Tradition and Innovation: Yakshagana – Balipa Narayana Bhat

Senior Yakshagana Bhagavatar (Vocalist). Active performer of Thenguthittu Yakshagana and Thalamaddale for more than 60years. Sangeet Nataka Academy awardee.

Excerpts from the interview

In the world of Yakshagana, over the past few years, what were the changes that occurred through innovations? Do these changes lead to the loss of the art’s identity or contribute to its aesthetic growth?

Over time, various changes have occurred in Yakshagana. Whether it’s in music, acting, or costumes, transformations continue to shape the art today. The enrichment of Yakshagana compositions and the introduction of Parthi Subba as a writer played crucial roles. He accepted and adapted many Malayalam literary works. Furthermore, Vidwan Kuria Vittal Shastri made substantial changes in the dance elements around the 1940s. Like this, individual artists have also contributed significantly in their way.

Today, the pure traditional form seems to be lost at certain level. However, Yakshagana has reached more people, with more stages available. I have been associated with this art for 68 years. Before that, our family members were also Yakshagana artists, especially as Bhagavathars for three generations and so. Today, the tradition that I knew from y childhood no longer exists. The primary reason for this change is the timing of the performances. In the past, stories used to be presented from 9 PM to 6 AM. Now, this time frame is decreasing, with performances typically ending around 11 or 12 in the night. How can we maintain the traditional samaya ragas during this time? Hence, such practices had to be abandoned……. In the past, the entire play was directed by the Bhagavatar. There was a structured approach where the play followed the song rendition, not the other way around. Nowadays, the songs and rendition styles are more standardized, aligning with the Carnatic style. While this adherence to tradition is good up to a certain extent, excessive experimentation might not be beneficial for the art. In the olden days, performers showed a higher level of dedication. Once they put on the ‘Vesha,’ their entire being was committed to the performance. I question whether this generation possesses the same level of dedication or not. These days, Yakshagana plays are greatly appreciated for their abhinaya, a facet that was not as elaborate in the past. Instead, dialogues and music were the highlighted aspects of a play. These changes were introduced as improvisations by individual artists.

Additionally, there have been changes in the way Yakshagana is taught. Earlier, children used to travel from place to place with troupes and learn the art by watching various performances. Now, there are specialized institutions for learning Yakshagana, which is a positive development.

Similarly, Maddale artists used to stand and play, as did the Bhagavatar earlier. This practice has changed today; now they are given a proper platform to sit just behind the ratham (the seat for characters). The old ‘Dwadashankula’ Maddala has been replaced with the Mridangam. In specific situations, to support the characters representing ‘Veera Rasa,’ ‘Chakrathala’ is used alongside the ‘Chende.’

Today, many plays are sponsored by devotees as offerings to the deities, leading to a plethora of performances. Typically, the ‘Melas’ (troupes) are associated with and sponsored by a temple, and there are specific ritual practices performed before commencing the presentation. Apart from these rituals, there is no spirituality involved; it remains a complete traditional drama. I welcome and appreciate all the positive changes that have occurred over time, supporting the art and artists. Nevertheless, changes that alter the tradition are not acceptable.

What were the new changes and improvements made as your contributions? Similarly, what is happening without any changes in this art now?

There were instances where songs and presentations were not matching. I attempted to modify them to establish coordination. I have composed more than 30 Yakshagana episodes, out of which 21 have been published. The main works include “Srikrishna Karunya,” “Matsyavatara,” “Gajendramoksha,” “Shivaprabha Parinaya,” “Bhasmasura Mohini,” “Raktharathri,” and others. The most famous among them was “Devi Mahatmya,” which was performed for five consecutive nights on stage.

Today, not only me but also my sons, Shivasankara Bhat and Prasad Bhat, along with other artists, present these stories on stage. Initially, all kritis were set for a whole night performance, but these days necessary editing is applied based on the circumstances. A noticeable trend on the stage today is the emphasis on one component standing out, be it singing, acting, costumes, or dance; all elements should complement each other. Yakshagana is not an art form meant to showcase the expertise of just one person. The old tradition may not return, as I believe. However, it is important that the matured should step forward and uphold the purity of this art form.

Are the connoisseurs embracing change or do they still prefer the traditional tastes? What is your experience?

Today, a considerable number of people enjoy Yakshagana and enthusiastically support it. It brings great joyfor me. Artists have many stages to perform on. However, we should think about how many among them have genuinely understood and appreciated this art form. It is essential to focus on those who genuinely seek the essence of this art, rather than catering to those who are only looking for entertainment, speedy way of presentation and the loudness of the play.

Some connoisseurs appreciate only what they understand, overlooking other aspects. Therefore, it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. Certain members of the new generation audience might not appreciate my approach and methods because I firmly resist transforming Yakshagana into amateur drama. We can’t solely blame the audience; artists must stand firm to preserve the tradition. Fortunately, we still have a considerable number of true ‘rasikas’ today. They not only appreciate the art but also actively contribute to its promotion, preservation, and growth.

