• Dr. M. Prabhakar Joshy

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Yakshagana is an traditional operatic theatre form of Coastal Karnataka – combining Verse – song – dance – music, spoken word – costume – convention, all interwoven, all in a distinct stylistic identity and form. The theatre form is of non realistic fantacy style by and large of stylised presentation in all its aspects. It belongs to the classical Natyashastra Sampradaya with its own peculiarities. Yakshagana has close similiraties – with similar art forms prevalant all over the country – like the Ankiya Nat of Assam, Jathra of Bengal and Bihar, Odissi of Orissa, Veethi Bhagawatham of Andhra Pradesh, Terukoothu of Tamilnadu, Kathakali of Kerala, Dasavathani of Maharashtra and Goa and even similar forms in Sri Lanka and far east. All these have close affinities in broad form, technique and content. Yet Yakshagana is also different from all these sister out forms. All these have similar history and development.

Yakshagana is basically a literary genre – probably of Telugu origin – that later spread to the whole of South India, to form what we may call a Pan South Indian Traditional theatre family. Now – the word, means both the literary and theatical aspects of it. Yakshagana plays (called Prabandhas, Prasangas, Akhyanas etc) are puranic stories written in verse – songs, set to various metres, Talas and Ragas. They form the basis of the performance. The poetic composition is presented as a music – dance – word & continuum, in the framework of well set tradition and conventions.

Yakshagana like many such art forms, is the offshoot of the Vaishnava Bhakthi movement that swept the country after the 10th century A.D. The structure of the art amply exhibits this aspect.

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The names of this art – Yakshagana (= Pooja Prabandha, lyrics meant for service prayer to God), Dasavatara Ata (= Play of ten incarnations of Vishnu) Bhagawathara (= play by the Bhagawathas the devotees) etc. show what it is meant for.

Scholars have shown that the names of Dasavatara, Dasavatara Nattuva occur in poetry and epical classics of Karnataka as well as other regions right from the 10th century AD onwards and Yakshagana is a flowering of those seed forms.

Yakshagana troupes called, Melas, were and are founded in the name of a temple diety and called by those names (e.g., Kateel Mela, Mundarthi Mela, Idagunji Mela etc), all first names are of a temple. shrine). They were conceived as part in the temple complex, and were probably originally stationed in those temples only – as is evident by the troupe system of Gundabala near Kumta and Devikana Mela near Honnavar in Uttar Kannada. Later, these troupes took to performance thirugatas (= tours, trips).

The performances are arranged by the patron connosieers as a Harake Seve (= Diety’s service by vow) and all shows are Sevas, devotional offerings, Bhakti sevas only, and are arranged for all to see, (free entry) and also imbibe the value of Bhakti. From the beginning to the end the performance is at one level, an epitom of Bhakti. Today there are over thirty five full time Yakshagana troupes, of which thirty three are of Harake-Seva sponsorship. Even the other (Tented, ticket entry troupes) are named after temples.
Traditionally the show is arranged by a Bhakta as a vow, as thanks giving, or simply as an offering to that troupe diety. It may be to pray for some fulfilment or thanksgiving for the same (= for happenings like for progeny, victory in court dispute, family settlements, business success, general prosperity, warding off any supposed ‘Dosha’ (element of sin) etc.

The troupe arrives at a place and traditionally, the Bhagawatha with his accompaniments, would sing devotional songs at the yard of the or would be sponsor. This seva called ‘Talamaddale Seve’ is either a reminder of pending seva or a request to sponsor a show. Then the troupe settles, takes rest and troupe diety is offered a pooja at the ‘place assigned by the sponsor.

In the evening artists assemble in the greenroom, in front of the ‘temporary diety shrine’, traditionally made of two crowns (Rama Laxmana Kirita or Ganapathi Kirita), decorated with flowers. Now there are separate statues and crowns meant for the purpose. A pooja is performed in the greenroom, With the Bhagawatha singing songs out artists (now a priest) doing the aarathi. A lamp is taken from there to the stage (= performance area, Rangasthala) Formerly all artists were to go to the stage, take a round with
devotional utterances (= Kasturi Kohalala, Bahaparak, Sharadhi Gambhiro Bahuparak etc.). This practice is not followed now.

