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YAKSHAGANA AND ELEMENTS OF MODERN THEATRE

SATHYA MANOHAR AND VANDANA SUPRIYA

Abstract: Yakhsagana, a four hundered year old operatic form of indian traditional
theatre, from karnataka, rich in colour, vibrance, myth, rhythm and drama, as the name
suggests is ’the dance of the celestials’, Its repetoire is made up of stories from the great
epics of india the ramayana the mahabhatarata and the dashavatara. All elements of
theartre, dance drama and music used in this form are not merely entertaining but also
serve a higher purpose of community building, uplifting and spiritually elevating. We
aim to study yakshagana in this social framework. We look at three theorists of mordern
theatre, and find that charecteristics that they admire most in theatre have their roots
in, and closely parallel some aspects of indian theatre.This paper is an attempt to observe
these parallels in Yakhagana.

1. Motivation and Overview


We started out by studying the spiritual significance of yakshagana, and its relevance in
its social environment. We then stumbled upon the notion that some modern theorists have
worked hard to incorporate certain principles in their ideal of theatre and that Yakshagana
and other forms of indian theatre have had these elements in their structure for many
hundreds of years. In chapter 1 we plan to outline the elements in Yakshagana stressing
more on its purpose, origins and its social context rather than on the actual performance
or its reportoire. In Chapter 2, we will sketch in simple terms the ideas that three great
theorists of modern theatre (Brecht, Artaud and Grotowski), have tried to infuse into their
representation of modern theatre. In Chapter 3, we aim to see aspects in Yakshagana that
echo the ideas of these modern theorists. In Chapter 4 we conclude that Yakshagana as a
form of theatre has had the elements that modern theorits admired for many hundereds of
years before them. By studying Yakshagana in the light of these modern theories we hope
to bring out the timelessness of the art and to explain to those unfamiliar to this art form
the comparable elements in modern theatre.

2. Yakshagana: A brief introduction


2.1. Origins. The Bhagavad Gita explains that liberation or salvation may take the form
of action, knowledge and devotion, giving the highest place to devotion. The vaishanvite
Bhakthi movement is related directly to this devotional way to liberation . Vishnu’s man-
ifestations as Rama and Krishna are the most popular and have inspired a vast treasury
of mythical and puranic stories. These stories formed the primary impulse in the creation

Date: February 2009.


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of drama and traditional theatre in india.. Yakshagana performances are based on sto-
ries from the great epics Ramayana and Mahahbarata, popular themes from the puranas
dealing with the ten incarnations of Vishnu, the Dashavatara. Thats is why it is also
called Dashavatara atta, or simply Bayalata (’opera in the feilds’). In north Karnataka
it is Doddatta, in old Mysore it is Moodalapaya, and in the coastal districts it is called
Yakshagana. I Yakshagana’s origins can be traced to the Sanskrit plays of the 4th century
AD. In the rural parts of karnataka, Jakkini is a local diety. Dr Shivram Karanth says that
the word Jakkini in Kannada means Yakshini. And this may be the reason for the form
to be called Yakshagana. Shri K. S. Upadhyaya, suggests that Yakshagana is representa-
tive of the great cultural traditions of Karnataka, particularly in the areas from Udupi to
Gokarna. He says that it draws its inspiration from pre-historic, ritualistic dances used in
the worship of Naga, the snake god. The graceful and serpentine patterns that Yakshagana
dancers make, apparently resemble the nagamandala.
We will now breifly introduce the salient aspects of Yakshagana, including its music and
its theme, and its space and content.
2.2. The stage as a performance space. In a typical stage performance, the stage is a
simple mud platform lit by hand held burning torches, or petromax lamps. It is a nuetral
space, easily manipulated by the actor capable of portraying a multiplicity of locales and
simultainity of action. The stage is sanctified with water before a performance. Women
were never allowed to enter the stage. The sanctity on stage would be lost then. Men
dressed as women whenever neccessry and the women’s role was usually only to serve as a
distraction and as a light change of interest from the heavy puranic themes.
The audience is seated around the stage, that has no walls for props or decorations,
except for the actors themselves. The actor is the focus. He stands on the bare stage
and creates the vivid scenes with his dynamic presence. This very complex and multiple
interaction between performance space, its environment, the spectators and performers is a
fascinating aspect of Yakshagana performances. Today it has also moved to the proscenium
stage and performed in the cities and overseas, for from the land of its origin. Lighting
techniques have been modernised and in such situations the ethereal effect of the mud stage
is lost. These new spaces change the aesthetics of reception of a performance and mar the
intimate relationship between the actor and spectator, and reduce the dramatic impact.
Indian traditional theatre was designed to be seen from all sides, just as sculpture on the
temple walls can only be appreciated by making a parikrama (cicumambulation).
The simple, mikeless, minimally lit stage possibly defined the costume and the elaborate
movement. such that they may be seen from a distance. The dim light adding to the
magical aura of the puranic charaters that were portrayed.
2.3. Costume and makeup and role type. In Yakshagana, the role type determines
the costume make up, the headgear, the entrance and the exit. These elements are highly
codifeied and considered sacred so much so that performers and their roles are sometimes
passed from father to son.
The characters are made to look larger than life since they have to be seen from a
distance. Hence the costume is elaborate, with a layer of checquered fabric and and a skirt
YAKSHAGANA AND ELEMENTS OF MODERN THEATRE 3

