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YAKSHAGANA - The music of celestial beings

Yakshagana the translation of which goes " the music of celestials" is a form of a dance drama performed predominantly in South Kanara, Malnad region and certain parts of North Kanara Districts of the State of Karnataka has a 400 hundred-year-old tradition. It is a combination of dance, music, spoken word and costume-makeup and stage technique. It is a typical folk form of drama , commonly performed at night on a platform-like stage in the open air with themes based on Hindu Epics like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and mythological tales from the Puranas. The dance-drama is similar to Kathakali of Kerala. The themes of all the dramas of Yakshagana are fights, warfare, and stories of 'veera' and 'raudra' rasas from legends; it is remarkable for its pure dance. Though described as folk it has strong classical connections. The night long event with gorgeous costumes, elaborate make-up, quick movements, beating of drums and the narration of songs by the Bhagavatas put the audience in a trance.... the total effect is spell binding. Yakshagana a mixture of dance & drama has its soul in its .As prescribed in the Natya Shastra, it has the Suthra Dhara (conductor) & the vidushaka (the Jester).

The real richness of this art is seen in predominately rural areas where even with the lack of proper transportation the villagers attend the performances in sizeable strengths. Yakshagana enjoys immense popularity and its exponents are honoured. The stage is set in the open air in paddy fields or public maidaans. As the night wanes away one feels that there is an amalgam of the sky and the earth as the singing and drumming merge with the dances of the performers clad in costumes of striking colour and contours. A visit to this region is incomplete without witnessing a Yakshagana performance. To sum it up it is a cherished cultural possession of the coastal districts of Karnataka.

Make Up and Costumes:
The makeup of Yakshagana is rich and closely related to the ornamentation found in the sculptures. The male characters, such as the hero, the king, the ministers and the prince have a fine 'Mukuta' (crown); all royal characters have a bow and an arrow in their hands. The headdress of the wild characters like 'Dhiroddhatas' is an arch-like headdress. The female dress for 'Chandi', 'Kali' and so on is, lion's teeth, blood red artificial tongue drawn out and lengthy hair at the back. All the actors wear trousers/ pajamas to enable them to dance and over it they wear a 'saree' that is tied in the form of 'Kaccha' with ornaments. The faces of kings and princes are painted rosy pink, 'Yama' face is black, Lord Krishna and Vishnu are blue. The face make-up used is made of vegetable die.

The word Yakshagana is a theatre form, which was and even today, being popularly called Bayalata (open place play) or simply Ata (play). Yakshagana is a scholar's nomenclature may be a hundred years old as far as the theatre in application to performance is concerned, though it is at least six centuries old as a literary composition. The word Yakshagana as a name of the whole art complex became popular in the context of writings on it and publicity in the form of handbills, leaflets, advertisements, because the words Ata or Bayalata looked too colloquial and general. Hence the word Yakshagana has come to stay as the name of the art. Actually it is shifted and expanded term from one aspect of the art. Sometimes called 'Prasanga' (episodes) now, a Yakshagana performance commences with a pooja to Shri Ganesh followed by buffoonery by "Kodangis." Or the "Vidooshakas" loud background music is provided by a chande and a maddale (various types of drums), and a tala (cymbals) handled by a team of three. Seated among them is Bhagavata who is the producer, the director and the master of the ceremonies. In short, he is all in one. Every actor must have good physique and excellent stamina, and should sing, dance, act and converse the whole night. He should also have sound knowledge of Hindu scriptures. In every act, there will be gods, goddesses, kiratas (mischief mongers), kimpurushas (mythological figures) and demons. The key characters, known as "Kattu-veshas" appear after the Bhagavata, when the sleeping or drowsing audience sit erect and take keen interest in the proceedings of the stage.

It is essentially a stage form, which entertains and educates the rural folks. In the past A team consisted of 15-20 actors who carried their bag and baggage on their heads and walked from one village to another, covering 20-30 kilometers a day. They camped in a temple, and erected an extremely simple stage by using just four poles and many leaves for decoration. People with their families walked or rode their bullock carts to witness a performance. There were no women in any team, and hence men wore saris and Female costumes and Lo There was a woman!

There is usually no gate collection to any performance, and hence it is completely free from any toll. A temple fund or public contributions financially support a troop. The people in distress also take vow to arrange a performance to please their family deity. There are temples where Yakshagana is performed throughout the year, except in the rainy season at their premises. Such teams are known after the temples' deities.

The origin: It is said Yakshagana is the product of the Vaishnava Bhakthi movement. Vaishnavism as a school of thought and religion is quite old. The Bhakthi movement proper, spread with vigor after the 10th Century. It took religion to the common man, to the lower strata of society, those classes to whom the highly formalized and Vedic religion was beyond reach. Hence Bhakthi movement was a social movement also. In order to propagate and spread the message of devotion, it adopted and adapted the existing folk as well as classical literary forms and performances. It created its own forms. Most of the traditional theatre forms are the result of this phenomenon. Experts have placed the origin of Yakshagana from the 11th Century to the 16th Century. Earliest limit is fixed by a finding by Vidwan Bannanje Govindacharya who says a legend goes to show that Sage Narahari Thirtha (c, 1300) started a Dasavathara Ata performance and a troupe in Udupi and later this spread to other places and grew into what we call Yakshagana today. It is also said that Yakshagana must have been an established form by the time of famous Yakshagana poet Parthisubba (1600) who wrote the Ramayana in Yakshagana. Because he is said to be a Bhagawatha (singer) himself and is believed to have founded a troupe, and probably he is the formulator of the Tenkuthittu (Southern style) of the art. Troupe centers like Koodlu and Kumble in Kasargod, and Amritheshwari, Kota near Kundapur claim having a troupe three to four centuries ago. However, what we see today as Yakshagana, must have been the result of a slow evolution, drawing its elements from ritual theatre, temple arts, secular arts like Bahurupi, royal courts of the time and artists imaginations - all interwoven over period. 1930s saw some changes in compositions, organizations and presentation. Dance and the spoken word was further developed and refined. But in costume, a type of degeneration started setting in due to the use of 'modern' clothing and stone jewellery, in place of handloom clothing and wooden ornaments.

The Year 1950 saw the birth of 'tent' troupes, giving performances to audience by tickets, with 'tent theatres' and furniture for seating. These troupes brought in commercialization of Yakshagana, with both merits and demerits. Yakshagana saw major changes in form and organization, electrical lights replaced the 'gas lights' or 'petromax' lamps. Seating arrangements improved. Major changes came in the themes, with the inclusion of folk epics, Sanskrit dramas and created (imaginary) stories forming the thematic base. Popular entertainment became the criterion in place of 'classical' presentation. Tulu, the language of the Southern part of the D.K. district was introduced on the stage, where hitherto only Kannada was used. This gained great popularity. All these trends continued with added vigor after 1970s, with a new element of influence. Along with all these, the traditional type of troupes, giving free shows financed by devotees still continues and has a very good support.

Yakshagana is one of the most living art traditions in the World. There are about 30 full-fledged professional troupes, and about 200 amateur troupes in Yakshagana. Professional troupes go on tour between November to May, giving about 180-200 shows i.e. a full night show everyday!

There are about one thousand professional artists and much bigger number of amateurs. Further there are off season shows during the wet season, the anniversary shows, school and college students Yakshagana and of course the Talamaddale performances. All put together, we safely say that Karnataka witnesses about 12,000 Yakshagana performances every year!

Sunil Gonsalves.

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