The 86-year-old Balipa Narayana Bhagavatha, one of the senior-most bhagavathas of Yakshagana, feels tradition has to be preserved and upheld
- Krishna Prakasha Ulithaya
Balipa Narayana Bhagavatha, 86 year old, has had a long journey of sixty years as a Bhagavatha in Yakshagana. Bhagavathike does not simply mean a style of singing in Yakshagana. It is much more than that. The Bhagavatha assumes the role of a ‘sutradhara’, the stage manager or conductor — he is the link between the scenes and the characters, and in needy cases he shall compose the verse which suits the scene, therefore he is also a poet.
Bhagavathike, with a past of 700 years, is a unique way of rendering the Prasangas (story), in the form of verses composed in various patterns of prosody (Chandassu). It is the prosody which governs the way of singing the verses. His grandfather, the late Balipa Narayana Bhagavatha (Ajja Balipa), was said to be the trendsetter of his time (approximately between 1890 to 1960). Balipa style of singing adhered to the core values of prosody and lyrical quality, together with the rasabhava, founded by Ajja Balipa, and emulated by the grandson, Mari Balipa and Puttige Ramakrishna Joisa, the late Mambadi Narayana Bhagavatha, the late Agari Shrinivasa Bhagavatha etc.
It was later, in the 1970s due to the influence of Carnatic music and film songs, Yakshagana Bhagavathike imbibed those tunes, quite unlike the batteesa ragas or 32 ragas, with its own way of rendering. It had, and still has great influence throughout the southern region style (Tenku Tittu), as well as northern region style (Badagu Tittu) of Yakshagana. In spite of the invasion of modern style of singing, Balipa Narayana Bhagavatha was uncompromising and actually saved the rich, traditional way of rendition. It is relevant, in this context, to quote Ananda Coomaraswamy: “This is not to say that Indian music must not change or be influenced in any way by changed conditions; but that such change must be organic, and that it must be an evolution in accordance with the bent of the national genius”. Balipa Narayana Bhagavatha emulated the words of Coomaraswamy and never detracted from his path. The tradition is being carried forward by his disciples, Balipa Shivashankara Bhat and Balipa Prasad Bhat (sons), and Patla Sathish Shetty, Pundikai Gopalakrishna Bhat and Lakshminarayana Bhat, Bhatyamoole and others. Balipa Narayana Bhagavatha is indeed the torchbearer of the ancient, desi styles of singing.
Under the tutelage of his grandfather (Ajja Balipa), Balipa Narayana Bhagavatha grasped the grammar of Yakshagana Bhagavathike and stuck to it doggedly. Late Balipa Narayana Bhagavatha (Ajja Balipa) made the existing system of rendering the Yakshagana songs sophsiticated. This inheritor of a great lineage, knew from memory over 80 prasangas as per their tradition. Each prasanga consists of an average of 300 to 350 songs of different prosody. He has also written 37 prasangas (verses) based on Ramayana, Mahabharatha and various Puranas. He was awarded with many accolades Parthi Subba Prashasthi, Karnataka Rajyotsava Prashasthi, Patla Prashasthi to name a few.
Excerpts from a conversation with the artiste:
Can you recall the manner in which Bhagavathike was taught to you by your grandfather, the late Balipa Narayana Bhagavatha?
Firstly, he instructed me to commit to memory the entire prasangas. He would instruct orally how to sing the poems set in a particular tala and prosody. In the beginning, it was sheer imitation of what my grandfather taught me. Over a period of time with the experience I gained in theatre, I improvised according to the prasanga nade (story line). Once I knew it fully, I destroyed the written version. Each prasanga consists at least of 300 to 400 poems of various prosody and different thalas.
When did you first try your hand at Bhagavatike?
It was in Mulki mela for a short span of two months. Later joined the Kudlu Mela along with the late Belinje Venkappa Rai and the late vidwan Damodara Mandecha.
Did you find any difference in the rendition of Yakshagana songs during the days of your grandfather’s generation and yours.
No, there is no huge difference in the style of rendition. At that time all the Bhagavathas sang the traditional way. Depending on their voice culture and pronunciation, there seemed slight difference. However, the form of rendition was not compromised. Theater discipline was the prominent aspect which were followed during those days – poorvaranga aspects, singing from memory, following traditions, ranga nade etc. I followed the same path till my retirement from Kateelu Mela.
What do you say about alapana in Yakshagana singing. Is there any system, though unwritten, existing and followed by the Bhagavathas in old times.
Bhagavathike is governed by the extant traditional mattus. Mattu means a combination of the raga and lyrics set in a particular prosody. While rendering, only the glimpse of the raga may appear, but not its complete notes. This is the traditional way developed since 700 years and universally accepted by the connoisseurs of Yakshagana. Traditionally, Bhagavatike is transmitted orally and there is no habit of writing musical notations. After ‘udgraha’or ‘ettugade’ of a song sung by the singer (Bhagavatha) he develops the raga with short alapana. There is a measurement for the alapana. Bhagavatha shall not extend the alapana beyond four avarthas of the given tala/beats. This rule was strictly followed by us. Unfortunately, it is disappearing now due to external invasion and lack of knowledge of the inner beauty of Bhagavathike. This style of singing is developed in association with the size and format of the Aharya (costumes) and theatrical movement of the character with it unique costumes and make up. Considering this grand presentation of Yakshagana costumes, backed by coarse and rough singing style, transmits egregious and unearthly feel to the connoisseurs. This rich tradition needs to be protected.
Ajja Balipa learnt Carnatic music from Kudlu Subraya Shanubhog. Did it influenced the manner of his Yakshagana Bhagavathike paddathi?
Not in least. He never followed Carnatic style in his rendition. He followed the traditional Yakshagana way of singing. However, due to his study of Carnatic music, it made him polish and restructure Yakshagana Bhagavthike.
Can you tell us the common Laya which was maintained during those days? Presently, we witness faster tempo in rendition as well as in the total theatrical movement of story, character etc.
It was always the madhyama (medium) laya (tempo) predominant in those days. Neither it was difficult for Bhagavtha to pronounce the lyrics of the verses nor did it hinder the dancers to dance (nritta). Ajja Balipa’s Bhagavatike could be heard five to six kilometers away, without microphone. Moderate tempo was also one the reasons to transmit the aesthetics of Yakshagana.
What is your message to the new generation Bhagavathas?
I expect them to study deeply the rich tradition of Yakshagana Bhagavthike. They should imbibe the traditional style of singing and adopt its propriety consciously. Prasanga Nade and mattus are the predominant aspects to save the Yakshagana. It is upto the younger generation to protect this unique, desi style of singing.