like frilly layer over that. The shirts vary in colour depending on the role, finishing with very
large gilted gold ornaments made of wood. They wear elaborate head gear,(see appendix 1
for the various headgear) heavy make up exaggerating their eyes (sometimes drawn over the
eyebrows), and wear bushy large moustaches. (see cover picture).Their gtittering costumes
and elaborate head gear add to their larger than life portrayal of mythical characters. Their
costumes and headgear become part of the actors persona rather than being an addtional
decoration or prop. The scenic effect is enhanced only by the actors codified gait, acting,
and symbolic hand gestures. The costume and the dramatic entry are important factors
in establishing the role right at the onset.
All objects used in the drama are considered objects of worship, and thus treated with
reverence. All performances begin with a puja to Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles.
Interestingly a puja is performed wit the headgear as a symbol of god. Also there is
an elaborate ritual before the performer dons his headgear. Even after he puts on the
headgear, he does not enter the character completely. Instead he keeps a distance and is
fuly aware of his audience he will please. The actors keep the audience informed of their
plans and some speeches are directly addressed to the audience.
2.4. The performer and the performance text. That brings us to the most impor-
tant aspect of a yakshagana performance, the actor himself. Considering the fact that
performances run through the night he must first of all be fit, disciplined and focussed.
Second he must be a dancer, a singer, and an evocative narrator, who can throw his voice
and reach the audience. Lastly he must be well versed in the study of puranas and their
characters in the context of the story. As part of the training the performer learns the
role, the dance, the music, and the epic stories, since its the dramatic text and the actor
who carry the burden of describing the setting, in the absence of rehearsed speeches and
dialogue.
With a need for such all rounded involvement it is no surprise that artists were born into
their roles. Apparently there were families designated with the performance of a certain
role. Generations of performers learned to live and breathe the role that they would
perform. And just as we venerate film heroes, Yakshagana artists were hero worshipped
and people thronged to see the role of their favourite epic hero (such as Rama) performed
by a particular artist.
As for any work of art, to mark out the boundaries between the world of representation
and the real world, requires a frame or a performance text. In Yakshagana the dramatic
text is not merely words but incorporates gestures, movements, music etc. As part of the
training, the Yakshagana performer learns role, and absorbs music, dance, and gestures
along with the words in the text.
2.5. Time space and context. In the month of February when the harvest is done and
the larder full, it is time for giving thanks and a time for Yakshagana too. This form was
always presented as a ritual thanksgiving and as an offering to God, and sometimes as a
vow and sacrifice too. It was part of a larger environment and community life outside the
performance space, always celebrating the seasons, festivals, fairs and other community
events, thereby embedded in a strong socio-cultural context.
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While it was entertaining it ws also a retelling of stories from the epics. A kind of
discourse on morality, virtue, heroism and the inevitable triumph of good over evil. There
were the heroes, the villains, demi-gods and kings, all in black and white, either good or
evil. Fascinating stories were woven around these characters, with each character entering
with a distinctively elaborate introduction. Yakshagana, in dealing with the myths and
legends, mixed the affairs of gods and heroes by puting the action in double time order,
both divine and human as well as mythical and historical. The pancha pandavas as heroes
and their problems, were portrayed with Krishna at the helm of affairs.
In performances, lapse of time was dealt with by using simple devices and conventions.
The narrator, or the bhagavatha announced the time and space of action. Entry songs and
the half curatin solves the problem of time and space in a metaphysical way.
The half curtain is an important part of all traditional theatre and can be a subject
for a doctoral thesis in its depth and variety. It is usually a six feet by eight feet piece
of rectangular cloth, which in modern times also carries the name of the troupe. It is
used in many ways. First it helps to create anticipation and expectancy as in the visual
treat of veiwing a decorated diety in a temple, when revealed from behind a curtain, when
the performer is revealed bit by bit. It is charged with religious spirit, and thus acquires
the character of a symbol. Second it helps to connect different time and space sequences,
including human and divine time.
Yakshagana makes a most spectacular use of the half-curtain in manipulating a group
entrance, as of the Pandava heroes, making a powerful visual impact upon the spectator.
The half-curtain is held vertically about one foot above the ground. When the actor-
dancers perform the first part of the introductory dance, they dramatically move the curtain
forward.
Finally the most important aspect of the curtain is that it serves to loosen the per-
formance structure. Its usually held by two vidhuskas, or comedians, and their frequent
informal entry and exit affects the performance structure in interesting ways. They per-
form out -of -frame activities and comic interludes which help loosen the structure of the
play.

