Counter Arts
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Counter Arts

Yakshagana — A Unique and Rare Traditional Folk Art Form

from Karnataka, India

Yakshagana Vidya Sury
Yakshagana artist in costume — Photo by Vidya Sury ©

We had an invitation to a Yakshagana performance — a rare and unique traditional theater art form from Karnataka, India a few years ago. To say we were mesmerized by the artists would be an understatement.

Yakshagana literally means the song or gana of a yaksha, which is a term for the exotic tribes of ancient India. This art form has a recorded history of more than five centuries. The performances are a rich artistic blend of racy music, forceful dance, extempore speech, and gorgeous costumes. They combine the features of opera as well as drama, the characteristics of moral education, and of course, mass entertainment.

A Yakshagana performance begins during the twilight hours with the beating of several fixed compositions on drums called “abbara” or “peetike” for up to an hour before the actors actually get on the stage.

As you can see, the actors wear elaborate and resplendent costumes, headdresses, and face paint.

RegionalResouceCenterUdupi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These days, yakshagana performances are staged in indoor auditoriums and the performing troupe, called “Mela” or “Mandali”, traditionally travels from village to village. They performed in the paddy fields in the open air, throughout the night.

Photo by Vidya Sury ©

A Yakshagana performance usually depicts a story from Indian epic poems and the Puranas such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavatam. There is a narrator or “Bhagavata” who either narrates the story by singing or sings the dialogs of a character, backed by musicians playing on traditional musical instruments.

Photo by Vidya Sury ©

The actors dance to the music, with actions that portray the story as it is being narrated. All the components of Yakshagana — music, dance, and dialog — are constantly improvised. Depending on the ability of the actors, variations in dance and the amount of dialog may change.

The artists have the freedom to depict the characters and story in their unique perspectives, which is where the extempore dialogue comes in. They open up stories and characters in multi-facets and this makes each performance unique.

Photo by Vidya Sury ©

We can see actors often getting into philosophical debates or arguments without going out of the framework of the character being enacted, and that is simply wonderful to watch. One might say that a Yakshagana performance is method acting at its best.

The vibrant Yakshagana performance we attended was by the dance troupe Sri Idagunji Mahaganapathi Yakshagana Mandali Keremane.

Established in 1934 by the late Sri Keremane Shivarama Hegde, their repertoire consists mainly of episodes from Indian mythology. The troupe is very popular for being innovative and experimenting while sticking to the traditional heritage of this wonderful theater art form. They have more than 7000 shows to their credit, both in India and abroad.

Photo by Vidya Sury ©

By the way, all the actors in the troupe are male — and the women in the dance drama are all-male actors dressed as women! I could have never guessed.

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