Harikatha Kalakshepa
- Dr. BM Sundaram, Pondicherry
e-mail: beeyemsundaram@yahoo.com

This article is reproduced from narthaki.com

March 2011

Every religion has its base in the scriptures, many of which were revelations to the great seers. Hindu religion has the Vedas as its edifice. The root of the Vedas is Dharma. "Dhriyaté janai: iti Dharma:"- the code of conduct of the people is Dharma. It implies charity, piety, morality and so on. Those, who undertook to spread the underlying message of the Puranas among the people, were called 'Paurāñikas' or 'Upanyāsakas'- literary discourser. Storytelling has been in existence in our country, since very old times. In the households, the mother induces the child to sleep, with the help of story. Lava and Kusa, sons of Lord Rama, themselves had expounded the Ramayana, in the presence of their father. In Tamilnadu, there were and are people, who extol Mahabharata consecutively for many nights, particularly in the rural areas, keeping a percussive instrument, 'Uđukkai (Huđukka), as accompaniment. They came to be known as 'Bhāratap poošāris'. Their stories are in the versified form and a same folk tune used, from the beginning to the end. 'Mārkanđéyan Kathai', 'Alli Arašāñi Mālai' and 'Kāthavarāyan Kathai' of Tamilnadu may be some specimens. In Karnataka, it had different names, such as 'Kathā vinóda', 'Kathana', 'Kathā Prasanga', 'Ghóshŧi' etc. Similar types of storytelling were also prevalent in Andhra Pradesh. Not only Puranic stories, but also those about heroes, warriors and such others, are taken up for the programme.

Storytelling took a refined shape in 'Purāña Pravachana' (Literary discourse) and not much later as 'Sangeeta Upanyāsam' (Musical discourse) for the elite audience. Those endowed with sweet voice and knowledge in music, as also, Puranas and Smrtis, became 'Sangeeta Upanyāsakāras'. Maharashtra is spoken of, by learned men, as the 'Bhakti Land.' There the art of Powađā (Marathi version of the Sanskrit word 'Pravāđa') was quite popular, at least from the 13th century. 'Powāđā', in general, is a ballad, eulogizing great heroes, mighty warriors and tactful dacoits. Holding a one-stringed drone called 'Tuntinā' in one hand and 'Chipļā' (castanets) on the other, it was rendered. This was only a pastime to the rural and tribal people. Noticing such sessions were in no way beneficial to the people, except being an entertainment, wise men like Vaman Pandit, Moropant, Mayữrpant, Amrutarāya Kavi, Chintāmañ Kavi and some others composed Keertans, stressing the need of Bhakti, in the footsteps of their predecessors like Eknath, Tukaram and Namdev. When devotion to God and patriotic feelings among the people started to dwindle, it became an inevitable necessity to tell them, through moral stories, about these, musically. Speech (comprising of stories, mostly drawn from the Puranas, with relevant examples) interspersed with musical compositions (either in praise of God or His devotees or on a specific theme) -an amalgamation of all these blossomed as a new art form called 'Keertan'. The word 'Keertan' is from the verbal root 'Krt samšabdané' - singing the auspicious qualities of God and thus meant literally only a devotional song. It is a form of Bhakti-Šravañam' among the nine. 'Keertan' had musical instruments as accompaniments. 'Padma Purāña', as also, 'Bhāgavata Sāram' portray the keertan performance of Šuka.

"Prahlādas tāļadhāri taralagatitayā rāga kartārjunóabhữt -Indró vādéén mrudangam jaya jaya sukara: keertané té kumāra yatrāgré bhāva vaktā sarasa rachanayā Vyāsaputró babhữva"

Prahlada wielded the cymbals; Uddhava held another brass instrument; Narada the veena, Arjuna, with the expertise in swaras sang the raga; Indra played on the mrudangam; young ascetics chorused 'Jaya Jaya' and Suka expounded the Keertan. The persons mentioned in this sloka belong to different ages and hence this sloka may be an interpolation by some later poet.

