The 7th International Conference and Festival of Asian Music, Busan, Korea, Sept 26-Sept 30, 2002.


                 The Indian Epic Song Tradition



                                  Subhash Kak

                                        Lousiana State University

                                        Baton Rouge, LA 70803-5901, USA






The epic poem is a long narrative sung in formal setting which deals with events that  “have a certain grandeur and importance and comes from a life of action, especially of violent action, such as war. It gives a special pleasure because its events and persons enhance our belief in the worth of human achievement and in the dignity and nobility of man.” (C.M. Bowra in Prasad, 1988, page xxiii). According to Hiltebeitel (1976), “legends [and epics] are stories which take place at a specific time and on a specific terrain; they deal with the origin, nature, and destiny of man, and their most prominent characters are heroes.”


Poetic narrative in which human characters, endowed with superhuman qualities and powers, undertake and execute superhuman tasks are to be found in the earliest Indian tradition. There is mention in the Vedic period of the Akhyanas, Itihasas, and Puranic epic songs, that were a reservoir for use in community festivals and domestic ceremonies. In royal festivals, lute-players sang the glories of their patron in their own compositions (gathas) (Kak, 2000b). For the expectant mother, there was a ceremony that included a song-narrative extolling heroes. After a death, the members of the family were consoled by epic songs sung over several days..


The singing was done by communities of professional story tellers. Much of the old material is to be found in the epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana as well as the various Puranas, which may cumulatively be called the classic Sanskrit Epic texts.


The performance of such songs continues to this day. It involves narrating and singing episodes from the texts over a certain number of days. These performances may include a discourse that punctuates the songs. The material is well known to the listeners, the novelty consists in the manner of rendering.  In addition to the Sanskrit epics, we have the regional oral epics. Blackburn (1989) has classified these epics based on geographical range, theme (martial, sacrificial, or romantic), and setting (ritual or entertainment). The local ones (range 10-100 miles at the widest) are: Tampimar or the bow song, Kordabbu, Teyyam; the sub-regional ones (range 100-200 miles) are Annanmar, Palnadu, Jungappa, and Kanyaka; the regional ones (range 200-300 miles) are Pabuji, Devanarayan, Ellamma, and Tolubommalata; and the supra-regional (400+ miles) are Lorik-Chanda, Guga, Dhola, and Alha. Not surprisingly, the ones which are most widespread are those which are predominantly romantic and are used for entertainment.


John Smith (1989) sees the Indian epics as articulating an ideology where the “epic performances serve to propitiate the gods, in the hope that they may visit no further harm upon their human worshipers, while epic narratives, on the other hand, serve to warn worshipers what they may expect if that hope proves to be ill-founded.”  He adds: “Epic heroes---and by extension we ourselves---are the gods’ scapegoats: we take on their ills and suffer on their behalf. They make us sin, they make us die, and they expose us to appalling social, sexual, and moral conflicts; and there is nothing whatever we can do to help ourselves. We may acquiesce in our fate or we may kick against the pricks, but we cannot escape the evil that the gods thrust upon us.”


I believe this judgment is a consequence of an erroneous understanding of the nature of the Indian civilization. Certainly there is suffering, but this is not due to the capriciousness of the gods but rather a consequence of not understanding one’s true self. There may be the tyranny of fate, but there is also freedom of action. The gods do not need humans, therefore their propitiation does not make sense. The gods actually reside within the mind of the humans (Kak, 2002a) and the descent of the gods is a metaphor for the person getting in touch with his or her true self.


The enduring popularity of epic songs in India is because of their emphasis on becoming as contrasted to the being of the West (Kak, 2001, 2002a). Indian aesthetics stresses self-transformation, and the heroic stories recounted in the epic songs are intended to inspire the listener to self-transcendence. The dawning of the post-industrial age, with its emphasis on personal fulfillment and search for knowledge, appears to foreshadow the rise of values consistent with those of the old heroic age. Of course, the expression of these values is likely to be different from the epic song genre, given the flexibility provided by modern information technologies.


The epic songs of India are popular also because their heroes are flawed and there exists some moral ambiguity in their actions. The philosophy behind this is the Vedic idea of paroksha, or paradox, taken to be necessary in the unfolding of events. The moral ambiguity works like the hubris of Greek myth and drama, creating a space that is not quite in the realm of gods, although it is superhuman.


The moral ambiguity may also be viewed as a requirement to make possible a karmic chain. When gods appear on earth as heroes of epics, that appearance is, in itself, a paradoxical situation and, ultimately, it can only be rationalized as part of lila, divine sport. The actions of all human actors are governed by fate (vidhata), and only when they transcend their karma are they transformed into heroes.


