The art of imparting good values and spreading religious beliefs through the means of story telling has existed from time immemorial, in almost all ancient civilizations of the world. India is no exception. Valmiki’s Ramayana is structured as the narrative of the sons of Rama, Kusha and Lava, at their father’s court. Most importantly the twins are described as having sung the work.

Story telling has remained a great tradition in India and survives in various forms all over the country. At the micro level, it was perhaps best exemplified by the grandmother’s tale of one generation ago, when the old lady would hold a set of children spellbound by reciting a story from the puranas, to the accompaniment of some mono acting, some shlokas and plenty of singing.

Story telling evolved as Harikatha, a unique art form in 18th and 19th century South India. The Maratha kingdom of Thanjavur was where it came up as a result of several important influences. The art of Katha Kalakshepam or passing of time by listening to stories was already a powerful presence in the area, but it existed more as a form of religious discourse where learned scholars would take up a topic and embellishing it with some shlokas, speak on the subject for a few hours. Based on the type of subject matter, such discourses looked to different works for material. Thus if the subject matter was the Periya Puranam, the Kanda Puranam or Kamba Ramayanam, it was called prasangam and had quotes from the Tiruvachakam, the Tevaram and similar Tamil works. If the subject matter was from the Puranas, there were quotes from the Bhagavatam, the Maha Bharatham and the Ramayanam. Occasionally musicians also took to such discourses, one of the most prominent being Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan (1845-1893) who on days when he had no concerts, put his elder brother Ramaswami Sivan’s kritis to good effect by performing discourses at his own doorstep on various tales from the Periya Puranam. The content was generally high brow and the appeal was limited.

The Thanjavur kingdom was voluntarily signed off to the British by the last king, Sarabhoji II in 1799 in exchange for a pension. The ruler freed from all cares, devoted his life to supporting the arts. Musicians and other artistes thronged his court. Among them were kirtankars from Sarabhoji’s native land of Maharashtra. The kirtankars made for a colourful presence with their vivid dresses, their metrical songs, their ability to move on stage while performing and their use of the chipla (castanet) and the jalar (cymbal). They used a good deal of music while reciting a tale and maintained a fast and racy pace of narration. Soon a great rivalry sprang up between the North Indian and South Indian katha traditions with the North Indian style gaining the upper hand.

Meruswami (aka Ananthpadmanabhagoswami) was almost certainly the first kirtankar who made it big in Thanjavur. Referred to as Kokilakantha (cuckoo voiced), he was well versed in Hindustani music. In 1836 he moved to Travancore where he became preceptor to the ruler Swati Tirunal. Close on the heels of Meruswami came Ramachandra Morgamkar Buva (or Morkar Bawa). The last titular ruler of Thanjavur, Shivaji II (r 1832-1855) welcomed him and established a Math for him to stay in the city during the Chaturmasya period. Morkar Bawa performed kirtans at the Math everyday and began attracting huge crowds. Musicians vied with each other to accompany him and among them were leading percussionist of the time such as Narayanaswami Appa and ‘Dholak’ Nannu Miyan. Observing the success of this form, Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar (1841-1903), took careful notes of the two Katha traditions, namely the north and the south and decided to amalgamate the best in both styles. This amalgam had the rich musical tradition of the north along with the high levels of erudition of the south. Thus was born the Harikatha tradition.

Krishna Bhagavatar left very little for others to do. He planned the seating of musicians for his performances. Thus there was a violinist or a harmonist and a mridangist who sat behind the main artiste who performed standing right through the performance. There was in addition an artiste who maintained the pitch by strumming on the tambura, while yet another operated the jalar. The chipla was used by the main artiste who also wore the gajjai (bells) on his feet for added effect. For his stories, Krishna Bhagavatar wrote several of the nirupanams (or music pieces centring on a story) and many of the subjects such as Rukmini Kalyanam, Bhadrachala Ramadas Charittram, the Ramayanam etc became very popular.

Seeing his success, many other men came forward to try their hand at Harikatha. Some of the big names included Tiruppazhanam Panchapakesa Sastrigal (1868-1924), Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar (1866-1943) and Mangudi Chidambara Bhagavatar (1880-1938). Musicians also took to Harikatha, the foremost among these being Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar (1877-1945) and Kallidaikurichi Vedanta Bhagavatar (1878-1940). Many scholars who were not good musicians also became famous as Harikatha exponents. The musical element was taken care of by hiring good musicians to become part of the troupe. Pt. Lakshmanachar (1857-1921) of Tiruvayyaru became a great success this way. In later years Tiruvayyaru Annaswami Bhagavatar (1899-?)was a notable success. Women came late into the art with C Saraswathi Bai (1892-1974) showing the way. Following her came Padmasini Bai and C Banni Bai (1912-1999).

In modern times we have had giants such as Embar Vijaraghavachariar (1909-?), TS Balakrishna Sastrigal (1918-2003) and others. But most of them preferred to convert the Harikatha into an unpanyasam or discourse. Smt TR Kamala Murthy follows the old tradition of Harikatha. Born on 4th March 1932 at Pasupatikoil to S Ramachandra Iyer and Seethalakshmi, she was taught music till her eighth year. Later she underwent lessons in Harikatha from Chidambaram Raja Bhagavatar and Tiruvayyaru Annaswami Bhagavatar. Well versed in Sanskrit and music, she has remained a popular artiste. She was honoured with the title of Kalaimamani by the Tamil Nadu Government in 1978. She has since received many awards.

This was written by way of a sleeve note for a three CD pack released by Charsur, which contains TR Kamala Murthy performing Harikatha on the lives of three great Shaivite saints – Siruthondar, Tirunilakantar and Kannappar.