The name 'Keertan', originally ascribed to songs of devotional nature, was now adopted to the new art form of Maharashtra, by its progenitors. Sant Namdev (Nov 17, 1268 - June 9, 1350) is considered to be the earliest 'Keertankar.' Samartha Ramdoss Swami (April 13, 1608 - December 1, 1681), guru of Chhatrapati Sivaji, at the request of the king, composed and presented Keertans. This helped to invigorate the people, who were at that time, mentally depressed by the terrorizing activities of the Moghul Emperor, Aurangazeb. Now we have to look into the advent of this Keertan art form in Tamilnadu, which gave rise to another off-shoot, Harikathā Kālakshépa.

Marathas came to Tanjavur in 1675 AD. Chhatrapati Sivaji's father, Shahji, estranged his wife and son and became a general under Sultan Adil Shah of Bijapur, stationed at Bengaluru. His son, through his second wife, Tuka Bai Mohité, was Ékóji @Vyankāji. The Nayaks were ruling Tanjavur and Vijayaraghava Nayak was a very illustrious and able king of that dynasty. An unending triangular conflict (Dutch and the French on one side, Nawabs on another side, while the British was in another) was going on. Ékóji, with a retinue of army, was sent to Tanjavur to subdue the Nayak king and Vijayaraghava was cunningly killed on Feb 3, 1675 when he was coming out of the Rajagopalaswami Temple at Tanjavur, after his daily worship. Ékóji crowning himself on March 17, 1675 proclaimed himself as the king and became the first Maratha ruler of Tanjavur. In the year 1676, Samartha Ramdoss Swami, en route to Rameswaram on a pilgrimage, came to Tanjavur, camped there for about a month and later left some of his disciples, namely Bheemraj Swami, Bhikhāji Shāhpurkar and Raghava Swami. These three established their mutts at Tanjavur, Mannārguđi and Kónữr respectively. They, in turn, got many followers and the Samartha Sampradaya flourished. All the heads of these mutts regularly did worship and keertans. This was the 'ankurārpaña' for the art of Keertan in Tanjavur and around.

Inspired by the Marathi Keertankars, Varahữr Gópāla Bhāgavatar (1835 -1878) was the first one to give discourses, standing. Even in his case, many have wrongly stated that he performed Harikathas, whereas it was only Sangeeta Upanyāsams, with his accompanists sitting in a corner and he standing. The audience also used to join when he sang, and it was more or less a Bhajan troupe, with the addition of speech by the Bhagavatar. The main ingredient of Keertan (and also for the later Harikathas) was Nirữpaña. In Sanskrit, this term means form, shape, definition, investigation etc. According to the Marathi Šabda Kóša, it is an exposition of stories pertaining to God, employing sweet music and simple lyrics. Samartha defines Nirữpaña as "It is some discussion on Dharma and Purāña". Be what may the grammar, the Sants of Maharashtra had devised a systematic repertoire of songs for the Nirữpaña. It consists of Sakee, Diñđi, Óvee, Ặryā, Abhang, Anjaneegeeta, Lāvañi, Khađga, Mattakókilam and many more. These are mainly metres and songs composed in these metres came to be known as such.

It is not necessary that all these should find a place in the presentation and not also in a fixed order. Similarly some song forms in the metres like Vārdhika, Bhāmini, Bhóga Shađpadi and Kađak (corrupt version of Khađga) were in use in Karnataka. In the Tanjavur region, such Nirữpañas were composed by Nandan Góswāmi, Ặnanda Nandana , Bheemarāj Góswāmi, Mādhava Swāmi, Méruswāmi, Chintāmañ Panđit, Uđké Góvindāchārya - all lived between 1700 and 1830 - and by some others. The works that helped Maharashtrians and later the early Harikatha artistes of Tamilnadu to choose and perform Keertans are 'Keertanmālā', 'Keertan Rữpadaršikā', 'Keertan Kumudini', 'Keertan Tarangiñi', 'Keertan Māsikā', 'Keertan Muktāhāra', 'Akhyāna Samuchchaya' and few others.