Although I do not agree with many details of the analysis of the epic Mahabharata by Hiltebeitel (1976), he is right to stress that the “epic poets would emerge not so much as programmers, transposing one set of information into another form, but as rishis, in this case the rishis of the Fifth Veda whose school is covered by the name of the elusive but ever-available rishi Vyasa. By calling attention to this term for visionaries and poets, I refer in particular to the rishis’ faculty of seeing connections, equivalences, homologies, and correspondences. This faculty of seeing connections would have involved the epic poets not only with correlations between myth and epic, but also between epic and ritual… [The poets] seem to have perceived correlations between myths and adjacent portions of the epic plot, correspondences which were meant to deepen one’s awareness of the meanings on both the mythic and epic planes, and ultimately, perhaps, to afford a glimpse of broader unities.” It is also for this reason that Indian epics continue to enthrall listeners.



The Classic Epic Texts


The original material of the epic texts is in Sanskrit, but there are also versions in the modern Indian languages. The performance may consist of the singing of the verses from the Sanskrit or other language text along with the discourse in the local language.


The chief epic metre of Sanskrit poetry is the shloka. It consists of four quarters of eight syllables each. The shloka is really the same as the anushtubh of the Vedic songs which, in turn, is the same as the gayatri with a fourth line added. Other metres include the trishtubh and indravajra (Indra’s thunderbolt) (11x4),  indravamsha (Indra’s family) (12x4), vasantatilaka (the ornament of spring) (14x4),  malini (the girl wearing a garland) (15x4),  prithvi (the earth) (17x4), mandakranta (the slow-stepper) and harini (the doe) (17x4), shardula-vikridita (the tiger’s sport) (19x4), and the sragdhara (the girl with a garland)  (21x4).


Another popular metre is the arya (the lady). It is divided into feet, each containing four instants, counting a prosodically short syllable as one and a long syllable as two instants. The first quarter of the arya stanza contains three such feet; the second, four and a half; the third, three; and the fourth, three and a half, with an extra short syllable after the second foot.


Of the two great epics, the Mahabharata is the longer one. Consisting of 100,000 verses, usually in the shloka metre, it is the world’s longest poem. According to the tradition, it was composed originally by Veda Vyasa as a smaller composition called Jaya which was 8,800 verses long. He then taught to his pupil Vaishampayana another version that was 24,000 verses long  The final version of 100,000 verses emerged much later thanks to  the contributions of Lomaharshana, his son Ugrashrava and others. It was recited in public for the first time in the court of the King Janamejaya, the great grandson of Arjuna, one of the heroes of the epic. The story is about intrigue and struggle between two families of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, which ends in a catastrophic war and the annhilation of the Kauravas. The Pandavas are five brothers married to the mercurial and beautiful Draupadi and befriended by Krishna, the avatara of Vishnu. According to the astronomical tradition, the war took place in 3137 BC whereas the Puranic tradition places it in 1924 BC.


The other great epic, the Ramayana, is a little longer than one-fourth of the Mahabharata. The traditional author of the Ramayana is the sage Valmiki. The story is about Rama, the perfect man, another avatara of Vishnu, who is exiled to the forest for 14 years together with his wife, Sita. When Sita is abducted by the asura-king Ravana, Rama assembles an army and invades Sri Lanka with the help of the flying hero Hanuman. In the end, Ravana is killed, and Rama and Sita return to their kingdom in Ayodhya. In Puranic genealogies, Rama comes before Krishna and the Rama story is also summarized in the Mahabharata. By traditional accounts, Krishna lived about 5,100 years ago.


Apparently, both the epics suffered interpolations and additions but now critical editions have been prepared. In addition, there are many versions in several languages of India and Southeast Asia.  Of the many reworkings of the Ramayana, perhaps the most widely known is Tulasidasa’s Ramacharitamanas (Prasad, 1988), which is also the national scripture of the Indo-Caribbean world.


The epic stories may be read at various levels that include the spiritual, in which the contest is between the good and the evil within the individual. The epic stories also parallel Vedic ritual with its structural components related to the three domains of earthly power, transgressions of moral and spiritual laws and atonement.


The Vedic texts are considered equivalent to the tripartite division of the universe as follows: the Rig and the earth, the Yajur and the atmosphere, and the Sama and the heavens. It is the music of the Samaveda that is supposed to make it possible to arrive at transcendence. The seven notes of the Samaveda are called “six plus one” because the gods are taken to live on the highest note, whereas humans live in the lower six notes. This parallels the Vedic statement that there exist four kinds of language of which humans have access to only three kinds. The fourth is paravak. The Samaveda contains the world’s oldest notated melodies. The recited form includes extraneous material (stobha) inserted between consecutive words and even between the syllables of one word (Howard, 1977; Deva, 1981)).