Then begins the Purvaranga – the preliminary show. It contains prayers/ devotional songs to dieties Ganapathi, Vishnu, Krishna, Devi, Shiva Parvathi, Sri Rama, Subramanya, to the platform, to the people (=audiences) praise to sponsors and benedictions of various types (Mangala Padas, Sung at conclusion). Though the Yakshagana – Bayalata is centred around Vishnu – Krishna Bhakti, it is of the henotheistic Bhagawatha sect which gives importance to other dieties often treating them as equals Vishnu. That is the heart of Bhakti Pantha.

The Purvaranga songs are sung while roles such as Kodangi, Bala Gopala (= Bala Rama, Gopalakrishna), Subramanya, Aradhanarishwara, Gollamadhava (Cowheard Madhava), Hasyagara and Streevesha (= Suthra dhara, Nati) dance to the songs, at the various stages as per the traditional system and fixed conventions.

It is significant to note that the Ganapathi installed in the greenroom is a Swastika -containing a heap of rice on a plantain leaf with a coconut kept on it. The crowns represent the other deities.

It is also said that in the olden days – the preliminaries included a dance by Sri Rama, as mandatory – whatever be the story episode to follow in the performance. This indicates that Yakshagana might be predominently a Rama Theatre, which adopted other stories later. It is to be noted that Kathakali was also originally a Rama theatre, being called Ramanattam.


After the preliminaries, the performance proper of the selected episode (prasanga) begins. The first entry dance (Pravesha) is usually – with a devotional song like O Deva Deva, Aaduthadutha Banda Rama and such songs. As a first part of an entance characters have to dance at the entrance of the stage with backs to audience (semi-hidden by a curtain). This may be the relic of the prayers offered by the actor (role) to the temple diety, when the performance was given in the temple yard or ground. At the end of the
show, the act of giving the Veelya (= Remuneration to the troupe) is done on the stage itself with a small ritual, the Bhagawatha (= singer conductor) and the Hasyagana (-Vidushaka) acept it, praise the sponsor for his support and wish him Gods grace, giving him the Prasada.

The musicians then return to the green room, singing a song ‘Ramakrishnasura Manege Bandaru Bagilu Thereyiro” (Lo, Rama and Krishna have returned home, open the doors, pray for their boons etc)
this shows that the whole performance is a seva and a play by Rama art Krishna who have gone out to play art now coming back, early in the morning symbolising the night as day and day as night.

The preliminaries and concluding part of the performance, have similarities in content and practice, with the other traditional performances like Bhagawatha Mela, Terukoolhu, Kathakali, Chindu Bhagawatham and
other Bhagawatham forms of Andhra, Dasavahari of Maharashtra, Temple dances like Devadas , Atta and Bharathanatyam too. Some lyrics like Ganapathi Kowthuka, Krishna Sthutis are common to many forms.


The NAMAS (forehead lines) used by the various characters show a stamp of Bhakti movement. There are mainly two types of Namas the Adda Nama (horizontal ones) and Udda Nama (verticle ones) also called – Goota Nama (Pole type) and Geetu or Gotu Nama (across type). Usually they are for devotees of Vishnu and Shiva respectively. i.e. Shaiva and Vaishnava Sects. There are characters that use a combination of both. Though these lines are basically of secturian origin, that significance is now blurred and they only have a decorative place.


Coming to the thematic aspect of Yakshagana performances – the traditional reportaire of prasanga episodes is based on the Kannada versions of Ramayana, Mahabharatha, Bhagawatha, Devi Bhagawatha, Nalacharithre, Harishchandra Kavya and such other sources. All these classics are of the Bhakthi period, and are re-creations of the Sanskrith classics in their own way.

The ‘Sabhalakshana’ collection which is the text for the preliminaries of Yakshagana, contains some very fine prices of devotional compositions relating to Krishna, Shiva, Devi Ganesha etc.

