The Chronicler Of Lord Rama

by Bhavdeep Kang - Aug 5, 2016 07:26 PM +05:30 IST
The Chronicler Of Lord RamaBapu does not style himself as a guru and does not take on disciples. He has never initiated anyone.
  • Morari Bapu has been telling the story of the Ramayana for more than five decades, from every angle, in every continent in the world.

Excerpt from Bhavdeep Kang’s Gurus: Stories of India’s leading babas

He is the foremost bard of our times, bringing to life the story of Lord Rama in settings weird and wonderful: in a modern-day pushpak 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 Hiroshima among ghosts born of nuclear hellfire, in Old Jerusalem within sight of the Wailing Wall, at Kailash Mansarovar 15,000 feet above sea level. His Ramkatha attracts lakhs of listeners from all over the world. Young and old are riveted as he makes an ancient epic relevant; he is the “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 expressions: 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 and 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 Vyasa Peeth (the storyteller’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 kathakar or storyteller. A true kathakar is acknowledged as a master only if he succeeds in internalising 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 cast of fascinating characters, an episode which resonates with his listeners. 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, Ramkatha 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.

Eleven months before India’s independence, on 25 September 1946, Morari was born to a temple priest in the village of Talgajarda, near Mahuva in Bhavnagar. The area, now known as the “onion belt” of Gujarat, is dotted with processing units which dehydrate and package onions and garlic for export all over the world. Devoted to a temple and obviously to a life of great piety, Bapu’s parents, Prabhudas Bapu and Savitri Ma Hariyani, imbued their many progeny with all the mandated sanskars or moral values. Their most illustrious son dutifully paid homage to his lineage by installing their samadhis or resting places at his ashram.

As a child, Bapu was closer to his grandparents, Amrita Ma and Tribhovandas, who recited passages from the Ramcharitmanas to his young grandson everyday. This, then, was the start of a journey that would take him all over the globe and win him the unquestioning adulation accorded only to spiritual preceptors. Not that he sees himself as one; he does not style himself as a guru and hence, refuses to take on disciples or grant diksha (initiation by a guru into a spiritual tradition). Bapu does not want apprentices, so he’s never initiated anyone.

“My spirit


against taking

the money,

despite the

necessity of

maintaining my

“My spirit rebelled against taking the money, despite the necessity of maintaining my family.”

“When there is a practice of taking disciples, in some form or the other, it becomes a cult. In the name of dharma or spirituality, there are so many groups in the country. I don’t want dharma to be divided into cults...I always say I am the only recipient of my dadaji’s (grandfather’s) kindness and as for myself, I have thousands and lakhs of listeners. That is all.”

As for the millions who worship him, he said, “People, out of their own generosity, hold me in affection and respect. But as an individual, I have to be careful and not lose sight of that...when Hanuman sings of Rama while hidden from Sita’s sight, she asks him to come before her so that she might see him. He tells her that the identity of the one who speaks of the Lord is not important. Only the message is.” And that’s what Bapu seeks to impress on his followers: focus on the message and internalise it—ignore the messenger.

Bapu has a large family, with a son, three daughters and numerous grandchildren. I asked whether any of them was a potential kathakar. Evidently, Bapu prefers not to fish in the DNA pool for a successor. He said they were all familiar with religious scriptures and given to prayer, but he has not trained any of them to inherit his mantle. Nor does he allow prefixes or suffixes to his name. He has no wish to be addressed as “swami”, “baba”, “maharaj”, “sant”, “mahatma”, “guru” or “sri”.

“One who frees

the weak of

their weakness

and makes

them strong, is

truly human.”
“One who frees the weak of their weakness and makes them strong, is truly human.”

“Every member of my family knows the Ramcharitmanas, they do sadhana (deep spiritual contemplation) and paath (reading of a religious scripture ) but none of them has ever had the calling to recite the Ramkatha. They understand it, they live it. My dadaji never recited the Ramkatha, although he was the one who encouraged me. He told me ‘You recite.’ And that was it.”

He recalled how, as a boy of five, his grandfather expected him to commit five couplets of Ramcharitmanas to memory every day. The seven-km walk to school would be devoted to the lesson, which included an explanation by the patriarch of what the couplets meant. Back home, the young Bapu would recite the couplets to his grandfather.

