The art of storytelling has taken many forms since the dawn of civilization in the Indian subcontinent. In Southern India, particularly in Tamil Nadu and neighboring regions, formats such as Upanyasam, Harikatha or KathaKaalakshepam, and VilluPaatu have been practiced across many generations. In the more recent years, storytelling has taken a new format in the form of Katha-Kutcheri. This composite format incorporates storytelling along with a full-fledged Carnatic music concert. The act consists of multiple artists: A narrator for the story, singer(s) for the songs, and accompanying artists. This new format has also adapted modern themes as opposed to other storytelling forms that are based on epics and stories of religious deities. This publication provides a historical context to Carnatic Music, before discussing the evolution of storytelling art forms to its latest form, the Katha-Kutcheri. In conclusion, thoughts on the future scope of storytelling as a composite form with Carnatic music is provided.
Storytelling as an art has been in existence in our civilizations from time immemorial, with the method of narration differing geographically. An aspect of effective storytelling is the spreading of good values and religious beliefs by effortlessly bringing the past to the present. An age-old method of storytelling is one in which grandmothers capture their grandchildren’s attention not only with words, but with acting, slokas, and singing.
In Southern India, the traditional art of storytelling is referred to as KathaKaalakshepam- time spent in narrating stories. The storyteller is typically a scholar in the ancient texts, who demonstrates versatility in interpreting the story. They also infuse humorous anecdotes and sing songs to capture the audience’s attention. In Tamil Nadu, the narration of the story is interspersed with musical compositions in various languages of the south. Tanjavur is one of the cities in which this art was nurtured, helping KathaKaalakshepam gain popularity.
The etymology of the word Kutcheri can be traced back to an earlier meaning: A place of public assembly, typically an office of the court or government. Kutcheri’s began as a way for artists to showcase their musical talents in front of Kings and rulers. It has now evolved into musical concerts and soirees that the people enjoy along with friends and family.
Raga Sudha Rasa is the confluence of both the rasas – Katha and Kutcheri. While there are similarities between KathaKaalakshepam and Katha-Kutcheri, there are some distinct differences as well. Like other art forms, Katha – Kutcheri offers enough scope for creative experiments, but its format brings out the best of two worlds – an erudite scholar on one side and excellent musical rendition on the other. One can witness the coming together of ancient literature along with its melodic representation. This relatively new art form has been growing in popularity in the Carnatic music ecosystem.
This paper reviews existing literature on the art of storytelling in South India, and the evolution of traditional art forms to what exists in the present-day as Katha – Kutcheri. Along the way, similarities and distinctions are presented and a novel perspective to the art form is offered.
- Origins of Carnatic Music
The history of Carnatic music can be divided into three periods: Ancient, Medieval and Modern. Major developments in each of these periods make it easier to appreciate and understand the art. Although the term Carnatic has not been explicitly used in the Ancient period, this period was vital to its development according to the Vedas. The Medieval period (5th to 16th century A.D.) allows us to have formalized historical links with clearly defined nomenclature that have been documented. Many important musical contributions were made during this period by eminent scholars and composers. The Modern period, also known as Golden period (17th century to current day) consists of several developments in both Lakshana (theoretical) and Lakshya (practical) took place during this period. It not only preserves the great achievements from previous periods, but also marks important milestones from modern and distinct perspectives.
The bhakti movement (7thcentury onwards) by the Nayanars and Alvars of South India, and subsequently the Haridasas of Karnataka led to the development of devotional music due to its religious ties. Around the same period, the Kirtana movement in Maharashtra led by Namdev, Tukaram and Jnandev brought in several lyrical songs that were soaked in spiritual flavor.
