Yakshagana and Bharatanritya: Comparability and Compatibility in Performance

in Article
Published on: 29 December 2017

Shobha Shasikumar

Dr Shobha Shasikumar is a Bharatanritya artiste and senior faculty and guide for research in Bharatanatya at the Jain College of Performing Arts, Bengaluru.

It has always been a challenge to present two dance forms simultaneously on the same platform. This is because though the forms are very different, and beautiful in their own ways, they have to be given a common base. A meaningful comparison can happen only on common ground. The beauty in the diversity of the forms can actually be relished only when the basis of their very presentations are the same. That is why in jugalbandhis where two different forms are presented, pieces with similar characteristics are chosen. For example, a jathiswaram of Bharatanatyam is compared with a swarapallavi of Odissi, a taraana of a kathak is compared with thillaana of the Bharatanatyam repertoire. Similarly, a bhajan of Kathak style may be presented along with a devaranaama or a kruti/bhakti geete. A doha may be presented alongside vachana and the like.


It is interesting to note that the chaturvidha abhinaya (satvika, vachika, angika and aharya) is the space for diversity as well as for finding common ground. It is generally the vachika abhinaya that shoulders the responsibility of laying the common ground. The threshold of commonality would either be the content of the literature, such as an element of devotion, philosophical thought, eroticism or even a social theme, or the musical elements in terms of raga or tala. This is especially so in the case of nritta where aesthetic dance elements are presented as rhythmical patterns just to exhibit the beauty of the style. Parallel compositions in similar ragas from different traditions like Hindustani and Karnatic are chosen to display the nuances of the two forms both in music and in dance. Ultimately the styles need to be wedded to a common sthaayi in the presentation. The dominant sthaayi finds means to be embellished through supportive vachika to lead to expressible angika. Thus, the satvika and vachika abhinayas prepare the background for a common platform. While the aharya should be in consonance with tradition to suggest the dance style chosen, it is also important that it facilitate the planned angika and support the sthaayi of the concert in the endeavours towards rasa nishpattih (realisation of rasa) which is the goal of any art performance. Thus chaturvidha abhinaya finds its place in fulfilling relative values in the consonance of the presentation of two dance forms, ensuring the possibility of fine appreciation.


Any two dance forms presented in a jugalbandhi would serve as interesting material for comparative analysis with respect to mutual technical adaptability and aesthetics. I carry out such analysis in this comparative study of Bharatanritya and Yakshagana.


Bharatanritya is a dance form that blends the technique of maarga karanas of Natya Shastra with the popular south Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam. It was named so by Padma Subrahmanyam. Her seminal research on the reconstruction of marga karanas (Subrahmanyam 2003) led to the development of a form that has been widely admired, accepted and practised by many. The following lines summarise the Natya Shastra dance technique.


The nritta karanas of Natya Shastra are enumerated in the fourth chapter titled Taandava Lakshanam. A karana is a stylised movement of the limbs of the body which is defined to consist of chari, sthanaka and nritta hasta. A chari is movement of the lower limbs inclusive of the waist, the thighs, shanks and feet. There are 16 bhoomi and aakasha chaaris each, adding up to 32 charis. A sthanaka is a static stance, or rather the charis bind sthanakas into movements. It can also be understood that the sthanakas are broken and frozen moments of the charis. There are six male sthanakas and three female sthanakas mentioned in the Natya Shastra. There are 30 nritta hastas mentioned in the Natya Shastra which are dynamic in nature, unlike the abhinaya hastas which convey specific meaning when held at specific hasta kshetras. The nritta hastas involve the movement of the whole of the upper torso up to the waist giving room for a lot of nuances.


There are 108 nritta karanas mentioned in the Natya Shastra. There are also 32 angaharas which are a combination of two or more karanas. There are also 20 mandalas which are a combination of bhoomi and akasha charis. At a glance, this is the angika abhinaya technique (the technical body language) according to the Natya Shastra. This whole technique is discussed as nritta, which means the stylised body language is synonymous with the word ‘dance’ in general. This is the earliest available codification of a dance technique. The nritta of Natya Shastra was introduced to break the monotony of the lokadharmi (the realistic mode) which was otherwise ruling the natya presentation (dramatic presentation presented in the structure of a rupaka as defined in the Natya Shastra).


It is this nritta in natya which underwent changes to be known as nritya in the desi paddatis through the history of the uparupaka traditions up to the classical dance forms of today.


