Story telling is a popular performing art in India. Each region has developed its own style and tradition of story telling in various regional languages combining musical compositions between the narrations. Epics and Puranas (ancient stories of wisdom) in Sanskrit are the common story material for all or most of the regions of India.

In South India, the art of story telling is referred to as Kathakalakshepa, which is a Sanskrit term meaning, “Katha” - story, “kala” - time, and “kshepa” - throwing away. In total it means spending time listening to stories. Such performances are held in temples, weddings and other religious or social functions. This is a one-person theatre where the performer has to be versatile in the aspects of exposition, singing and histrionics, and be able to interestingly narrate humorous anecdotes as well. The storyteller is looked upon as a teacher who is a scholar in ancient texts in Sanskrit and other vernaculars. He interprets the religious and mythological texts of the past to the present and future generations.

In the various States of India there are three traditions of storytelling. The first is the Purana-Pravachana, which literally  means, “expounding the Purana”. The Purana-Pravachana was narrated by the Pauranika, who was an expert in the exposition. Such expositions are solemn and serious.

The second tradition, Kathakalakshepa is unique because the story is carried through various songs and compositions in different Indian languages like Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi, which is a peculiarity in the Tamilnadu-style of story telling.

The third is a folk art, prevalent in Andhra Pradesh (a State in South India), called Burrakatha. Burra is a drum that is shaped like a human skull (Burra means skull). In this tradition, gypsies narrate stories beating this drum. As referred to earlier, in Tamilnadu the folk story tradition is called Villu-pattu, viz., the bow-song. 

Krteyadhyayato vishnum 
Tretayam yajoto maghaihi 
Dvapare paricaryayam 
Kalautatu Harikeertanatu

Meaning: In Krta, Treta and Dvapara yugas (different 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 Harikeertan. 

Harikatha, Harikeertan and Kathakalakshepa are synonymous and mean, narrating stories from epics and puranas, interspersed with musical compositions. Keertan is a very typical usage of Maharashtra.



We shall now deal with the style of story telling prevalent in Tamilnadu, where the narration is in Tamil and is interspersed with musical compositions in various languages like Sanskrit, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Hindi. The history of South India and in particular, Tanjavur, where this art was born and nurtured, saw the rise of three kingdoms, viz., the Chola empire, the Nayak rule and the Maratha dynasty. This influenced the art of story telling to a great extent. We shall also see how the Tanjavur style of Kathakalashepa (which is a synthesis of the Tamil and Maratha style) was established around the 1850s and was popular for about a hundred years, till around the 1960s.

There is also a rich literary tradition of published and unpublished written material called Nirupana, where the story and the songs are written down in various languages like Marathi, Tamil and Telugu.

Apart from this, there is a folk style of story telling prevalent in South India called the Villu Pattu (the bow song). The villu, a bow that is used as a primary instrument, is struck while narrating the story and singing the songs. Small bells tied on the bowstring are struck by two sticks to create a jingling effect. More about this later.

Story is called Katha in Sanskrit and Kathai in Tamil. The performing art, Kathakalakshepa, is common to people all over the world. We would all sure remember the bedtime stories of our childhood. 

In India, during the Vedic period the term used for episodes or story was Akhyana and the expert storyteller was called Akhyana-Vid. There were professional storytellers called Suta-Puranika, who were experts in narrating the genealogies of  the Kings and their heroic deeds. In the Tamil work Tolkappiyam, we have references to stories of God being narrated and this was named Tonmai (meaning old).

In South India, it was the Tanjavur Katha tradition that adopted certain fine elements from the Maharashtra keertan. Thus the Tanjavur tradition of Harikatha influenced the story traditions of the other States viz., Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. There is a belief that there was no Harikatha in Tanjavur before the Marathi keertan. This is erroneous. (I have cited the details in my book entitled Kathakalakshepa - A study, which was my doctoral research paper).

Doraiappa Bhagavatar has written articles on Harikatha and its exponents in the 1940s, in the journal "Natyam", which was edited by Ranjan, the well-known Indian dancer and film actor of yester years. According to him three traditions prevailed before the Maratha keertan was introduced in Tanjavur.