Music flourished in the Vijayanagar empire (16thCentury) with composers like TallapakamAnnamacharya and Purandaradasa (also known as Sangeetha Pitamaha), who graced this period with numerous important compositions. With fall of the Vijayanagar empire, Tanjavur became the de-facto Carnatic music centre with its royal patronage. Tanjavur also had a geographical advantage by being in the delta of the Cauvery River. Many compositions have been written on the sacredness of the Cauvery. Tanjavur maintained its role in the development of music during the 17th, 18th, and 19th century. These last three centuries have been vital in the development of Carnatic music. This was due to the patronage of the Nayaks and Marathas as they were not only rulers, but also musicians, musicologists and composers. During the Maratha reign, many kirtankars from Gwalior and Pune came to Tanjavur, and their performances with devotion became popularly known as Thanjavur Marathi traditions and is an essential part of the heritage of Tamil Nadu.
- Evolution of Storytelling in Tamil Nadu
Stories have been an essential part of our upbringing, especially those of Gods and Goddesses. We have been told childhood bedtime stories with moral values. Though this is generally seen as a part of family traditions, the art of storytelling as a performance art has been popular in India for a long time. Each region has its own language and style of rendering stories, with the message being that the story is conveyed to people by weaving the past into the present. Music has had an important role in the success of storytelling.
In Tamil Nadu, storytelling has evolved by taking different forms. Importantly, in the context of music and storytelling, the following art forms have been at the forefront:
- Katha Kutcheri
A detailed description of the storytelling art forms is provided in the subsections below.
The storytelling format for this art form does not involve the rendition of music, but instead uses references from ancient scriptures in portraying the story. The stories that were narrated were often from the epics such as Upanishads, Sastras, Puranas and other philosophical works in Sanskrit and Tamil. Music, if any, would only be incorporated in the recitation of Slokas. An Upanyasam is basically a religious discourse that gives meaning and interpretation of a particular topic with humorous anecdotes to keep the storytelling intriguing. ‘IllaikiyaSorpozhivu’ or literary discourse was the term used for Upanyasam in Tamizh. Some popular Upanyasakars are Sri Sundar Kumar, Sri Velukudi Krishnan, Sri SengalipuramAnantharamaDikshitar and Sri Suki Sivam.
Kathakalakshepam, Harikatha or HarikathaKaalakshepa is a storytelling form that has its roots in ancient India. Its literal meaning is ‘time spent in narrating stories’, a musical discourse or ‘Isai Sorpozhivu’ in Tamizh. It is essentially a discourse with music, i.e. songs with stories in different languages. It is often to the accompaniment of string and percussion instruments such as Violin and Mridangam, known as pakkavadhyam, meaning accompanying instruments. The solo narrator, known as Haridasa, is an expert in religious texts and demonstrates versatility in interpreting the story. Each narrator has their own style of oration, which often includes humorous anecdotes. The narrator renders the performance in a standing posture donning the traditional attire, the Panchakacham. Sometimes, backup vocalists provide support for the musical performances. The performer (narrator) usually spends hours listening to several veteran performers so that they can observe and fine tune their own rendition with Upakathas and humour. There is no restriction on the singing style used in KathaKaalakshepam, styles range from light classicals to folk tunes. There are also no restrictions on the languages of the songs, although Sanskrit and Tamizh were the predominantly used along with Telugu and Kannada.
This art form came to Tamil Nadu from Maharashtra during the rule of Marathas in Tanjavur (circa 1850). The Tanjavur Katha tradition adopted some elements of the Maharashtra Kirtan. Inspired and assisted by Meruswami – Anantapadmanabha Goswami, a kirtankar from Maharashtra, His Highness the Maharaja of Thiruananthapuram Sri Swathi Thirunal composed Ajaamila and Kuchelopankyanam. Meruswami was attached to the royal court as his guru. Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavathar was another artist who popularized and propagated this art form as it stands today. Prior to incorporating certain characteristics of the Marathi Kirtan, the KathaKaalakshepam consisted of some elements of NamaSankirtan and puranic exposition. The Oduvars and other scholars expounded the Kamba Ramayanam and Periyapuram with Tevaram, Thiruvasagam and Thirukkural. The stories often consist of themes of bhakti (devotion) and triumph of good over evil such as ‘Rukmini kalyanam’ and ‘Andal Charithram’. KathaKaalakshepams were narrated by stalwarts such as Arunachala kavi (famous for the RamaNataka), Gopalakrishna Bharathi, MahaVaidhyanatha Iyer. By flourishing from the corners of villages to temples and sabhas in Tamil Nadu, KathaKaalakshepam has reached different generations. It has cultured communication and moral instruction to the masses. It has also helped spread the contents from the puranas across generation.
