Katha is an Indian style of religious storytelling, performances of which are a ritual event in Hinduism, and often involve professional storytellers called kathavahchak or vyas, who recite the Hindu religious texts, such as the Puranas, Ramayana or Bhagavata Purana, often followed by a commentary, Pravachan. Sometimes such events take place in households when it involves smaller stories related to the Vrat Katha genre, for example, the Shri Satyanarayan Katha, Ramayan Katha are didactic in nature and used to instill moralistic values through the revelation of the consequences of human action (Karma).
The history of Katha
In India, each region has developed its own style and tradition of storytelling in local languages. Epics and puranas, ancient stories of wisdom in Sanskrit, are the common story material for all or most of the regions of India. Such performances are held in temples, weddings and other religious or social functions. These are one-person performances, where the performer has to be versatile in the aspects of exposition and be able to interestingly narrate humorous anecdotes. The storyteller is looked upon as a teacher who is a scholar in ancient texts in Sanskrit and other vernaculars. They interpret the religious and mythological texts of the past to the present and future generations.
South India has a long tradition of story telling and religious discourse. Religious scholars such as Oduvars who were knowledgeable in religious scriptures used to render discourses in temples and monasteries. In Tamil Nadu, this was known as Kathaprasangam. Arunachala Kavi (17th-century), Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, Ramalinga Swami (all 19th-century), Nellai Sundaramurty Oduvar, Kripananda Variar, and Pulavar Keeran (all 20th-century) were Kathaprasangam experts. Even today there are scholars like Suki Sivam and Trichy Kalyanaraman who perform in this style. One important factor is that the element of Prasangam is the extent of Sloka interpretation and music in these expositions depends solely on the musical ability of the individual. The ones who were adept in music used that skill, whereas the experts in literature used their knowledge in that area more. Some had a good command over both, which reflected in their performances and popularity. Pravachan, Patakam, Upanyasam, Harikatha, Kalakshepa, Harikeerthan, Villupattu are all similar in the sense they are interpretations and storytelling on religious theme, yet they have different styles.
Wall paintings in temples and shrines across India also served the same purpose and to look at them was considered equal to listening to katha. The propagation of religion and creating awareness among worshippers of the characters of legendary deities was a purpose greatly aided by the concept of katha through imagery in temples.
In the states of India there are three main traditions of discourses and storytelling.
The first is the Purana-Pravachana, which literally means, “expounding the Purana”. Pravachan is a form of Hindu religious discourse, which are lectures about scriptures. The Pauranika or the Pravachan pandit becomes a spiritual interpreter of these scriptures. Pravachans usually have a religious theme, usually the life of a saint or a story from one of India’s epics. These discourses seem to have a soothing effect on people's anxious nerves and serve as a security fallback for them. Pravachans sometimes become very emotional. People who listen to Pravachans have become more tolerant of their brethren; a sense of giving has been inculcated in them. In the olden days Pravanchan pundits were often well versed in the Sanskrit language and educated and well-trained in Veda Sastras and Vedanta.
It is easier to listen to a pandit or purohit who is conducting a Pravachan to understand some of the scriptures. Basically a pundit like Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri elaborates on the significance of the sloka or scripture he reads and gives several bhavas and angles to look at a single verse or even a single word. Upanyasa or Pravachanas concentrated mainly on Sanskrit and Tamil texts. Music was kept to a minimum and was used sparingly to recite the slokas. Reading the original sloka and presenting the meaning was the methodology followed by Pravachan pundits. Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri was the first exponent who gave interpretations and commentary to each verse and created a new style; he was considered the ‘Father of Pravachans’. Pundits Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri, Andamin Sivarama Bhagavatar, Pandit Lakshmanacharyar and Tiruppazhanam Panchapekesa Sastri (19th century) were well-known Pauranikas. Mukkur Lakshminarasimhacharyar, Toopil and Velukkudi Krishnan (20th century) are continuing this tradition. Pravachan, Patakam, and Upanyasam, can be synonymous and mean narrating stories from epics and puranas and interpreting scriptures. Famous scholar and Vedantha Shiromani with the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt Kumbakonam, Rishiyur Sri N. Santhanam Aiyar (1887–1945), who translated Krishna Sastris Rasanishyandini in 1943, best describes Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri in his book. He quotes
“Paruthiyur and Krishna Sastri are synonymous, and in the Kaliyuga only Krishna Sastri is equal to Maharishi Valmiki in Rama bhakthi and capable of extolling the Virtues of Lord Rama. No Katha of Ramayana is complete without prayers to Valmiki and Krishna Sastri.”
The second tradition is Kathakalakshepa. Any story with Sangeetabhinaya coupled with anecdotes is called Kathakalakshepa. Kathakalakshepa is unique because the story is carried through songs and compositions in languages like Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi, which is a peculiarity in the Tamil Nadu-style of storytelling. A form of Kalakshepa, in which the storyteller, usually proficient in classical music, interspaced the main story with music, dance and sub-stories, was also prevalent.