ಧರೆಯಲ್ಲವು ನಿನ್ನುದರದೊಳಿರುತಿರೆ.. |
ನೆನೆಯಿರೊ ಜನರೆಲ್ಲ ಗುಣಾಯುತನ .. |
ತೋರೆ ಬೇಗದೆ ತೋಯಜ ನಯನನ .. |
ಕಾಮಿನಿ ಕರೆದುತಾರೆ ಶ್ರೀ ಮಂಜುನಾಥ ಸ್ವಾಮಿಯು

are some such songs, which are simple, yet combine well literary flair and musical phrase very well.

Sabhalakshana has many sequences and related songs of Bhakti which are common to other similar art forms of the South. E.g., Ganapathi Kowlhuka, Balagopala, Chandabhama (feminine roles), and Ardhanarishwara, also used in Pure dance forms like Bharathanatyam.


Yakshagana as an art form, is in its structure and content being the product of Bhakti, its thematic repertoire is coloured with the various types and levels of Bhakti. Bhakti here and always, means not merely devotion. It is participation, dialogue and interaction with the diety, with the philosophy, life situations.

Bhakti as a Rasa is not present in the first list of eight Rasas enumerated by Bharatha in his Natyashastra and not even among the nine (Navarasas) of later alankanikas. But with the increasing prominance of Bhakti as a cult and a movement, Bhaktirasa was taken as the tenth. This is also because of
the poetic and dramatic possibilities of Bhakti, the emotion and the various shades and combinations in presence in company with the various moods and stages of an episode being narrated.

Among the Yakshagana prasangas there are those which have Bhakti as the predominant and continuous theme of the stories like Krishna Charitha (Baala Leele), Sudhanva Moksha, Bhakta Prahlada, Dhruva Charitre, Ambarisha, Rukmangada Charitre all of these can be termed Bhakti Pradhana.

Krishna Janma – Balaleele of Poet Parthi Sabba (c. 1600 AD) presents one of the finest pieces of poetry and drama, which combine Bhakti with ‘divine sport’ of Lord Krishna presenting himself in a life situation that touches over hearts and minds. The performance over hearts and minds, the performance conventions of Krishna Bala Leele is an classic example of how a long artistic traditions create things of beauty.

Sudhanva Kalaga, Veeravarma Kalaga – are two prasangas of Veera Bhakti, the heroic devotion that shows warrior character as a Bhaktha who uses the war as a medium of realising God, by way of Atmanivedana, Mayuradhwajas story shows the heights to which a Dana Veera or Tyaga Veera Bhakta – the sacrificing hero can reach when he offers the reign half of his body to a disguised Brahmin (Krishna) and tears role out of his left eye, as he feels he could not give away his left side and thus that part goes
a waste.

Episodes like Kamsa Vadhe, Ravana Vadhe and Shura Padma Contain in their portions concluding that show the ‘Villain’ characters to be realising the adversary character, a diety, God Almighty in their inner self, as a result of long intense antagonism, the (Deva virodha) which now transforms into direct dialogue, Anusandhana with the diety – a type, Enimity – Bhakti, considered by many as contrary and damaging to the basic tenets and beliefs of the principles of Bhakti itself.

Episodes like Akshayambara (= Draupadi getting a perenial saree in the face of Vastrapaharana attempts by the Kaurava) Dhruva Charithu, Prahlada Charitre show the divine grace protecting the ones who pray with that total involvement and purity of heart – the principle of Aarta Rakshana.

The Bhakti Age classics (and thereby Yakshagana Prasangas) are the remoulding of our ancient heroic classics, into literary works that reflect the need and mood of the areSo they are not naive simple narratious of the greatness of Bhakti like the Bhakta Vijaya or Gora Kumbara. They have a good balance of various Rasas, and often Bhakti is only a connecting thread that holds the story together.