2.6. Music, moods(rasa) and movement and choreography. Shri Sarangadeva (13th
century AD), in his Sangeetha Rathnakara, describes a metre called rahadi, similar to the
ragale in Kannada. The blank verse of western wrtiting is similar to this metre. This
metre lends itself well to bring out the veera rasa, (emotions of valour). Its structure lends
itself to powerful delivery and easy assimilation of the text. These days in addition to
this metre others like bhamini, vardhaakya, Kanda, vritta, dvipadi and shatpadi are used.
Since the themes were of valour, victory, heroism and sacrifice, the veera rasa was the
dominant sentiment. Thus movement and footwork were in keeping with this mood : fast
paced, energetic with pirruoettes and jumps. A characteristic Yakshagana jump requires
the actor to heave himself high up in the air both feet off the ground. The percussion
instruments are the chande and the maddale. While the latter is similar to the mridanga,
the former is not. Its sounds are very distinctive and characteristic of Yakshagana. This
instrument lends itself very well to presentations of conflict, terror and war. Dance is
YAKSHAGANA AND ELEMENTS OF MODERN THEATRE 5

central to the entire dramatic enactment. Though much of the act is spontaneous, there
are elaborately choreographed passages of varying length , used to punctuate, highlight,
or conclude a dramatic movement. Group choregraphy is used for enacting high points of
action, specifically battle scenes. The story does not rush to a climax, instead it meanders
along allowing the spectators to savour the sentiment(rasa) that the scene evokes. The
lyrics in songs are inspired by the rich peotry of Kumara Vyasa, Kumara Valmiki and
other 17th century poets. Devidaa, Parthi Subba, Venkata, and Rama Bhatta are some of
the folk writers who have composed prasangas. The lyrics are set to ragas that are very
typical and suited to the themes in Yakshagana.
With this brief introduction to Yakshagana, we will now proceed to introduce modern
theatre and its theorists.

