Yakshagana (yakSagAna) ( ಯಕ್ಷಗಾನ) is a theatrical art form highly renowned both in Karnataka as also in national and international context. ‘Yakshagana’ means ‘the music of semi celestial gods’. This folk art has a spread in the costal districts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Uttara Kannada and the adjoining Kasaragodu district which is now a part of Kerala. It is classified in to two major categories called ‘tenku tiTTu’ (Southern Variety) and ‘baDagu tiTTu’. (Northern variety) Variations such as doDDATa and mUDalapAya performed in other regions of Karnataka appear to have some links with Yakshagana. Yakshagana is a complex combination of dance, drama and music with its own stereotyped and traditional modes of communication.
There is an argument, that performing arts such as ‘bedanDe’ and ‘cattANa’ cited in ‘Kavirajamarga’ (9th century) are the original sources of Yakshagana. However, its antiquity can definitely be traced back to the 16th century. Scholars have opined that Yakshagana began as a religious ritual. It has its cognates in the kathakaLi of Kerala, kuuchipuDi of Andhrapradesh and TerukUTu of Tamil Nadu. BayalATa and dashAvatArada ATa are other terms used to denote Yakshagana. Originally, it was a domain of people belonging to the lower castes. However, it has now emerged as a vibrant folk art transcending the boundaries of caste and creed. Of late, Yakshaganas in Tulu are as popular as those in Kannada.
There are two main categories of Yakshagana artistes and they are designated as ‘himmELa’ (Singers and interpreters) and ‘mummELa’.(Dancers and actors) BAgavAta who sings and delineates the story as and when the situation demands it, is the tour de force of the performance. The songs are rendered with a definite flair for classical music. The tenkatiTTu is more inclined towards KarnATaka sangIta where as the baDagutiTTu singers have a soft corner for hindUstAni music. It is believed that initially no such distinctions were made. The instrumentalists playing on canDe, maddaLe and harmonium provide the back ground score. The main performers called ‘arthadhAris’ do the bulk of acting and dancing. They are capable of giving a new dimension to the performance by virtue of their creativity.
On the given day in the Yakshagana season, all the artists assemble and construct a makeshift stage. The make up room called ‘chauki’ is situated right behind the stage. (aTTa) Elaborate make up, which is strictly predetermined in terms of colours, depending on the nature of the character and highly stylized costumes are put on by the actors/dancers. Masks are conspicuous by their absence. Costumes and ornaments are very elaborate. Instrumental music (kELi) heralds the beginning of the performance. Ganapathi and other gods are invoked by particular songs and dances. These invocations along with the acts of ‘bAlagOpAla’ and ‘kODangi’ (Clown) constitute the ‘pUrva ranga’ or preliminaries.
The main show is usually a mythological episode with contemporary variations. The stories are heavily dependent on the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and other purAnas. These stories have drawn heavily from the medieval Kannada classics such as Kumaravyasa Bharataha, Jaimini Bharatha, and Toraveya Ramayana for their content as well as prosodic/musical elements. More than 300 Yakshagana texts(prasanga) are now available in Kannada only.
pArti subba, muddaNa, haTTiyangaDi rAmaBaTTa, nagireya rAma and pAnDEshvarada venkaTa are notable among the writers who have written Yakshagana texts. Modern writers like Amrita Someshvara have written Yakshaganas in Tulu. kumAra vijaya, kanakAngi, BISmavijaya and pancavaTi are among very popular prasangas. Haaraadi Rama Ganiga, Keremane Shambhu Heggade, Kumbe Sundara Rao and Sheni Gopalakrishna Bhatta are some of the famous artists well known for their creativity and durability.
The singing by the BAgavata and the dialogue delivery by the ‘athadhAries are performed one after the other. The dialogues of Yakshagana are unique because they are created on the spur of the moment. Consequently they vary from show to show.
Yakshagana troupes are known as mELas in coastal Karnataka. iDagunji mELa, kundApura mELa, mAraNakaTte mELa and mandarti mELa are some of better known mELas. These troupes perform in various places through out the year except the rainy season. The season begins and ends at the temple of the deity, which is well known at the native place of the respective mELa. The first and the final shows are presented on these occasions. These meLas have their own stars and fan followings.
Dances, music, make up and costumes of Yakshagana have their own unique characteristics. Arthadharike without dance and without music is called ‘tALa maddaLe’ and it has evolved in to a separate art form.
Yakshaganas have become experimentative in recent decades. Full night performances have made way for shortened versions. Flaming torches are replaced by electric lights. Yakshagana has become a commercial enterprise. Shivarama Karantha, the great Kannada writer introduced a number of innovations. They have found favour with modern audience and the traditionalists have frowned upon them.
There are quite a few differences between the Tenkatittu and Badagutittu even though there are obvious similarities. Badagutittu is supposed to be more traditional. It has a panache for Hindustani music as mentioned earlier.