Kathakata means 'narration' the word actually comes from kathak or 'narrator'. The Arthashastra i.e. the classic Hindu manual on governance and economics refers to Kathaks as 'people who make their livelihood from words'. They make enough money to pay taxes. The tradition of reciting a religious text with annotations and elaboration for the common people is associated with the Puranas, particularly the Bhagavata during the eighth-ninth century. Lochan Sharma born in 1681, in his musical treatise Raga-tarangini, refers to a form of Kathakata in Mithila in north Bihar in the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries based on poems composed by the learned king Bhavabhuti, using ragas. It is after Chaitanya's advent, however, that one comes across many references to Kathaks translating Sanskrit texts into simple Bengali and expanding on them with the help of songs and emotive acting i.e. bhavabhinaya.
William Ward during the 1769-1823 of the Serampore Mission, in his first-hand account of a path or Kathakata, gave a fairly exhaustive view of both its setting and themes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The patron or sponsor of an asar (session) chose the text from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Kalika Purana i.e. on the goddess Kali, or Skanda Purana on the god Kartikeya for recital and interpretation by the Kathak, who sat on a raised platform at one end of a large space under a temporary thatch roof, accommodating around 5000 listeners. In the mornings the Kathak read and in the evenings explicated the text in Bengali. The Mahabharata took four months, the Bhagavata one. Different areas of Bengal developed distinct styles. The western, Gadadhari, got its name after Gadadhar Shiromani changed his reading of the Bhagavata to Kathakata at Sonamukhi village in Bankura. Sridhar Kathak, born in 1816, was a younger contemporary of the famous singer Nidhubabu, added the tappa and bhavabhinaya. Tappa is a semi-classical style of singing patronized by the Bengali aristocracy.
There are great overlaps among Kathakata, Panchali, and the explanatory passages of Padabali Kirtan. Entertainment and education of the masses, simplification and edification of religious texts are common to these folk forms. They are based on the Kathaks art, that of a scholar, a good teacher, a serious orator, and a fine singer with a presence, ready wit, and flair for the dramatic. He is the intellectual among his lowly contemporaries but his main function is to provide answers, chiefly philosophical, to the questions that may arise in the mind of the devout listener for whose benefit a difficult, usually Sanskrit, scripture is explained in simple vernacular. Thus his art is mainly extempore and possible only because he is the sole performer.
Dinesh Chandra Sen, looking through a manual of instruction for Kathaks, writes as 'There are formulae which every Kathak has to get by heart, set passages describing not only Siva, Lakshmi, Vishnu, Krishna and other deities, but also describing a town, a battlefield, morning, noon and night, and many other subjects which incidentally occur in the course of the narration of a story. These set passages are composed in Sanskritic Bengali with a remarkable jingle of consonance the effect of which is quite extraordinary.'
In the middle of the nineteenth century Kathakata, along with Panchali and Kabigan i.e. musical duels between two singing poets, went into temporary decline, as the printed word dominated over the aural. Bengali novels and poems written by the new intelligentsia gained a pride of place that put these older forms in the shade, often relegated to the women's quarters. But in the second half of the twentieth century, Kathakata rose again to be institutionalized through ashrams in and around Calcutta to cover not only the Ramayana, Bhagavata, and Upanishads but also Ramkrishna kathamrita i.e. Ramakrishna's biography and the like.