Veteran Yakshagana artiste Keremane Shivananda Hegde speaks about the relevance of this centuries-old theatre art form

Yakshagana is the traditional theatre art form of Karnataka, particularly prevalent and developed in the south and north Karnataka, Udupi, Shimoga and western parts of Chikmagalur districts in Karnataka and in Kasaragod of Tamil Nadu. A group of performing artistes, known as a mela or mandali — through the medium of music, songs with lyrics, drama, dance and dialogues in Kannada — enact and recreate varied stories from Hindu mythology or sacred texts including Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagwatham. This is done to enlighten the audience the significance of the presentation by maintaining the cultural and social relevance of the play. Mangalore-based Keremane Shivananda Hegde is the third generation Yakshagana artiste, belonging to a family of professional performers for the last 85 years. Here, Hegde narrates the significance of Yakshagana, evolution, social relevance, and its growing popularity overseas, and more. Excerpts:

What makes Yakshagana relevant even today?

Yakshagana has been around for centuries due to its increasing popularity and social relevance. For instance, in Ramayana, we project the complete personality of Lord Rama as an obedient son, devoted husband, and a just ruler. Lord Rama is a maryadapurush (an ideal man) who forsakes his personal pleasure for the sake of the betterment of his people. In today’s world, where do we find such ideal rulers? The philosophy and ideology of Ramayana is socially relevant today as well. Even today, almost everyone feels excited to watch mythological characters like Ravana, Krishna or Lord Rama coming alive on the stage, as the stories unfold with gripping attention.

Keremane in Shiva avatar during a performance
Keremane in Shiva avatar during a performance

Has Yakshagana performance changed or evolved over the years?

The earliest prasanga (play) dates back to the 15th century, and ever since, Yakshagana, also known as music of the Gandharvas, has gone through varied stages of development and changes in order to suit the changing trends of society. Nevertheless, the basic structure of storytelling has not changed. Originally, the performance used to last the whole night, but due to time constraints, the performance has been reduced to two to three hours. There are about 30 professional troupes in Karnataka and about 200 amateur groups that perform around the year. During festive occasions, Yakshagana performance is a must. The performers are essentially male; in fact, female roles are also enacted by men.

Tell us about your Yakshagana Academy.

Young boys are trained to sing, act, dance and emote here. Our traditional theatre art organisation, Sri Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali, Keremane, was founded by veteran artiste Shivarama Hegde in 1934, followed by his son Shambu Hegde, who established the Srimaya Yakshagana Kala Kendra. The legacy moves forward with his son, Shivananda Hegde, who has made some innovative changes in the style of presentation and is acclaimed as one of leading Yakshagana artistes of Karnataka. Some other prominent artistes are Chittami Ramach, Kalinga Navada and Manyappa Uppoor. The technique is quite simple, but the performers are expected to be versatile, as they are supposed to sing, dance, act and deliver the dialogues properly and in a dramatic manner.

One of Keremane’s performance
One of Keremane’s performance

The Yakshagana Academy functions on three different levels: First, shikshana in which young boys are taught to appreciate and understand varied stories of Hindu mythology along with languages like Kannada and Sanskrit; second is rakshana, which involves preservation and propagation of the Yakshagana art form; and third is samvardhana, which is a creative exploration and development of Yakshagana and its allied art form.

Can you elaborate on the significance of make-up, costumes and music in a Yakshagana performance?

The music is Carnatic with elements of folk and light music, which varies, according to the character representation. Besides the vocal music, the percussion musical instruments used are maddale, chande and taala to maintain the rhythm of the music and dance as well. The makeup is quite elaborate and takes hours for the performer to be ready. The colourful make-up changes according to the character represented.

In Badagutittu Yakshagana, ornaments are made from light wood, pieces of mirror and coloured stones for the shining effect. Lighter materials including thermocol and wood are used, which is covered with a golden foil. The headgear or kirata or pagadi varies according to the character, kavacha is used to cover the chest, buja keerthi are the armlets and shoulder ornaments. Incidentally, the upper part of the body is more decorated. The kachhe is in red, yellow or orange colour and bulky pads are used to give the bulky effect. While bannada vesh are for the monsters, stree vesh is of the sari and other decorative ornaments.

How different is Yakshagana from Kathakali?

In Yakshagana, we portray different stories from Hindu mythology through the medium of music, dance, dialogues, etc., along with colourful costumes, which vary according to the characters represented. In Kathakali, the costumes and makeup are more elaborate and stylised, and gestures and mudras are used to project different stories dramatically, without the usage of dialogues or vachika abhinaya. In Yakshagana, we use dialogues, which are in Kannada hence easily understood by the people, unlike Kathakali, which is not easily understood.

And it is making waves outside India as well...

Yakshagana is the most popular traditional theatre art form watched by Kannadigas all over the world. It is not surprising to watch Yakshagana performances in Canada, US or any other countries. Our troop has been regularly performing in European countries too.

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