3. Modern Theatre Theory


We choose three of most perceptive and creative theatre theorists of western theatre
and look at the elements that they admired most in theatre. Each of them have different
approaches to the theatre experience.
The first speaks of technique while the second looks to the spiritual aspects in the
performance and the third emphasizes the excellence of the artist himself.
3.1. Bertolt Brecht (18981956). was a German poet, playwright, and a very renowned
theatre director of the twentieth century. Some of his principles have been influenced by
Chinese theatre.
First, let us look at his most celebrated principle, the alienation effect (Verfremdungsef-
fekt in German) which he uses in his ’epic theatre’. Here the audience is always aware that
it is watching a play. Epic theatre was a reaction against other popular forms of theatre,
particularly the naturalistic approach pioneered by Constantin Stanislavski. He wished to
keep the audience from empathising deeply or engaging their rational faculties. He believed
that this detachment was neccessary for catharsis.
Brecht used comedy as a tool to alienate the audience. Actors are required to perform
believably but not become the characters they portray. Actors frequently address the
audience directly out of character (”breaking the fourth wall”) and play multiple roles.
Brecht allowed his characters freedom, and tried to develop a style of acting wherein it was
evident that the characters were choosing one action over another. This he called ”fixing
the Not / But element.” Second, He believed that action of a play was a justification of the
characters rather than a revelation of it. Basic characters do not unfold but are established
at the onset. Third, he wanted his plays to be a potential for social movement through their
didactic moralising. Fourth, the ”Relaxed Audience” is how Brecht referred to the audience
he wished the epic theatre to attract. Brecht often spoke of what he termed a smokers
theatre, where spectators would puff on cigars, and relax, whilst watching a performance.
They are there to be entertained and interested in what they see and therefore are able to
think. Fifth, he advised treating each element of a play independently, music, dance, story
etc., and was heavily influenced by musicals and fairground performers, putting music and
song in his plays.
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3.2. Antonin Artaud(1895-1948). Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, better known as An-
tonin Artaud was a French playwright, poet, actor and theatre director. Artaud drew his
inspiration from Balinese theatre, which he apparently never saw in its original environ-
ment. Much of the West’s fascination with rituals in theatre can be directly attributed to
him. His principles are rooted in a fundamental revolt against an insincerity in literature,
where the written word corresponds to an attitude or prejudice. His most cherished dream
was to found a new kind of theatre in French which would be, not an artistic spectacle,
but a communion between spectators and actors. He asks us, just as primitive men did,
to look beyond the rituals and see the world as a result of mysterious and awesome forces.
Thus it would be a theatre of magic, a mass participation in which the entire culture would
find its vitality and its truest expression.
Artaud’s greatest activity in the theater fell approximately between the years 1930 and
1935, when he proposed what he called the Theatre of cruelty. A true play, according to
Artaud’s concept, will disturb the spectator’s tranquillity of mind and his senses, and it will
liberate his subconscious. Aristotle apparently emphasized especially this ethical power of
the theater, in his time. The purpose of a play, he believed was to reveal the presence
of extraordinary forces in man. The actor becomes a kind of magician, a holy man, in
a sense, because he calls to life themes that are not purely human. He sought through
his art to go far beyond human understanding and in an attempt to reach a metaphysical
truth. Toward the end of his career he was dissapointed that his conception of ritual
had diluted to ’patterned actions worn smooth by repetitions’ and was devoid of emotion.
His frustration is evident in this quote. ”The question we must now ask is whether in
this slippery world which is committing suicide without noticing it, there can be found a
nucleus of men capable of imposing this superior notion of theatre, men who will restore all
of us to the natural and magical equivalent of the dogmas we no longer believe” (Artaud
1958).

3.3. Jerzy Grotowski (1933 -1999). was a Polish theatre director and innovator of
experimental theater, and the ”theatre laboratory” and ”poor theatre” concepts. His
theatre was famous for its numerous productions, significantly the ”Orpheus” by Jean
Cocteau, ”Shakuntala” based on the text by Kalidasa. He was the only one who had
visited india and has acknowledged using actor training methods used in the training of
kathakali performers.
Towards a Poor Theatre (1968) written by Grotowski, is an expression of his ideas. Here
he says that theatre should not, because it could not, compete against the overwhelming
spectacle of film and should instead focus on the very root of the act of theatre: actors in
front of spectators. He maintained that the actor needs to call on every aspect of himself.
His eyes, ears, heart and senses. Acting for him is a life’s work. He therefore created what
was called the theatre laboratory, where actors were trained for mastery. He believed that
by constant exposure to the role, the actor acquires technical mastery over his physical
and psychic self and allow all barriers to drop, and thereby permit a role to ’penetrate’
him. ”Theatre - through the actor’s technique, his art in which the living organism strives
for higher motives - provides an opportunity for what could be called integration, the
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discarding of masks, the revealing of the real substance: a totality of physical and mental
reactions. This opportunity must be treated in a disciplined manner, with a full awareness
of the responsibilities it involves. Here we can see the theatre’s therapeutic function for
people in our present day civilization.” He talks of a very financially deprived Polish theatre,
which he sought to make rich by his concept of ”holy actors”. To him the ”personal and
scenic technique of the actor is in the core of theatre art” (Grotowski 1969). It is the actor,
who, in the absence of gadgets and technology, through his committment and training
makes an impact on the audience. He believed that actors offer their performance as a
ceremony, to lay bare what lies in every man and that which is hidden in every day life.
Grotowski carries his theory for enough as to make poverty an ideal; his actors had to
give up everything except the their bodies as instruments and limitless time available to
them . To him theatre was holy because its purpose was holy and has a clearly defined
place in the community.