 The Atharvaveda calls the seven-rayed Sun a cosmic harp connected to the seven breaths of the individual. The vina is a divine instrument as is the human body itself, taken as a vina.The musical and the narrative forms are intertwined in the Vedic texts.


The Musical and the Aesthetic Tradition


We can go back to the Natya Shastra, Dattilam, Brihaddeshi, and the Sangitaratnakara to form an idea of the classical musical tradition in India. These texts not only provide information on the theoretical framework but also information on singing styles. The Brihaddeshi speaks of the classical (marga) and the popular or the regional (deshi), suggesting how the interaction between the two strengthened each of them.


The aesthetic basis of understanding Indian music is the rasa theory. Rasa is the experience of aesthetic pleasure. Nine rasas are usually listed. They are love (shringara), heroism (vira), disgust (bibhatsa), anger (raudra), mirth (hasya), terror (bhayanaka}, compassion (karuna), wonder (adbhuta), and peace (shanti). Sometimes, a tenth rasa, devotion (bhakti), is added to the list. The Natya Shastra lists only eight; it doesn’t have shanti and bhakti. An epic is a performance where vira rasa is predominant, but where other rasas such as shringara are also very important.


According to the Natya Shastra 1.17, the performance takes its recitation from the Rigveda, music from the Samaveda, acting from the Yajurveda, and rasa from the Atharvaveda. In the classical period, a theory of aesthetics arose around the theory of dhvani. Introduced by Anandavardhana in his book Dhvanyaloka or “The Light of Suggestion”, this theory goes beyond the ideas of ornamental qualities in art. Dhvani is the conception that aesthetic appeal arises out of suggestion and not direct statements. Art influences us indirectly, in a subtle manner. This suggestiveness, or capacity to produce subtle impressions, was named vyanjakatva and the artistic composition in which this quality inheres is dhvani.


The various limbs of a performance are described in the Natya Shastra to be rasa, bhava, abhinaya, dharmi, vritti, pravritti, siddhi,  svara, atodya, gana, and ranga. Bhava is the psychological state of mind. Abhinaya is enactment, either as physical, verbal, ornamental or emotional. The dharmi are the modes of expression. They may be lokadharmi (realistic/popular) or natyadharmi (stylized).


The vrittis are functions or actions.  When they are ornamented in natya, we get four vrittis: bharati (pertaining to speech), satvati (speech at the mental level), arabhati (forceful activity of the body), and kaishiki (graceful activity of the body). The pravrittis are the regional styles; siddhi is attainment, which is either human or divine; svaras are the seven musical  notes; atodya is instrumental music, which is of four kinds; and gana is singing. The ranga is the place of enactment.


The connection between language and music is provided by Gandharva Shastra, the traditional musicological science of India. According to the Aitareya Brahmana, the Veda should be sung. The Sanskrit alphabet is divided into svara (same as musical svaras or notes) and vyanjana (consonants). In the Maheshvara Sutras, the basic three svaras are a, i, u which mirror the tripartite division of the universe: a is earth, i is atmosphere (without i, Shiva becomes Shava, a corpse), and u is Brahman. Along with  R (ri) and L (lri), we have five basic svaras. Considering other svaras like A (aa), I (ii), U (uu), e, ai, o, au, the total becomes 12. In Indian music, there are also five primary and two secondary notes. The five primary notes in Sama singing are prathama, dvitiya, tritiya, chaturtha, and mandra; the two secondary ones are krashta and atisvarya. The shuddha and the vikrita notes of the South Indian system also add up to twelve.


The 33 consonants of the Sanskrit alphabet are taken to be half of the larger total of 66. The total number of shrutis (subnotes) in some reckonings is also taken to be 66, of which the principal ones are 22 (Kak, 2002c). We thus see a striving to put the alphabet of Sanskrit in a one-to-one correspondence with musical notes, which are taken to have a  fundamental basis in the vary nature of man’s being. This background is to explain the idea that  songs may have a deeper spiritual basis not apparent in a reading of the tale being told. It is this reason that the epic songs are not taken to be ordinary stories,  but rather as musical material which stimulates centres in the mind through a unique combination of rasas to facilitate self-transformation.


Contemporary Epic Song Performance


The singing of epic songs remains an important part of life both in villages and cities (Blackburn, 1989). The regional narratives have variants that weave in later historical episodes related to the area. Sometimes, these variants conflate accounts from different epics and the Puranas. Apart from the performances staged by religious singers and theatrical groups, considerable material is available through records and films. Television serials of the classic epics are shown from time to time.


