Keeping alive a vibrant legacy

Yakshagana

We have seen all the classical art forms undergoing changes under modern practitioners... folk performing arts all over the world have been tested under modern conditions of practice — Yakshagana is no stranger to this trend.” So analysed the former director of the Kalevala Institute of Folk in Finland, Lauri Honko, during a seminar at the Regional Resources Centre for Folk Performing Arts at Udupi in the late 1990s. By then, Honko, Ku Shi Haridas Bhat and Kota Shivarama Karanth had seen the road the experiments in Yakshagana had taken.

After 30 years, stakeholders in Yakshagana will agree, the changes are here to stay, but the basic tenets of Yakshagana are much too strong to get bogged down by the changes. In the past three decades, a plethora of changes has come and gone but the classical values of Yakshagana remained, delighting artistes, Yakshagana troupes, academics and organisers. In a way, it has stood the test of time. There were charges of appropriation, adoption of unconventional systems and episodes, derivations from other forms and storylines, and even the illumination and intonations. But the experiments have brought many social values to light and practice that Yakshagana is known for.

Cradles of dance-drama

The temple Yakshagna melas (ensembles) are the important repositories of classic Yakshagana style. Many temples including Dharmasthala, Mandarti, Perdoor, Saligrama, Kateel, Kadri, Polali and Mangaladevi have multiple groups. Kateel has the largest number of melas, the recent figures show that they have six melas and each one has been booked for 25 years and more. Dhananjaya Kumble, the coordinator of the Mangaluru University Yakshagana Adhyayana Kendra, says, “All Yakshagana troupes are in one or the other way connected to temples, the episodes stem from the epics and the Bhagavata and their various upakathas (sub-stories). One of the most important and popular episodes is that of Devi Mahatme. It has all the navarasas of abhinaya and lasya. In recent times, Devi Mahatme has seen more added features than any other episodes. The Mahishasura entering the rangasthala walking through the audience with an attendant carrying a live torch flaring intermittently is a captivating sight. It is so popular that every year not less than 1,000 plays are organised in just Tenku Thittu.”

The Yakshagana has two forms, Badagu Thittu (northern style) and Thenku Thittu (southern style). In the textual contents, there is not much difference between the two styles. However, they have some geographical and contextual variations. The Badagu Thittu is seen prominently in areas located above Udupi — in Karwar, Gokarna and Sirsi and has more emphasis on song, music and dance while the Thenku Thittu dwells more on dialogue, drama, interpretation, has a more rustic approach and is generally practised in Udupi and Mangaluru and Kasargod. The Badagu Thittu is further divided into Bada Badagu Thittu which is practised in parts of Sirsi, Yellapura, Joida and Karwar, however, differences are wafer-thin.

The Shivarama Karanth school of thought in Yakshagana identifies two major differences in make-up, costumes and movements. The Badagu Thittu has more stress on lasya while the Thenku Thittu has thandava (vigour) as the basic trait. There are certain changes in the instruments as well.

M Veerappa Moily who is advocating the tag of a classical art form to Yakshagana says, “There have been demands from the artistes, musicians, interpreters and enthusiasts to form an academic body for Yakshagana.

Despite the fact that Yakshagana has attracted the world with its vibrant rendition of folk, there had been no effort from any quarter of the society or the government to give it an academic dimension.” Yakshagana is so vast that it needs detailed documentation.

This was also done by the Yaksharanga established by Shivarama Karanth at Udupi. The centre trains young yakshas from the age of 8, which in those days was a revolution of sorts, “It started a Gurukula system where young Yakshagana exponents learnt under academic environment,” says Mahalinga Bhat, a teacher.

“From the all-night Yakshagana-Bayalata to the present-day three-hour episodes, from Kannada to Tulu and now in English, from Bhagavata, Ramayana and Mahabharata to Yesu Christa Charitre to the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, Yakshagana has seen it all,” says Murali Kadekar of Yakshagana Kalaranga, a group Yakshagana artistes and enthusiasts in Udupi. 

Yakshagana has also shrunk in the size of episodes, time and detailing. There are now three-hour episodes, daytime plays especially in the monsoon period and many Yakshagana buffs are viewing Yakshagana episodes on Youtube.

All these enable the young generation who are always on the move to enjoy Yakshagana. Performers believe that this development is needed in the changing social milieu considering the immense pressure on the time and lifestyles of the youth.

Jagadish Nalka, a Yakshagana organiser, has however kept alive one traditional form of Yakshagana. He takes three artistes from house to house and plays a prayer song to go with the micro-episode of just 10 minutes at every house. “This is not a new development, I remember such a tradition existed even during the 1950s, but sometime during the 1990s, it vanished totally. We revived it in the past five years and today people are inviting us to perform. Such small groups in the earlier part of the last century moved from village to village, they were not paid money but were given food by the patrons, they lived in the nearby temples,” says Jagadish.

Different strokes

The Yesu Christa Mahatme — Maha Chetana is a Yakshagana ballet specially adopted for portraying the life and works of Jesus Christ. “The Yakshagana Prasanga (episode) on Jesus Christ was written in 1973 by Muliya Keshavaiah who was the Nephew of Muliya Thimmappayya, a contemporary of Shivarama Karanth. Keshavaiah who was a postgraduate in English literature and Economics was inspired by the book Paradise Lost by John Milton.

“The book was published in 1976 and at that point, it was just like publishing any book, there were no cultural or religious motives ascribed to it and nobody even questioned his integrity with his own religion. The prasanga was based on the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. It was first played in 1973 in Mangaluru, later it has been played over 100 times on various occasions right from Surathkal to Kochi,” says Malpe Lakshminarayana Samaga, former president of State Yakshagana and Bayalata Academy.

Today, Yakshagana is used to popularise the concept of Swachch Bharat Abhiyan. “As long as the basic tenets of Yakshagana are not misused, there is no harm in lending the excellent delivery system and value system embedded in Yakshagana for such experiments,” says P Nityananda Rao, one a Yakshagana promoter and artiste.

In another experiment, Mohan Kumar Ammunje gathered 75 members Yakshagana ensemble to showcase the entire Mahabharata in a nine-hour Yakshagana ballet that has been hailed by Yakshagana enthusiasts as one of the boldest performances. 

Both Badagu and Thenku versions have had their retrospection in playing Yakshagana in the absence of modern lighting. “After the fall of Yakshagana Bayalata in the 1990s, the first-ever effort to bring back the classical glory to Yakshagana was made in 1995 in Yelluru Vishwantha Temple in Udupi district.

I had a few friends who agreed that the real colour and the navarasas come alive in the flickering light of a torch (divitige). When we documented the episode in the light of divitige, the costumes and expressions of the artistes were visible more vehemently,” said Dr Raghava Nambiar a senior yakshagana researcher. Such experimentations continued till 2005.

In 2009, G N Ashokavardhana, a Yakshagana enthusiast, held another version of divitige performance at Abhayaranya, a natural forest. “This was an improvisation of the earlier divitige Yakshagana, we had to use the gas-based flares to keep the divitige on throughout the play.

The effect was very close to the classical Yakshagana bayalata experience as it could get, but it was always on the back of my mind that if I had done the right thing by using gas flares,” Ashokavardhana says.

The coming of all women Yakshagana episodes during the last 10 years has been one of the highlights. “Yes, the women’s participation in all aspects of Yakshagana is an important socio-cultural movement.

There are problems both physical and social, but since many of us possess a passion and love for art, we tend to put all our other difficulties away,” says Bhavyashree Mandekolu, an artiste.

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Keeping alive a vibrant legacy

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