Wednesday, June 01, 2011

On the New Myths of Yakshagana: In Himal Southasian

It's always super fun writing for Himal SouthAsian, the magazine published from Kathmandu, Nepal and circulated in South Asian countries. My second story with them, on Yakshagana, is here. Or see below.


In South India, particularly in Karnataka, there is one form of dance theatre that defies most rules of popular art, perhaps even societal norms; where the hero is just one among many actors on stage; where the villain looks so much grander and has so much more fun that he ends up overshadowing the hero. This is where no two performances, no two series of dialogue, are ever the same, and shows are typically debated for days after the performance; where an actor can become so famous that he (all roles are played by men) is identified by his role, and where the entangled web of the caste system is surprisingly absent. We call this Yakshagana.

Karnataka has full claim to this art form, which originated in its villages, in open grounds or under shoddily put-up canvas tents covering dirty mats and creaky folding chairs. Indeed, Yakshagana is recognised as one of the traditional art forms of Karnataka, just like the Odissi dance of Odhisha or the Mohiniattam in Kerala. Apart from the bhajans and religious discourses, Yakshagana, literally meaning the song of the Yakshas, or demi-gods, offered a fun way to learn one’s Hindu epics and their thousand and more stories. Yakshagana is a mix of folk theatre, dance, theatre and music, a pantomime of sorts. Today, it constitutes an art form that thrives amidst the general decline of traditional arts elsewhere in India and the region at large.

Interestingly, Yakshagana exists with an almost complete lack of caste and its trappings. For instance, there is no preference whatsoever given to artists due to their castes, says Kaje Govinda Prasad, an amateur artiste for nearly 20 years and a doctor in Uppinangady, in Dakshin Kannada district. Between managing his family estate and his medical practice, he finds time to do about ten performances in a year. ‘The money is not important to me, I do it for the passion,’ he says. ‘There may be individual animosity among the artistes in some cases, but caste never benefits or hinders a person from getting a particular role.’ However, almost all artistes, professional or otherwise, are usually Hindu. In addition, all are men, including those playing the female characters. In a society of male dominance, it was not considered respectable for a woman to be seen on stage before an audience, and this tradition has continued.

At the very core of Yakshagana is the himmela. This entourage of musicians includes a narrator, singers (bhagawatha) and musicians playing the chande and maddale drums, and the harmonium. The mummela is a team of actors who interpret and act out the songs from a section of a particular myth. Their performance, usually touching on just one main story and a few sub-stories, is called the prasanga. Performances usually begin just after dusk with elaborate drums in what is called the peetike, during which the narrator sets the background to the play with songs and music, before the actors come on stage to roar and dance until dawn.

Inclusive, interpretive
There are regional variations in Yakshagana performances. Depending on whether you are in the coastal parts of Karnataka or in the northern districts, you could be watching either the badagu-tittu or tenku-tittu styles, distinguishable both by costumes and by the way the various myths have been interpreted into poetic form. Yakshagana is also interesting in its use of symbolism. The stage has few props, if at all. ‘There is no concept of scenery or the creation of a visual context,’ says Taltaje Vasantha Kumara, a retired professor of Kannada who wore the veshas (Yakshagana costumes) while in college. ‘The ambiance is created entirely through words and their interpretation – and the audience accepts this completely.’

No matter where you are, audience participation is always a central component of the performance. It is expected that the actors will somehow involve some members of the audience in their interpretations, often in a humorous way. Spontaneity is important here, with the actors improvising their lines to suit the audience. It is no surprise, then, that actors will typically speak extempore while on stage. For instance, if an important guest is present in the audience, the person will often be referred to in a humorous manner. Or, if a certain character is being mischievous, another actor could warn them of the presence of an important guest or senior artiste or teacher, who could come out and take them to task.

Such interludes also offer a bit of levity in the midst of what are often very sombre stories. ‘The songs are as old as the days of Ramayana and Mahabharata. But as long as they are within the framework and scope of the role, it does not matter how they are interpreted or what modern elements are included,’ says Kumara. For instance, the story of the Pandavas’ Ashwamedha Yaaga is well known, but some comic relief can be added to the traditional tale by including as a character a mischievous demon, who needles the other actors. As long as the story itself does not veer off from the original plot, there are no restrictions regarding the introduction of new characters. As such, with changes in the demographics of audiences and changing tastes, issues of corruption, bribery and bumbling governments find mention in the performances, breathing fresh life into age-old stories.

