theatre-living the celestial world

Mythology has held us all in awe and fascination. Kings, queens and demons come alive in the stories we have grown up listening to. Our heads turn salt and pepper but mythology retains an aura of intrigue and remains our favorite fantasy. Watered further by our social and cultural fabric, mythology grows on us like our second skin.
Characters from mythology have etched themselves on our minds. We love their generosity and flexibility, and appreciate the power they have given us to imagine them however we wish. We constantly challenge our own imagination. What their world feels like? What’s their music like? What they might look like?
Indian mythology contributes its own rich share. There are Gods, demigods, demons, birds and animals. How lucky must we be if a folk art brings alive our fantasy land!

Yakshagana is a traditional theatre form which is believed to have its origin in the coastal belt of Karnataka, a southern state in India. It’s a vibrant dance form that blends singing, dancing and narration. Yakshagana, bisecting the word, may be interpreted as the music (gana) of the celestial beings (yakshas/gandharvas). The dance dramas typically called ‘prasangas’ are generally based on Indian mythology. However the art is adapting to the need of changing times. Until a few years ago both male and female characters were played by men but in the recent years women have actively embraced the art form, both as singers and performers.

Krishnarjuna kalaga- a righteousness dilemma for Subhadra (Krishna-Subhadra)

There is a backdrop of singing throughout the performance. The singer has the accompaniment of chande, mrudanga and maddale which are percussion instruments, and taala or cymbals. Together they form the musical narrative for the performers. The vocalist and instrumentalists are dressed in a colorful turban and white (panche jubba) attire. The performers on the other hand wear strikingly colorful headgears, costumes and glittering adornments. The facial make up is quite elaborate and loud. The eyes, brows and mouth are over emphasized to depict the dramatic expressions of the performer.

Krishnarjuna Kalaga- Krishna

The dance is attractive and involves vigorous and equally gracious steps. The story proceeds switching between dialogues, dance and drama. Light humor is introduced through clown characters known as hasyagars. All is not simply a flash of colours, glitter and razzle-dazzle. The performance acquires a serious and contemplative mood as characters debate dilemmas and righteousness evoking our sensibility and judgement. Witty conversations rule a well enacted prasanga.
I do watch yakshagana shows when I get a chance. They are typically late evening to dawn shows. There are daytime shows of three to four hour duration which I personally prefer over whole night shows. The loudness of music and make up may seem overwhelming for beginners but you will soon begin to appreciate the art. The extraterrestrials are entitled to make the right kind of noise. Whoever imagines a soundless world of kings and ogres, wars and battlefields!

Scenes involving Subhadra, Arjuna and their son Abhimanyu

A couple of weeks ago a Kannada monthly magazine ‘Samajamukhi’ in collaboration with Bangalore International Center organized one such performance Krishnarjuna Kalaga which means war between Krishna and Arjuna. Krishna is the Lord, and Arjuna is a character from the great Indian epic Mahabharatha. The purpose of having this event was to promote the folk art of Karnataka. The event was performed by seasoned artistes of Ananta Yakshakala Pratishthana of Sirsi town. The pictures are from the day’s event.

Those who are in the knowledge of folklore would know the storyline. Krishna has vowed to kill Gaya (son of Kubera) in eight days because he is angered that Gaya polluted the holy water intended for worshipping the Gods. Krishna has also vowed that if he is unable to finish Gaya he would kill himself. He finds out that Gaya has found shelter with the Pandavas who are supposed to be loyal to Krishna. In order to get Gaya out of the shelter of Arjuna (one of the pandavas) Krishna sends his sister Subhadra who is married to Arjuna but now under the care of brother Krishna as the pandavas are in exile in the forest. The prasanga ends with an all is well note.