Yakshagana is a theater form that combines dance, music, dialogue, costume, make-up, and stage techniques with a unique style and form. This theater style, resembling Western opera, is mainly found in the coastal districts and the Malenadu region of Karnataka, India. Yakshagana is traditionally presented from dusk to dawn. Yakshagana literally means the song (gana) of the yaksha, (nature spirits).Yakshagana is the scholastic name (used for the last 200 years) for art forms formerly known as kēḷike, āṭa, bayalāṭa, and daśāvatāra (Kannada: ದಶಾವತಾರ). It is believed to have evolved from pre-classical music and theater during the period of the Bhakti movement. It is sometimes simply called “the play” (ಆಟ) in both Kannada and Tulu. Yakshagana is a separate genre of music, independent of Karnataka Sangeetha and the Hindustani music of India. It is believed to have survived as an indigenous phenomenon only in parts of Karnataka and Kerala.
A typical Yakshagana performance consists of background music played by a group of musicians (known as the himmela); and a dance and dialog group (known as the mummela), who together enact poetic epics onstage. The himmela is made up of a lead singer (bhagawata)—who also directs the production—and is referred to as the “first actor” (modalane vesha). Additional himmela members are players of traditional musical instruments, such as the maddale (hand drum), the pungi (pipe), theharmonium (organ), and the chande (loud drums). The music is based on ragas, which are characterized by rhythmic patterns called mattu and tala (or musical meter in Western music). Yakshagana talas are believed to be based on patterns which later evolved into the Carnatic talas.
A Yakshagana performance typically begins in the twilight hours, with an initial beating of the drums of several fixed compositions, called abbara or peetike. This may last for up to an hour before the actors finally arrive on the stage. The actors wear resplendent costumes, head-dresses, and face paints.
A performance usually depicts a story from the “Kavya” (epic poems) and the “Puranas” (ancient Hindu texts). It consists of a story teller (the bhagvatha) who narrates the story by singing (which includes prepared character dialogues) as the actors dance to the music, portraying elements of the story as it is being narrated. All components of Yakshagana—including the music, the dance, and the dialog—are improvised. Depending on the ability and scholarship of the actors, there will be variations in dances as well as the amount of dialog. It is not uncommon for actors to get into philosophical debates or arguments without falling out of character. The acting in Yakshagana can be best categorized as method acting. The performances have drawn comparison to the Western tradition of opera. Traditionally, Yakshagana will run all night.
Yakshagana is popular in the districts of Uttara Kannada, Udupi, Dakshina Kannada, Shimoga and Kasaragod. Yakshagana has become popular in Bengaluru in recent years, particularly in the rainy season, when there are few other forms of entertainment possible in the coastal districts. Rakshasa (the demon) as depicted in Yakshagana performances, is called Bannada Vesha. The Stree Vesha, or female roles, are performed by male actors in traditional Yakshagana.
Yakshagana can refer to a style of writing, as well as the written material itself. There are questions on whether this writing system originated in Telugu literature. It was probably used for poems enacted in bayalaata (or open theater drama), such as the ballads of Koti and Chennayya.” Yakshagana in its present form is believed to have been strongly influenced by theVaishnava Bhakti movement.Yakshagana was first introduced in Udupi by Madhvacharya’s disciple Narahari Tirtha. Narahari Tirtha was the minister in the Kalinga Kingdom , he also was the founder of Kuchpudi.
Troupe centers, such as Koodlu and Kumbala in the Kasaragod District, and Amritheshwari, Kota near Kundapura, claim to have had troupes three to four centuries ago, indicating that the art form almost certainly had begun to take shape by circa 1500. The Yakshagana form of today is the result of a slow evolution, drawing its elements from ritual theater, temple arts, secular arts (such as Bahurupi), royal courts of the past, and the artists’ imaginations—all interwoven over a period of several hundred years.
