Yakshagana, Karnataka’s dance form

Do you love cultural dance forms and art? Do you cherish the old forms of dance and drama? Then Yakshagana, a traditional dance form from Karnataka state of India must surely be on your list. It is a dance form that mixes dance and theatre. In this post, I would like to introduce you to Yakshagana and also list out the places where you can visit and see the live performances of Yakshagana.

Seeing a live performance of Yakshagana was always on my bucket list. It was such a shame that even though Karnataka is my birth state, I had never seen Karnataka’s dance form even once. So, when I read in the newspaper that there was a Yakshagana performance at Karnataka Chitra Kala Parishad, I immediately RSVP’d and planned for my visit.

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About Yakshagana

Yakshagana is a combination of dance and drama unique to Karnataka, especially Coastal Karnataka. It is a traditional folk dance with dramatic costumes and make-up, music, dance and dialogues.

Known with various names such as Aata (meaning play in Kannada), Thenku Thittu or Badaga Thittu, Yakshagana is usually performed either for the entire day from dusk to dawn or is a night long event. It is performed in open air theatres or at the temples. In recent times, the performances have been reduced to about 3 hours.

The name Yakshagana is derived from Yaksha meaning celestial and Gana meaning music. It also means the people who are Yaksha meaning nature spirits.

Yakshagana, Karnataka's dance form
Yakshagana Performance at Karnataka Chitra Kala Parishad

History of Yakshagana

Yakshagana was first introduced in Udupi by Naraharitirtha, the minister of Kalinga Kingdom and a disciple of Madhvacharya. It is believed that it was first originated somewhere between the period of 11th and 16th centuries C.E.

However, the first written evidence of Yakshagana dates back to 1556 C.E and is found on an inscription at the Lakshminarayana Temple in Kurugodu of Bellary District. Another piece of evidence is inscribed on a palm leaf found at Brahmavara formerly known as Ajapura. It is in a form of a poem written by Ajapura Vishnu.

Yakshagana in its current form has a lot of influence of how the art was during the Bhakti movement. There were new compositions added and it gave birth to tent performances and became a ticketed event. Today, there are many variants and sub-genres of Yakshagana.

Yakshagana Performances

Yakshagana performance is an act by a team of artists. A typical team consists of about 15 to 20 artists. Traditionally, it consisted of only men artists but now even women are part of the team.

  • First group of artists playing the music and they are known as himmela. The lead singer is known as the bhagawatha.
  • Second group of artists narrating the dialogues and they are known as mummela.
  • Third group of artists playing the musical instruments.
  • And the fourth group of artists enacting the act on the stage.

The music is based on the ragas and each performance depicts a story and the acting is categorised as method acting. The acts are derived from mythological stories such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. Artists also perform the acts from other epic stories and of Hindu gods such as Lord Ganesha and Goddess Chamundeshwari. The performances start and end with an act praying to Lord Ganesha.

Did you know that in the early 20th century Yakshagana was taught at schools in Karnataka to ensure the children learned about the mythological stories and puranas?

Components of Yakshagana

Yakshagana has some very important components that all blend together to create a beautiful play.

  • Raga, refers to the melodic modes which comprises of five or more musical notes.
  • Tala, refers to the rhythmic frameworks which decides how composition is to be enacted by the dancers and performers on stage.
  • Prasanga and literature that are a collection of poems written to form a play and drama. It is estimated that there are more than 300 Prasanga books available today.
  • Costumes and ornaments that are vibrant, bold and colourful.
  • Musical instruments such as Maddale (played similarly like Mridangam), Taala (bells) and Chande (drum). The Taala or the bells are tuned such that it fits the bhagwatha’s (lead singer’s) voice.

Places to see Yakshagana

Yakshagana is very famous in the coastal region of Karnataka. Places like Udupi, South Canara and North Canara have regular performances. Recently, Bangalore has been showcasing these performances as well, especially at cultural fairs.

The best places to known where and when these performances occur are:

  • Local newspapers or media. There will be plenty of marketing and announcements made to know when the performances are scheduled to happen.
  • Facebook groups, events and fairs. Check for local events on Facebook and other social media channel. The events are scheduled and do come up based on the location selected.
  • Facebook page of Yakshagana training centre called Yakshagana Kendra Udupi.
  • Troupes and tours. There are many Yakshagana artists who go on tours visiting various places to perform. The tours usually happen between November and May.
  • Temples and open air theatres. Many temples including Dharmasthala temple and in Mangalore and monuments at Hampi are famous for hosting Yakshagana performances frequently.
  • Santhes and cultural fairs. Cultural and art centres such as Karnataka Chitra Kala Parishad in Bangalore host many fairs and they have traditional performances in the evenings. And this is where I saw the live performance of Yakshagana for the first time.
Yakshagana Dance Performance
Yakshagana Performance at Karnataka Chitra Kala Parishad

Closing Notes

Yakshagana is surely one of the best traditional dance forms in India. It is so dramatic and an absolute delight to watch the artists perform to various scenes from the epic and mythological stories. I had such an amazing time watching the artists narrate and tell different stories that I had heard from my parents while growing up.

Have you watched Yakshagana? Where did you watch it? Let me know in the comments below.

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