1. The Oduvars and other scholars expounded the Kamba Ramayanam, Villiputturar Bharatam and the Periyapuranam in temples along with musical compositions. This was mainly in Tamil, and was known as Kathaprasangam, performed by stalwarts like Arunachala Kavi (17th century), Gopalakrishna Bharati, Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, Ramalinga Swami (all 19th century), Nellai Sundaramurty Oduvar, Kripananda Variar, Pulavar Keeran (all 20th century) and others. Even today we have scholars like Suki Sivam and Trichy Kalyanaraman etc., who perform in this style. One important factor is that the element of 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.

2. The other style of story narration was the Pravachanam (exposition), which was expounded by scholars, mainly Brahmins, who were experts in the epics, Puranas, Sastras, Upanishads, and other philosophical works of Advaita, Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita and Saiva Agamas. They concentrated mainly on Sanskrit and Tamil texts. Music was kept to a minimum and was used sparingly to recite the slokas. Andamin Sivarama Bhagavatar, Paruttiyur Krishna Sastri, Pandit Lakshmanacharyar and Tiruppazhanam Panchapekesa Sastri (19th century) were  well-known Pauranikas. Mukkur Lakshminarasimhacharyar, Toopil and Velukkudi Krishnan (20th century) are continuing this tradition.  

3. The third was the Kathakalakshepa, which was closely connected with the Bhajana Sampradaya. The Bhagavatars who knew music, dance, stories and epics narrated them with upakathas (sub-stories) and interspersed them with suitable musical compositions in various languages accompanied by instruments. The compositions used are common to the Bhajana Sampradaya (congregational singing) like the Ashtapadis of Jayadeva, Tarangas of Narayana Teertha, compositions like Tevaram, Divyaprabandam, Tiruppugazh, 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. This tradition had its golden days with his entry into the field (1847-1903). Almost all the exponents were inspired by his performances and took to Harikatha. They were pandit Lakshmanacharya, Tiruppazhanam Panchapakesa Sastri, Sulamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Mangudi Chidambara Bhagavatar and others. Krishna Bhagavatar was instrumental in introducing various Marathi metrical forms like Saki, Dindi, Ovi, Arya, Abhanga pada etc into the art of Kathakalakshepa. 

The talas Usi, 3 beat, 7 beat and 5 beat, reckoned on the Cipla and Jalra were used in a special method. The Nirupanas (story text) were adopted from the Keertan Tarangini, a Marathi text. Writing a Nirupana interspersed with the above-mentioned songs is entirely a Marathi concept adopted by the Tamil performers. These were translated into Tamil by T S V Mahadeva Sastri (early 20th century). Viswamitra yaga samrakshana, Sulochana Sati, Vibhishana Sarangati, Draupadi mana samrakshana, Sri Ramajanana, Garuda garva harana, Vatsala kalyana, Rukmini kalyana are all Nirupanas from Keertan Tarangini.


So far we have seen the classical tradition of story telling. There is also a folk narrative style called Villupattu or the Bow-song. In villages, performers called the Pulavar (poet in Tamil), narrated stories. The main instrument is a bow, where many small bells are tied on the bowstring. The main storyteller narrates the story striking the bow. The bow rests on a mud pot kept facing downwards. Another person beats the pot while singing. There is also a co-singer who adopts the role of an active listener by saying 'yes yes' or asking 'is it so?' appropriately, to make it more interesting for the performer as well as the audience. The stories chosen are heroic ballads commonly known in the villages. However this form of story telling is also popular in urban areas. This medium is in fact utilized to propagate social welfare programmes like Aids awareness, family planning and also election propaganda. Kanian koottu and Udukkadipattu, prevalent in the villages of South India, are also folk story telling traditions. Stories like Sudalai Madan kathai, Draupadi Amman Kathai, Kovalan Kathai, Muttuppattan Kathai, Marudu Sahodarar kathai etc are narrated.



In Andhra Pradesh there are two types of story telling - the Purana Pravachana and the Harikatha. The folk style of Katha is Burrakatha.

The Purana Pravachana is similar to that of other States, the only difference being the narration in Telugu with suitable quotations from Sanskrit occasionally. The stories are also taken from Sanskrit or Telugu texts. 