KathaKaalakshepam has unique musical forms like Abhanga, Ovi, Saki, Dindi, etc. .The Nirupanam is particularly of significance. It is a script of the main story with suitable songs and prose passages, divided into sections as it is performed. The Sahitya (lyrics) provides a brief theme for the content of the Katha in a nutshell with simple music. It stands apart as a unique form with the stye of performance depending completely on the musical and narrative talent (Bhava) of the Haridasa. It adopts a variety of musical forms, languages, metrical forms, thalas and ragas. It is also important to note that srutijyanam, the narration depicting the navarasas and the bhava ragas were distinct characteristics of this art form.
Panchapadi is the invocation of prayer songs on deities starting with Vinayaka, Saraswathi, Rama, Krishna, Anjaneya, Guru. It creates the melaprapti, i.e., the musical ambience. The audience is settled down and warms up to hear the story.
Prathamapada is the primary song around which the story is woven. Accompaniments by mridangam, violin, harmonium are performed. Chiplakattai and jalra are essential and are touched with reverence remembering their gurus. The main performance is again in a one-person theatre art form and the topic is chosen from a plethora of themes. The Katha Kaalakshepam should be a blend of narration, singing, philosophy and humour. Its 8-fold structure consists of the following: Panchapathi, Prathamapada, Poorvapeetika, Tillana, Thaniavarthanam, Katha Nirupanam and Mangalam. The Pundarika is recited at the end. A qualified performer will have the command over at least five languages and a stronghold of Itihasas and Puranas. A good memory, along with creativity, eloquence, knowledge of music and above all Gurubhakti are a must for any Harikatha artist.
A brief note that recaps the evolution of KathaKaalakshepam is presented below:
- Purana Patanam – reading out the puranas, Ramayana, Bhagavatha in places of religious importance.
- Kirtana Stage – recitation of sacred hymns with music by the Oduvaras and Bhagavathas in temples and other sacred places.
- With the advent of the Maratha rule, the introduction of musical forms like Saki, Dindi, Ovi etc. forms into the kirtan was an important landmark.
- The birth of South Indian KathaKaalakshepam as an art form as a blend of religious instruction and kirtan (from the north).
- Harikathakalakshepa became an integration of Sahitya, music, moral and spiritual ideas and Abhinaya. The aids of music dance and Abhinaya were sought to make teaching of spiritual knowledge in an entertaining way.
- The Bhagavathar holding the chipla in his hand and standing while performing the katha adopts a particular style of reckoning the thala.
The artists who form the trinity in Hari Katha are: Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavathar (interesting), Pandit Lakshmanacharya (inspiring), and ThiruppalanamPanchabagesha Sastry (instructive). Some popular perfomers were Sri T.S. BalakrishnaSastrigal, Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavathar, Sri HarikeshaMuthiahBhagavathar, Smt. Saraswathi Bai, Smt. Banni Bai etc.
The term VilluPaatu literally means ‘Bow-Song’. The bow, Villu, measuring about four to eight feet in length is used as the primary instrument with small bells attached to it. When struck by two sticks, a jingling effect produced. It is performed by a narrator who also sings when the bow is struck with the sticks. Simple verses set to folk tunes make the narration easy to follow. Not only are mythological stories rendered via VilluPaatu, but so are social messages. In Tamil Nadu, Thirunelveli, Kanyakumari and Ramanathapuram are some of the regions with which VilluPaatu is associated. The language and musical style of VilluPaatu have a rural touch, as this art form is addressed more to audience from villages. It provides entertainment as well as education on epics and puranas.