Another profound influence on his life was his grandfather’s younger brother, who was the head priest at the Kailash Ashram in Rishikesh, but a man he, strangely, never met. “His name was Krishna Das and from the very beginning, his temperament was one of detachment. The Himalayas beckoned him. So he first went to Kashi (Varanasi) and studied Sanskrit—and along with that, the Ramcharitmanas, which is our family’s sadhgranth (scripture). From there, he went to Kailash Ashram in Rishikesh, where he took diksha. And he never came back. After he became the mahamandaleshwar (head priest), he (later known as Mahamandaleshwar Vishnudevanand Giriji Maharaj) would come to Mumbai to give talks on the Vedas, along with other renunciates.

“My dadaji went to meet him and asked him to come to Gujarat, so that all the children of the family could have the privilege of meeting him. He answered in the negative, albeit respectfully, saying ‘You are my elder, but I am a sanyasi.’ But he sent a message to the whole family, exhorting them to study the Ramcharitmanas and the Bhagavad Gita,” recalled Bapu.

“He demitted office as mahamandaleshwar after a certain age, but continued to live in the ashram. My father once decided to go to Rishikesh and visit him,” said Bapu. The ascetic recognised his nephew, who stayed with him for a few days.

Morari Bapu’s father, Prabhudas, would help his uncle circumambulate the temple, walking slowly along the path, with the old man clutching his shoulder. A few days later, he returned to Talgajarda with the same advice: internalise the Ramcharitmanas and Bhagavad Gita. This his son, Bapu, did to stunning effect and in 1986, delivered a Ramkatha at the Kailash Ashram. By the age of 12, Morari had mastered the Ramcharitmanas. He would sit by the banks of the Rupawa river, offering water to the herdsmen grazing their cattle and recite to them the story of Lord Rama. In 1960, at the age of 14, he professionally delivered his first Ramkatha, to an audience comprising three villages. Many such recitations followed and his reputation as a riveting teenage storyteller grew. It was at this time that he began interacting with sants, fakirs and all manner of holy men, who were impressed with his extraordinary talent.

The most significant association Morari had was with the legendary kathakar from Gujarat, Dongre Maharaj. Once, when he came to deliver a katha at Mahuva, Bapu made sure he attended the whole programme, from start to finish. “Then he came to a village nearby. I would listen to his katha by day and stay in a farmer’s hut at night. Thereafter, I met him many times. He was the most renowned exponent of the Bhagwat Katha. When people came to beg him for a recitation of Ramkatha, he would direct them to me. ‘If you want Ramkatha, go to Morari Bapu,’ he would say.”

Enthralling recitations of an ancient epic didn’t insulate the young Morari Bapu from life’s pressing demands. As a young boy, he was, by all accounts, a bright student. If he flunked his matriculation examination three times in a row, it was because he was disinterested in conventional education and focused on Ramkatha.

“There are different kinds of intelligence. Some people are intelligent in their conduct. Some in spiritual matters. For me, it was necessary to study and get a job because of family circumstances. My mind was never in academics; it was with Hari, with the paramatma (the Supreme Being).”

He finally got lucky the fourth time around, and after undergoing a condensed teachers’ training course at Shahapur College near Junagadh, he obtained a Primary Teachers’ Certificate (PTC). In 1965, Morari became a primary school teacher at the J. Parekh High School in Mahuva and held that job for 10 years, during which his life changed dramatically. “I would take leave without pay to deliver kathas in rural areas,” he said.

So accomplished a kathakar was he, that in the same year, he was invited to deliver his first rendition outside of Mahuva, in Junagadh. He gradually moved further afield, covering other districts of the state. In the early 1970s, he began to venture to other parts of the country, starting with Mumbai in 1971. He ranged over western India for the most part, covering Maharashtra, Gujarat and later, veering towards the south, to Karnataka.

But the significant turning point came in 1976. In March of that year, he held a Ramkatha in the holy city of Haridwar and so enamoured were the audiences that the following month, he crossed the seven seas and travelled to Nairobi, on his first visit abroad. He not only stepped on foreign soil and delivered two impressive kathas but also opened a bank account for the first time, with a deposit of Rs 14,000 at the local branch of Dena Bank.