In Keertan, practiced in the Tanjavur region by the pontiffs, the audience would be seated on two sides, ladies on one side and gents on the other, leaving a gangway between them. The main performer (Keeertankar) would stand at the centre of the gangway, while the accompanists would be seated on the floor at one end, where the idols or portraits of the deity were kept. The Keertankar, wearing a 'Kafni' (a long coat like apparel), a headgear called 'Péŧā', anklets and hold a 'Chipļā' (castanets) in the hand, would move from one end to the other while speaking and would station at one place, during singing. Only Marathai Nirữpañas were used, though at times, there might be an inclusion of a couple of Sanskrit slokas and /or Hindi dóhās (couplets). The chipļā served to reckon the tala and the Keertankar, whenever he felt so, would tap his foot on the floor and the anklets naturally, would jingle. Sometimes he would dance in part or full to a song. The Puranic characters and dialogues would be dramatically presented to enthuse the audience.

The invocation in a Keertan is 'Panchapadi'- a set of songs in praise of Ganesa, Vishnu, Sarasvati, Guru and Ặnjaneya, followed by Nāma Siddhānta (Efficacy of God's name), which has a preceding song called Prathama Padam. Next is Pữrva peeŧhikā (Introductory part) and then the actual story. Inclusion of a Dhrupad (different from the North Indian Dhrupad) in between Nāma Siddhānta and Pữrva peeŧhikā would be complimentary. This Dhrupad almost resembles a Tillana. The four important items, usually found in Keertan mostly are Abhangs of Tukārām, Óvis of Jnyānéšvar, Ặryās of Mórópant and Šlókas of Vāman Pañđit.

Generally these Keertan programmes were esoteric and restricted within the confines of the Mutts and those who attended them were mainly devotees or followers of that particular Mutt. Not all people had an access to it, until the advent of Mórgāumkar Rāmachandra Bāvā (1812- Feb 14,1881). It was only he, who served the very delicious Keertan to everyone, in the Tanjavur soil.

The last Maratha ruler of Tanjavur, Sivaji, died in 1855 and the rule shifted to the hands of the British. After Sivaji, the royal representation and guardianship of the entire property were vested with Kamakshi Amba Baisaheb, the coronated queen of the deceased ruler, Sivaji. She was a very pious lady and spent most of her time in religious pursuits, renovation of temples, poor feeding, establishing chaultries and so on. Ramchandra Bāvā (correctly Buvā) of Mórgāum, a village in Maharashtra and who lived in Gwalior came to Tanjavur in 1864, on his pilgrimage to Ramesvaram. Bāvā, a Keertankar of high caliber, at the first instance, stayed in Tanjavur for about two months and during that camp performed Keertans in the palace at the invitation of the queen. Fascinated by his brilliant performances, she requested him to continue his stay at Tanjavur for some more time. Bāvā decided to spend the remaining part of his life there itself. The happy Rani built a Mutt for him (Bāvā Mutt in the North Main Street of Tanjavur, which is still there) and he made it regular to perform Keertans there, almost every evening. Initially, his son Vishnu Bāvā (with a very sweet voice and who later migrated to Pudukóŧŧai) supported vocally. Tanjavur Dāvood Sā was the Sarinda player (a stringed instrument with a bow, almost similar to Sarangi) and Pudukóŧŧai Nannu Miyān provided Dholak support. A regular attendant to the programme and a very rich landlord of Tanjavur was Krishnaswami Naig (also addressed as Sakhā Naig, with whose name, there is still a street in that town) and only because of him Nannu Miyān came to Tanjavur and accompanied Bāvā. After some time, Dāvood Sā fell ill and Nannu Miyān expressed his desire to go back to Pudukóttai. Sakha Naig, after deep thought, sent word to Narayanasvami Appā (the legendary Mrudangam artiste).