Of course there are many episodes where Bhakti does not figure at all – like Rama Pattabhisheka, Nalacharithre, Virata Parva, Abhimanyu, etc or episodes like Karna Parva, Krishna Sandhana, Harishchandra where Bhakti comes in a very limited way, often perepheral. In the purely secular type of
story of Chandrahasa, the success of the hero, his glory which come to him in a pecular play of fortune, are attributed to his Vishnu Bhakti, an element that does not play any significant part in the story, and looks an artificial motiff. Here what the story tries to tell seems to be that being good is Bhakti and Bhakta is necessarily a good person.

Besides the episoeds which have Bhakti as the central motiff or the connecting theme, there are a number of prasangas which show various facets of Bhakti – as an important event or aspect of the episode. For example – Prasangas like Chudamani, Narakasura, Krishna Sandhana, Krishna Vivaha, Karna Charitre, etc.

The spoken word of Yakshagana is extempore and improvised. It has developed a high literary drammatic quality. The lyrics of the Prasangas form the broad outline for the performers to create dialogues that extend, stretch create a drama of profound effect. Artists like Polali Shastry, Malpe Shankara narayan Samaga, Sheni Gopalakrishna Bhat, Ramadasa Samaga and a host of others have depicted the Bhakti Rasa, with a great degree of sucess, in various roles such as Bhishma, Vidura, Mayuradhwaja,
Sudhanva, Rukmangada, Anjaneya, Bali, and so on combining lucid presentations of Vedanta. The spoken word in such situations is a fine combination of the various levels and layers of the concept of Bhakti as
depicted in the scriptures, Bhakti Sahithya and real life experience soaked in the devotional mood.


Bhakti in Yakshagana is taken with other Rasas like Veera, Shringara and Hasya. The Hasyagara (Jester, who comes in various roles) cajoles, Jokes and even mocks at various duties yet remains a devotee. The Sabhalakshana has scenes where the Hasyagara cracks jokes on Shiva, Parvathi and Krishna.

The role of Makaranda or Vijaya, which appears in many Krishna episodes, is an excellent example of the combination of Bhakti and Hasya. The role symbolises a foil, the ‘other for Krishna’, a common man’s representative, the social concsence and a critic all rolled in one. He makes fun of Krishna, and other roles, questions them, helps to explain the meaning of Krinas actions, his Leela and Mahima (= Divine sport and greatness). It is a role with strong dramatic impact and spiritual connotations.


The period between 1950 – to the present, has seen a major theme shift in Yakshagana. Local folk epics, legends Kshetramahatmyas (= stories relating to temples, shrine legends) have become prasangas in a big way. This has taken the Bhakti in another direction – towards the Bhutas (= spirit duties), and temple duties. This is in a way the localisation of Bhakti, an alternative Bhakti stream.

So also a number of themes based on historical events, dramas, folk tales, fictious’ Purana – like’ stories mainly of the entertainment line – have been added to the repetion of Yakshagana. These prasangas are mainly of the interesting story telling types and do not have Bhakti in any significtions. They clearly indicate that Yakshagana theatre to be moving away from one of its traditional motifs – Bhakti. This is not merely because of the commercial pressures, or the box office move. It also indicates the secularisation of the theme of Yakshagana yet, it needs to be stressed here that the Bhakti based traditional episodes are very much in demand, quite popular and are assuming we want new creative presentations rich in content, improvisation, flexibility and vigour.

The concept of the Bhakti movement, and Bhakti cults is taking God nearer to people and vice versa, Yakshagana has practiced this two way mission in its fullest sense.

ಹೃದಯ ಕಮಲವೆಂಬ ಹರಿವಾಣಾದೊಳು ದಿವ್ಯ
ಸದಮಲ ಭಕ್ತಿರಸದ ತೈಲದಿ |
ಪದುಮನಾಭನ ನಾಮವೆಂಬ ಜ್ಯೋತಿಯ ತಂದು
ಮುದದಿಂದ ಜ್ಞಾನವಾದರತಿಯೆತ್ತಿರೆ ||

(Parthi subbana Yakshagangalu : Edited by Kukkila Krishna Bhat. Mysore University. 1975)

“ Make your heart the plate, Bhaktirasa the oil,
Name of Vishnu the light and thus make the Aarathi of Jnana (= Knowledge)

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