Story telling with Music (Villupattu, Harikatha) in Tamilnadu

Posted By kalyan on April 6, 2008

by  Dr. Prameela Gurumurthy

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There is also a rich literary tradition of published and unpublished written material called Nirupana, where the story and the songs are written down in various languages like Marathi, Tamil and Telugu.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

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