The Covid-19 pandemic forced a lot of us to rethink the way we work and live. The arts and creative sectors were no different. Performing artistes, especially, were forced to make a transition to digital platforms and find newer ways of connecting with art enthusiasts across the world. The recent flurry of activity online, though, was as much about discovering the possibilities of traditional art forms embracing technology, as it was about connecting with an audience.
One art form that used this crisis to adapt, innovate and redefine the way it is perceived and consumed is Yakshagana, the traditional theatre form from coastal Karnataka. The community’s effective use of social media and digital technology has earned immense praise from lovers of the art, both at home and abroad.
A dance-drama rooted in the mythical tales of the Puranas and Bhagavatha, the Yakshagana and the Taalamaddale (this is conducted through dialogue and debate), have had a perfunctory presence on the internet. But in the months since the lockdown, the Yakshagana community has experimented with virtual venues to keep the art and the artistes on people’s minds. Among the younger crop, performances by two all-women teams have gone viral.
Arpitha Hegde performed Kannada Kulatilaka, a song from an old act called ‘Ranganayaki’ along with three other female artistes. Originally sung by Heranjalu Gopal Ganiga, the rendition in the new video is by his son, Pallava Ganiga.
“The song is my favourite and it speaks of the golden age of the Vijayanagara empire. So it seemed right to revisit those days of glory during this period. We all performed the entire song separately and then edited it. It took us hardly three days from conception to release. It is a very popular song that is known to the old and the young, so we were able to attract both groups,” says Arpitha.
Similarly, Sushma Mayya and five more young dancers were seen in Gelatiyare Bannireega Vanakke Poguva from ‘Kanakaangi Kalyana’. “We decided to do this to raise awareness and also encourage artistes to continue practising their art from the confines of their homes. The feedback has been very encouraging, though people did say that the transitions were too quick for them to see the movements. But our attempt was to present Yakshagana cinematically, so it appeals to even those who have no idea about the art form,” says Sushma.
Meanwhile, experienced artistes chose to tweak the content itself, showing the way forward for Yakshagana.
Radhakrishna Kalchar, a Yakshagana Talamaddale Arthadari, was part of ‘Sharasetu Bandha’ a virtual taalamaddale organised by Yakshagana Kalavrinda USA. For the event, artistes and musicians came together on a live Zoom video call that was later uploaded on YouTube.
“But even before this, I was part of ‘Shri Krishna Sandhana’, another taalamaddale recital that happened over a conference call. We even gave it a contemporary touch by bringing in the coronavirus, all within the context of the Puranas. These two attempts were a first in the history of Yakshagana,” he says.
Coronaasura Kaalaga presented by the Siribagilu Venkappayya Samskruthika Pratisthana was another project that took the Yakshagana world by storm. The act features the coronavirus as the central character, warning humans about their excesses against nature while also addressing safety measures against Covid-19.
Ramakrishna Mayya, who was the Bhagavata (one who renders the song) for the performance says, “I conceptualised the act, Shreedhar DS wrote the verses, and two other poems were composed by Yakshagana academy members, all in a matter of a day and a half. Lakhs of people watched it across online platforms and news channels. Some hospitals even reached out to us, requesting that the act be staged again once the situation improves.”
Social themes have always been a part of Yakshagana, even within traditional acts. Some of the issues addressed include AIDS, malnutrition and education. The only difference is that now, the performance venue has moved indoors, into our living rooms and onto our screens.
Not just that, following the rage of online courses during lockdown, Yakshagana learning too went the digital way. Apart from teaching the basics online, Sushma Mayya has started an InstaLive series where she interviews young women in the Yakshagana field. Practitioners like Ramakrishna Mayya have been planning lessons on bhaagavatike, arthagaarike, padya rachane and natya to be sent through WhatsApp and YouTube.
Yakshagana Academy member Arathi Patrame has been demonstrating the Tenkuthittu Yakshagana repertoire for children on her Facebook page. “We decided to do online lessons for the benefit of those living abroad. And this is where digital practices help because the reach is better and the younger generation will take to it easily,” she says. A majority of those learning virtually are based in countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain.
Of course, some argue that the intricacies of such a complex art may be lost on students learning it online, and may even resulting in incorrect posture and body language. Arathi agrees. “A live experience is always better with Yakshagana, and any art is better learnt with the guru in presence,” she says.
And yet, not everything can be tailored to fit into the smartphone or laptop screen. While the Yakshagana community agrees that its brush with the virtual world has been positive overall, in the long run, it may prove counterproductive.
“Shorter attention spans are already hindering dusk-to-dawn performances. In future, people may completely shun live performances and prefer to watch it on Facebook or YouTube,” says Arpitha.
Add to it the complexity of bringing singers, musicians and dancers under the watchful eyes of lights, camera and mics, and restricting them to small panels on a flat screen without the energy of a live audience – and you will end up distancing an already altered experience of the classic Yakshagana format even further.
“If we try to restructure the art to one standard presentation of creativity in order to suit a particular medium, then the original nature and essence of Yakshagana will be lost. The art form is powerful enough to reach people without having to compromise its traditional integrity,” says Arathi.
Radhakrishna Kalchar ties it all up succinctly: “Nothing is complete in itself. The wisdom of our ancestors must coalesce with modern science and technology to become meaningful to humankind. The roots are old, the buds new, and a successful union of the two is a reflection of our society. To forge ahead without this realisation is to be a tree either without roots or flowers – both incomplete, both lifeless.”
We gave the recital a contemporary touch by bringing in the coronavirus, all within the context of the Puranas.