Scholars feel that Harikatha in Telugu had its origins from Yakshagana (Telugu dramatic literature).  The other opinion is that it branched off from the Bhajana tradition. Ajjada Adibhatla Narayana Das, the Father of Telugu Harikatha, did to the art what Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar did to Tamil Harikatha. Yakshagana with slight changes became Veedhi Nataka (street play) or Bayalatta of Karnataka or Terukkoottu, the folk street theater of Tamil Nadu.

The Bhajana tradition owes its origin to Sankeertana Padakavita Prapitamahudu Simhagiri Krishnamacharyulu of the 14th century. Later the Talapakkam brothers, Annamacharya and Chinnayya (15th century) and Bhadrachala Ramadas enriched the art with their compositions. The link between Bhajana and Kalakshepa is something common to Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and even Maharashtra. The main difference in Bhajana is that one person leads and the group joins in the singing. Whereas in Harikatha, the main performer sings and narrates the story while the audience participates by joining in the Jaijaikara. 

In 1883, Kuppuswami Naidu from Madras performed Dhruva Charitram at Vijayanagaram, where Adibhatla Narayana Das, who happened to be among those present was so inspired that he wrote his own text of the Dhruva Charitram and began a career as a Harikatha Bhagavatar. He was already a singer, a poet and a writer who also knew dance. He had all the necessary requisites to become a Harikatha performer. Dr S Gangappa, who wrote about Narayana Das refers to him as the architect of the modern Telugu Harikatha.

The written text of a story with songs is called Yakshagana in Telugu. Narayana Das not only wrote such works not only in Telugu but also Sanskrit. Telugu Harikatha Bhagavatars have a violin or Harmonium and a Tabla or Mridangam as accompaniments. They perform in the standing posture, narrate the story, sing and dance.

There are specific poetic metrical forms in Telugu like Padya, Churnika, Dvipada, Champakamala, Utpala mala, Kanda Padyam and Sisapadyam.

Dulipali Krishnakavi, Chittimalle Rangayyadasu, Ramanujadasu, Bageyuapalli Ananta Ramanujacharyulu, Mushti Rajalakshmamma and Lakshmi Narashima Yogini are some of the popular Harikatha artistes of the 19th century. Dr T Donappa's book, Telugu Harikatha Sarvasvam has dealt with the subject extensively.


Burrakatha is a popular folk style of story telling in Telugu. Burra means a skull. The instrument resembles a human skull and is made of baked clay with a hollow shell. It is wide on one side and tapers towards the other end. At times it is made out of brass and copper. The Burrakatha storyteller's wife assists him in the singing. The performers belong to the Telaka or Mutharasi caste and are also called Sarada Kandru (The Sarada people), which means, worshippers of the Goddess Sarada Devi.

This art of story telling is also popular among the Christians and Muslims of Andhra Pradesh. Abraham Bhagavatar's Yesu Charitram, Manohara Kavi's Christu Janma Rahasya, Ratna Kavi’s Samson and Delaila, Khader Khan Sahib's Mohammed Vilasam are all story texts that have been used by the performers.



The art of story telling is called Keertan, Katha keertan, Kathakalakshepa and Harikathe here. The Jains call it Jinakathe and Saivaites Sivakathe. The Yakshagana of Karnataka is a very popular, theatrical art. The term Prasanga is used to denote the written text of the Yakshagana and the Talamaddale. The Talamaddale is a Yakshagana performed without make up, in a seated posture with Tala (rhythmic metre) and Maddala (a kind of percussion instrument). Each person takes up a character and has to improvise his own dialogue.

Tumkur Venugopala Dasa in a personal interview way back in 1983 told me, "The Haribhakti propagated by the Alwars, the Tamil Vaishnavaite saints up to the 12th century was carried on by the Dasakuta line of composers.”

“Harikatha Smarane Mado nirantara Paragatigidu nirdhara Nodo”  sang Purandaradasa.

Two sources influenced Kannada Harikatha. One was the Marathi Pandharpur Bhajana tradition. Ramachandrabuva Morgaunkar, who taught many at Tanjavur also propagated and popularized Marathi Keertan in Karnataka during the 19th century. Sripadaraya, Kanakadasa, Jagannatadasa and Purandaradasa, the Dasakuta line of composers, performed religious discourses from 14th century onwards. Bhadragiri Achyuta Dasa, Bhadragiri Kesava Dasa, Konanuru Srikanta Sastri, Gururajulu Naidu, L Lakshmipati and Tumkur Venugopala Dasa are some of the well-known Kannada Kathakaras. The other source of influence was the Tanjavur Harikatha.