Like the Bhagavathar or Haridasa in KathaKaalakshepam, the main artist is a learned ‘Pulavar’ (scholar). It begins with invocation songs on Deities like Ganesha, Saraswathi and Vishnu. The themes chosen are based on puranic stories, epics, local village deities, social messages, or local heroes. The gist of the story is narrated at the commencement, called the ‘VaruporulUraithal’, a brief of what will follow. Gurusthuthi is a common feature. ‘AvaiAttakam’ is when the performer pays his homage to the audience with a request to pardon his mistakes if any. Once the rendition of the story is complete, it concludes with ‘VaazhiPaatudal’ a benediction sung in prayer for the long and prosperous life of one and all. The instruments used in accompaniment it are: Udukku, Kudam, Thala Kattai and Cymbals. Nowadays, the performances can be mostly seen during the annual festivals of temples. The origins of this art form have been accredited to ‘ArasaPulavar’, a scholar from the 15th century.
There are usually a total of eight members in a VilluPaatu orchestra who bring out the theme of the story effectively with musical support. The lead narrator-singer performs the role of main performer and sits in front of the bow and handles the instrument. Palmyra wood or metal is used in making this instrument, which is curved like a bow, with the two ends attached by a string which is stretched tightly. This bow rests on the neck of a large earthen pot which in turn rests on a plate made of coconut fiber. Numerous bells are hung on the string and two cymbals are also hung at each end. Two slender rods are used to strike the bow in accordance with the beat called the veesukol. The artist moves their hands by holding the rods to express the mood and bhava of the song and deftly strikes the bow string bringing together the beat of the thala and the song. This in turn sets off the bells and cymbals. The second artist handles the mud pot. The mouth of the pot is struck with a thick flat plate made from plantain sheath to make the sounds. The third artist performs on the ‘Udukku’ holding it in a horizontal position like a traditional drum. The fourth member keeps time using two small wooden blocks called ‘Kastha’. Cymbals are used by the fifth member of the troupe. The rest of the members are involved in singing the chorus. The performance is packed with a lot of humour and subtle jokes. When the act is in progress, there is a perfect coordination of the music with the bow, bell and percussion operating in unison creating fast-paced music. When the main artist is performing, the others play their instruments and when others sing the lead singer play the Veesukol on the string. After the main storyteller completes a passage from the song, the other artists repeat the phrase as an encore.
The interesting part of the ‘Villupaatu’ is the extempore debate. The group is split into two, where one group is with the person using the veesukol and other members with the person playing the Kastha. The opposing group songs are called the Lavanipaatu. One group poses the question to the other group that is answered in the same metrical form and tune. The verses could be anything from vedantha, philosophy, religion, etc. . The spirited singers bring in so much life and enthusiasm into their storytelling that the audience soak in the joy of the folk music. The duration of the performance depends on the story. Performances of stories from Ramayana or Mahabharatha may take two or three days. VilluPaatu is a very interesting and attractive form of folklore story telling. Some famous artists included Subbu Arumugam and MS Gandhimadhi of Madurai.
Modern Changes to Storytelling
As with any art, the passage of time has brought about many changes to storytelling. The notable changes to the art form are with respect to the themes and mode of performance. The art has a high potential for growth. In the olden days, stories of Royal ancestors were of Kings and Queens were narrated to armies to inspire them. Arunachala Kavirayar inspired the Marathi soldiers to defeat the enemies by narrating a Veeraprasanga on Lord Hanuman. Even during India’s freedom struggle, KathaKaalakshepams were performed to induce the spirit of patriotism. Bharatiyar’s Pancali Shabadam was a popular theme for such renditions. It also helped in educating the illiterate masses. Gandhi Charithram– story of Mahatma Gandhi, was a popular performance staged for 5 to 6 days, which was a novelty in the more conservative times.
The tradition of passing on the art from one generation to another was usually achieved via Gurukula system or through formalized institutions. The Gurukula system provides the students an opportunity to listen to the performances of their gurus, allowing the students to learn music, expressive narration, languages, and gain experience by participating.
