Yakshagana: "Unveiling the Enchanting World of Traditional Indian Theatre"
The folk theatre known as Yakshagana or Yakshaganam first appeared in coastal Kerala's Kasargod region and coastal Karnataka, somewhere between the 11th and 16th centuries. It combines dance, music, spoken word, vibrant costumes, and a lot of facial makeup singularly. The Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are primarily responsible for inspiring the stories of Yakshagana. Yakshagana is thought to have its roots in the traditional Bhoota Kola worship. The origins of Theyyam in Kerala and Bhoota-kola in Tulu Nadu are extremely similar. However, Sanskrit theatre also had an impact on Yakshagana. And at that point, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, two Hindu epics, served as the foundation for this kind of art. You'll see that the Yakshagana dance of Karnataka places a lot of emphasis on Ram, Sita, and Ravan, while Bhoota-kola and Theyyam focus more on regional deities.
The name implies literally, "music (gana) of heavenly beings" (Yaksha). And that is normally what a Yakshagana dance is. A heady intonation of songs and hymns is accompanied by the thumping of Chende as performers in extravagant costumes dance. The performance typically takes place at night, which intensifies the energy there. The lead singer, Bhagavatha, invokes the gods at the start of the concert to ensure its success. He then continues to provide live commentary as each performer enters the stage and gives his or her performance. Earlier, it was normal to see Yakshagana performances all night long, but in recent times, the performances are now less than 3 hours long. However, there are still a few Melas that maintain the traditional notions of Yakshagana.
Image 1 : Excerpt from Dr. Shivaram Karanth's book Yaksagana
Yakshagana has 2 important aspects. The Mumella and the Himella. The Mumella means the on-stage performers and the Himella means the backstage elements that go into a performance. The himella usually contains the singers, the makeup artists, and the costume bearers. They are vital in any performance which is why these artists are very respected in the artist community. Now talking about the Mumella, these are the performers who have practiced the dance form for several years in perfecting the divine art. Historically, men were known to have performed numerous characters, as women were not allowed to take part in a play. However, all these changed in the last 5 decades, and we have numerous women not only taking part but also leading the pack. These women have built a reputation for themselves and today we have more than 10 women-only troops across the state of Karnataka.
Traditionally, there are a few varieties of Yakshagana characters that go into a play. They are, Raja Vesha, Pundu Vesha, Stree Vesha, Bannada Vesha, and Hasya Vesha. The Raja Vesha as the name goes has characters that portray king or royal characters from mythology. Characters like Indra, Dasharath, Rama, etc are commonly portrayed in this way. The features of a Pundu Vesha are aligned with energy and charisma. These characters are usually filled with enthusiasm and young characters. People like Abhimanyu, Varuna, Agni, etc are generally portrayed via the Pundu Vesha. Stree Vsha again as the name goes are female characters of the play. Seeta, Rukmini and Radhe, and other characters fall under this category. The Bannada Vesha is a unique feature of Yakshagana. These characters are portrayed with lustrous costumes and heavy facial makeup. They are generally aligned with a large posture and deep voice. Characters like Ravana, Yama, Mahishasura, etc are seen in these types of features. Finally, Hasya Vesha is the one who brings humor and lighthearted relief to the play. These characters usually do not have a fixed role but are vital for the development of the play. Characters like the palace watchmen, the protagonist's friend, hunches, etc are usually portrayed in a funny manner. These are characteristics of Hasya Vesha.
Image 2 : Bannada Vesha & Raja Vesha (Left to right)
Yakshagana can be broadly classified into two types: Paduvalapaya and Moodalapaya. The traditional style of Yakshagana dancing is Moodalapaya. In the communities where the lead vocalist is from, it is still done. This indicates that Moodalapaya hasn't been heavily commercialized and hasn't spread much beyond the villages of the primary singers. On the other hand, Paduvalapaya is a more advanced variety. In Karnataka, it is the more widely used variation of Yakshagana. Moreover, the one you intend to view. Paduvalapaya can be further divided into the southern and northern coastal Karnataka regions of Badaguthittu and Thenkuthittu, respectively. The emphasis on facial emotions is more pronounced in Badaguthittu than in Thenkuthittu, where it is more pronounced in folk art and classical dance. There are some differences between the 2 styles. From changes in costumes to styles in performing certain dance pieces. These changes are what make them different and unique from one another.
Image 3: Old outdoor setting Yakshagana performance. Credits: Embassy of India
Yakshagana continues to captivate audiences and hold great cultural significance in India today. Its timeless stories, vibrant costumes, melodious music, and dynamic performances offer a unique and immersive experience that transports viewers into the realm of mythology and folklore. Beyond its entertainment value, Yakshagana serves as a powerful medium for preserving and passing down traditional knowledge, moral values, and historical narratives from one generation to another. It is a living testament to the resilience of cultural traditions and a reminder of the richness and diversity of India's artistic heritage. As Yakshagana evolves and adapts to modern times, its enduring presence reminds us of the need to cherish and nurture our traditional performing arts, keeping them alive for generations to come.
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Padmanabha, K. V., & Kumar, S. (2019). Modern themes in Yakshagana: Experimentation and relevance. International Journal of Research and Analytical Reviews, 6(2), 395-401. https://ijrar.org/papers/IJRAR19K2634.pdf
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