Storytelling and the power of imagination are perhaps among the most universal qualities of civilizations worldwide, one that stems from basic human nature and can take on various shapes and forms. In West Africa, there are the griots — troubadour-historians that travel far and wide preserving the genealogies, culture and oral histories. The Jewish people practice a tradition known as seder for Passover, wherein the elders narrate the story of Exodus and the four youngest children present can ask a question — a method of recalling and keeping extant the celebration of the freeing of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. In Ireland, the seanchai were story-keepers, who moved from village to village reciting ancient lore and tales of wisdom. The Native American Choctaw tribe use storytelling to educate their young and preserve their history, and use animal characters to weave stories.
Folklore has a fluid quality to it, shifting in style, quality and content according to the teller and the setting. Being passed on from person to person, they depend on memorization, technique, improvization and flair. Each part of India, each tribe, each community has its own storytelling traditions, variations of bardic and the multitude of kathā exposition styles. Sanskritic textual traditions such as episodes from the purāṇas, the Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata, the Devi Mahātmya, etc. were sought to be communicated to the masses through such artforms, in creative and compelling ways.
In India, storytelling traditions have been refined to a fine art, part of the repertoire of high culture that developed over centuries — one which reinforced the religious and the sacred in Indian society. As Ananda Coomaraswamy states, in India, religion and art are one and the same, and theology and aesthetics are inextricably linked. Bharata, in his Nāṭyaśāstra, declared, controversially, that “music and singing are more holy and beneficial than thousands of religious baths and incantations”, and through his text, establishes stage arts as an independent and aesthetic art form. Bharata, Abhinavagupta and others also state moral inculcation (or upadēśa) to be one of the aims of dramas — after the invocation of rasa, of course — with kāvya or poetry being the more persuasive and agreeable method of instruction regarding ethical conduct and lessons pertaining to dharma than the Vedas and the Purāṇas.
In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana there is the burra-kathā, an oral storytelling tradition in which a group of performers engage in a narrative style of relaying stories, whether purāṇic or of local legend, accompanied by a hollow stringed instrument. The performers generally belong to the Telaka or Mutharasi caste, and are also called Śārada Kandru, or, the Śārada people, worshippers of the Goddess Śārada. The art form was banned during the colonial period in Madras and during the Nizam rule in Telangana, since it was used to spread political ideas and awareness and generate political activism amongst the masses. In Tamil Nadu, a similar folk narrative style is the Villupattu, or bow-song. Performers of this art form, called Pulavar (the word for poet in Tamil), narrated stories accompanied by a single-stringed bow-like instrument with bells tied to the string. The stories of choice are generally heroic ballads that are well-known regionally or in the villages, along with some popular, timeless stories from the epics. Many of them find their stage and patronage performing at temples for festivals and special occasions.
In Milton Singer’s Traditional India: Structure and Change, an anthropological account of the Vahīvancā Bāroṭs, the Bhāṭs and the Cāraṇs of Gujarat provides us with information about the manner in which bardic castes would transmit stories, perform ballads, compose poetry and through these, transmit and preserve knowledge of history, lineage and genealogy. Hindu Rājās and local chieftains would patronize them, and they would in turn attend to them on special occasions. They would loudly proclaim the Rājā’s titles and sing hero stories of their clan, narrate stories of their victory, and compose poetry chastizing the enemy. They used gestures, modulations and song to perform longer poems called rāsos, couplets called duhās, and the epics and purāṇas as ballads. The subjects of poetry ranged from love and death to the Gods and Goddesses. The Bhāṭs composed their poetry in Braj Bhāṣa, a dialect of Hindi, while the Cāraṇs composed in a dialect of Western Rajasthani known as Ḍingaḷ, which was specifically crafted by them for this purpose.
Myriad traditions exist across India, that vary in style, costume and content — however, the essential qualities remain the same. In Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, Panḍavani (Stories and Songs of the Pāṇḍavas); from Karnataka and Kerala, Yakṣagana — an oral tradition that evolved into a semi-classical theatrical drama; Nangiar koothu and Kūdiyaṭṭam from Kerala, that incorporates elements of Koothu or Therukoothu from Tamil Nadu along with Sanskrit theatrical traditions; Kathakali and Pavakathakali, its glove puppet counterpart from Kerala; Sakhi kandhei, a tradition of string puppetry from Odisha; shadow puppetry such as Rabana Chhaya from Odisha, Tolu Bommalata from Andhra, Togalu Gombeyata in Karnataka, and similar traditions from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra; among others. The Andhra version of shadow puppetry using leather puppets, Bommalata even traveled as far as the shores of Java, and became a popular art form there, known as Wayang. We also have Phaḍ (a narrative scroll) and Kavaḍ, the storytelling tradition from Rajasthan where the kavad is a wooden shrine-like storytelling box where the heroes of the epics live. It is painted with images of various gods and goddesses, narrating stories, carried by a traveling bard who sings and narrates their stories.
