Carnatica brings Harikatha, the traditional art of story-telling in India, online for the first time. A jewel in the treasure-chest of Indian culture, this art-form would be featured here exclusively for you by Dr. Prameela Gurumurthy, who has done her doctoral research on this subject.

When Maratha rule was established in 1676 AD in Tanjavur, Tamilnadu, it became an important centre of devotional music. The first king to rule was Ekoji I. He not only allowed the continual use of Telugu as the court language, but also patronized the cultural and musical traditions of the Nayak. Tanjavur entered another phase in its cultural history when Ekoji I was succeeded by Shahaji in 1684 AD (1684-1712). He was a scholar both in music and literature. Around thirty works consisting of dramas, Padyas and Kavyas have been ascribed to him. Scholars of Tanjavur gave him the title 'Abhinavabhoja'. After Shahaji, Sarabhoji (1712- 1728) took over. Later we have Tulaja I (1728- 1736) who authored the musical treatise Sangeeta Saramrita. He was followed by Pratapasimha (1739-1763), then Tulaja II (1763- 1787), Amarasimha (1787- 1798), Sarabhoji II (1798- 1832) and Sivaji II (1832- 1855).

It was during the period of the Maratha rule that the Marathi Harikatha or keertan was introduced in Tanjavur. Keertan is one of the forms of Navavidha bhakti (nine types of devotion). It means praising the Lord. In Bengal, keertan means singing the glory of God as handled by Chaitanya. But the keertan of Maharashtra referred to a specific form of spiritual teaching coupled with music, dance and histrionics.

With the advent of Maratha rule, due to the influence of famous saints, Marathi keertan was introduced in Tanjavur. When Samartha Ramdas established his Mutt in 1663 at Tanjavur, he laid the foundation for keertan. One of his disciples was Bhimaraja Swami, who was patronized by Venkhaji and Shahaji and conducted keertan and bhajan in the Mutt.

During the second half of the 17th century, Maratha saints established many Mutts in Tanjavur. Those were Bhimaraja Goswami Mutt, Sri Govindabalaswami Mutt, Sri Johiram Goswami Mutt and Sri Sethu Bava Mutt.

Two important keertankars (composers of keertans) who rendered yeoman service to spread keertan in Tanjavur were Meruswami and Ramachandra Bhuva Morgaumkar. Mersuswami was endowed with a sweet voice and was known as Kokilakantha (cuckoo-voiced). He established a Mutt at Pudukkotai and later went to Travancore where he received royal patronage from the Maharaja Swati Tirunal. He was the kulaguru (family guru) of the King and came to be known also as Ananta Padmanabha Goswami. With his encouragement, the Maharaja composed the two famous works, Kuchelopakhyana and Ajamilopakhyana, which were performed by Meruswami himself at the royal court.

Coming back to Harikatha, one must note that before the Maratha influence, there existed a form called Kalakshepa, but it was performed in various styles:

  • Purana Pathana

  • Prasangam by Oduvars

  • Kalakshepam by Bhagavatars like Varahur Gopala Bhagavatar, who also performed Bhajans, and

  • Upanyasa by Kappanamangalam Swami Sastri etc.

Purana Pathana involved reading out slokas and explaining them. A learned Pauranika did this. This gave importance to the knowledge of the Sastras, epics and philosophical doctrines. Literary excellence and religious preaching was given importance. Here the Sanskrit texts of the Mahabharata, Bhagavata and Ramayana were expounded.

The Oduvars were the custodians of the 12 Tirumurais in Saivism, the great religious verses composed by the Saivaite saints. The Oduvars were knowledgeable in both the Tevaram and Tamil religious literatures. They expounded the lives of the 62 Saivaite saints with suitable songs. This was yet another tradition.

Varahur Gopala Bhagavatar was not only a scholar, but also a Bhajana and Kalakshepa performer. He used to perform Kalakshepa with dance. His was a style, which gave equal importance to both music and Pravachana.

Kappanamangalam Swami Sastri, Andamin Sivarama Bhagavatar and Karuttangudi Govinda Bhagavatar were Pauranikas, who were erudite scholars. But scholars have recorded at that time that most of these performances gave primary importance to Bhakti and there was no entertainment value.


Keertan was a very attractive art form as it consisted of catchy tunes, enactment of the Navarasas - the unique talas used and the swift movements altogether made it most entertaining. The Marathi keertan is of 2 types - Naradiya and Varkari. The Naradiya version is believed to have originated from sage Narada. This type of keertan is divided into 2 parts viz., the Purvaranga and the Uttararanga.

In the Varkari keertan we only have the various compositions of the Marathi saints, the Padas and Abhangas. These are sung along with explanations of songs. Here, importance is given to singing and the group rendering of Namasankeertan. There is no Akhyana (story) in the Varkari style. Whereas in Naradiya style we have the exposition, which is known for its erudition.