He was to return to Africa the following year, for a series of events, ending with a katha at Dar es Salaam. His UK debut was in 1979 and in the USA, five years later. After that, requests and demands began pouring in. Till date, Morari Bapu has more than 770 to his credit, with no continent left untouched.

I was curious about Bapu’s finances. How did he go from being an impoverished folk artiste to a man of means and still maintain uncompromising integrity? To begin with, like most kathakars, Morari Bapu accepted whatever money he was offered as a fee. That was how folk artists maintained themselves and their families; there was no fixed charge and the day’s earnings depended on voluntary donations by the audience. Having grown up poor, Bapu didn’t have the luxury of saying no. “On this journey, one has the right to accept dakshina (donation). People traditionally give donations to sadhus and Brahmins; there is nothing wrong with that. I had the responsibility of my entire family, so I too would accept it. In the beginning, I used to get as little as Rs 100 for nine days of katha. Of this, Rs 10 to 15 would go to the harmonium player and another Rs 15 to tabla players. The rest I would keep, for I was on leave without pay. Taking dakshina was a compulsion but it was not in my nature.”

For all his globetrotting and growing fame as a kathakar, Bapu was first and foremost a householder who had bills to pay. The foreign tours helped financially, but the folk artist in him balked at having to accept money for doing something he loved.

“My spirit rebelled against taking the money, despite the necessity of maintaining my family.” On his third visit to Kenya, he refused to accept anything.

Henceforth, he decreed, he would accept donations once a year, on Guru Purnima day. “Akaash ke roti ki tarah, aaye na aaye... (Donations may pour in, like manna from heaven, or maybe not).”

The expenses for a katha are borne entirely by the individual or agency who requests the rendering, Bapu explained. Once he accepts (a request to render) a katha, the organiser makes all the arrangements: infrastructure, refreshments, transport and accommodation. The extent and style of the arrangements is completely left to them. This one time in Vadodara, for instance, the organisers set up a fully air-conditioned, fire-resistant and waterproof tent covering 125,000 square feet, enough to accommodate 30,000 people comfortably on a single day. Considering that crowds of up to eight lakh people over nine days is not unusual, a Bapu katha can be an expensive affair.

The setting up of a rendering obviously excludes the donation the organisers may want to offer to Bapu. As wealthy businessmen joined the throng of Bapu’s devotees, the quantum of donations must have been considerable.

He readily acknowledged the fact and said that at one point he found himself receiving far more than was needed for himself and his family. “Once a year, I would accept donations. I would give 10 per cent for social work and keep the rest. Yeh mera pakka vrat tha (I had vowed to do this). Whatever I said in my Ramkatha, I began to do...”

Gradually, the amount of money in donations mounted to the point that Bapu had to reverse the proportion; he kept 10 per cent for the family and gave 90 per cent towards social causes: feeding the needy, treatment of the sick, educating children, organising weddings etc.

After Bapu went global, there was even more money to be had!

“So I decided on a gurukul (seminary), a place where the children of sadhus could study free of cost and learn Sanskrit. The Almighty accomplished that. Two or three trusts were set up, in London and here.”

By this time, wasn’t his family well settled? All three daughters married and his son, the proud owner of a palatial home?

“So I stopped accepting donations! For many years now, I have not taken anything. There is of course the cost of my travel and arranging Gangajal.” (He drinks water only from the Ganga. His food, too, is cooked in its water, Gangajal, his only caprice.) He also withdrew from all the trusts that had been set up with the money he had received. The only department which is controlled by his Chitrakut Dham ashram is accounts. ‘That is all that is left here, at Talgajarda, where we (inmates of the ashram) distribute medicines and prasad and undertake small social work according to our ability.”

“By burning

Ravana year

after year, you


nothing. The

main thing is to

keep the Rama

alive within

“By burning Ravana year after year, you accomplish nothing. The main thing is to keep the Rama alive within you.”

Over the years, he seems to have developed a strong aversion to managing money and has, accordingly, reduced his ashram’s financial dealings to a minimum. For instance, even if a programme is held under the auspices of Bapu’s ashram, the organisers are asked to directly pay the sundry artistes and vendors. “No money ever passes through us,” asserts Bapu.