Harikathā or Hari-saṅkīrtana, also called Nārāyaṇa Kathā is the devotional singing of the names, forms, qualities and pastimes of Viṣṇu, and is said to have originated from Nārada. Listening to Harikathā is said to be cleansing of the sins of Kali — for instance, hearing of the Vāmana avatāra leads one to bliss and that of Matsya to the welfare of the entire world. As Śri Mahāviṣṇu says to Nārada:
नाहं वसामि वैकुण्ठे योगिनां हृदये न च ।
मद्भक्ता यत्र गायन्ति तत्र तिष्ठामि नारद ॥
Neither do I reside in Vaikunṭha, nor do I dwell in the hearts of yogis; O Nārada, I stay where my devotees sing of me.
Harikathā is a one-person theatrical art form, wherein heroic tales of Viṣṇu are told in a manner that adapts purāṇic tales to the contemporary and encapsulates moral lessons. Generally, the performer assumes all roles involved, and engages in dance, singing, poetry and narration with an injection of philosophy, humor, melody and bhakti into each unique performance. The text of the Harikathā is called Nirūpaṇa, which is a manuscript containing the various acts of the play, along with the songs and the interspersed prose. Some of the most popularly performed ones are Sīta Kalyāṇa, Rukmiṇī Kalyāṇa, Śrīrāma Janana, Pārvati Kalyāṇa, Uṣāpariṇaya, Ahalyā Śāpavimōcana, Vibhiṣaṇa Śaraṇāgati, Garuḍagarva haraṇa etc., most of which have been adapted from the Keertan Tarangini, a textual work in Marathi.
A good kathākāra ideally possesses the following qualities: a ready wit, excellent moral character, honesty, a knowledge of music as well as other fine arts, narrative skill, and the ability to take on multiple roles in quick succession. They must be well-versed in the epics and classical literature, apart from philosophical doctrines, history, current socio-political events, etc., so as to be able to educate the masses about various aspects of Hinduism and interpret dharma in a simple manner.
Regional diversities exist, but for the most part, Harikathā in its modern form evolved during the medieval period through the efforts and creativity of various saints involved in intellectual and spiritual movements, that brought the people from various walks of life together under the bhakti-mārga. Marathi saint-poets Jñāneśvara, Nāmdev, Tukārām, Rāmdās; Purandara Dāsa from Karnataka, etc. were all exponents in one form or another. In fact, Sivaji Maharaj is said to have been a patron of Harikathā and is said to have performed it himself.
Prior to the Maratha role in consolidating the structure of Harikathā performances, the Southern version of the tradition that existed was called Kālakṣēpa or Kathākālakṣēpa, which varyingly consisted of purāṇa paṭhana (paṭhana meaning oral recital), kathāprasaṅga, and upanyāsa or pravacanam, intermixed with musical accompaniments such as pādas, bhajans, and Carnatic music in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. The Thanjavur kathā tradition adopted elements from the Maratha version and heavily influenced the storytelling traditions of the neighboring southern states. The Bhāgavatars that performed them incorporated suitable compositions in Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada to suit the Southern audience whereas Marathi kīrtankārs used only Marathi and Sanskrit.
The storytelling traditions of India are too numerous to discuss in one sitting, and there is much to be said about such a vibrant and rich culture that places an emphasis on the art of storytelling as a window into the hearts and minds of the people. Even today, despite colonialism and westernization diminishing the importance of most bardic communities across Western and Northern India, we encounter them being hired at weddings and other religious ceremonies recounting the histories and genealogies of families. It is a wonder that some of these traditions have survived despite the onslaught of colonization, though they continue to lack the patronage they deserve.
The art of storytelling is being attempted to be revived in India. In the 1940s, Pavakathakali was revived from near-extinction thanks to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the director of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (The National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama) in New Delhi, and its performers that aided in its revival even went on to get national awards for their work. A recent milestone for the Harikathā art form was its induction into the National Education Policy in August 2021. Recently, quite a few modern storytellers have been making headway — having developed their own, more approachable style — since people now, more than ever, wish to relive their epics though the spoken word, and reminisce on the stories of their ancestors.