Is Harikatha -musical story-telling art form on the decline?

Among the  devout Hindus  devotion to God has been part and parcel of their lives. It  gives  them the needed ingredients  to succeed in life - confidence,  determination, morality  and trust. The spread of Bhakthi - devotion to God  has been around for centuries in India  particularly in south India and it was more pronounced in Telegu and Tamil regions than other places.  It was  Purandaradasa, Kanakadasa who spearheaded the  Bhakti movement (roughly 12th century) and popularized Harikatha.  .

Harkatha  is a traditional form of story telling (often referred to as Harikatha kalashepam) punctuated through out the discourse with devotional songs relevant to the theme chosen by the performer. Simply, a composite form  of devotional story elucidation  and interpretation incorporated with music, lucid narration  and humor dominated by devotional elements. The themes are mostly interesting episodes from the epics - the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It may include tales about the life of saints.  The narration included some sub-stories and episodes in sync with the main theme. The main performer is called a Haridasa  (colloquially  Bhagavathar) and being a main player it is the power of  performance  and clear commentary in chaste language will keep  the audience engaged. To make the audience spell-binding and focused, some Harikatha experts  would narrate the short stories  laced with  humor. 

The performer with a pair of cymbals for beat is accompanied by   Mirthamgam, Thaumpura, violin and, of course, Pin Pattu (in Tamil) co-singer who will elaborate the song, giving a short  break  to the main performer, this will help him drink water or in some cases milk. He does the performance in standing posture for a long period more than one and half or two hours. 

Harkatha  group.

Above image: Harikatha group. Main performer  and 'pin pattu'' (sub singer) will be standing all thru the discourse  while instrumentalists on the dais  will be performing in sitting position. Main artist used to wear' ankle-bells' ,if need be,  to enhance the feeling (`bhava’) and create bhakti ambiance..............

The performer has to be well-trained  through years of practice and is well versed in  recitation of Sanskrit slokas, Tamil devotional hymns (as in the case of  Tamil Nadu), story telling in a cogent manner and occasionally dance

Harikatha, once a popular medium of spreading bhakti along with religious and social values across the people in the olden days  was performed on  temple premises and in some places on the street near the temple with a make-shift raised platform for the Harikatha group. 

Harikatha in Telugu Nadu.

In the delta region of Thanjavur, the harikatha was more popular  than other districts of Tamil Nadu. Being the center of art, music and culture, Thanjavur and also Thiruvarur   stands apart. The origin of this art form of music and oral narration can be traced back to  Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavathar (1847-1903) who could be called the father of Harikatha  (Kathakalakshepa). Many performers like Annaswami Bhagavathar, ett al got inspiration from him.

According to music critics Harikatha came to Tamil Nau particularly in this region  from the Marathas. In my school days I used to attend with my father such harikatha performances by great exponents like Embar Vijaya Rraghavachariar,  Thanjavur T.N. Subramania  Bhagavathar, et al. The venues were mostly Chinnana-Perianna madam on Manojiappa street This  huge one story old  structure with  a large hall and rooms  fell in to disuse and was in ruins. Posing danger to passersby, later  it was  demolished and one could see heaps of rubble in that place).  The other venue being  Sri Krishnan kovil  on west main street.  The huge raised platform (medai) in front of the shrine is very much there; on a couple of occasions in the 1960s I got a chance to listen  to upanyasam by late Sri Anantharama Dikshithar, a stalwart in Sanskrit, Tamil and classical music. With a commanding voice he kept the educated audience spell-bound.  I 've not heard of any upanyasam or  harikatha performance there in the recent past.   

This rare music and story telling art form that once regaled the audience in this region through  long musical evenings in the bygone period has slowly faded  in the past  several years.  The present audience has neither  interest in Harikatha kalashepam.   Nor does  today’s fast-paced stressed life complicated by heavy vehicular traffic  on the roads offer them patience to sit through long hours in one place. Harikatha has lost its charm with the onslaught of TV series. Nowadays we can count on figures  a few well trained experts who can convey intense spiritual emotion with bhakti in a convincing musical way.