The most charismatic performers of classic songs have a following in the Indian community all over the world. During the summer months, these performances are staged at various centres in the lands of the Indian diaspora and play to packed temples and theatres.


In the Hindi region, Ramalila and Rasalila, around Rama and Krishna, are often the vehicle for performing from the classic stories. Ramalila, which is based on Tulasidasa’s Ramacharitamanasa, is performed for nine days before the festival of Dussehra, which celebrates the slaying of Ravana by Rama.


The most popular  classic epic song narration is that of the Ramayana. In the Hindi world,

it is the Ramacharitamanasa of Tulasidasa which is sung in its entirety; the other regions,

have their versions of the epic. One could have easily added the all-night performance,

the jagaran, in which the valorous exploits of the goddess are recounted.


In the South, Katha singers sing various kinds of epic songs. The accompaniment is by drum, titti (a bagpipe-like instrument made from an entire goatskin), and kommu (a crescent-shaped brass horn). One of the earliest epic songs sung in Andhra Pradesh is the story of Palnadu. Celebrating events that took place nearly a thousand years ago, it can take upto a month to perform. There are other forms such as Kuttiyattam, Ramanattam, and Krishnattam.


The performances are often held in the monsoon season, when agriculture work has come to a halt. Professionals include wandering mendicants, acrobats, and members of agriculture and artisan communities. Now, follows a survey of a few contemporary epic songs which are most widely known.




One epic song tradition here uses the visual aid of painted scrolls (par or pad). Pabuji ki par is a ballad extolling Pabuji (Prabhuji, Lord, in Sanskrit), a 14-century hero. Beginning at dusk and ending with dawn, the singer (called Bhopa) sings to the accompaniment of  the ravanhatta fiddle using a bow with attached ghungru bells. He also shakes his feet sometimes and the ghungru bells tied to his ankles enhance the sound. His wife (Bhopi) also sings and sometimes dances; she also holds an oil lamp to the scrolls to illuminate the Pabuji images of the relevant episode. The story is too long to be told in a single sitting, but that does not matter because the idea is the darshan of Pabuji.


Pabuji is the son of a Rajput prince and an apsara. He has an older half-brother named Buro, and half-sisters, Sona and Pema. The mother leaves him soon after he is born and he is raised in his extended family.


In a quarrel over the spoils of a  hunt, Buro and the Khichis clash in which the Khichi father is killed. Pabuji and Buro offer to Jidrav Khichi their sister Pema in marriage to make peace. Jidrav Khichi agrees to the marriage but inwardly remains hostile


Pabuji travels to the Charan lady, Deval, to ask for the flying mare Kesar Kalami. Although Jidrav Khichi had also sought the mare, Deval gives her to Pabuji. Pabuji now discovers that the mare is his own mother in a new form and the two of them have a ride in the sky.


Pabuji attacks Mirza Khan, the wicked ruler of Patan and defeats him. He then travels to Pushkar where he is saved from drowning by Goga Chauhan. Grateful, he promises Goga Buro’s daughter Kelam in marriage. Goga and Kelam get married.


Pabuji has promised the newlyweds camels from Lanka. He travels there with his companions, engages Ravana in battle, and kills him. On the way back to give the she-camels to Kelam, he sees the princess Phulvanti, and they fall in love with each other. Soon, their wedding is agreed to by both families.


Later, in the middle of their wedding, he is informed that Deval’s cattle are being stolen by Jidrav Khichi. Since Pabuji had promised to protect Deval, he with Buro and their men attack Jidrav Khichi, defeating him. Now Khichi enlists the support of his powerful Bhati uncle, and the fresh forces help Khichi carry the day. Pabuji receives a blow to his head and he at once ascends in a palanquin to heaven. The rest of the men are also killed.


Informed of this catastrophe, Phulvanti and Buro’s wife Gahlotan decide to commit sati. Gahlotan is advanced in pregnancy, and before entering the flames she cuts open her belly and draws forth a male child, naming him Rupnath. The women are now dead, and Rupnath is sent to Gahlotan’s mother to be raised.


When Rupnath is older he hears the story of his origins from Deval. In revenge he attacks Jidrav Khichi and kills him. After this he retires from the world to become a sadhu.


Another Rajasthani epic describes the exploits of Devanarayan in about 15,000 verses and 335 songs. The epic singers commit the entire work to memory. Devanarayan is an incarnation of Vishnu who is able to avenge the death of his 24 uncles. The evil party is Raja Basak (Vasuki), the king of the serpents. The Devanarayan singers are Gujars, just like their patrons. It is also sung with a painted scroll (par), but in the rainy months singing with the par is forbidden.