Narayanasvami Appā (1839 -1907), born and brought up in Tanjavur, had learnt the art from Sivasvami Appā and Heeroji Rao. But, for some unknown reason, Appā left his birthplace and stayed in Mannargudi Merusvami Mutt. Now, he came back and became the stock accompanist to Mórgāumkar Bāvā, while a young boy Krishna Bhagavatar was engaged in 1866 to support Bāvā on the Svarabat (another stringed instrument). A year later, Bhagavatar switched over to provide vocal support to the Keertankar.

Krishna Bhagavatar, well versed in many languages like Marathi, Sanskrit and Telugu besides music and to play some musical instruments, learnt the art of Keertan from Bāvā, purely with listening experience. After Ramchandra Bāvā passed away on Feb 14,1881 Krishna Bhagavatar commenced to perform this art himself, but under the new name, 'Harikathā Kālakshépam'. His debuttal took place in August of the same year, during the Krishna Jayanti festival and the topic was 'Radha Kalyanam.' He simply christened this art as Harikathā Kālakshépam, but the term was not coined by him. Samartha advises: "Wherever Harikathā is performed, leave everything and run to attend it; don't delay and discard your sleep and it is only for your good"

(Harikathā mañđalee jéthé sarva sóđữn dhāve tethé ālasya nidrā davađữn swārthé Harikathésee sādara - Dasbodh: 14.5.39). A verse in 'Šreemad Bhāgavatam' runs as: "Dévadattam imām veeñām swarabrahma vibhữshitam | mữrchayan Harikathām gāyan charāmi bhuvaneshvaham'. Pótanā's Bhāgavatam in Telugu also mentions the term Harikathā many a time. Purandaradasa said, "Harikathā šravañamāđo". I may go on citing such instances. An article on the subject by V Ramaratnam (Subject Encyclopedia - Karnataka -1977) contains the following passage: "Any story with Sangeetabhinaya coupled with anecdotes is called Kathā Kālakshépa. This has had its origin in Maharashtra. Before this form entered Karnataka, there used to be Purāña Paŧhana, Bhajana etc. in temples. In course of time, Purāña Paŧhana has taken shape into Kathā Kālakshépa. The actual form and popular appeal for this art has been by Krishna Bhagavatar of Tanjavur and Tiruppalanam Panchapakesa Sastri. Today Harikathā vidvans in Karnataka are following the path laid by them."

The noted Harikathā exponent of Karnataka, Tumkữr Véñugópāla Dāsa, during an interview, has stated that "Harikathā was born in Tamilnadu and in its youth entered Karnataka." As such, we may assuredly aver that Harikathā Kālakshépa was a contribution of Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar and very rightly he is hailed as Harikathā Pitāmaha. For the purpose of innovating a new form, out of the earlier Keertan, Bhagavatar didn't discard the basic format of its predecessors like the Panchapadi, Dhrupad, Nāma Siddhānta and such other segments, as also the musical forms like Óvi, Dinđi, Ặryā, Abhang and such like. On the other hand, he included songs in Telugu, Kannada and Tamil and discoursed in Tamil. Some other changes also were brought in by him. The Bhagavatar should wear a dhoti in Panchakaccha and an upper garment (Angavastra) in the fashion of a Yajnyópaveeta (sacred thread), garlands of Rudraksha or Tulasi beads on the neck and anklets. Kafni and Péŧā were discarded. Holding the chipla, he should stand only at a single place, not moving to and fro, while his sidemen positioned behind the Bhagavata. The Sādhaka (vocal supporter) and the second one 'Upasādhaka' with a Tambura, should stand behind a bench at the back of the Bhagavata, while the mrudangam player would sit on the bench towards the right of the main performer. The Sādhaka should keep time of any song with Gunđu cymbals (smaller in size). Almost all songs were in Carnatic tunes, though at times, some Hindustani ragas or a couple of folk songs like the Kāvađi Chindu and Temmāngu were also used.