Unlike most contemporary spiritual leaders, he has no interest in setting up a vast infrastructure offering spiritual wellness across the globe, or undertaking extensive social service in the form of education, health, R&D or development initiatives. How then, is he able to make donations to worthwhile causes? For instance, he disbursed Rs 10 crore for relief operations after the devastating floods of 2013 in Uttarakhand and contributed Rs 1 crore to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund for the 2014 Jammu and Kashmir flood victims.

“I was delivering a katha in Bakersfield in the US when this (the Uttarakhand flood) happened. I wanted to go there but could not change my programme. Unable to do anything myself, I felt I could at least help arrange funds. I made an appeal during the course of the katha. People responded with great generosity and collected 11 crore. The money was deposited in the account of the Karnavati Club in Ahmedabad.” Clearly, Bapu’s adherents are more than willing to loosen their purse strings at his bidding.

Morari Bapu may well live the lives of mythological characters, but it isn’t as if he is either ignorant or detached from the realities of kaliyuga or the “age of vice”. For instance, when it came to distributing money for the Uttarakhand deluge, Bapu decided that handing the kitty over to the state government might not be the way to go. “We were not sure whether it would go to the right people, so we wanted to do it ourselves,” he explained. Accordingly, a survey was conducted to determine where the funds were most needed and best utilised. That took a while, during which the money had accrued interest and once road and air traffic had been restored, Bapu travelled to the state and personally handed out the cheques to those devastated by the floods.

As a revered kathakar, he has gravitas enough to advise Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I called the PM and told him the money (for J&K) had been contributed with the purest of intentions and should therefore be used appropriately.”

At home in Mahuva, Bapu receives his devotees under a massive banyan tree which grows in the precincts of a small temple consecrated to Lord Hanuman. Ensconced in a swing suspended from a thick branch, he sways gently as he speaks. I couldn’t help but notice a young lad stationed behind the swing, providing just the right degree of momentum to propel the swing to and fro. Clad in a shawl even in the moist heat of coastal Saurashtra, Bapu smiles benignly as the motley line of devotees troop past him, placing little gifts at his feet: snacks, books, framed pictures. Now and then, he takes off his glasses to peer at a book or photograph. A contingent from Rajasthan begs a katha, as they have been doing every year for 23 years. They whip out a harmonium, the better to serenade “The Bard”. He listens indulgently and murmurs praise but does not commit to a rendering.

Post-darshan, the devotees take their places on mats spread out to his right. Bapu chats with them between phone calls, as water and tea go around. He listens politely as they express opinions, narrate stories of success or woe, read out verses. His poise is phenomenal, his voice hypnotic, his smile incandescent. He quotes Jiddu Krishnamurti, saying, “Majboor ko majboori se raahat de, usko mazboot kar de, woh insaan hai (One who frees the weak of their weakness and makes them strong, is truly human).” Engagingly transparent in conversation, he never ducks a question or breaks eye contact.

The ashram itself is small and simple, with functional rooms, kept impeccably clean. Bang opposite the statue of Hanuman, are the samadhis of Bapu’s parents. His swing sits in between. In its lack of embellishment and clutter, the ashram is a metaphor for the man: what you see is what you get. When the state administration decided to construct a four-lane road leading to Bapu’s ashram from the arterial road, it upset the farmers in the area because they did not want to surrender their land for the project. Bapu promptly said he wouldn’t countenance any land, even the size of a nail, being unjustly taken away.

He himself occupies a small hut under a tree at the corner of his son’s palatial home, hidden from public view by intimidatingly high walls. The whole area, so say local denizens, is scanned by security cameras. Living cheek by jowl with luxury, Bapu indulges his taste for asceticism. Having grown up in a village, he has no liking for mod cons. He prefers his cottage, but often sleeps outside on a mat, spread under a tree. He refuses to use air conditioners, a fan suffices even in the heat of summer. “He can go to sleep on a heap of sand on the side of a road,” said Jaidev who takes care of the ashram. For katha organisers, it must be a challenge to try and put him up in the poverty to which he is accustomed!

