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Yakshagana | The Song of The Celestial Beings

As children, we’re all fascinated by stories that took us away from our everyday lives, into completely different worlds and as we grow up we tend to move away from this world, preoccupied by our modern day problems. I ,on the other hand, find myself moving towards this mystic world with stories of Gods, beautiful damsels, animals and cruel demons.

I found this beautiful art form belonging to my native land, Karnataka (India) –Yakshagana – The song of the celestial beings. Yakshagana is a traditional theatre and temple art form of Karnataka.The artists perform mythological stories from the Puranas, where the Bhagwata is accompanied by percussion instruments called chende and maddale, singhymns based on these stories as the character dances along with the accompanying narration. The artists who sing are called Bhagwata and the performing team is called as the mummela – or the ones in the background.

Being an artist myself, I was fascinated by minute details of the performance – the colourful makeup, the beautiful costumes adorning the performers and the enactment of tales we heard growing up.While we were living in Mumbai, my dad used took me to watch these performances. Most of my conversations at home were then about me narrating the stories that I understood, over and over again. My association with this gorgeous art form was as a mere spectator until now.

Two years ago, a famous Yakshagana artist started teaching at a centre near my home. I wasn’t sure if I was cut for performing, but my parents encouraged me to give it a try. And so began a different chapter of my life! Every Sunday my schedule included going for rehearsals and learning the finer details of this performative art. A Yakshagana performance looks like a grand play, performed with massive headgears, elaborate facial make-up and vibrant costumes and ornaments. Usually recited in Kannada, it is also performed in Malayalam as well as Tulu (the dialect of south Karnataka). The artists dancing and speaking on stage are collectively called as the himmela – the artists of the foreground.

Traditional performances usually start at midnight and carry on till the sun rises. The backstage has a chowki – a small place of worship where the artists sing songs both before and after performing onstage.These songs are called padya and every couplet describes the events going on. The time required for an artist to get dressed and ready may vary from 30 minutes to 2hours, depending on the makeup and costume. Colours like yellow or red are made by mixing Turmeric or Vermilion with oil. Every story has various types of characters like:

  • Rajavesha – the king,
  • Hasyagaar – the comedian,
  • Streevesha – the female characters,
  • Pundu vesha – the young warriors,
  • Bannada vesha – the most celebrated villains and demons.

The costumes for the same character may vary according to the story or Prasanga Lord Ram before the Vanvaas will be dressed as Punduvesha, during the Vanvaas as a saint, and after the Vanvaas in Rajavesha. After a year of training, we had our first performance. That’s when I realised that the performance isn’t magical at all!
The costumes are extremely heavy and the performer needs to sit for over an hour to complete the makeup and accessories to get ready for performance. ‘Kirita’, the headgear, is tied so tightly around the head to prevent it from shifting due to the rigorous movements made during the performance, but it feels like a heavy load placed upon your head. Even standing straight wearing the entire costume was a great achievement! Every part of my body hurt when I was backstage.

I realised that this was, definitely, not my cup of tea and decided that watching from the audience and performing onstage were two very different things. I was not made for the latter! After the show, as I was removing the kirita and gejje (anklets),I was congratulated for the engaging performance by people rushing into my dressing room and asked to never stop performing. The respect from the audience filled me with gratitude – how could I let them down?

Today as I teach another group of students under the guidance of my guru, my weekends are still occupied with rehearsals for several shows. People are often surprised when they see different personas – the shy and introverted young boy who turns into a terrifying rakshas on stage. I choose to take it as a complement. Being a novice in the art of Yakshagana, there’s still a lot to learn. Every senior artisthas
something different to teach, yet their love and respect for the art is beyond imagination.
I remember appreciating a famous female bhagwat once and
she said to me in tulu,

“I don’t consider myself as an expert ,there’s an ocean fall of things to learn.This right now,is equivalent to a gentle breeze that flows from the ocean.”

WRITTEN BY MANAS SHETTY

Manas ( the Yakshagana Performer) is a freelance artist who loves to explore India’s rich culture and heritage through his paintings and performances. Oh, and he’s also a chemical engineering student. You can check out Manas’ work on his Instagram.

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