Harikatha is a composite art form with storytelling, poetry, music, drama, dance, and philosophy. Harikatha involves the narration of a story, intermingled with related songs. The compositions used are common to the Bhajana Sampradaya — congregational singing like the Ashtapadis of Jayadeva, Tarangas of Narayana Teertha, compositions like Tevaram, Divyaprabandam, Thiruppugazh, keertanas of Annamacharya, Bhadrachala Ramadas, Tyagaraja, Padas of Purandaradasa and other dasas and the Bhajans of Tulsidas, Kabir, Meera and Surdas. This is the style of Katha, which was modified by Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar who is considered the ‘Father of the Tanjavur style of Kalakshepa’. The Tanjavur Katha tradition adopted certain fine elements from the Marathi Keertan. Harikatha, Harikeertan and Kathakalakshepa can be synonymous and mean, narrating stories from epics and puranas, interspersed with musical compositions.
The third style is a folk narrative. In Andhra Pradesh it was called Burra katha. Burra is a drum that is shaped like a human skull (burra means skull). In this tradition, gypsies narrate stories beating this drum; in Tamil Nadu the folk story tradition is called Villu Paatu, viz., the bow-song. The folk stories were told accompanied by a stringed instrument resembling a bow. The stories chosen are heroic ballads commonly known in the villages and urban areas. This medium is, in fact, used to propagate social welfare programmes like AIDS awareness, family planning and election propaganda. Kanian koottu and Udukkadipattu, prevalent in the villages of South India, are also folk storytelling traditions. Stories like Sudalai Madan kathai, Draupadi Amman Kathai, Kovalan Kathai, Muttuppattan Kathai, Marudu Sahodarar kathai, etc. are narrated.
There is a rich literary tradition of published and unpublished written material called Nirupana, where the stories and the songs are written in languages like Marathi, Tamil and Telugu.
Krteyadhyayato vishnum Tretayam yajoto maghaihi
Dvapare paricaryayam Kalautatu Kathanena
in Krta, Treta and Dvapara yugas (eras in Hindu mythology), one had to do yajnas (sacrificial rites), tapa (penance) and other severe austerities to obtain the grace of God. But in the Kali yuga there is a very easy method to attain God or receive His blessings and that is by listening to Harikeetan and Pravachans.
The period from 1870 to 1940 could be described as the Golden Age of the art of storytelling in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala and the art was considered as a jewel in the treasure chest of Indian culture. Tanjavur Krishna Bagavathar (1841–1903) sang with Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri (1855–1911) during his early Katha performances. Krishna Sastri later did only Pravachans with minimum music. Krishna Bagavathar, however, continued his Kathakalakshepam and introduced Marathi metrical forms like Saki, Dindi, Ovi, Arya, Abhanga pada, etc., into the art of Kathakalakshepa and started his own new style, which became the standard for all other great Bagavathars in this field for the next 50 years. Thanjavur Krishna Bagavathar was not to be mistaken for Parithiyur Krishna Sastri, though they were contemporaries with the name Krishna, living around the same area; they performed together initially and each were famous in what they were doing.
Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bagavathar (1866–1943), Mangudi Chidambara Bagavathar (1880–1938), Chitrakavi Sivarama Bagavathar (1869–1951), Soolamangalam Soundararaja Bagavathar (1890–1925), C Saraswathi Bai (1894–1974), N S Krishna Bagavathar (1892–1984) were all inspired by the style and technique of Thanjavur Krishna Bagavathar. They were all carnatic music singers. Pandit Lakshmanacharya, Tiruppazhanam Panchapakesa Sastri, Mannargudi Sambasiva Bhagavatar, Tanjavur T.N. Subramanya Bhagavatar and T.S. Balakrishna Sastrigal were Harikatha experts. Andamin Sivarama Bhagavatar, Pandit Lakshmanacharyar and Tiruppazhanam Panchapekesa Sastri, Kalakkad Muthuswami Sastrigal, Sengalipuram Muthanna Vaidhyanatha Dikshithar, Samartha Ramadas Swamigal, Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri, Sengalipuram Anantarama Dikshitar, were great Pravachan and Upanyasam experts of this Golden Age. After this period, storytelling also became popular in north India.
In later years Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda and Swami Dayananda Saraswati gave excellent discourses. Afterwards, Keeran, Krubananda Variyar, and Paranoor mahatma Krishna premi anna gave captivating lectures.Sri sri anna devoted his whole life for bhagavatha and bhagavth kainkaryam. Of late Prema Pandurang, Jaya Raw, Vishaka Hari, Dushyanth Sridhar, Sundara Kumar, Hema and Santhanaraman are popular. SMt.vishaka hari,created a niche in harikatha and gave a wonderful dimension to harikatha 'without changing' the sampradaya padathi. They cut across age, caste, creed, etc. with their soul-inspiring discourses. They are even able to reach western audiences. Present day storytellers include satire and humor and music and are able to convey the message in several languages.
As long as one wants to hear a story and another narrate, storytelling will continue to be an interesting way to spend time, to increase Bakthi and make people wiser and better human beings.