Tradition and Innovation: Yakshagana – ML Samaga

Senior Yakshagana artiste and connoisseur, Former president of Karnataka Yakshagana Kendra. Retired professor and principal of MGM College, Udupi. He gives performances, organise events and actively conducting lecture demonstrations, as part of promoting Yakshagana.

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?

Yakshagana has undergone significant transformations in response to changing times and evolving social circumstances. Typically, when technology and modern amenities advance, traditional art forms tend to lose popularity. However, in the case of Yakshagana, the opposite has occurred. Over the past 40-50 years, this art form has gained increased recognition.

Previously, performances were conducted in paddy fields after the harvest, giving rise to the name “Yakshagana-Bayalatta” (dance in the fields). Another form, where Bhagavatas sit and narrate stories verbally, is known as “Thalamaddale.” In ancient times, Yakshagana served not only as entertainment but also as an educational tool. “Yaksha” means “devotee,” and it was an integral part of the worship culture. Certain communities known as “Jaggulu,” who practiced Yakshagana, were referred to as “Yakshas.” It had strong community roots. However, colonial rule had a marginalizing effect on this tradition. Today, there is a high level of acceptance for this art form, largely due to the involvement of upper-class and educated individuals in Yakshagana.

My father, Malpe ShankaraNarayana Samaga, was a pioneer in this regard. He, along with others, codified and systematized the training, including the musical and movement aspects. Yakshagana was used as a medium to impart moral values through the retelling of Purana stories. All elements of the performance, including music, dance, costumes, and dialogues, adapted to these changes. Ritual elements were incorporated to gain wider acceptance, all while retaining the entertainment aspect.

One significant contributor to Yakshagana literature was Parthi Subba from Kumble, Kasargode. He was believed to be influenced by Kerala art forms like Ramanattam and Kathakali. Additionally, influences from classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi can be observed in Yakshagana Nritya (dance). The dance segments were structured and enhanced with proper steps and mudras. Some portions were newly created, influenced by Natya, as seen in the “Prakriti Vrnana” in the story “Keechakavadhe.” Earlier, Bhagavatar (narrator) controlled the play, but nowadays, actors have taken on this role.

Today, Yakshagana continues to evolve, with numerous innovations and changes. Female artists, in particular, have played prominent roles in these transformations, contributing significantly to the art form. While new narratives have emerged, Yakshagana’s traditional and cultural essence remains at its core.

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

I was never a full-time artist; that role belonged to my father, who was very active in this field. Since a young age, I developed a deep passion for Yakshagana and even experimented with various ‘veshas’ (roles). My academic pursuits aside, my growing involvement in Yakshagana activities was largely influenced by my father’s dedication. Subsequently, I pursued a career as a teacher and later as a principal at M.G.M College in Udupi, where I played a key role in centralizing the Yakshagana study center, which became prominent in Karnataka.

I made concerted efforts to provide training and, concurrently, introduce this art form to other states. To promote Yakshagana, I organized workshops and programs beyond our state’s borders.

Additionally, I have authored scripts for numerous plays, designed to engage audiences and presented in various languages for viewers’ convenience. It’s essential to note that I do not endorse unnecessary practices in this field.

In the realm of Yakshagana, innovative practices have emerged. While innovation is valuable, excessive innovation may not always be beneficial. Overindulgence in dance and extravagant theatrical performances can sometimes blur the line between Yakshagana and circus. Such practices occasionally entice artists into various competitions, leading to performances that incorporate a wide range of acting styles, including unnecessary comedy.

In contrast, traditional storytelling often employs an extended form of acting, which may not always be suitable for the traditional Yakshagana style. Therefore, detailed acting is frequently reserved for storytelling, with a focus on narrative delivery. This extended acting, however, is not essential in Yakshagana, which primarily relies on dialogues to convey its message. In conclusion, these expanded acting forms primarily serve the purpose of storytelling, as indicated by the name ‘Bayalata.’ It is crucial to prioritize acting in conjunction with dance for the true essence of Yakshagana.

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

In a way, today’s art world is heavily influenced by connoisseurs who shape its direction. They are the individuals who often advocate for a departure from traditional practices. However, it’s crucial to recognize that not all connoisseurs are receptive to embracing new trends. Some may resist change and steadfastly adhere to their established preferences.

Yakshagana has evolved in response to its audience, which is a natural progression. However, unquestionably yielding to their preferences and straying too far from the traditional framework is not acceptable. Unfortunately, a trend has emerged where excessive comedy is injected into the dialogues, and movements akin to those seen in a circus are incorporated solely for the purpose of entertaining the audience. Such practices can compromise the true aesthetics of the art form.

We have always considered the demands from the ‘Rasikas’. The introduction of English plays in Yakshagana was one such example. Nevertheless, ‘Rasikas’ should also exercise discernment. Yakshagana should not be treated as cinema or other popular contemporary forms. Its unique essence should be preserved and respected.

Do the Badagu and Tengu thittu styles still exist, preserving their uniqueness? Do you think its necessary to merge the styles to bring a unified form of presentation?

These two styles, Badagu and Tenku, have evolved with some minor distinctions. Badagu was prevalent in the regions from Udupi to the northern areas, while Tenku flourished in Dakshina Kannada, Malanad, and Tulunadu regions. It is believed that the Tenku style originated in the Tulunadu region, which is now part of Kerala, while Badagu Thittu developed in the Udupi area. There are only slight differences between the two styles. Badagu places a greater emphasis on ritual aspects and Satwika abhinaya style, whereas Tenku Thittu focuses more on visual beauty aspects. Some similarities with Kathakali can be observed in Tenku Thittu, particularly in terms of certain face make-up for specific ‘veshas’ and systems like ‘Thiranattam,’ among others.

In Badagu, percussionists sit and play, while in Tenku, the ChendE instrument resembles the Kerala Chenda, and the artist stands while playing. Nowadays, the Mridangam has replaced the Maddalam. The ‘thala’ instrument used by the Bhagavata, the main singer, is known as ‘Jaggidi.’ These Jagidi beats serve as signals for the actors to pause dialogues, transition to the next segment, or commence the dance portion.

Badagu employs a kind of ancient Kannada language, whereas Tenku aligns more with the colloquial vocal language. I believe that these styles should not be merged, as they each retain their unique significance and characteristics.

When new works are created, what are the additional elements that need more attention?

The framework of Yakshagana should remain intact. While we can experiment with new stories and languages, certain core elements such as the music and ‘abhinaya pattern’ should be preserved. Avoid unnecessary additions of extra comedic dialogues, ensuring that the dialogues align with the story and its situations. The fundamental costume design should be adhered to, and characters should be assigned to actors based on their capabilities and body language. The foundation should remain pure and robust. Ultimately, Yakshagana should maintain its distinct identity.

Today, there are professional training centers for Yakshagana. How do you perceive the activities taking place there? Is this art form successfully reaching the younger generation?

In the olden days, young enthusiasts used to travel with the Yakshagana teams and primarily learn by observation. Nowadays, there are academies providing systematic training. The first institution that offered such training was initiated in Dharmasthala, primarily for Thenguthittu training. Despite providing free accommodation and food, there were very few takers for the course. The Udupi academy was established during my presidency, but the situation remained the same. Today, education holds great importance, so training is now integrated with formal education. This change has been instrumental in attracting more individuals. Consequently, there are now other professionals actively participating in the art and its promotion.

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