Making their way to centre stage

Making their way to centre stage

Breaking barriers: From performing in lead roles to playing percussion instruments, women dominate the field of Yakshagana today.

Making their way to centre stage
As a child, Mayuri Upadhyay was enamoured by the art form of yakshagana. Everything about this traditional theatre form, from dance, music and dialogue delivery to costume, make-up, and stage techniques, was awe-inspiring for her.

Unfortunately, her father, who strongly believed that yakshagana was ‘gandu kale’ (to be performed by men only), forbade her from even watching it. However, she found a saviour in her grandmother, who always took her along to watch the overnight spectacle. During her growing up years, Mayuri secretly nurtured a desire to learn the art form, but had to content herself just watching it, owing to the diktat of her father. Years later, as a mother of two boys, Mayuri’s love for yakshagana expressed itself in her decision to get her sons trained in this art form. So, off she went to Karnataka Kaladarshini in Bengaluru to get them trained under renowned yakshagana artiste Srinivasa Sasthana. To her pleasant surprise, at Karnataka Kaladarshini, she found many women too pursuing this art form. Her joy knew no bounds. With due permission from her family, she enrolled herself for classes and trained there for eight years. Today, she is the proud head of Yakshasiri Bengaluru, a troupe that’s going places, literally, entertaining people...

Role reversal

When a young Leela trained in classical music in the tiny hamlet of Madhuru in Kasaragod district, little did she know that some day she’ll earn her fame as the first woman to don the role of a bhagavata (the chief narrator of the story), which is otherwise an all-male domain. Yes, her journey into the world of bhagavatike began when she married Harinarayana Baipadithaya, a known figure in the Tenkuthittu style of yakshagana. Impressed by Leela’s mastery over music, Harinarayana decided to train her in bhagavatike, and the rest is history. For, she is today a known name in the field of yakshagana as the first woman to have proved that a female voice too is compatible with the art form that was, till recently, generally associated only with men...

Apoorva Surathkal is only 21 years, but is already a known name in the yakshagana circles. And for good reasons, too. After all, she plays the chende. Her interest in chende goes way back to her childhood when she found herself entranced by the sound of this percussion instrument whenever she attended yakshagana performances. Recognising her immense interest in chende, Apoorva’s father got her trained under Mambadi Subramanya Bhat, and today, she participates in at least 10 yakshagana performances a month...

Well! These are just glimpses of a revolution that has taken place. Silently. An art form that was once considered ‘only-male’, is today being pursued by women, with zeal. The credit for making this art form accessible to women should go to Akkani Amma of Udupi, who, in the 1970s, showed the rare courage of questioning traditionalist beliefs that yakshagana was purely a male bastion. She not only learnt and taught yakshagana to women, but also established the first ever all-women yakshagana troupe titled Mahila Yakshagana Kalamitra Mandali. This was at a time when women were not even encouraged to be a part of the audience!

Once Akkani Amma set the ball rolling came the women members of the Syndicate Bank Recreation Club, Manipal, who started a women’s troupe in the early 1980s, reassuring women that yakshagana could be pursued by anyone with a passion for the art form.

Alongside, the Yakshagana Kendra in MGM College, Udupi, imparted training in yakshagana to women, paving the way for more and more women to realise their dream of donning various roles in this folk dance-theatre form, and ushering in social change. Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by resistance. It was no different for yakshagana too. Women troupes were not taken seriously. “It’s called ‘gandu kale’ for a reason. What do these women know? They will never be able to perform male roles convincingly,” was what traditionalists felt.

However, proving them wrong, women took to the art form quite naturally, and have been performing every role a story entails quite convincingly. “Initially, it was assumed that a feminine voice wouldn’t suit male roles, especially that of raakshasas. How mistaken conventionalists were,” says renowned yakshagana artiste Nataraja Upadhya, who’s very proud of women’s participation in this folk art form. “It has definitely contributed to its evolution,” he adds.

Gender bender

No wonder, women are not only performing in all-women troupes, but also alongside men today, with elan. And, not only as veshadharis, but as bhagavatas and chende players too.

Take the case of Apoorva Surathkal. This MSc graduate is a marvel, going by the way she plays the percussion instrument for hours together, alongside muscular men. “Initially, I would suffer from backache, owing to the weight of the instrument. Not anymore, maybe because I enjoy playing it,” she says.

Equally focused on her career in yakshagana is Kavyashree Ajeru. This 23-year-old has been making waves in yakshagana circles as a talented bhagavata today. Accompanying her father, a renowned maddale player, to his classes, saw her interest in bhagavatike blossom. Her training in Carnatic music too helped her a great deal. Training under Mambadi Subramanya Bhat, she was soon ready for her rangapravesha. That was just the beginning. Today, an MSc graduate, she has around 400 yakshagana programmes to her credit, and is focused on her art so much so that she wants to pursue teaching so that she will have “ample time to pursue bhagavatike.”

Another enticing factor about yakshagana is that age is no deterrent. Women have pursued it even in their 30s. While Mayuri Upadhyay was 38 when she started learning this art form, the case of Sumangala Ratnakar is worth a mention too. Though she was interested in yakshagana from a very young age, she pursued it seriously only when she was 32. “For a fancy dress competition, I dressed up as Shambhasura and won a prize. That was when I realised I could revive my interest in yakshagana,” she says.

This accomplished bharatanatyam dancer soon formed a group of like-minded women yakshagana enthusiasts, trained in the art form, and started giving performances. So was formed Yaksharadhana Kala Kendra, which conducts annual yakshopasana shibiras (yakshagana workshops) also. A good tala-maddale artiste too, she has the distinction of having given about 120 programmes to date.

According to renowned artiste Taranath Balyaya, “Gone are the days when women considered yakshagana as just a recreational activity. The seriousness with which they are pursuing it now, and the number of youngsters taking to it, only goes to prove that they mean business. It is heartening.”

Come to think of it, the number of women artistes is increasing by the day. Vidya Kolyuru, Poornima Yathish Rai, Sujata Subrahmanya Dhareshwara, Sowmya Arun, Arpitha Hegde, Kiran Pai Shivamogga... the list can go on.

Over the past four decades, women had taken great strides in the field of yakshagana. There may be a million fruitful decades ahead. Here’s hoping and wishing that the charm of women in yakshagana will continue to enchant us for ever and ever.

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