Sunday, June 27, 1999
MOONLIT village square or a temple courtyard, people collecting on the high-pitched drumming beats of Chande, a childs heart pounding with every roar of a demon, anothers mouth wide open on the vigorous dancing movements of the colourful characters, and a woman sleeping in the audience with the melodious chanting of the storyteller (Bhagawat) falling in her ears is what Yakshagana (the songs of the heavenly Yakshas) is all about. This folk theatre form occupies a central place in the cultural ethos of the people of Karnataka. Being a part of the direction team documenting Yakshagana under G.S. Chani, was an awe-inspiring experience.
It may sound a little trite when I say that God has really been very generous in the adornment and decoration of South Kanara, but with the sea and the beaches on one side, and the hills of the Western Ghats on the other, with water in the form of sea, rivers, back-water, and greenery in the form of paddy fields, spice gardens and tall palm trees, there is everything present that would make you want to build up a cottage and stay there for ever. Now being a part of Chanis team meant shooting everything and anything that was even remotely connected with the folk form, which in turn meant a pretty hectic schedule for the days of our stay in this land of Yakshagana. Both the form and the South Kanara region provided sufficient cushioning, padding and comfort to make our work there more like a one big holiday.
For six months starting from November end the Yakshagana troupes travel from village to village performing the Yakshagana Prasangas or episodes. It is difficult to know in advance where the show is to be. The patron, in the time of distress or for good luck, may commission a Yakshagana performance as an offering to the gods. At other times simply for his own enjoyment with his friends and the folk of his village. Anyone is welcome, free of cost.
The stories are about the time when the gods walked the earth in the human forms, chariots flew in the air, monkey god Hanuman setting the entire Lanka on fire and the time when good eventually and always overcame evil. The epics and the Puranic legends of our country are so rich in drama that they still attract audiences in great number be it Kuttiyatam of Kerala, Terikoothu of Tamil Nadu or Yakshagana of Karnataka. Yakshagana package entices audiences with this drama wrapped in colourful make-up and costumes and presented to them through the graceful and elegant dance movements.
Though all the nine rasas are presented through the 12-hour-long Yakshagana performance, with Lasya and Sringhara being a real delight, the two which are most successfully portrayed are the Veera (heroic) and the Raudra (furious Rasas). The words and the musical compositions are set to bring out the heroic. The diction of Yakshagana speech is exalted with good Sanskrit quotations. Most of the Prasangas are mainly concerned with battles and marriages. And it is amidst these fights and warfare, hot words, vigorous dance movements and wild drumming that the Bhagawat (the lead singer) sings the episodes most intensively.
One of the night performances that we shot was the Sri Devi Mahatma, one big spectacular extravaganza with magnificent display of drama, histrionics and melodrama. A total theatre. It had the gods, the demons, war cries, hot words exchanged, fights and battles and the death of Mahishasura, the demon with the head of a bull, at the hands of the devi. The heads turn back on the entry of Mahisha-sura from behind the audience amidst the sound of a loud band, fireworks and heartbeats synchronised at an uncomfortable pace. And then we have the entry of the devi herself. The powerful goddess comes onto the stage with her lion amidst the veneration of the people in the audience. For us living in the cities very far away from this land of Yakshagana it was a once in a life time experience.
The amazing thing about Yakshagana is that how these ordinary looking people with extraordinary make-up and larger than life costumes get transformed into these awesome gods, ferocious demons, handsome princes and beautiful princesses. The towering headgear of the heroic characters and the elaborated make-up of the demons create a fantasy world for the audience. The best part about make-up and costuming of Yakshagana is the impeccable transformation of the Stri Veshas (women characters played by men) of the kind one would get attracted to. I myself could not keep my eye off a boy who through make-up and costumes was so amazingly transformed into a beautiful Promilla (a character from one of the Prasangas.
The children grow up with it, men and women in the villages wait eagerly for their favourite Prasangas, and those who have left their village and shifted to other parts of the country in search of better pastures have the worldly wisdom, fine truths and classical philosophic ideas of Yakshagana running in them. We were looking for somebody from Karnataka, who could help us with some of the translations, when we found. Shetty, a bank manager in one of the banks in Chandigarh. The moment the name Yakshagana was mentioned he started narrating his experience, going back memory lane with a twinkle in his eye and eagerness in his tone as he described the valour of his favourite characters from the Yakshagana Prasangas.
They say the poet
receives Gods blessing when he writes a Prasanga,
the performer when he performs it and the audience
member when he listens to it. I really dont know
about that but there is definitely something spiritual
about the entire experience of a Yakshagana performance.
This vibrant form is very much alive and the very fact
that some of the Yakshagana troupes are booked
till the fall of the first decade of the twentyfirst
century, there seems to be no threat whatsoever to this
awesome form fulfilling the collective psychic and
emotional needs of the people of Karnataka.
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