FOR TOO LONG, the world of Hindu religious discourse has been dominated by sententious old men presuming to redeem modernity from its perils, routinely incomprehensible scholars, and holy babas with unholy agendas. So when a 30-year-old BITS Pilani alumnus peppers a lecture on the Bhagavata Purana with Harry Potter references, and delivers management jargon and Sanskrit shlokas in the same breath, you sit up and listen, if not to a discourse in Chennai, Bengaluru or New Jersey, then to one on his YouTube channel with over 3.3 million views. In south India, the 150-year-old tradition of kathakalakshepam, a form of storytelling that often involves music, poetry and philosophy, is now largely propped up on the shoulders of young upanyasakas like Velukkudi Krishnan, Vishaka Hari and Dushyanth Sridhar. All three gave up their respective careers—it was accountancy for Krishnan and Hari, and market research at TCS for Sridhar, who quit his day job only a year ago—and took the stage to cater to a new generation (of mostly affluent Tamil Brahmins) that was, suddenly, hankering for spirituality. Sridhar is the youngest, and arguably the wittiest, of this new wave of storytellers. He likes to interpret the scriptures for those unfamiliar with them, but also to shock inveterate audiences with his sharp myth-busting, keeping it all as light and palatable as possible.
Last month, at a series of Tamil lectures on the Vishnu Purana in Bengaluru, where the turnout was a motley mix of grey-haired women in Kanjivarams, retired gents who chanted along every time a familiar Sanskrit verse came up, and laptop-lugging latecomers who had to sit on the floor after the seats filled up, Sridhar threw a fun fact at his audience. The text, he told them, was the result of a geriatric Maitreya asking his 20-something guru Parashara to elaborate on cosmology. The message: bring only your mind to the lecture, leave your age and your ego at the coat check. In the course of the next two-and-a-half hours, this man, with a portentous memory and a strange Brahminical cadence, would establish a narratorial presence by squeezing between the lines of the basic story and playing with the levels of a scene. He would paint the gods with a contemporary brush, lapse into English and even quote from As You Like It, sing stanzas from Carnatic compositions, and wax sardonic about modern society, the traffic in Bengaluru, Tamil politics and technology.
“I have no patience for boring storytelling of the sort you hear on Hindi TV channels,” he later tells me. “Who wants to hear a baba in saffron say, ‘Ram ji ne Sita mayya se saadi kiya tha [sic]?” A typical Sridhar technique is to re-tell well-known stories with a comic value-add. Sample this: “Ravanananda, like so many bearded anandas in sanyasi robes, duped Sita and abducted her. Rama had to give Hanuman his ring because Sita had become so wary of people she would ask anyone she met for their Aadhaar card.” Keen, darting eyes on a round face, a silk Fabindia kurta, an almost imperceptible tikka on his forehead, Dushyanth Sridhar is a modern man with a talent for public speaking. “Devices and entertainment take up a lot of our time now. When you have to sit for two-and-a-half hours, looking at someone who is not so attractive, on a stage that is not exactly the Oscars, without scratching your nose, and concentrate on what he’s saying, that’s a big ask,” he says. “The art of listening is dead. And yet, I am hopeful when I see 1,500 people turn up for a weekday lecture in Tamil at Mumbai’s Shanmukhananda Hall. You see, it is about marketing as well. So I try to be as current as possible,” he says. “And this is possible because the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are ever-relevant socio-cultural portraits.”
