Yakshagana – Dance, Drama and Music

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Yakshagana is a theatrical form of presenting Mythological and historical stories. A Yakshagana performance includes music, dance and dialogues.

Meaning and Origin of Yakshgana

The word Yakshgana means the songs of the Demi-Gods (yaksh ‘meaning Demi-God, and ‘gana’ meaning song). The performers wear interesting and colourful costumes, and elaborate headgears. The stage design and unique rendering is similar to that of the Western Opera.

It is believed to have originated in the coastal districts of Karnataka. The true representation of the poems enacted in these plays is attributed to have started during the Vaishnav Bhakti movement in the 11th century. In 13th century, a Sage named Narahari Thirtha started Dashavathara performance in Udupi, which later developed into the Yakshagana of today.

Yakshagana Performance

The Play: The lively performance full of dance and drama has poetic songs sung by the chief musician known as the’ Bhagvata’ who controls the narrative. The play begins with a prelude called the “Sabhalakshana’ followed by the “Prasanga” The dialogues were traditionally impromptu, and were rendered by the actors with the flow of the song. As the dialogues are impromptu, no two performances of the same play will be identical.

Music: The performance also includes background music played by a group of musicians known as “Himmela”. The background music consists of a mix of drums, pipes and organs. The prasangas or stories are mostly based on the Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the Puranas. Yakshaganas are also performed on significant events of the lives of historical legends. To lighten up the narrative humor is introduced in the performance by the antics of the clown called the” Hasyagar”. The mythological characters and various incarnations of Gods and Goddesses take the viewer in to a surreal world.

Characters: In Yakshagana the men portray both male and female characters.  The elaborate headgears are decorated differently for Kings and for the demons. The makeup of the demons is done to bring out their demonic character. The full ensemble of a Yakshagana consists of a minimum of 15 people, which include the musicians, the actors and the narrator.

Stage: 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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