In the 19th century, Yakshagana began to move away from the strict traditional forms. Practitioners of the day produced a number of new compositions. Also, a large number of troupes arose across coastal Karnataka. The early 20th century saw the birth of ‘tent’ troupes, giving performances to audiences made up of common people who were admitted by ticket. These troupes were responsible for the commercialization of Yakshagana. The genre saw major changes in form and organization. Electrical lights replaced the gas lights; seating arrangements improved; the inclusion of folk epics, Sanskrit dramas, and fictional stories formed the modern thematic base of the discipline. Popular entertainment became the criterion, replacing the historic classical presentations. Tulu, the language of the southern part of the D.K. district was introduced; increasing popularity with the common people.
Scholars have classified Yakshagana broadly into several types: Moodalopaya Yakshagana; includes eastern areas of Karnataka (such as Channarayapattna and Arsikere Taluks of the Hassan District), Nagamangala Taluk of the Mandya District, Turuvekere Taluk of the Tumkur District, Hiriyuru, Challakere of Chitradurga District and North Karnataka. Paduvlopaya Yakshagana comprises the western parts of extended Karnataka (including Kasaragod Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada). Tenkutittu (includes areas Kasaragod (Kerala), Mangalore District, Udupi, Sampaaje, Sulliya, Puttur, Bantwala, Belthangady, Karkala, etc.), Badagutittu (Udupi to Kundapura area, Uttara Kannada district) Badabadagutittu/Uttara Kannadatittu (extreme north parts of Uttara Kannada).
The Badagutittu style was popularized by Shivram Karanth’s, “Yakshagana Mandira,” presented at Saligrama Village in Dakshina Kannada as a shorter—more modern—form of Yakshagana. Keremane Shivarama Hegde, the founder of the Yakshagana troupe, Idagunji Mahaganapathi Yakshagana Mandali, is an exponent of the Badagutittu style of Yakshagana. He is also the first Yakshagana artist to receive the Rashtrapati Award from the president of India.
One of the traditional variations, the tenkutittu style, is prevalent in Dakshina Kannada, Kasaragod District, western parts of Coorg (Sampaje), and few areas of Udupi district. The influence of Karnatic Music is apparent in tenkutittu, as evidenced by the type of maddale used and in bhaagavathike. Yakshagana is influenced more by folk art blended with classical dance aspects. In tenkutittu, three iconic set of colors are used: the Raajabanna, the Kaatbanna, and the Sthreebanna.
The himmela in the tenkutittu style is more cohesive to the entire production. Rhythms of the chande and maddale coupled with the chakrataala and jaagate of the bhaagavatha create an excellent symphonic sound. The dance form in tenkutittu strikes the attention of the audience by ‘Dheengina’ or ‘Guttu’. Performers often do dhiginas (jumping spins in the air) and will continuously spin (sometimes) hundreds of times. Tenkutittu is noted for its incredible dance steps; its high flying dance moves; and its extravagant rakshasas (demons). Tenkutittu has remained a popular form and has its own audience outside the coastal areas. The dharmasthala and kateelu durgaparameshwari melas (the two most popular melas) have helped to popularize this form. Several creative tenkutittu plays have been composed by noted scholars, such as Amritha Someshwara.
There were more than 30 string-puppet troupes in the undivided Dakshina Kannada district during the period 1910–1915 in places such as Basrur, Barkur, Kokkarne, Mudabidri. The presentation of the puppetry in Yakshagana style is highly stylized and adheres strictly to the norms and standards of Yakshagana. The puppets (generally 18 inches high) wear costumes similar to those worn by live actors of Yakshagana, and have the same elaborate make-up, colorful headgear, and heavy jewelry. The puppeteer is known as the Suthradhara. The content in the Yakshagana puppetry, is also mainly drawn from the ancient epics.
The second half of the 20th century saw experiments and adoptions of this art into other venues. One notable effort was that of Shivarama Karantha, who produced and exhibited Yakshagana ballet, using and training local artists. Some of the changes brought about by Karanth, however, attracted criticism. One legal decision even banned any public performance of his experimental ballets being billed as “Yakshagana.”