4. Yakshagana and Modern Theatre


We will now go on to examine The traditional dance theatre form of Yakshagagna in
the light of the ideas used by modern theorists.
(1) Brechts description of the epic theatre closely and unmistakably resembles the
Indian traditional theatre. In Yakshagana we find that all aspects of theatre are
present: music, dance, drama, abhinaya, (all four forms of ahinaya, angika, vachika,
aharya and sattvika abhinaya) and distinctively stylised footwork. Each of this has
its own place in a performance structure and therefore a coordinated rehearsal is not
needed when the actor is proficient in all aspects of theatre. Actors are introduced
with distinct entries right at the onset of the play. Musical instruments, and the
singer are all visible on stage as part of the performance. Their presence also helps
to destroy the illusion of reality.
(2) In Yakshagana the actor and the character are two poles of duality. This has been
a subject of study, admiration and theoretical investigation. Brechts concept of
’alienation’ seems to relate to this duality. The actor dons his makeup and headgear
and enters and exits in a stylised way. He plays the part of the character but stays
away from the reality of it. He sings, dances, mimes and delivers dialogues, knowing
well that he is performing the role of the character he is portraying. He sometimes
talks to the audience telling them of the plans and the course the narrative would
take. During a performance, It is common to see the artist seat himself on the stool
on stage and relax, stretch a little, adjust his head gear, and seem very casual in
a formal stage setting. He disengages himself and when he returns to the acting
arena he engages in action again. This is an essential component of theatre that
traditionally is performed for several hours through the night. It gives the actor
and the audience a chance to be removed from the intensity of the performance.
It is a de-linking of the actor- role relationship, that Brecht seeks to employ in his
theatre.
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(3) The spectator as you will notice in any Yakshagana performance walks around,
chats a little bit, spawls on the ground and takes a little nap and wakes up ready
for his favourite act. He is not compelled to to applaud or focus or engage himself,
instead it is a wholesome participaton in the event. It is a relaxed unfolding of
action where good triumphs over evil. The events on stage carries the audience
away from their daily problems, relaxes the mind and in turn helps to solve issues
of the real world. All this is done in a seamlessly unpretentious way. This relates
to the ’relaxed audience that Brecht admired.
(4) The vidhushak or the kodangi in Yakshagana is also an important charater in the
unfolding of the epic. He is not merely a buffoon. His role involves a keen sense
of timing and a quick mind. It is he who holds the social fabric of the audience
together. He keeps the audience distracted and at once aware of the distinction
betwen stage and reality. Firstly, his comic intrerludes bring the spectator away
from the reality of the stage. Second he serves as an agent for social change, with
his sattirical monologues usually in the contemporary dialect, peppered with the
latest jargon. This is the third of Brechts principles that we mentioned earlier,
where Brecht saw theatre as a ’potential for social comment”.
(5) Yakshgana is primarily a form of devotional theatre, and it arouses in the performer
and in the spectator a sense of spiritual submission and peace. The actors play their
part but are always aware that they are not ”its lords”. In fact they offer puja to
Ganesha in all humulity, as also to the crown or headgear before each performance.
It is the evidence of a humble submission to their art. This submission to an idea
or act that is performed, is at the core of these performances, and at this core
lies Artuad’s goals for his theatre. He wants his audience to have the same acute
sharpness of feeling that primitive man experienced stripped of logic and cause and
relationship. He wanted theatre to shift its focus from the ”human psyche to the
cosmic form in the universe” Ironically what Artuad refers to as ’primitive’ is in
the eastern philosophy (be it Zen, Hindu, Buddhist or Jain) admired as exalted
capacity of the human mind to willingly submit itself to the awesome forces of the
supreme. It is in allowing ourselves to soak in the rasa of the play and revisit
another time and place that we are rejuvenated and ready for our daily existence.
Artuad’s theory speaks to the spirit and it is indeed into that sprirtual world that
Yakshagana takes us.
(6) Yakshagana as with other forms of indian theatre is a way of life. Actors are born
into theatre, and start training from a very young age. Training and experience
were gained hand in hand on the various aspects of the theatre form. Formal
teaching is limited to footwork and study of the specific entries for each character.
All else is imbibed. This, Growtoski called role penetration and, was one of the key
components of his theatre laboratory. Music, literature, makeup, and a thorough
knowledge of the epics was considered a must. Before his first performance the
actor is expected to have learned about 300 prasangas or acts. Grotowskis concept
of poor theatre being enriched by the actors’ excellence is another aspect so evident
in yakshagana performances. Here actors became famous for the roles they played
YAKSHAGANA AND ELEMENTS OF MODERN THEATRE 9