Keertankars discoursed in Marathi; Krishna Bhagavatar and his successors presented Harikathās in their native language, whatever be their mother tongue. Some artistes have performed in other languages, whenever occasion demanded. For instance, Tanjavur Veerāsvāmi Rāju (the mentor to the Andhra Harikathā Pitāmaha, Ặdibhaŧla Nārāyañadās) gave discourses in Telugu, his mother tongue; Embār Vijayarāghavāchāriār had done Harikathās in Sanskrit, Hindi and Marathi; Padmāsani Bāi in Sanskrit, Munainjipatti Subbayya Bhagavatar and Balakrishna Sastrigal in English; Tanjavur Nannayya Bhagavatar in his mother tongue Saurāshŧram and C Sarasvati Bai in her mother tongue Kannada. Even topics that deal with Saivite themes were also slated as Harikathā. It should not be misconstrued that the word Hari means only Vishnu. 'Amarakóša' gives about 25 meanings to the word 'Hari' like Lord Vishnu, monkey, lion, divinity and so on. Since all themes are pertaining to some God or Divinity, it is right to call any such kathā as Harikathā.

It is generally considered by many that Harikathā is meant solely for the topics of Hindu religion, which is also far from truth. Harikathas with stories of other religions are also aplenty. Jinakathe of Karnataka is about topics of Jainism. For instance, Anjani Bāhubali Vruttānta, Néminātha Vairāgya and so on. These were contributions of Jains. But there was a staunch Hindu, who composed and presented Harikathās with story from 'The Holy Bible' and he was quite careful that these nirữpañas wholly adhered to the Harikathā format - Panchapadi, Sāki, Óvi etc. He was Tanjavur 'Chitrakavi' Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar, generally addressed as 'Chitrakavi' Siva Rao. He was a Maratha by birth and his close friend, Raosahib Abraham Panditar of 'Karunāmruta Sāgaram' fame, inspired and induced Siva Rao to try his potential with Christian themes. Siva Rao himself used to perform these in a local church during the Lent period, besides having trained Panditar's sons and daughters in performing them. "Eesac Charitram', 'Dāveedu Charitram' and many more on Christian themes were the creations of this Siva Rao. Following him, Mandapāŧi Abraham Bhagavatar (1926) composed 'Yesu Charitramu' in Andhra Pradesh and another one by name Ratna Kavi did 'Samson and Delilah.' Shaik Nabi of Andhra Pradesh has composed on Hindu themes like 'Ambareeshópākhyānam' and 'Dhruva Charitramu.' Sebastin Kunjukunju Bhagavatar of Alappuzha (Kerala) has also composed Seeta Kalyanam, Jatayu Moksha and so on. The trail-blazer to do Harikathās in series was Tiruppalanam Panchāpakéša Sastrigal and the subject was Valmiki's Ramayana. He is still praised as one who kept in memory all the 24,000 slokas of the Ramayana. Another leading Harikathā exponent Šữlamangalam Vaidyanātha Bhagavatar was the first to perform, in series, the stories of the 63 Saivite saints. Similarly, Bhagavad Geeta, despite that it has not even an iota of Šrungāra rasa was delivered in series by Tiruvaiyāru Pandit Lakshmanachar.

