled Bhagavatar in the Tiruvaiyaru Sanskrit College.
On graduation, his brother-in-law, himself a lover of Harikatha, encouraged Bhagavatar to take up the art as a fulltime profession – it was after all a glamorous, financially remunerative profession that drew huge audiences.
Bhagavatar learnt from Tirupazhanam Panchapakesa Sastrigal, who was adept at doing six-hour performances.
Details of his performances from aged 21 are anecdotal, but he soon became a ‘hit.’ His superb music (that came intuitively – he never had formal training), flawless recitation of Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit and f Marathi Sakhi, Dindi and Ovis were impeccable. His raison d'être was his humour, never vulgar and always fresh even if repeated.
Special slots were reserved for him at The Music Academy, Chennai, and the Tyagaraja utsavam in Tiruvaiyaru. Some of the finest musicians of the day attended his programmes A special friend was Papanasam Sivan. He was the principal of the Harikatha College.
Bhagavatar’s favourite deity was Rama and Ramayana, his best performance. His disciple Kamala Murthy remembers him as a compassionate human being who possessed extraordinary humility. Requests for his charge were met with a “Whatever you give, I am happy; Chanting His name is more important.”
Bhagavatar never followed money but his finances were under excellent control thanks to his wife Dharmambal an illiterate but able administrator.
A handful of recordings exist and in all of these, the mesmerising quality of his voice is apparent – never harsh, and always soft and filled with compassion and emotion. The slow telling of a joke that gently and powerfully builds to a climax and a punch line is well worth learning for the best actors of today. Many of his jokes were on coffee, train journeys and the love hate relationships of parents and their children.
Annasami Bhagavatar passed away on Ashada Ekadasi with the words of Rama on his lips.
(Contact Rudraya@vsnl.com for recordings of Bhagavatar or to contribute your collection for the archives.)
All of my questions sedtnet-thalks!