The museum built on my house premises stands as an example of this ‘rasika’ love. It was constructed as part of my 75th birthday celebration and houses numerous old records, photographs, accessories, instruments, books, and the awards I have received. This space can be utilized for further studies and research for the younger generation.

Today, in the Thulunadu region, which is now a part of Kerala, we can see similarities on various aspects of Yakshagana and other Kerala Art forms? . What were the elements that Parthi Subba and Kuriya Vitala Shastry brought from their respective traditions?

In the texts of Yakshagana, there is a rich amalgamation of elements from Malayalam, Telugu, and others. In the northern part of present-day Kerala, which was once part of Thulunadu, various art forms and cultures naturally blended with Yakshagana. Among those who significantly enriched the content of Yakshagana during this time, Parthi Subba held a prominent position.

Parthi Subba, a native of Kumpala in Kasaragod district today, was known for translating Malayalam verses into Kannada. He primarily focused on translating stories from Ramayanttam or Kathakali and used them in Yakshagana performances. Parthi Subba’s contributions have left a lasting impact on Yakshagana, enriching it with a wealth of verses from Malayalam. Even today, many verses translated by Parthi Subba are used in various Yakshagana performances. For instance;

ശ്രീരാമ പട്ടാഭിഷേകത്തിലെ കൈകേയീ- മന്ഥര സംഭാഷണം.
സഖി നീ ചൊന്നതു കേട്ടു സകലവുമറിഞ്ഞു ഞാൻ,
സഹിയായിതൊട്ടും തന്നെ സന്തതം ചിന്തിക്കും തോറും.
സഖി നീ പേളിതമാത്തു സകലൗ ലേസായിതു,
യകുതിയേനിത കിന്നു എന്നോൾ പേൾ കണ്ടുദന്നു.

വിശ്വാമിത്ര-ദശരഥ സംഭാഷണം.
തന്നിടാമിതെന്നുറച്ചു പിന്നെയില്ലായെന്നു ചൊൽകിൽ,
ധന്യശീലാ ധർമ്മദ്രോഹം വന്നു പോമഹോ.
മുന്നകൊടുവേ നെന്തു ഹേളി ഇന്നു ഇല്ലാ വെന്തനല്ലു,
ധന്യശീലാ ധർമ്മ ദ്രോഹാ ബരു ദല്ലയ്യാ

Similarly, ‘Kuriya Vitala Shastry,’ who originally hailed from South Karnataka, came to Kerala as a resident and learned dance. He is known for incorporating various elements from Kerala’s classical dance forms into Yakshagana. After him, Yakshagana started to move towards a more theatrical style. This codified style was carried through generations.

If we examine the rhythmic patterns in the dance segment, we can see the influence of Malayalam. The use of words like ‘ത ധി കിണ ത’ (tha dhi kin tha) the syllables ends with the sound ‘ത’ (tha) are reflection of Kerala art forms.

In ‘Thenku’ style the Chende’ is similar to Kerala ‘Chenda.’

In this manner, elements like costume, song, dance, and instruments, among others, share commonalities with the art forms of Kerala and other traditions such as Bhagavatamela rooted in Vaishnava culture. These influences are particularly noticeable in the Thenguttu style. These influences could have traveled from one place to another or vice versa.

The director and leader of the Yakshagana presentation is the Bhagavatha. How do you control the entire presentation?

Yakshagana presentations were completely under the control of the Bhagavathas. They not only handled the singing and rhythm on the Jaggithi(Thaam instrument), but also managed the timing, directed the actors, and provided responses in some conversations among different characters. Conversations were followed by dance sequences, and if dance was included, it would commence with the actor taking four steps backward from the audience and then gradually moving forward while maintaining eye contact with the audience. If the Bhagavathas were on the Jaggithi, they would indicate the dialogue with the beats in Jaggidi. Actors and other musicians take cues from the Bhagavatha. Even today, this practice continues, however actors also take their freedom more than olden times.

When creating a new work for Yakshagana, what is most important to consider?

A text/ Kriti must possess rich content for any art form. For new stories, attention must be paid to its possibility to compose the play, not only to the novelty.  The playwright needs to have a good understanding of the characters, the costumes required for them, the acting sequences, the scope for dialogues, dance elements and the length of the story. Additionally, it’s essential to examine possibility of using effective dialogic expressions. Both the writer and the director must have substantial knowledge of mythology and history, as they are responsible for conveying this knowledge to the audience. I don’t know to what extent this is possiblr in today’s modern world. Without altering the structure, introducing more diverse characters into the story is beneficial. When including them, focus on maintaining a balance between music, acting, dance, and verbal elements according to the respective importance and present them effectively.

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