This was the topic of presentation by Dr Premeela Gurumurthy, at the Music Academy this morning (20th December 2010). She is the Head of the Department of Music, University of Madras. She was accompanied by the Shwetaranyam Sisters, Saswati Srikrishna and one more singer whose name I did not catch.

Dr Premeela began by tracing the terms used for Harikatha in the various states. It is called Kirtan in Marathi, Kathakatha in Hindi, Gagariya Purana in Gujarati, Harikatha in Telugu, Harikathe in Karnataka, Kathakalakshepam, Harikatha and Isai Sorpozhivu in Tamil and Kathaprasangam in Malayalam.

She briefly traced the origins of Harikatha in the Tanjavur region and spoke of the contributions of the founding fathers. The salient features of Harikatha include the performer remaining standing throughout and his/her use of the jalra/chipla. The musical forms include saki, dindi, ovi, abhanga, arya, pada, anjanigita, khadga, khandapadya, sisapadya, dvipada, churnika, chindu, nondichindu, temmangu, sloka, viruttam and ahaval. Apart from these, the compositions of saints in Marathi, Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu are also used.

The Harikatha is usually in three parts. The panchapadi is the initial invocation and is followed by the prathamapadi which in turn is succeeded by the nirupanam. The panchapadi is for ensuring melakattu (right atmosphere) and involves use of jalra. The chipla is taken up for the prathamapadi. The songs selected for the prathamapadi usually depend on the subject of the main story. The last section, the nirupanam, is the script of the main story.

The panchapadi was sung today and then the prathamapadi as suited for Rukmini Kalyanam was demonstrated. Dr Premeela explained that the prathamapadi forms part of the purvapada and after the its rendition, a dhrupad and tillana follow after which there is a percussive interlude. Then the uttaranga involving the nirupanam begins.

The metrical forms in Harikatha were then explained. Sakis from Rukmini Kalyanam and a subject taken from the Ramayana were both sung and these were in Marathi. A Tamil saki taken from a discourse on Mahabharata was also sung. The mattakokila was demonstrated through a song which had its theme as Rukmini pleading with Krishna to spare her brother’s life. The savai metre was shown through a Marathi song from Draupadi Manasamrakshanam and a Tamil song from Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Nandan Charittiram. The Parsi mettu was demonstrated through a song from Valli Kalyanam. By and large Marathi metres were preferred as they were shorter and could be set to simple tunes.

Photographs of Harikatha greats were shown during the talk. Dr Premeela then went on to say that the Harikathas sometimes featured incongruous songs. She gave the example of Kanchadalayatakshi being sung by the Bhagavatars as the song of Rukmini when she prays to the Devi for blessing her with Krishna as husband. To overcome this, Bhagavatars composed their own songs and she demonstrated the song Sri Vidarbha Nagara Vasini in Purvikalyani, composed for the same situation by Tiruppazahanam Panchapakesa Sastri.

She also demonstrated the various talas used such as tisra, the vusi, misram and khandam.

By this time, 70% of the allotted time was over and as everyone knows, we at the Academy work with clockwork precision. So the rest of the presentation was rather rushed.

In Andhra, the Harikatha movement began with Ajjada Adibhatla Narayana Das. He apparently attended the Harikatha of one Kuppuswami Naidu of Madras in 1883 and was so impressed that he wrote out a performance that very night and performed it the next day. There are other forms also – the Burrakatha and the Jankakatha being two.

In Telugu, the Harikatha performers were experts in Bhajan too and the written text is called Yakshagana. Narayana Das set up the Sri Sarvaraya School in Vizianagaram to teach the art of Harikatha. He did not use Marathi and preferred Sanskrit. Dr Premeela did not mention this, but there is a statue for Narayana Das on the Vizag beachfront. He is also an ancestor of sorts of Dr Pappu Venugopala Rao and the latter presented a paper on him at the Music Academy in 1983 when another Harikatha exponent, Embar Vijayaraghavachariar was Sangita Kalanidhi designate. (This was mentioned by Drs Premeela and Pappu).

Two darus and a gadya of Nallan Chakravartulu Krishnamacharyulu pertaining to Srinivasa Kalyanam were presented by Saswati. These were in Athana, Bilahari and Mukhari. Saswati has a powerful voice and a theatrical style of rendition which was most impressive and effective.

Proceeding to Karnataka, Dr Premeela said that there are tales with Vaishnavite, Shaivite and Jain themes. The forms here are Talamaddale and Yekkalagana. A performance by Achyutadasa taken from was presented.

In Kerala there are three traditions. There is one form of purana pravachanam. The Harikatha was the second which was introduced by Meruswami and performed largely before royalty. The most popular form is the Kathaprasanga which has all kinds of themes, ranging from Romeo & Juliet to Mary Magdalene. KK Vadyar introduced this and he used poems of Kumara Asan, Ulloor Parameswara Iyer and Vallathol.

The presentation ended here and Dr Pappu remarked that it had a lot of information on Harikatha in Tamil Nadu, a little less on Andhra, very little on Karnataka and very, very little on Kerala. But the music was most melodious.

BM Sundaram came up with a few points:

1. There had been no mention of Chitrakavi Sivarama Bhagavatar.
2. It was wrong to claim that C Saraswathi Bai was the first woman Harikatha performer. Ilayanarvelur Saradambal had performed in 1915 at TN Rajarathinam Pillai’s wedding while Saraswathi Bai came later. This was contested by me. There is no proof that Saradambal had performed earlier than 1915 while Saraswathi Bai had made her debut in 1907, thereby definitely being the first lady Bhagavatar.
3. It was not Kuppuswami Naidu but Kuppuswami Raju as per a book in his possession. This was refuted by Dr Pappu who recollected from his paper of 1983 that Adibhatla Narayana Das had himself written that it was a Kuppuswami Naidu.