Harikathā or its predecessor Keertan, were exclusively male dominated art forms. Women had no place in these since it was considered (or argued by the Bhagavatas) that women are forbidden to speak about Dharma and to advise people about good or bad. The fraternity of Harikathā art staunchly opposed to the entry of any lady into their monopolized domain. Harikéšanallữr Muthayyā Bhagavatar was the lone defender and he termed the argument of other Bhagavatas as mere selfishness. In spite of such great opposition, Ilayanārvélữr Šāradāmbāl (1884 - Nov 24, 1943) daringly entered into this art, for the first time in 1901. Next C Sarasvati Bai (1894 -1974) set her foot in this art in 1908. Later, many ladies came to perform Harikathās, such as Tiruvidaimarudur Rajambal, Tirugokarnam Kanakambujam, Vazhuvur Duraikkannammal (elder sister of the natyacharya Ramayya Pillai), Banni Bai, Tanjavur Kamala Murthi, Jamuna Bai and a host of others.

Some greats in Harikathā field were:- Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar (1841-1903), Tiruppalanam Panchapakesa Sastrigal (1868-1924), Pandit Lakshmanachar (1857 -1919), Sulamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar (1868 -1943), 'Chitrakavi' Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar (1869 -1951), Sulamangalam Saundararaja Bhagavatar (1887 -1925), Tanjavur Panchapakesa Bhagavatar (1853 -1920), Avudaiyarkovil Harihara Bhagavatar (1895 -1975), Embar Sreerangachariar (Aug 27,1883 - July 28,1944), Embar Vijayaraghavachariar, a rare phenomenon in the field (1909 -1991), Harikesanallur Muthayya Bhagavatar (1877-1945), Karandai Govinda Bhagavatar (1856 -1921), Tanjavur Nagaraja Bhagavatar (1873 -1933), Kumbakonam Vadiraja Bhagavatar (1895 -1971), Mangudi Chidambara Bhagavatar (1880 -1938), Merusvami (Keertankar) (1809 -1845), Munainjipatti Subbayya Bhagavatar (1886 -1965), Srirangam Sadagopachariar (1884 -1958), Tiruvaiyaru Annasvami Bhagavatar (1899 -1967), Ilayanarvelur Saradambal (1884 -1943), C Sarasvati Bai (1894 -1974), Padmasani Bai (1899 -1972), Tirugokarnam Kanakambujam (1908 -1953), Tanjavur Subramania Bhagavatar (1916 -1971), Tanjavur Kamala Murthi (B:1932) and such others from Tamilnadu.

The only Harikathā artiste, who even now sticks to the original format, is Kalyanapuram R Aravamudachariar. Belur Kesavadasa, Tumkur Venugopaladasa, Sosale Narayanadasa and many others of Karnataka elevated the status of this art in their state. Similarly Adibhatla Narayanadasa (1864 -1945), Musunuri Suryanarayana Bhagavatulu, Neti Lakshmeenarayana Bhagavatulu and many others of Andhra Pradesh, as also Sebastin Kunkunju Bhagavatar, Gavai Visvanatha Bhagavatar, Palakkadu Anantarama Bhagavatar of Kerala have contributed a lot to this great art. This art requires a thorough knowledge in Sastras, Puranas, music, many languages and so on and it may be the reason that none is interested in the present times to learn or undertake this art and also for want of proper encouragement and patronage.


Dr.BM Sundaram, son of the great tavil percussionist Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai, is a leading historian of South Indian dance and music. Hailing from a traditional family of musicians that can be traced back over 40 generations, he has published extensively on the performance cultures and communities of South India. Dr. Sundaram is fluent in Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, and Hindi/Urdu. His research spans a broad range of methodologies from manuscript preservation and editing to ethnography. He is the author of major books on cultural history in South India in Tamil, a book on nattuvanars (dance-masters) that received a major award from the Tamilnadu State Government. He has authored the only existing biographies of several prominent musicians of the late 19th and early 20th century, including Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, and Kanchipuram Naina Pillai. He has also contributed a large number of scholarly works in English, including The Advent of Lavani in Thanjavur, The Origin and Evolution of Nagasvaram, The Origin of Jalatarangam, and a revolutionary essay entitled 'Towards a Genealogy of Some Thanjavur Natyacharyas.'


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