Pathala Venkatramana Bhat, is one of the actors who have made a very special impression on the Yakshagana audience with his great ability to handle, the female roles – a highly specialised area of Yakshagana . Males handling female roles is the order of Yakshagana. But a few have shown that men can surpass women in this, one of them being Pathala.
Born at Baipadavu of Kabaka village near Puttur, as son of Rama Bhat and Hemavathi, he lost his father at boyhood, brought up by his uncle and settled at Pathala near Uppinangady. His entry into Yakshagana was rather unexpected, with no family background in this art.
The famous musician Gurukula of Aiyyar family at Kanchana started a Yakshagana troupe. Bhat joined it as an assistant. Senior actor Maravante Vishweshwarayya saw in him, a possible big talent, and encouraged him to take up ‘boy roles’ and then to smaller female characters. Later he joined the Soukur Troupe, and then the Mulky Troupe in which he rose to prominence in the company of leading artists of the period 1955 – 60. He became the main ‘lady actor’ of the troupe. Then he joined the Suratkal Mela, where in company of leading actors lke Shankaranarayana Samaga, Narayana Hegde, Kumble Sundara Rao, he proved a perfect heroine. He then served in the prestigious Dharmasthala Mela for eighteen years and retired in 1981.
Pathala Venkatramana Bhat’s achievements are really of a very high standard – in exposition of roles, professional perfection, feminine grace and mood, dance, theatrical talent and variety. He has handled wotj astonishing success such different roles as Chandramathi and Shurpanakhi, Amba and Parvathi, Rambha and Seetha, Ajamukhi and Menaka, Damayanthi and Rukmini with equal ease and perfection.
His dance has been a fine combination of soft steps, class abhinaya, clean and correct movement and stage coverage. The captivating lust of Menaka, the dignity of Chandramathi, the high standard romance of Urvashi – all looked easy in his exposition.
He had very good rapport with his co-artists. He worked with equal success and proved a perfect match to his very different type of male role actors like Samaga, Narayana Hegde, Govinda Bhat, Sundara Rao and many more, to all of whom he proved an excellent foil. “To act with him was a pleasure” say his colleagues. Bhagawatha Kadathoka Manjunatha, a long time singer director for him says “Pathala is one of the best actors I have worked with. He handles different rasabhavas in a touching way. He has great ability to adjust to different type of roles”.
Bhats spoken word (artha) part too is of good standard, suitable and befitting to roles. His response and reactions on the stage were electrifying. His excellent ‘figure likeness and voice’ would just make you disbelieve the fact that he is he and she. He was popularly known as ‘Pathalada Nagakanye’ (the beauty of the underworld – as in Indian epics women from Pathala loka are believed to be very beautiful. 1955- 1980 was his best period, quite a long period of success for a ‘female actor’.
Sri Bhat always took his profession seriously. He would study his role well, read classics, poetry and epics and work on Bharatanatya to enrich his repertoire. His make up was fine and excellent, almost blemishless, costume, really creative.
There is another special aspect to Pathala’s contribution to Yakshagana stage. Ladies in Yakshagana performances looked like ordinary contemporary women – probably all through, in history of the art, while the ‘men’ roles looked very fantastic, classical and epical. There was a wide gap and disharmony between male and female roles in costume. Sri Bhat is one (and probably the only professional) to have recognised this, and tried to create a matching costume. He did it by studying the sculptures, ancient paintings and classical poetry. He has been experimenting continuously for over three decades on this. The two other experts who created matching classical costumes are Dr Shivarama Karanth and Prof. Amrith Someshwar – both of whom of course, authorities and not professionals). The various photographs of Bhats roles from 1950s up to today tell this story.
He revived the ‘Kaccha’ system of saree draping – an ancient practice in India suitable for epic theatre. Recently, Sri Bhat organised a workshop exhibiting his costume creations and has recorded them. Aged Seventy two, he is eager to pass on this treasure to youngsters, but his is sorry to see that the ‘costume harmony’ concept is not being cared for by today’s art situation. His son Ambaprasad is a female role actor, trying to emulate his father.
Pathala Venkatraman Bhat is the recipient of a number of publications. Sri Bhat undoubtedly one of the greats of Yakshagana theatre – comparable with the legendary artists like Kokkarne Narasimah, Subbanna Bhat, Aithappa Shetty, Gajanana Hegde, Ramachandra Rao, Kolkebailu Sheena and Kota Vaikunta – probably, greater than some of them in some aspects.
– Dr M Prabhakara Joshy.