Bharatanritya as mentioned before is Bharatanatya blended with Natya Shastra’s nritta. Bharatanatya is based on the sadir technique of the rajadasis. When the devadasi system was abolished, sadir or nautch or daasi attam was renamed Bharatanatyam to remove the stigma of prostitution that had become attached to the form during British rule. The efforts of Rukmini Devi and Krishna Iyer formalised and purified the system but at the same time, the technique became rigid and aesthetically limited too. The revival of the technique of marga karanas came as a boon to bring in more sophistication to the angika, thereby popularising Bharatanritya.  




It is an ancient theatre form of Karnataka, especially in the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada. While the tenkutittu or the southern style is popular in the Mangalore region, the badagutittu or the northern style is popular in the Udupi region. Each style has distinctive features with respect to costume, music and angika and vachika abhinayas. The costumes of Yakshagana are of special significance and beauty. The character is revealed mostly through the costume and make up. There are different types of makeup and costumes according to the characters like the Kodangi, Baalagopala (twin characters like Rama and Krishna), Kattuhaasya (clown), Purushavesha (male character), Streevesha (female character) and its subcategories.


The role of the bhagavata (singer) can never be overlooked. It is the norm in Yakshagana that the bhagavata watches the dance only to sing, not to concentrate on the raga of his song, lest he become only an independent singer. The richness of the himmela is enhanced by accompanying chende and maddale instruments. The real beauty of the form is that the whole of himmela is dedicated to the dancer. The himmela artiste travels along with the actor and has no independent existence. This has done wonders for the form.


The tala system is unique, and is dance- and music-friendly. The seven talas (Kore, Eaka, Jhampe, Rupaka, Ashta, Trivude and Aadi) are based on dastu (sequence of steps) and muktaaya (ending of step). The percussion beats and dance movements go hand in hand and match perfectly. Therefore the music and footwork match well in Yakshagana. There also seem to free sanchaara in tala without much rigidity, and according to the demands of the character depiction.



Jugalbandhi of Bharatanritya and Yakshagana

In the experience of having performed jugalbandhi with Yakshagana, the author, as a Bharatanritya artiste, was able to identify some technicalities discussed below.  


Vachika abhinaya vs angika abhinaya

In the treatment of vachika itself, there seems to be a huge difference between both styles. The musical structure in Bharatanritya is still in line with the Karnatic music system. The Karnatic music system is bound by the sulaadi saptala structure. In fact, even in the system of Bharatanatyam, the music has dictated the dance rather than the other way round which would have been more conducive to dance. Most of the dance repertoire in Bharatanatyam is directly influenced by the music repertoire. Hence the jathiswara, padavarna, pada, jaavali and thillaana are all notated compositions in music which are adapted to dance. The later additions to the dance repertoire like the keertanas of the Trinity are also basically musical compositions. Therefore most times the angika of Bharatanatyam compromises with the music structure. As Bharatanritya is on the same lines of music as Bharatanatyam, the concerns here are no different.


On the other hand, the music in Yakshagana seems to leave a free hand to dance as mentioned before. There are not many complicated rhythmical patterns. They are included just to give variety to the lyrical part and suitably enhance the mood of the song. Also, the lyrics seems to dominate the raga and the tala; unlike in Karnatic music where the canons of raga and tala seem to dominate the lyrics. Though the music of Yakshagana is also basically based on Karnatic music ragas, the rendition is more dramatic as in ranga sangeeta or film music. The padya or the lyrical poem is almost memorised by the artiste. The story is led by padya. This helps the audience to relate to music directly and easily, in contrast to Bharatanatyam music where the lyrics are also in a codified form. Only the learned in the audience, and that too in music, would be able to detach the lyrics from the clutches of the raga and tala patterns. The sahitya is like a broad guideline, but not the dictator in this case. But actually, it is simpler to render and follow if the sthayi (the basic state) of the song is made the governing factor for raga and tala.



 Lokadharmi and natyadharmi

If the sthayi is kept as the governing factor for raga and tala, the adaptability of lokadharmi (naturalistic expression) factor becomes easier and natural. This seems to be the dominating factor in Yakshagana. Both vachika and angika seem to be ruled by lokadharmi. The angika in Yakshagana does not seem to have a big vocabulary either in the hastaabhinaya (gestural representation through hands) or in the charis (movements of the legs) or sthanakas (postures at the beginning or end of a movement). In fact the hastaas, sthanakas and charis are the basis for natyadharmi (dramatic convention in representation). In the absence of a codified system, it is but evident that the form should rely on the lokadharmi style of rendition.