Some characteristic instruments used in these performances are listed below. Although, they are characteristic of Rajasthan, similar instruments are used elsewhere in India.


The sarangi is a popular folk music instrument and is found in various forms in Rajasthan. The Langas use the ‘Sindhi sarangi’. It is made with four main wires. The bowing of these instruments is a skillful exercise, often supported by the sound of the ghungru bells that are tied to the bow to make the beat prominent. Another remarkable bowed instrument is the kamayacha of  the Manganiyars, with its big, circular resonator, that produces a deep, booming sound. The ektara is a single-string instrument, but it is mounted on the belly of a gourd attached to a body made of bamboo


The algoza is twin flutes  played together. The satara of the Langas has one long flute and another flute to provide the drone. The narh or nad is a flute into which the player whistles while at the same time gurgling a song in his throat or actually singing intermittently to haunting effect.


Bells of different kind, used for accompaniment, include the manjiras, small brass hemispheres that are struck against each other. The jhanit and the tala are different kinds of manjiras. A metal plate, the thali, is also commonly used. This is struck in various ways,  producing different kinds of tones and rhythms. Rhythmic music is also provided by the kartals, which are disc jinglers, struck against each other.

The different kinds of drums used include: the two-sided ones, the single-sided drums, the shallow-rimmed and single-faced. Single-faced drums are played singly or in pairs. The largest single conical drum is the bam of Bharatpur. The earthern pitcher, locally known as mataka, and the ghada have their mouth covered with skin.



A popular epic song form is the Man Bhatt Akhyana in which the storyteller accompanies himself on a large globular metal pot (man). The narrative consists of stories from the epics, the Puranas, and from everyday life.


The singer uses fingers with metal rings to slap rhythmically the shoulders of the man. Further accompaniment is provided by cymbals (jhanjh), barrel drum (pakhavaj), tabla, and harmonium.


The principal structural element is a verse unit called the kadavu. The singer sets each kadavu to well-known tunes, using repeating musical motifs. Each kadavu concludes with a couplet that summarizes the fragment told, and setting the stage for the next fragment.


The communities of Charanas and Bhats have been composing and reciting epic verses celebrating the exploits of their royal patrons. They use the raso (rasa or rasaka), a structure consisting of several poems that each tell a portion of the story, depict a scene, or speak in the voice of a character. The main raso forms are doha (couplet) and chhand (extended metre). A variant of the doha is the sorath. The number of syllables per line is the same in both forms; however, in doha the first half of the line is longer and the rhyme occurs at the end of the line, whereas in sorath the second half of the line is longer and the rhyme occurs in the middle. In chhand, the metrical structure has many forms.





The Ganga Plains


The epics here include the Alha, the Dhola, and the Lorik, which are long, complex stories of intrigue, magic, and battle. The instruments used for accompaniment include the dholak, the lute, and metal percussion.


Alha It is a ballad very popular in the Hindi region. It narrates the tales of two warrior brothers, Alha and Udal, who were in the service of Raja  Piramal of Mahoba. They show valour in several engagements  but Piramal, at the instigation of Prithviraj Chauhan, the king of Delhi, exiles them when they refuse to surrender their five flying horses to him. Alha and Udal join up with Jaichand, the king of Kannauj, who is Prithviraj’s enemy. There is further intrigue and Prithviraj turns on Mahoba. The city requests Alha and Udal to return to protect it, and they do so, defeating Prithviraj.


There is further trouble over the wedding of Prithviraj’s daughter Bela to her husband Brahma. Prithviraj prevents Brahma from reaching his wife (this mirrors Prithviraj’s own struggle with Jaichand), and Brahma is critically injured. The brothers are approached for help. They kill Bela’s brother Tahar, who had stabbed Brahma. Now Prithviraj arrives with his army, Brahma dies, Bela commits sati, and Udal dies as well. Only Alha survives, because he has the boon of immortality. He follows the great yogi Gorakhnath to the forest.


Alha’s singing style is very dynamic and full of heroic sentiment. Beginning with a prayer to 'devi' or goddess, renditions include various incidents from this very lengthy ballad. Styles of singing differ from region to region but it is usually sung in the monsoon months - the time villagers get after sowing grain in fields after the first monsoon showers. Villagers gather around the village chaupal and the singers, always men, take centrestage.  It is also sung for the groom’s processionists walking to the bride’s village, which could take several hours


Lorik-Chanda  Chandaini, or Lorik-Chanda, is the story of the princess Chanda who is married to an impotent husband. She falls in love with Lorik, who is already married. Lorik and Chanda elope and have many adventures in their travels. In due course, they  have a son who is named Chadrakar. Ultimately, when they return to their village, Chanda and Lorik’s wife fight furiously. Lorik is sad now and one day he disappears.


