YAKSHAGANA – A dance drama form of Tulunadu

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Yakshagana is a traditional theatre form that combines dance, music, dialogue, costume, make-up, and stage techniques with a unique style and form. This theatre style is mainly found in Tulunadu and the Malenadu region of Karnataka,  Yakshagana is traditionally presented from dusk to dawn.The word Yakshgana means the songs of the Demi-Gods (yaksh ‘meaning Demi-God, and ‘gana’ meaning song).

A performance usually depicts a story from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. Yakshagana is lively, fast-paced form in which songs, dances and improvised dialogue mix according to a prescribed structure. Yakshagana is popular with the rural audiences. At the heart of Yakshagana are the poetic songs (prasanga) sung by the chief musician (bhagavata), who thus controls the pace of the performance. The most popular of these songs have been transcribed and published, even those from hundreds of years ago. With their particular melody (raga) and metre intact, they constitute a major part of the historical record of regional Indian dramatic literature.

Yakshagana can refer to a style of writing, as well as the written material itself. It was probably used for poems enacted in bayalaata (or open theater drama), such as the ballads of Koti and Chennayya.” Yakshagana in its present form is believed to have been strongly influenced by the Vaishnava Bhakti movement. Yakshagana was first introduced in Udupi by Madhvacharya’s disciple Narahari Tirtha. Narahari Tirtha was the minister in the Kalinga Kingdom. He also was the founder of Kuchipudi.

The first written evidence regarding Yakshagana is found on an inscription at the Lakshminarayana Temple in Kurugodu, Somasamudra, Bellary District, and is dated 1556 CE. A copy is available at the University of Madras. The inscription mentions land donated to the performers of the art, so as to enable people to enjoy tala maddale programs at the temple. Another important piece of evidence is available in the form of a poem authored by Ajapura Vishnu, the Virata Parva, inscribed on a palm-leaf found at Ajapura (present day Brahmavara). Another historic palm-leaf manuscript, dated 1621 CE, describes Sabhalakshana.

Scholars have classified Yakshagana broadly into several types:

Tenkutittu: One of the traditional variations, the tenkutittu style, is prevalent in Dakshina Kannada, Kasaragod District, western parts of Coorg (Sampaje), and few areas of Udupi district. The influence of Karnatic Music is apparent in tenkutittu, as evidenced by the type of maddale used and in bhaagavathike. Yakshagana is influenced more by folk art blended with classical dance aspects. In tenkutittu, three iconic set of colors are used: the Raajabanna, the Kaatbanna, and the Sthreebanna.

The himmela in the tenkutittu style is more cohesive to the entire production. Rhythms of the chande and maddale coupled with the chakrataala and jaagate of the bhaagavatha create an excellent symphonic sound. The dance form in tenkutittu strikes the attention of the audience by ‘Dheengina’ or ‘Guttu’. Performers often do dhiginas (jumping spins in the air) and will continuously spin (sometimes) hundreds of times. Tenkutittu is noted for its incredible dance steps; its high flying dance moves; and its extravagant rakshasas (demons).

Tenkutittu has remained a popular form and has its own audience outside the coastal areas. The dharmasthala and kateelu durgaparameshwari melas (the two most popular melas) have helped to popularize this form. Several creative tenkutittu plays have been composed by noted scholars, such as Amritha Someshwara.

BadagutittuThe Badagutittu style is prevalent in North Canarat(Uttara Kannada District) andhe northern parts of South Canara from Padubidri to Byndoor, The Badagutittu school of Yakshagana places more emphasis on facial expressions, matugarike (dialogues), and dances appropriate for the character depicted in the episode. It makes use of a typical Karnataka chande.

The Badagutittu style was popularized by Shivram Karanth’s, “Yakshagana Mandira,” presented at Saligrama Village in Dakshina Kannada as a shorter more modern form of Yakshagana.

Keremane Shivarama Hegde, the founder of the Yakshagana troupe, Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali, is an exponent of the Badagutittu style of Yakshagana. He is also the first Yakshagana artist to receive the Rashtrapati Award from the president of India. He hails from the Honnavar taluk of Uttara Kannada (North Canara) District.

Important Components Of Yakshagana are: 

Raga: Yakshagana Rāga refers to melodic framework used in Yakshagana. It is based on pre-classical melodic forms that comprise a series of five or more musical notes upon which a melody is founded. Ragas in Yakshagana are closely associated with a set of melodic forms called mattu.

Tala: Yakshagana Tala are frameworks for rhythms in Yakshagana that are determined by a poetry style called Yakshagana Padya. Tala also decides how a composition is to be enacted by the dancers.

Prasanga and literature: Yakshagana poetry  is a collection of poems written to form a music drama. The poems are composed in well known Kannada metres, using a frame work of ragas and talas. The collection of Yakshagana poems forming a musical drama is called a Prasanga. The oldest surviving parasanga books are believed to have been composed in the 15th century.

Traditionally the performances are staged in the open air over a period of dusk to dawn. It is originally staged in the compound of a temple where the “Rangasthalla” (stage) is adorned with leaves of mango and plantain, and flowers and coconut and coloured paper add to the festive look. There are about 30 professional troupes and about 200 amateur troupes performing this ancient art form. The performances are usually held during the months of November and May.

Yakshagana is slowly but steadily gaining popularity outside India. Amateur groups have successfully staged performances in the USA and Canada.

In early times the training in the art of Yakshagana has been mostly confined to temples.  Govinda Pai Research Institute located at MGM College at Udupi and Srimaya Yakshagana Training Centre at Gunavante in Uttar Karnataka are two such institutes which train youngsters in this ancient dance form.

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