The subject encyclopedia in Kannada mentions the origin of Harikatha thus:

"Any story with Sangeetabhinaya, coupled with anecdotes is called Kathakalakshepa. This has had its origin in Maharashtra. Before this form entered Karnataka there used to be Purana Patana and Bhajana in temples. In the course of time, Purana Patana has taken shape into Kathakalakshepa. Krishna Bhagavatar of Tanjavur and Tiruppazhanam Panchapakesa Sastri have given the actual form and popular appeal for this art. Today Harikatha vidwans in Karnataka are following the path laid by them.”



In Kerala the art of story telling branched out into three different types, namely, Patakam, Harikatha and Kathaprasangam.

Patakam is similar to Purana Pravachana. This is the exposition of Sanskrit texts in the vernacular, viz., Malayalam. Harikatha was introduced by Maharaja Swati Tirunal, who was highly influenced by the Tanjavur style of Harikatha. Kathaprasangam is very unique to Kerala and was started to popularize and propagate the Malayalam language and literature.


Patakam is a solo performance and had no instrumental accompaniment. Slokas are recited, followed by narration and exposition. The Nambiyar community performed this earlier, but today it is not restricted to them alone. This was a traditional and orthodox art and drew its material from the sacred lore. Sanskrit and Malayalam were the only languages used.


Professor S Gupta Nair, a scholar in Malayalam Literature, mentioned to me in an interview in 1983 that Harikatha, with all its musical richness was introduced by Maharaja Swati Tirunal and the latter wrote Kuchelopakhyana and Ajamilopakhyana. And that Meruswami, a Marathi keertankar, performed these two Charitras. It consists of slokas and songs in Sanskrit. This was sometime in 1836. He was also called Anantapadmanabha Goswami and was the kulaguru (family teacher) of the Royal family of Travancore.

K K Vadyar has written a book entitled "Kathaprasangam Endu Endinu Engane" which discusses the Katha scene of Kerala.

Apart from the traditional Patakam and the introduction of the Tanjavur Harikatha, the unique modern story telling style of Kerala is the Kathaprasangam. If we analyze the term, it means story-exposition. So there is no religious element apparent in the term.  It could be any story taken up for exposition. The content was non-religious. The purpose was not to propagate bhakti or devotion but create awareness for the Malayalam language and literature. The other purpose was to fight against the evils of the society and to strive for its upliftment.

This was conceived by the end of the 19th century and during the early part of the 20th century.  Those who were not well versed in Sanskrit or music took to Kathaprasangam.  The music used was light or light classical, similar to film music. Their motive was “one God and one race” (community) (“Ore Deivam, Ore Kulam”), propagated by Sri Narayana Guru, who was a social reformer.

Modern simple novels and stories of the Malayala Kavitrayam (poet-trio) viz., Asan, Vallatol and Ulloor were adopted. Satyadevan was the pioneer of Kathaprasangam and later M P Manmadan, K K Vadyar, P C Abraham, Joseph Kaimamparamban and V Sambasivan popularized this art.

The popular themes of Kathaprasangam were Chandalabhikshuki and Karuna, popular novels of Kumaran Asan and Vallatol’s works 'Magdalena Mariam', Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karanina (in Malayalam). The narrations were highly dramatized like the dialogues of drama. There was also an elaborate orchestra like the keyboard, drums etc. (similar to the light music orchestra), which provided the background music for the narration, a concept borrowed from cinema.

Of all the above-mentioned performers, only Joseph Kaimamparamban is alive and continuing this tradition. He was a staff artiste at the All India Radio, Trivandrum.

This is the scene of story telling in South India and it is quite interesting to note how each region has developed its own style from the common origin, the Purana Pravachana. This was the system of formal teaching - the transmitting of scriptures and epics in the form of story, by a learned teacher to a gathering of eager listeners. As long as one wants to hear a story and another narrate, story telling will continue to be an interesting way to spend time. The television and the computer have become our modern storytellers. Yet, there is a human mind and a brain behind them.

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