and the richness they brought to their character, with no support from stage decor
or props. They were revered and venerated for their ability to transport their
audiences to a different time. Their costumes and their gait and gestures were the
core of their imposing persona.

5. Conclusion
We are poised at a time in the evolution of man, when we can choose to either be
scientific, pragmatic and seek empirical eveidence to all our theories on the one hand,
and on the other, relax let-go and allow ourselves to be carried away into a world, whose
mystery is not yet evident to the comman man, but that which our ancestors realised and
therefore created avenues for their expression. All forms of art have their roots in this
realisation.
We do not seek to promote Yakshagana. It has survived as an art form for over four
centuries and will continue to influence and be influenced for centuries to come. As long as
human beings seek salvation and a higher awakening our tradtional theatre forms will exist.
As we have just seen modern man too yearns for elements in theatre that will connect him
to a higher force. Hence our efforts towards Yakshagana, are not as a favour to the art
form but as a favour to ourselves, towards absorbing as much as we can in our lifetime
for our own sake. Our aim is more selfish than altruistic. In a fast paced world with
globalising forces at work, our identity slowly melts away as we become global citizens.
And as global citizens whether modern man or enlightened ancestors, we all seek salvation
through art. On the one hand, It is interesting for our younger generation to understand
the relevance of these theatrical elements in todays theatre too. While on the other it is
important to savour our forms if only for a sense of identity and purpose. It brings to
light the timelessness and open endedness of our traditional form. As social beings we
must discover the joy in a collective sharing of stories and legends that are uniquely our
own, and find new ways of framing and rescripting the underlying ritual. That said we
would like to conclude with a quote by Peter Brook, ” Theatre is an instance of people
getting together with a common or shared purpose. It is not dissimilar in srtucture to going
to church.....(it) is not an isolated cultural structure but lies in the continuum of related
human activity which includes some recognizable structure with people participating as
’doers’ and ’observers’”.
Bibliography.
(1) Performance Tradition: Aesthetics and Practice, by Suresh Awasthi
(2) Performance Tradition and Modern Theatre by Suresh Awasthi
(3) The Empty Space, Peter Brook, 1968.
(4) Dionysus in Paris, Wallace Fowlie, Meridian Books, Inc., New York, 1960
(5) Yakshagana bayalatta...K S Upadhyaya, in Lesser known forms of performing arts
in India, ed. Durgadass Mukhopadhyay.
(6) The Dramatic Touch of Difference: Theatre, Own and Foreign, Edited by Erika
Fischer-Lichte, Josephine Riley, Micheal Gisenwehrer.
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(7) Social reality in south asian Theatre - Ataur Rehman. Article abridged from sem-
inar ”The idioms of South Asian Theatre”.
(8) Indian Theatre - Traditions of Performance.