The etymology of the word Kutcheri can be traced back to an earlier meaning: A place of public assembly, typically an office of the court or government. Its association with public office can be most likely derived from the Maratha rule of Tanjavur, in which the durbar the place where people brought their aspirations as well as musical achievements to the King. Tanjavur emerged as a seat of music over the centuries with music aficionados as rulers. Over a period of time, it began representing not only the venue, but also the gathering, and later led to the concept of Carnatic music concerts.
As the name denotes, Katha Kutcheri is an art form that consists of Katha as well as a full-fledged Kutcheri. This new art form, established only in the last decade is quickly accumulating a following. There are multiple performers in this art form. The performer who narrates the katha is well versed in Puranas and Upanishad and can quote slokas from memory in a fluid form. The Kutcheri, on the other hand, is performed by a professional singer or singers who are classically trained in Carnatic music. Both the narrator and the singer are the main performers in this art form. The accompanying artists are violin, mridangam, ghatam, kanjira and tambura. The songs are selected depending on the theme of the performance; hence the theme is predetermined. Songs written by different composers are sung based on the story and the theme. There is hardly any Manodharma or improvisation in the singing like Raga Alapana, Kalpanaswara, Neraval, unlike a Kutcheri.
The duration is of the event is between 2-3 hours. Regarding the stage arrangement, both the narrator and singer(s) are seated adjacent to each other. The artists on the Violin, Mridangam, Ghatam,Kanjira and Tambura are seated like they would be in a traditional kutcheri. At the beginning, only the relevant slokas are rendered based to the theme instead of prayers to many deities. The methodical format followed in storytelling forms such as KathaKaalakshepam is not in existence anymore. A versatile, yet fine relationship is maintained between the Katha and the Kutcheri to spread the message of communal and religious harmony.
The unique contribution of Carnatic music to this art form is that the storytelling is enhanced through different languages, ragas and thalas. Although the songs may be in different languages, the Katha brings out their meanings effortlessly bringing joy to the audience. The role played by Sabhas (performance halls) in the success of Katha Kutcheri is immense. The Margazhi season in Chennai enabled this art form to grow in popularity. Margazhi is the time of the year in which the Sabhas organize performances to cater to a local and international audience. A contemporary touch to traditional text and a modern interpretation of the vedas and puranas are defining characteristics of this art form. Slokas, poetry from puranas and epics and other narration along with the appropriate song rendered have a strong value to the avid listener.
There is a rich storehouse of themes throwing light on both the spiritual and moral messages. With humour and anecdotes from the narrator, and a musical rendition by the singer, the performance is interesting and entertaining. This art has evolved to bring peace of mind and at the end of the performance, the audience gets a sense of ‘Trupti’ or satisfaction.
- The Future in Story Telling with Carnatic Music
Modern storytelling has propagated via many media. Theatre acting incorporating music in the form of musicals has swept the western cinemas. Schools that focus on teaching music with acting/narration are growing in popularity, as it is a unique combination of skills. E-learning and the advent of the internet has not only allowed people to view and enjoy performances, but also partake in the learning process. The themes applied to storytelling performances are also continuously evolving, with focus being given to social issues, environmental issues and of course, entertainment.
The Katha Kutcheri format is becoming popular with a lot of innovative themes. Topics that are attractive to the current generation are being presented to encourage listening. The confluence of music and storytelling is engaging and encourages participation.
In one of the recent Margazhi season’s MahaUtsavam, a Katha Kutcheri was held on KIQ – The IQ of Krishna and related stories. Some Kathas that are narrated completely in English are appearing at venues in India and abroad. It is the interest in storytelling that brings many youngsters not only to listen to performances but also to participate in performances themselves. New and rare compositions can be brought out that help the audience delve into new stories.
Observing, reading, research and rehearsing are all essential requirements to successful storytelling. When combined with the compositions of great composers, it is easy to bring out the inherent meaning and philosophy behind the performance. The current generation will definitely learn to appreciate the history and culture through this art form – Katha Kutcheri.
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