Traditional singers of Chandaini were from the Rawat community. Today, a large number of the performers are also from the Satnami community.  Originally, it was believed to have been sung without any instrumental accompaniments. Now, harmonium and tabla and other instruments are used.


Dhola This is a version of the famous Nala-Damayanti story. It is also called Nala Purana. Nala has many adventures in his youth. Later, the princess Damayanti chooses him in a svayamvara. This angers Indra and, under the baleful influence of Saturn, the newly-wedded couple has 12 years of troubles. Nala loses his kingdom and, to support himself, becomes an oil-presser’s servant. He works hard, the oil-presser thrives, and Nala again becomes wealthy. Much later, in a gambling match with Raja Budha, Nala wins the Raja’s daughter Maru for his son Dhola. Dhola and Maru are separated when Dhola forgets her, but ultimately they are reunited.


The  Dhola singers are from the poorer communities. The singer accompanies himself on the chikara, a two-stringed bowed instrument. Further support is provided by a drummer on the dholak and a chimta (steel tongs) player.


The North


Guga is a popular epic of the Punjab. It is another story in which Prithviraj Chauhan and  Gorakhnath are important figures.  Guga’s mother, Bachal, and her sister, Kachal, are both barren. Gorakhnath wishes to give Bachal some curds to drink to get pregnant but at that time Kachal is impersonating her sister and twins are born to her. Now Gorakhnath asks his disciple Janamejaya to sacrifice himself by dissolving in water. Bachal drinks this and she gets pregnant. Kajal has no milk in her breasts, so Bachal nurses the twins from one breast and Guga from another. Guga’s powers come from Gorakhnath, a disciple of Shiva, and he is considered to be an incarnation of Janamejaya of the Mahabharata.


There are many heroic exploits by Guga as he grows up. But, eventually, the twins ask for their share of the kingdom and, to force the issue, seek Prithviraj’s help, who arrives with his huge army, but the battle is a stalemate.


There are negotiations during which one of the twins spears Guga in the eye. In anger, Guga beheads the twins. When Bachal learns of the death of the twins, she is very sad because she treated the twins as her own sons. She banishes Guga for 12 years, during which period he lives with Gorakhnath.


After 12 years, Guga begins to visit his wife surreptitiously. Bachal gets to know and she begs Guga to return home. But he refuses saying that he will never show his face to her because she exiled him. He goes to Gorakhnath to ask him to open up the earth so that he could perform samadhi. That is what happens and the earth swallows him  and his blue stallion.


Guga is venerated as a supernatural hero in Punjab and neighbouring states. He is most celebrated during the rainy season. Large fairs are held at the Guga shrines. The mark of Guga is his blue horse. Blue flags represent his family whereas yellow flags are used to represent his maternal family. Guga singers are from the community of Bhagats, who accompany themselves with drum and sarangi.


North of the Punjab, the epic songs in Kashmir are sung by the Bhands, who are a community of traditional performers (Raina, 1999). The word bhand seems to be derived from the bhana of Bharata’s Natya Shastra, in which it is a drama form. The enactments include include mythological themes and masks and large puppets are also used.


The orchestrs includes the swarnai, dhol, nagara, and the thalij. The swarnai is larger in size than the better-known shehnai with a strong and metallic sound. It consists of a nai or wooden pipe, the barg, a reed, and a copper disc of the diameter of the pipe into which the barg is fitted. The Bhands dance to the tunes of specified mukams of Sufiana music (Kashmiri classical music). The performance, which includes dancing, acting, puppetry, acrobatic tricks, and music, begins in the evening with a ritual dance and continues till the early hours of the next day. The all-night performance deals with the heroic exploits of the goddess. The Akanandun is a Kashmiri epic song with some parallels to the Guga story. Here a barren queen conceives thanks to Gorakhnath who returns in 12 years to reclaim the boy.


The South


Blackburn (1989) lists the following major oral epics from the South:  Kordabbu from Karnataka; Kanyaka, Palnadu and Toubommalata from Andhra; Annanmar, Muttupattan and Tampimar from Tamil Nadu; and Teyyam of Kerala. These are in addition to the classical Sanskrit epic-based performances in all the four states.


