Yakshagana is a traditional theatre form combining dance, music, spoken word, costume-makeup, and stage technique with a distinct style and form.

Both the word Yakshagana and its world are both interesting and intriguing. It is a theatre form mainly prevalent in the coastal districts and adjacent areas, in Karnataka. It is closely connected with other forms prevailing in other parts of Karnataka, and its neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamilnadu and Maharastra.

Yakshagana, like many other forms, defies neat classification into categories like folk, classical, rural. It can be included into each of these, or all of them together depending upon our line of approach. Being a theatre form, unlike a dance form, it is more plural and dynamic. And hence it exhibits many types and varieties inside itself. However, Yakshagana can be rightly called a traditional form. Primarily it is a name given to the one prevailing in Coastal and Malnad areas of Karnataka, though in fringe forms like Doddata are also called by the same name often, especially recently. The traditional theatre form Mudalpaya of Southern Karnataka, the Doddata of Northern Karnataka, the Kelike in the borders of Andhra, the Ghattadakore of Kolgal in Mysore district – are such forms . Among them, the Ghattadakore (see fig) is a direct branch of Coastal Yakshagana while Mudalapaya is the most closely connected form. There is a form called Yakshaganamu in Andhra Pradesh also which exhibits resemblance to the forms of Karnataka plateau region.

The name, the etymology

The word Yakshagana is crowded and clouded with etymologies and meanings. The theatre form, so called today, was and even today, being popularly called Bayalata (open place play) or simply Ata (play). Yakshagana is a scholar’s nomenclature may be a hundred years old as far as the theatre in application to performance is concerned, though it is at least six centuries old as a literary composition. The word Yakshagana as a name of the whole art complex became popular in the context of writings on it and publicity in the form of handbills, leaflets, advertisements, because the words Ata or Bayalata looked too colloquial and general. Hence the word Yakshagana has come to stay as the name of the art. Actually it is shifted and expanded term from one aspect of the art.

The word Yakshagana occurs in Telugu literature much earlier to its reference in Kannada. There it is clearly mentioned as a literary genre. Right from the Lakshanadeepika (12th C?) up to Annamacharya (15C) Telugu prosody works give the features of Yakshagana works. In Andhra Yakshagana is understood as a literary genre. So also in Tamil it is the name of compositions and not of music or performance. Even Harikathas, Pallakki Seva Prabandha are called as Yakshaganas in Telugu. So it is probable that the Andhra Yakshagana writing form spread to Karnataka and to Tamilnadu and gave rise to the local performance genres or were so applied to already existing forms. All the compositions call themselves as Yakshagana which clearly indicates that later, both the literary composition and its performance were called by the same name – Yakshagana. Still later another code shift took place thereby the compositions are called ‘Prasanga’ (episodes) now, though the word does not occur in the works. Yakshagana seems to have spread to Karnataka during the Vijayanagara period, the empire being spread over Andhra and Karnataka regions.

The genesis

The origin of any art form is in a way difficult to fix and the time and process of formation conceived is often arbitrary. As art forms grow over a period, and they include various elements from time to time and undergo many changes until they appear as we see them today. Theatre forms become solo performances (e.g.: Kathak) and may be vice versa.

The origin

Basically Yakshagana is the product of the Vaishnava Bhakthi movement. Vaishnavism as a school of thought and religion is quite old. The Bhakthi movement proper, spread with vigour after the 10th Century. It took religion to the common man, to the lower strata of society, those classes to whom the highly formalised and Vedic religion was beyond reach. Hence Bhakthi movement was a social movement also.

In order to propagate and spread the message of devotion, it adopted and adapted the existing folk as well as classical literary forms and performances. It created its own forms. Most of the traditional theatre forms are the result of this phenomenon. Hence there are clear resemblance among the members of the ‘Traditional Theatre Family’ like Ankhia Nata (Assam), Jathra (Bengal), Chau (Bihar, Bengal), Prahlada Nata (Orissa), Veedhinatakam & Chindu (Andhra), Terukoothu Bhagawathamela (Tamil Nadu), Kathakkali (Kerala). Yet there are major differences also. Yakshagana is a member of this group and so its origin is connected with a wider historical situation.

Experts have placed the origin of Yakshagana from the 11th Century to the 16th Century. Earliest limit is fixed by a finding by Vidwan Bannanje Govindacharya who says a legend goes to show that Sage Narahari Thirtha (c, 1300) started a Dasavathara Ata performance and a troupe in Udupi and later this spread to other places and grew into what we call Yakshagana today.

Anyway, Yakshagana must have been an established form by the time of famous Yakshagana poet Parthisubba (1600) who wrote the Ramayana in Yakshagana. Because he is said to be a Bhagawatha (singer) himself and is believed to have founded a troupe, and probably he is the formulator of the Tenkuthittu (Southern style) of the art. Troupe centers like Koodlu and Kumble in Kasargod, and Amritheshwari, Kota near Kundapur claim having a troupe three to four centuries ago. So we can safely assume that this art form had taken shape by about 1500. However, what we see today as Yakshagana, must have been the result of a slow evolution, drawing its elements from ritual theatre, temple arts, secular arts like Bahurupi, royal courts of the time and artists imaginations – all interwoven over period.

Growth and Changes

With the socio-economic changes of the 19th Century, arts like Yakshagana also changed. The 19th Century produced a big number of compositions. Around 1800, a troupe from Dharmastala visited the court of the king of Mysore and established a troupe there. In the 1840s, a troupe from Uttara Kannada (North Kanara) visited Maharastra, and inspired the first modern age mythological drama by Vishudas Bhave. A number of troupes arose all over the Coastal Karnataka and probably in other parts of Karnataka too. By the early decades of this Century the structure of Yakshagana reached a definite shape and form.

1930s saw some changes in compositions, organisations and presentation. Dance and the spoken word was further developed and refined. But in costume, a type of degeneration started setting in due to the use of ‘modern’ clothing and stone jewellery, in place of handloom clothing and wooden ornaments.

The Year 1950 saw the birth of ‘tent’ troupes, giving performances to audience by tickets, with ‘tent theatres’ and furniture for seating. These troupes brought in commercialisation of Yakshagana, with both merits and demerits. Yakshagana saw major changes in form and organisation, electrical lights replaced the ‘gas lights’ or ‘petromax’ lamps. Seating arrangements improved. Major changes came in the themes, with the inclusion of folk epics, Sanskrit dramas and created (imaginary) stories forming the thematic base. Popular entertainment became the criterion in place of ‘classical’ presentation. Tulu, the language of the Southern part of the D.K. district was introduced on the stage, where hitherto only Kannada was used. This gained great popularity. All these trends continued with added vigour after 1970s, with a new element of influence.

The North Kanara style of Yakshagana hitherto not know outside, started making a big impact on other styles. This trend continues even today.

Along with all these, the traditional type of troupes, giving free shows financed by devotees still continue and have a very good support.

The Troupes

Yakshagana is one of the most living art traditions in the World. There are about 30 full fledged professional troupes, and about 200 amateur troupes in Yakshagana. Professional troupes go on tour between November to May, giving about 180-200 shows i.e. a full night show everyday!

There are about one thousand professional artists and much bigger number of amateurs. Further there are off season shows during the wet season, the anniversary shows, school and college students Yakshagana and of course the Talamaddale performances. All put together, we safely say that Karnataka witnesses about 12,000 Yakshagana performances every year!

Yakshagana has not so far shown signs of quantity decline, in spite of very fast ‘modernisation’ and ‘urbanisation’.