“This is what I like about Hinduism—its permissiveness. I can make fun of our gods and no one would kill me for it. It is known as nindastuti in Sanskrit” - Dushyanth Sridhar, public speaker and writer
The day after a political gathbandhan falls apart, Sridhar would channel it in the context of the friendship between Duryodhana and Karna. He would make connections between the fake doctors’ certificate scam in West Bengal and Karna’s Brahminical charade in order to enter Parashurama’s training school. And between Harry Potter-Ron Weasley and Krishna-Sudhama. Some of this may be considered self-indulgent twaddle by conventional scholars, but Sridhar makes no excuses for trying to bridge India’s present with its storied past. “Often, when I refer to a sensual scene from the epics, or to the consumption of alcohol, someone will accost me post the lecture. Why are you telling our kids it is okay to drink, they will ask, incredulous,” Sridhar says. “But I must stay true to my scripture. I don’t sugarcoat, and I don’t change facts. And the fact is that man has not changed much between the Mahabharata and now.”
Sridhar may be the lone comic act in the world of religious discourse, but his scholarly rigour—he began studying scripture at the age of five—and his unimpeachable diction in Sanskrit and Tamil have won him the respect of the community. When he compares Vedanta Desika, a 13th-century Vaishnavite poet-philosopher who left a much larger body of work than Ramanuja, to Salman Khan, he does it knowing that it may spark a minor backlash, but also hoping that it may spark interest among the youth. “This is what I like about Hinduism—its permissiveness. I can make fun of our gods and no one would kill me for it. It is known as nindastuti in Sanskrit. A favourite joke of mine, for instance, is that Rama had one wife and Krishna had 16,108, but not one of them was kidnapped because he gave them all Z+ security, like Robert Vadra,” says Sridhar.
At his spacious apartment on Doddaballapur Road on the northern fringes of Bengaluru, zari cushions made out of shawls presented to him—despite his protests, he says—complete the warm, ethnic decor. As his mother adds finishing touches to what would prove to be a delicious Tamil meal, Sridhar talks about how to get youth interested in Indian scripture. “When I started giving lectures six-seven years ago, for every 100 people in the audience, there were five under 40 years of age. Now the number is 15-20, so the CAGR has been very good,” he says. Youth are always in search of interesting content, and Hindu scripture could fit the bill if packaged well, he says. “There are so many myths and superstitions surrounding the religion that make it uncool for young people.” Did you know there is no mention of Lakshmana drawing a rekha in any version of the Ramayana, he asks. I didn’t. “They want to build a temple in Ayodhya but it won’t occur to them to organise Ramayana lectures,” he says. “What we lack in knowledge we make up for with symbolism.”
The conversation inevitably veers to the esoteric—the value of Pi, the Katapayadi cipher and other curiosities that have always attracted Westerners to Indian philosophy and thought. It is understandable that we play them up to win back our own youth’s faith, he says. But the answer is often much simpler. “Sometimes, it is a matter of translating a lecture into English,” he says. “When I deliver the same content in English, I get a different audience. Some of the ladies come to the discourse toting designer bags. Later, they walk up to me and say, ‘It was so nice yaar, I want my kids to experience this too.’ ” His chi-chi accent, like his Bihari, belongs in a Russell Peters routine. Having lived in Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru, Sridhar is multi-lingual. “I don’t know how many north Indians sing Meera bhajans but people in south India who sing know several Meera bhajans, Ashtapadis, Bengali songs, abhangs, Telugu kritis, Malayalam compositions by Irayimman Thampi…When I travel in the north, they are oblivious to the differences between the south Indian tongues. So I make it a point to quote from several languages.”
After his first major lecture in 2011 at Chennai’s Narada Gana Sabha, attended by over a thousand people, a critic from The Hindu opined that he had used one too many English words. “Even Avvaiyar and Thiruvalluvar used Sanskrit words. Why should I hesitate? If you wanted to listen to chaste Tamil, you would tune into Sun TV news,” Sridhar says. With over 2,500 discourses behind him and content on YouTube running into a thousand hours, Sridhar now wants to reach out to the non- traditional audience. “I employ a videographer to shoot every discourse and post it online for free. This is not like Ilayaraja’s copyright battle,” he says. “Valmiki and Vyasa own the copyright. I am just the courier boy. All these years, this knowledge has been restricted to one section of society. But now, the internet and the English language are the skeleton key to all knowledge.”