I speak here only of the Kanyaka which is the epic of the Komati community of Andhra. This tale is believed to be derived from the Skanda Purana, the Komatis considering themselves to be the descendents of the soldiers who form part of the story. Written versions of the epic exist.


In the story, the king of the area sees Kanyaka who is the daughter of the leader of the Komati clan. The king sends word that he would like to marry Kanyaka and, should the father refuse, he would invade the city and abduct her.


The Komatis do not know what to do. Kanyaka takes charge and asks for a delay. Meanwhile, she and the other women decide to immolate themselves. The king’s spies are so moved that they join sides with the Komatis. At last, the king invades the town, but it is too late and the women are dead. The king, when he enters the city, also dies because of a curse placed on him by Kanyaka.


Before she dies, Kanyaka demands that the Komatis will follow certain rules: cross-cousin marriages will never be avoided, even when the boy or the girl is sick or ugly or poor; all Komati girls will carry her name; and the city will be a pilgrimage centre with Kanyaka as a goddess.



Shorter Epics


Apart from the large epics, there is also the tradition of the short epic (khanda-kavya) which goes back to the Sanskrit period. These khanda-kavyas, which narrate specific episodes of a well-known story, are to be found in all regions of India.

Kuttu: It is performed by the Chakyars, a community of performing artistes in Kerala.. The story is recited in a dramatic style with emphasis on eloquent declarations with appropriately suggestive facial expressions and hand gestures. The only accompaniments are the cymbals and the drum known as the mizhavu, made of copper with a narrow mouth over which skin is stretched. While narrating the story, the narrator Chakyar singly acts out the roles of various characters in the story. This narrative form turned into Kudiyattam, the Sanskrit theatre, during the course of its evolution.

Pandavani: This story telling form from Chhatisgarh narrates the exploits of the five Pandava brothers. The team of Pandavani performers has one main narrator-singer, and one or two co-singers, who also play on musical instruments like the tabla and the harmonium. The main singer-narrator holds in one hand a tambura which is decorated with small jingling bells and peacock feathers and in the other a kartal.

Tal-maddale: This narrative drama of Karnataka is predecessor of the Yakshagana, a colourful dance-drama of the region. It is named after cymbal (tal) and drum (maddale). The chief narrator is called Bhagavata and his associates are called Arthadharis. Tal-maddale is a play without costumes, make-up, dance or acting and is performed in sitting position.

Burra Katha: This popular narrative form of Andhra Pradesh is the the story narrated on the beat of the Burra drum. The traditional performers of the Burra Katha believe that they are descendants of Valmiki, the composer of the epic Ramayana.

Kirtana: This narrative form is popular in almost all parts of the country under different names such as Katha Kalakshepam, Harikatha and so on. Kirti is fame and its derivative kirtana means to praise and exalt. Often, kirtanas are to sing praises of divinity.

Oja-Pali: This is a very interesting form of story-telling in Assam which uses  dramatic techniques to illustrate the narrative and enhance visual impact. This art form is associated with Manasa worship and with the telling of stories from the epics and the Puranas. The performers take many days to narrate the story which is divided into three parts - Deva Khanda, Baniya Khanda and Bhatiyali Khanda. The Oja is the main narrator-singer and the Palis are his associates or members of his chorus.

Villu Pattu: Literally meaning bow-song, this form of recitation (using a bow-shaped musical instrument) of Tamil Nadu developed in the 15th century. There are seven to eight persons in a bow-song party who form a kind of chorus that supports the main singer-narrator. The stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas are told in ballad style.

Daskathia and Chhaiti Ghoda: Daskathia is one of the several narrative forms from Orissa. In it the devotee narrates a story dramatically to the accompaniment of a wooden musical instrument called kathia. The chief narrator is called gayaka and his assistant is called  palia.. A Chhaiti Ghoda troupe of performers is made up of two players on dhol and mohuri musical instruments and three characters. A dummy horse made of bamboo and cloth is used as a prop, the dancer entering its hollow body and dancing while the main singers go on with their narration.

Povada: In Maharashtra the narrative khanda-kavya is called povada. The first available povada in Marathi was written on the thrilling episode of Shivaji killing Afzal Khan. The tradition of povada singing has been kept alive by folk singers known as shahirs. The povada is presented in a dramatic manner, and high-pitch singing and melodramatic acting is its soul.  The shahir and his supporting singers play the duf and the tuntuni. The duf is like the Hindi dufli - but only about 6 inches in diameter and made of thicker hide; the tuntuni is a one-stringed instrument. The povada is also sung by the Gondhali, who normally sing in praise of the goddess (Dhere, 1988).