Morari Bapu clearly has no use for the creature comforts to which Indian godmen are accustomed—customised SUVs, Italian-tiled prayer rooms, garish but astoundingly expensive furniture—all traditionally taboo. Morari Bapu’s sole indulgence, as mentioned earlier, is eating food cooked in Gangajal, imported specially for the purpose. He attaches deep significance to the Ganga. Its sinuous course and ceaseless flow, shaped by ecology rather than human will, is a metaphor for both his life and his katha, he explained.

Back at the ashram, he yields to a supplicant’s prayer that he bless a newly-acquired SUV by riding in it. He dons his khadaons or padukas (wooden slippers, which he prefers to scholls) and ascends the passenger seat next to the triumphantly beaming vehicle owner. And they’re off, leaving a crowd of disciples, many of them NRIs, feeling warm and fuzzy. A group of women cluster around to see him off. Expensively clad, English-speaking senior citizens, they seem very much at home in the ashram. These are Bapu’s most ardent devotees—following him around the world, from katha to katha, in the manner of groupies attached to a pop band. Not even the Grateful Dead could boast so committed a fan following.

One of the women volunteered to explain his appeal: “I heard him for the first time in 1981. At the time, I was an Aurobindo follower. There was such incredible energy (in his recital), what we call nada shakti. I began crying...could feel the five chakras vibrating. I had been privy to all manner of spiritual traditions, but his touch was different. Very special, even divine.’

A sizeable youth contingent floats around the ashram premises. NRIs, whose parents are devotees, have become Bapu adherents in their own right. A young US-born-and-bred couple of Gujarati origin, who come to Talgajarda every year, love the fact that there’s no “sandesh or adesh” (message or order). Just a simple story, take from it what you will. Another young American is keen on organising a katha at Athens in Greece. What makes the young gravitate towards a man whose theme is an ancient, some would say anachronistic, epic?

Bapu explained why the young form a major part of his audience: the mind and intelligence may dwell on things material, “But when you touch the soul, they respond to that. We scold them (the young) and say your mind is wayward and you are unintelligent. Instead, you must put a reassuring hand on their shoulder and touch their souls...I am not here to reform anyone. My mission is to accept everyone. Sweekar karna, sudharna nahin.”

And what about those who cannot afford to follow him all over the world? “Bapu’s kathas are recorded and disseminated free of charge,” said Nilesh Vavadia, a plump and reticent young man more at home with gadgets than people. Back when Bapu was a local phenomenon, Nilesh’s father, who had an HMV franchise and sold Bush radios, provided audio equipment for his kathas. Later, handycams were used to record the recitals. By the time Nilesh took over the business, Bapu was “the” Morari Bapu. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, following Bapu all over the world. It is the basis of my life.”

For Nilesh, the technical advancement in the world of gizmos is as exciting as his journey with Bapu. He animatedly recounted the great leaps forward in gadgetry: in 1981, came the VHS, then VCDs and blu-ray. The joys of digitisation! Now he uploads clips on YouTube and WhatsApp even as the katha is in progress. What makes Nilesh’s job easier is Bapu’s comfort with technology, though not with its misuse. While he acknowledges that live telecasts of his Ramkatha have allowed millions to tune in, he does not have any inclination to join the social media community, other than posting his programme schedule. “But I am surprised, even shocked, to see people messaging on WhatsApp in my name. If they reported what I say, it’s fine. But they make it up. How to stop it?”

Bapu may be chary of the social media, but another Gujarati—a diehard fan of his—used it to excellent effect, comfortably winning a general election to become Prime Minister. Which brings us to Bapu’s arm’s-length approach to most politicians. Narendra Modi, who won his approval as Gujarat chief minister and attracted rare praise for the manner in which he ran the state, is an exception. Bapu, who has on occasion found himself on a dais with Modi, called to congratulate him after he took oath as prime minister, although he did not attend the swearing-in.

“A totally healthy man cannot be in politics. I believe this, whether or not they accept we elect those who are the least objectionable. It is the same all over the world. But we have been fortunate to have some great men, with few weaknesses, who have given their lives for the country. After all, we are all a mix (of strength and weakness).” But politics is an essential part of any civilisation and involves some degree of skulduggery, I pointed out.