‘Sometimes, the interpretation can go on for very long if the artiste is experienced and knows his character well,’ Kumara adds. ‘That is how they stretch a story throughout the night. Kaje Govinda Prasad, for instance, was so popular as Arjuna during his college days that teachers used to call him Paartha, another name of Arjuna. He says that before a performance, while he was getting his make-up done, he would decide on the framework of his role for the evening. Although he would have an idea of how he would act that evening, interpretations would follow spontaneously on stage. Most actors tend to grow into certain roles, starting from a junior part in a production and working, over the course of a decade or more, until they ‘graduate’ into a role that becomes a signature. The nonagenarian theatre stalwart Yenagi Balappa tells the story of people taking his blessings thinking he was the philosopher Basavanna – owing to a lifetime of playing that role on stage.

Channappa Shetty is now in his 60s, and has been a professional Yakshagana artist for over 40 of those years. As he talks of how things were then and now, and what he predicts will happen, his eyes glaze over. He is sitting with several other actors, who are painting their faces and getting their costumes ready for a performance due to start in thirty minutes. He is performing too, but given his experience, getting ready should not take too long. An average ‘look’ takes upward of an hour to create, while something more elaborate, for that of a demon or villain, can take up to four hours. The villains in the aata, as the play is known colloquially, always have the more elaborate costumes; the hero’s are far plainer.

Shetty started acting in the 1970s, as part of famous melas – Yakshagana companies – such as Dharmasthala, Raghavendra Swami and Kateel. Those were the days when a prasanga would begin no earlier than 9.30 pm and go on till six the next morning. ‘But we have limited time for plays now,’ Shetty says. ‘No one stays throughout the night.’ Being a professional does not earn him much. While a senior actor might earn about INR 15,000 a month, this income is restricted to the theatre season, just a few months a year. An amateur, meanwhile, might agree to perform for free sometimes, or get a nominal amount of INR 500-1000 per performance.

For most of his life, he has toured with his troupe all over Karnataka, though the art form and its most enthusiastic audience are in the Dakshin Kannada, Uttara Kannada, Udupi and Shimoga districts in Karnataka, as well as Kasargod district in Kerala. ‘There have been times when we were asked to sleep under a tree, despite the host having a huge house,’ Shetty says, referring to the bayalaata agreement, in which troupes arrange for their own accommodation. ‘Artistes were called to perform at functions and during religious events by well off families, but we were not respected.’ During season, from November to end of May, his troupe would tour from town to town, performing. ‘The camps would be far from each other,’ he recalls. ‘There were many days when we would finish an all-night show, pack our bags and, by the time we reached the next place, it would already be evening and we would have to start getting ready again – without any rest.’

Old new
The form of Yakshagana itself has seen significant experimentation, as well. The late Shivaram Karanth, an award-winning Kannada writer, played a significant role in popularising Yakshagana. He also tried experimenting, to see if it could be performed without speech at all – like a ballet. Though these pieces were well attended, the experimentation was heavily criticised by puritans, and it never really took off. Then there was Keremane Shambhu Hegde, who used the same verse over and over again but with different interpretations each time. He died on stage, performing as Rama inSrirama Niriyana, about the end of the Rama avatar. Kukkila Krishna Bhat, Kolyur Ramachandra Rao, K M Raghava Nambiar, Surikumeri Govinda Bhat and others also contributed much to the field.

Other changes have seen increasing numbers of amateurs and young people showing interest in Yakshagana. In this, the popularity of the art form in urban areas, such as Bangalore, has helped a great deal. Even while teenagers in the coastal districts aspire to become, perhaps, software professionals, during the summer many continue to attend theatre workshops – and will, more often than not, put a vesha on. Even once school begins again, many will continue to attend Yakshagana activities during the weekends. Though it is a thriving art, no one could give an estimate of how many artistes might be involved in Yakshagana, owing to the fact that there is no governing or one organising body under which they might learn and work.

Channappa Shetty, for one, says that he is confident that Yakshagana will continue to thrive, though he does foresee changes, continued experimentation and new styles seeping in. The youth taking it up, even in cities ‘is a very good thing for Yakshagana and its future,’ he says. Indeed, there have been many subtle changes in style and form, but the essence of Yakshagana has remained unchanged, in the sense that not many of the core rules have changed. It continues to inspire people to experiment, explore and extend the limits of their creativity.


Captain Nemo said...

Excellent write ups as usual. I had a quick read of both, will go back and read it leisurely tonight.
Yakshagaana is one of my fav art forms, love the energy and the spontaneous improvisations (especially some of the last few performances I watched in Bangalore were loaded with political ad libs, quite brilliant) so this again strengthened my resolve to take a break during some all night performance and document the whole process of make-up and performance through photos.

Captain Nemo said...

Oh! I forgot to type in the other half of my comment. The Prayas story is heartbreaking and heartwarming as well. Kind of looks stupid when I read what I've said above, but that's how I feel.

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Thanks Achyutha!
I love Yakshagana too. We host a performance every December through a trust that my family runs and I get to go behind the scenes there any time I want. I believe there are regular performances your part of the town.

And about Prayas, I know what you mean. Thanks again.