What became popular was the Naradiya style in and around Tanjavur. Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar is the person who wanted to improve upon the Kalakshepa with certain elements from the keertan. The striking feature of the keertan was the Marathi metrical compositions, which were very popular. These were short verses sung between the story or the Akhyan. They were named after their metre. Saki, Dindi, Ovi, Abhang, Arya, Pada, Ghanakshari, Panchachamaram, Kekavali, Khadga, Dohra, Savayi are all the specific metrical forms used in Harikatha or keertan. These Marathi poems, adopted into the Kalakshepa tunes in ragas Bimpalasi, Kapi, Behag and Yamankalyani became very popular.

Before this, Bhagavatars sang Ashtapadis, Tarangam, keertans and other compositions. But there were no suitable songs to incorporate between the prose passages. Therefore, it was thought necessary to adopt these metrical forms. Moreover, Krishna Bhagavatar realized the importance of enacting the various roles with dramatic fervour, which kept the audience spellbound. He modulated his voice in such a way that the characters came alive. He was also trained well in Bharatanatyam. This helped him in bringing out the proper facial expressions. For such performances, there were usually two co-singers, one with the Tambura and the other with cymbals. The talas used were special to Harikatha, namely the 3-beat, 5-beat and the 7-beat with the Usi nadai

Let's now see some of the important musical forms used in Harikatha:

Saki: It is an important Marathi metrical form. Moropanth is the author of Sakis. Bhagavatars adopted this form, which was popularly used in Marathi keertans. The ragas in which these are generally sung are Jonpuri, Kapi and Behag. These are of 2 types. One for description and the other for Veera rasa sung in situations full of anger, which is called Mel Saki, as it is sung in the higher octave. It is also known as Veera Saki. The tala used is of either 7or 3 beats.

Dindi: Ragunatha Pandita, Chintamanikavi and Morgumar Bava have composed such forms. Kapi raga is used. However, certain other ragas are also employed.

Pada: One of the major contributions of the Marathas to South Indian music is the Padas composed by great saints. These are valuable gems in the field of devotional literature, which were popularly handled by the Bhagavatars in Bhajana and Kalakshepa. These are different from the Padas of Kshetragna. They are similar to the keertanas with Pallavi and many Charanams. Meruswami, Ananda Tanaya, Tukaram, Samartha Ramadas are the main composers of Padas. Narayanaswamy Appa, a versatile mridangam player and singer, tuned some of the Marathi Padas in Carnatic ragas.

Abhanga: 'Susloka vamanacha abhanga vani prasiddha tukayacchi. Ovi jnanasachi kim va arya mayura pantachi.'   The term Abhanga means destruction-less; it is usually associated with the deity of Pandarpur, Abhanga Vittala. Abhanga are of two types. One is the devotional Abhanga, while the other can be sung only for particular situations. Since the general Abhanga is devotional in nature and has a lilting music, it has been a favorite form in Bhajan and Kalakshepa. Tukaram and Jnaneswar have composed many Abhangas.


‘Nirupana’ is the term used to denote the text of a Harikatha. This is a written manuscript containing the various stages, with the songs and the prose passages. The well-known Nirupanas are Seeta Kalyana, Rukmini Kalyana, Srirama Janana, Parvati Kalyana, Ushaparinaya, Vatsala Kalyana, Rukmangada Charitra, Viswamitra Yagasamrakshana, Ahalya Sapavimochana, Vibhishana Saranagati, Garudagarva harana etc. Most of these versions have been adopted from the Keertan Tarangini, a work in Marathi.

The modification made in these Nirupanas is that the Bhagavatars incorporated suitable compositions in Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada to suit the Southern audience whereas, the Marathi keertankars used only Marathi and Sanskrit verses. The highlight was the usage of a variety of musical forms belonging to Carnatic, Hindustani and folk music. Therefore, it was enriched by certain elements of the Marathi keertan, which went a long way in ensuring the great success of Harikatha, which was introduced by Krishna Bhagavatar. His career, spanning for over 50 years from 1847 - 1903, was the golden period for this art. The great stalwarts who entered the field inspired by Krishna Bhagavatar were Pandit Lakshmanachar, Tirupazhanam Panchapakesa Bhagavatar, Mangudi Chidambara Bhagavatar, Muthaiah Bhagavatar, Tiruvaiyyar Annasami Bhagavatar, Embar Srirangachariyar, Sulamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Sulamangalam Soundararaja Bhagavatar, Saraswati Bai, Padmasini Bai and others.

The performers of recent times carrying on this great traditions are Mannargudi Sambasiva Bhagavatar, Banni Bai, Kamala Murthy, Kalyanapuram Aravamudam and T S Balakrishna Sastry among others.

The Harikatha musical forms in Marathi and other languages further enriched the rich storehouse of the Tanjavur musical literature.

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