He acknowledged that “Politics is a road, a bridge, a means of promoting is needed to run the world. But politics must have a soul.” He quoted Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: “Hari naam ke bina, vidya vidhwa (Unless we invoke the name of God, even knowledge is colourless and bland).” Similarly, he said, politics without truth, love and compassion lacks meaning. “Politics cannot change the human condition; only spiritualism can. If a man thinks right and is ethical, he can be happy even in poverty. But without it, even crores will not make him content. He will exist, but in fear.”

Speaking of fear, his village was a haven of peace during the communal riots which erupted across Gujarat in 2002, despite having a substantial Muslim population. Morari Bapu made sure of that. The fearless kathakar once invited Muslim leaders to perform namaz at the Ram Mandir at Talgajarda—provided he could conduct his paath in a masjid!

He’s a bit of an iconoclast, which may have raised hackles among the orthodoxy. For example, insisting that women should be permitted to perform the last rites and other priestly duties. “Widows and girls can do it. They can become priests. Earlier, women did not read the Vedas. Now they do. There’s a German lady in Porbandar who does Hanuman puja (another male preserve) and runs her own ashram.” Or for that matter, his analysis of a generally reviled character in the epic that he has made his own since childhood: the ten-headed Ravana.

On one of his trips to Mount Kailash, he insisted on taking a dip in the forbidden Rakshastal (lake of demons), which lies to the west of Lake Mansarovar. Legend has it that Ravana undertook severe penances at this spot, to obtain boons from Lord Shiva. In contrast to the neighbouring freshwater lake of Mansarovar, it is salty, harbouring no aquatic plants or life. Dismissing the superstition that the malign waters suck away all accumulated good karma, Bapu immersed himself in the lake.

Ravana was a mahapurush (great man), according to Bapu. In his demonaic avatar, he was assigned a role on the universal stage and had to play it out. The abduction of Sita was in the script and he acted accordingly. “Ravana kept Sita in all safety in the Ashok Vatika. He surrounded her with women and conducted himself with decorum. Never once did he seek to meet her alone. Never once did he transgress the established code of conduct. These qualities are those of a mahatma. Ravana knows Rama as the param tatva (highest being). But he is arrogant, not given to singing praises or seeking sanctuary with the Lord...a man must be seen from all angles. By burning Ravana year after year, you accomplish nothing. The main thing is to keep the Rama alive within you.”

At variance with images of popular calendar art, Morari Bapu’s Rama, the legendary warrior-prince, does not bear arms; none of the idols at the Ram Mandir in his village or ashram do. Rama and his sibling, Lakshman, appear to have misplaced their bows and Hanuman his mace. Interestingly, all the idols wear garments made of khadi rather than the conventional silk, perhaps in deference to that great son of Gujarat, Mahatma Gandhi. He invests Rama and Ravana, traditionally the nayaka (hero) and khalnayaka (anti-hero or villain), with layers of complexity, so that, over 50 years of rendition, he has never run short of inspiration.

His katha is like the flowing, ever-changing Ganga. “Sometimes I know what I am going to talk about. At other times, it comes to me only when I take my seat on the Vyasa Peeth. It comes from within. Once, in Varanasi, it came while I was taking a dip in the river.” In Jerusalem, he spoke of Jesus and his lesson of love. In Hiroshima, he spoke of compassion. His Ramkatha is no empty re-telling; it holds life lessons. His deft brush produces vivid pictures of Rama telling Sita of his adventures, of Adam’s Bridge taking shape, of Ravana saluting the imprisoned and recalcitrant Sita. Every time he recites, the tale takes a new form. “It is always new for me. I don’t know about my listeners, but for me, the flower is fresh every day. The mool (essence) is the same, the phool (flower) is different, with a new form and fragrance. If it was the same thing every time, I myself would not continue.” “Mein keval keval aur keval akela hoon. I am all alone on this journey. There is my Vyasa Peeth, my Ramcharitmanas and I.’

At heart he may remain a village storyteller, weaving his magic with words under a peepul tree, but his audience is global. He hasn’t just kept alive the katha tradition in the face of a plethora of modern forms of story-telling, he’s ensured that it thrives. Films and TV might retell the Ramayana in a dozen different ways, but the katha remains irreplaceable.

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