KATHĀ is the noun form of the Sanskrit word kath, meaning to speak, describe, narrate or interpret. In religious terminology, kathā stands for exposition, analysis and discussion of a passage from a scripture. It involves a full-length discourse on a given text, with a proper enunciation of it and elucidation with anecdotes, parables and quotations, of the underlying spiritual and theological doctrines and ideas. Since scriptural utterances and verses were generally pithy and aphoristic, they needed to be expounded for the laity and there emerged in the Indian tradition forms such as, ṭīkā (paraphrase), śabdārtha (gloss) and bhāṣya (commentary), with pramāṇas or suitable authoritative quotations from religious and didactic works to support the thesis or interpretation. These three modes of elucidation converge in the Sikh kathā which is verbal in form. Kathā of the Upaniṣads, the Bhāgavadgītā and Purāṇas and of the epics, the Ramāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, has continued to be delivered from the rostrum. But in Sikhism it has become institutionalized as part of service at major religious assemblies.
The tradition of kathā in Sikhism has its formal beginning in the time of Gurū Arjan (1563-1606), who compiled the Sikh Scripture, Gurū Granth Sāhib, and who is said to have ordained Bhāī Gurdās, who had transcribed the Holy Volume, to expound briefly and precisely, daily a hymn which had been read from the Gurū Granth Sāhib. The masands, i.e. saṅgat leaders, appointed by the Gurūs, started delivering kathā in a like manner at local gatherings. Since śabda forms the essential base of Sikh spirituality and religion, correct interpretation of the sacred text is of the utmost importance. Gurū Gobind Siṅgh (1666-1708) is said to have himself instructed Bhāī Manī Siṅgh in the explication of the Holy Writ. From Bhāī Manī Siṅgh originates what is known as the Giānī school of interpretation of gurbāṇī. The performance of kathā has continued in the Sikh system over the centuries. There are numerous institutions, classical as well as modern, training scholars in the art. Kathā is generally delivered in the presence of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. The kathākār, the performer, will in fact recite reverentially the hymn he proposes to expound from the Holy Book itself. The choice may have been premeditated or utterly impromptu. To describe the format, which certainly allows for variations, after a well-punctuated, clean, melodious and rhythmic recitation of the hymn, its central theme is brought into focus and explained. Then, the difficult words are explicated and verse-wise paraphrase of the entire śabda is given. Care is taken to sustain the context and point out the relevance of each verse to the main argument. This is followed by a thematic analysis of the hymn, bringing out its spiritual and doctrinal significance. Notice may also be taken of its literary graces. To support his interpretation, the kathākār quotes, all from memory, passages from the religious texts, and anecdotes from the lives of the Gurūs. Before concluding the discourse, the argument is summed up and the original text recited again. At kathā session in gurdwārās are also expounded major Sikh historical works such as Srī Gur Pratāp Sūraj Granth and Panth Prakāsh. But this happens generally in the afternoons, outside the morning and evening services.