The “Shakespeare” of Ramkatha

Author Bhavdeep Kang
He is the foremost Bard of our Times, bringing to life the story of Lord Rama in settings, weird and wonderful : in modern-day “vimaan”, an airborne craft (dubbed the “Vayu” or air discourse) or on a ship at sail off the coast of Italy (naturally termed the “jal” or water discourse), in the hoary temple town of Angkor Vat, in among ghosts born by nuclear hellfire, in Old Jerusalem within sight of the wailing wall, at 15,000 feet above sea level. His Ram Katha attracts lakhs of listeners from all over the world. Young and old are riveted as he makes an ancient epic relevant; he is “Shakespeare” of Ramkatha, because it’s the same story, with familiar protagonists and a plot which is passed on orally from one generation to the next, yet every rendition is interpretative. Heroes turn villains and villains, heroes. It’s all in the telling.

Ramkatha, literally the narration of Rama’s story, lends itself to a variety of artistic expression: traditional and modern dance, drama, opera, puppetry, ballads and even cinema. Ever evolving this pervasive oral tradition acquired countless forms and styles depending on region and culture. Flesh and bones remain the same, but each version is costumed in its native geography, rituals, economy, social and ethical mores. Often, communities weave into the narrative the story of their origins.

In India, the oral tradition has special significance. From his (the story teller’s seat, where he takes on the mantle of the great sage Veda Vyasa, author of the Mahabharata), the bard forms an intimate bond with his audience. He reveals himself in his rendition and invites the listeners into a world of his creation.

By far, the most popular tradition of narrating an oral text is Katha : a nine day recitation of an epic by a trained and learned or storyteller in the context of Ramayana, committing Tulsidas’ to memory is only a first step. A true Kathakar is acknowledged as a master only if he succeeds in internalizing the tale to an extent that his narration transports his listeners to the time and setting of the epic. He chooses from the oceanic tale, replete with sub-plots, sub-sub-plots and a seemingly infinite resonates with his listeners. As mentioned above, the text and structure remain intact, yet he shapes the story in his own way, like a potter moulding his clay.

There is no academy for kathakars. Nor is there a defined guild or lineage. Like a quintessential actor, a kathakar, we are told, is born not made. And for many decades now, is synonymous with Morari Bapu. Even Google Guru seems to think so. He is thus the bard guru or a master teller of Rama’s story, cast less in the mould of a stereotypical Godman. But as a chronicler of Lord Rama’s life from a boy-prince to the King of Ayodhya, Morari Bapu has found himself dovetailed into the pantheon of Indian Gurus.

[ Excerpted with permission from “Gurus : Stories of India's Leading Babas” by Bhavdeep Kang,
Westland Books, June 2016. Views expressed are writer’s personal ]
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