According to Varsha Bhosle (personal communication), the number of verses may be as few as 20 but, by tradition, 300 verses or more is the norm. A povada must record the correct historical dates and names in the events it depicts. It is a vira-shri form of song to exhort a people to battle and to honour a hero, or to lament a defeat by foul means. Panipat cha phatka (the blow of Panipat, on Prithviraj Chauhan) is probably the best known povada. It is necessarily a virile form of poetry - there are povadas on Krishna in the battlefield but none on Buddha; people have written povadas on Gandhi too, but depicting events of confrontation like the Salt March and ignoring the philosophy of ahimsa. A povada is also a metre. A long poem that fulfills the other criteria, but is not in the povada metre, is merely a poem. Adnyandaas is the best known shahir. His most famous povadas are Afzalkhanacha Vadha (the killing of Afzalkhan) and Agryahun Sutka (Shivaji's escape from Agra).


Varsha Bhosle adds that one of the earliest povada poets was the Hindi poet Kaviraj Bhushan, who not only wrote Shiva-Bani, but also influenced the povada tradition immeasurably.  The story of how he traveled to Maharashtra is as follows: One day, when Bhushan was eating lunch, he told his elder sister-in-law that the food lacked enough salt. She laughed and said, Pehle namak kama ke to lao, `first earn some salt.’ He's said to have walked out that very minute and proceeded to the king Chhatrasal, who told him not to waste his time on minor figures like himself and go to Chhatrapati Shivaji instead. When Bhushan sang his song in the darbar, Shivaji was so pleased that he told him to ask for anything he wanted. Bhushan asked for 80 sacks of salt  to be delivered to his sister-in-law. Bhushan's samadhi is in a tiny village called Ateet in Maharashtra.



Concluding Remarks


This paper has presented the classical basis to the epic song traditions of India and

highlighted its current situation in parts of the country. Traditionally, the yajamani

system, involving reciprocal relationships between hosts and performers, provided the

economic basis for the performers. Although, the yajamani system has weakened

considerably, some reciprocal support is now mediated through panchayats and

other institutions. The All India Radio and the television networks have also stepped in to

support performance.


The performers are also taking advantage of technology (like cassettes and now CDs) to

popularize the epics. Due to the spiritual angle to some epic songs, there is a conscioius

attempt by many people to keep the traditions alive.


The epics have an important role in the self-perception of the community. The popular

epics appear to have emerged during a period of crisis and transition. In Maharashtra,

the advent of the rule of Shivaji marked a transition that let to a flowering of the arts

including the epic song. The reason why Prithviraj and Gorakhnath appear in several

epics is because their times represented the breakdown of the previous political order.

 The oral nature of the epics permitted a retelling that was adjusted to the demand of the



If there are no contemporary epics, that may be because either the transition of 1947 is

not  perceived as having brought about a fundamental change in society, or that film and

TV provide new modes of expression that fulfil the same needs as the epic song genre.


It remains to be seen what the  long-term effects of information technology,

globalization, and breakdown of old social institutions will be on the epic song  genre in





I would like to thank Shruti for her advice and comments on an earlier version of the paper. I would also like to thank Lindsey Harlan for useful references and Varsha Bhosle for valuable information on the Povada and for sending me two old recordings by Lata Mangeshkar. Thanks are also due  Krishen Kak for his critique and invaluable editing help.











Stuart H. Blackburn, P.J. Claus, J.B. Flueckiger, and S.S. Wadley, 1989. Oral Epics in India.  University of California Press, Berkeley.


B. Chaitanya Deva, 1981. The Music of India. Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi.


R.C. Dhere,  1988. “The Gondhali: Singers for the Devi.” In The Experience of Hinduism, E. Zelliot and M. Berntsen (eds.). State University of New York Press, Albany.


Alf Hiltebeitel, 1976. The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.


Wayne Howard, 1977. Samavedic Chant. Yale University Press, New Haven.


Subhash Kak, 2001. The Wishing Tree: The  Presence and Promise of India. Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi.


Subhash Kak, 2002a. The Gods Within: Mind, Consciousness and the Vedic Tradition. Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi.


Subhash Kak, 2002b. The Asvamedha: The Rite and Its Logic. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.


Subhash Kak, 2002c. “Early Indian music.” Presented at the APSE Symposium on A Search in Asia for a New Theory of Music. Quezon City, Philippines, Feb 17-23, 2002.


Ram Chandra Prasad, 1988. Tulasidasa’s Ramacharitamanasa. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi


M.K. Raina, 1999. The Bhand Pather of Kashmir. Delhi.


John D. Smith, 1989. “Scapegoats of the gods: the ideology of the Indian epics.” In Blackburn et al, 1989.