Yakshagana Rāga refers to melodic framework used in Yakshagana. It is based on pre-classical melodic forms that comprise a series of five or more musical notesupon which a melody is founded. Ragas in Yakshagana are closely associated with a set of melodic forms called mattu. In the Yakshagana tradition, rāgas are associated with different times of the night throughout which the Yakshagana is performed.
Yakshagana Tala (Sanskrit tāla) are frameworks for rhythms in Yakshagana that are determined by a poetry style called Yakshagana Padya. Tala also decide how a composition is to be enacted by the dancers. It is similar to tala in other forms of Indian music, but differs from them structurally. Each composition is set to one or more talas, rendered by the himmela percussion artists play.
Yakshagana poetry (Yakshagana Padya or Yakshagana Prasanga) is a collection of poems written to form a music drama. The poems are composed in well known Kannada metres, using a frame work of ragas and talas. Yakshagana also has its own metre (or prosody). The collection of Yakshagana poems forming a musical drama is called a Prasanga. The oldest surviving parasanga books are believed to have been composed in the 15th century. But many compositions have been lost to time. There is evidence showing that oral compositions were in use before the 15th century. The narratives of the surviving historic Yakshagana Prasangas are now often printed in paperback.
A kings costume (raja vesha) with kireeta(or headgear); the mace is used as an abstract depiction of a weapon. Yakshagna costumes are rich in color. The costumes (or vesha) in Kannada depend on characters depicted in the play (prasanga). It also depends on the Yakshagana style (tittu). Traditionally, Badagutittu Yakshagana ornaments are made out of light wood, pieces of mirror, and colored stones. Lighter materials, such as thermocol, are sometimes used today, although ornaments are still predominantly made of woodwork.
Yakshagana costumes consist of headgear (Kirita or Pagade), Kavacha that decorates the chest, Buja Keerthi (armlets) that decorate the shoulders, and belts (Dabu)—all made up of light wood and covered with golden foil. Mirror work on these ornaments helps to reflect light during shows and add more color to the costumes. Armaments are worn on a vest and cover the upper half of the body. The lower half is covered with kachche, which come in unique combinations of red, yellow, and orange checks. Bulky pads are used under the kachche, making the actors’ proportions different in size from normal.
The character, Bannada Vesha, is used to depict monsters. This often involves detailed facial makeup taking three to four hours to complete. Males play the female roles in traditional Yakshagana. However, more recently, yakshagana has seen female artists, who perform in both male and female roles. The character of Stree Vesha makes use of sari and other decorative ornaments.
The maddale is a percussion instrument and, along with the chande, is the primary rhythmic accompaniment in the Yakshagana ensemble. Yakshagana bells or cymbals, are a pair of finger bells made of a special alloy (traditionally five metal). They are made to fit the tone of the bhagawatha’s voice. Singers carry more than one set, as finger bells are available in different keys, thus enabling them to sing in different pitches. They help create and guide the background music in Yakshagana. The Chande is a drum and, along with the maddale, is an important rhythmic accompaniment in the Yakshagana ensemble.
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. There are about one thousand professional artists and many more 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. Yakshagana commercial shows witness 12,000 performances per year in Karnataka generating a turnover of Rs. Six crore.
Neil Antony Pinto, age 26, residing in Bajpe-Mangaluru is an Electrical and Electronics Engineer from NMAMIT, Nitte, and currently working as an Electrical Engineer for a construction firm in Mangaluru. Apart from listening to music, Numismatic and Antique collector, Neil is very much into photography. His Photography line of interest is Portrait photography. Neil believes in the Photography motto: “All That You Click Is Not Photography, But It Is What Makes You Click”. We welcome Neil as our regular photo contributor on various topics like Nature, Human, Animals, Scenery, etc. Look forward to more photo stills by Neil to be published soon.