It is an ironical truth that lokadharmi, though there is the risk of a diluted presentation, is the only doorway for a sophisticated presentation. It is easier and more comprehensible to handle natyadharmi by artistes as its boundaries and canons for practice are conspicuous. It can be determined how to apply natyadharmi. It can be taught, practised, rehearsed and set for presentation. On the other hand, lokadharmi has to be visualised and then realised into angika through experience and maturity. It is the real test of the prathibha (brilliance) of the artiste. A little overdone it may become clumsy, a little underdone it may become unreachable. The chances of anauchitya (impropriety) are more than auchitya (propriety) in lokadharmi. That is why in Yakshagana concerts, both extremes are easily visible. In the hands of brilliant and experienced artistes, the lokadharmi has done wonders and kept audiences spellbound for hours. And in the hands of mediocre artistes, lokadharmi leads to inferior treatment of the whole subject. Sometimes, this is observed easily even in vaachika, as rendition of spontaneous utterances is an integral part of Yakshagana. The artistes slip away very easily from the gravitas of the characters on the assumption that they are catering to mirth.


Whereas, in Bharatanatya the reverse is true: too much of natyadharmi has eroded all creativity and variety. Though many experiments are being done as far as concepts and music are concerned, there is this stagnation in angika. The stagnation is so visible that sometimes there is no obvious difference between a mediocre artiste and a celebrated senior artiste. Bharatanritya, which has also encompassed the karana technique of the Natya Shastra in the conventional repertoire of Bharatanatyam, has given itself the scope to explore the vaakyaartha abhinaya (extention to contextual meanings beyond the padaartha abhinaya or literal meaning) through adoption of karanas. This in turn enhances the possibilities of a sophisticated angika not only at the level of vaakyaartha abhinaya, but also at the level of dhvani (suggestion). Though dhvani emanates in saatvika abhinaya, stylised body language is its nourishment, especially if it is vastu dhvani (the suggestion of an object or a thing or an idea) or alankaara dhvani (suggestion of a figure of speech). When both are successful in the fulfilment of rasa dhvani (suggestion of a rasa), they culminate in pure saatvika abhinaya. From the above understanding, it is apparent that stylised angika is of great importance to Bharatanritya the form being rich in angika and equally capable of transcending to saatvika due to its unique quality of transparency which enables the karanas and angahaaras to reflect the innate bhava with greater ease, it is imperative for the form to justify its natyadharmi character.


The success of lokadharmi in Bharatanritya lies in making the natyadharmi transparent to the bhaava. It appears that in Bharatanritya, lokadharmi is also realised in the very natyadharmi itself, rather than separated as a distinct feature. What this writer has concluded based on her experiences in Bharatanritya is that while for the success of bhaava sphota (explosion of bhaava), lokadharmi is the basis, the very carrier of lokadharmi lies in the natyadharmi due its feature of angika sphota (explosion of angika). Also, because the bharati vritti (oral rendition) is not adopted in Bharatanritya unlike in Yakshagana, an impactful angika is the only resort. The angika should not be a mere replacement of words. In other words, what the mouth would otherwise speak should not be represented with abhinaya hastas. Spoken word is a more effective channel to communicate than the hastas. Hence there should be an attempt through expressive angika to speak out at the levels of vaakyaartha and dhvani.


One can also notice that the pace of a karana is an important factor in the success of a performance. Most times, the laya (rhythm) in the song has to cater to this factor. A karana done at a speed greater than recommended hardly has any impact. Whereas, when the style is more casual in angika as in Yakshagana, the tempo of the rendition of the lyrics is generally faster.


Hence it is important to arrive at an ideal balance of tempo suitable for both styles. There can also be an experiment to render the same lines in different tempos for both styles independently, which would add to variety too.



Handling streevesha

In Yakshagana streevesha, the traditional practice is to have male actors enact female characters. Though there are many artistes who perform streevesha very effectively, it is noticeable that when men enact the female roles, they generally overdo gestures or dialogues to justify their vesha, as naturally the body or the words don’t have the feminine grace. Such overdoing may suit a man in streevesha, but not a woman dancer who performs in the streevesha. A woman portraying a female role has to back up her natural grace. It would appear weird and inappropriate to compete with the affected womanliness of a man. Whereas, it would be appropriate for the streevesha artiste to compete with another male character, where the contrast gets justified by overdoing streevesha. So in the case of jugalbandhi, this mismatch in the handling of womanliness is to be taken care of.



Ekapaatra abhinaya

Bharatanritya is basically a solo dance presentation (akin to Bharatanatya), especially popularised in the bhanika style (popularised by Dr Padma Subramaniam). In this, multiple characters are portrayed by a single artiste, bringing in the concept of the narrator. So only as much of the shades of a character is brought in as is needed for the interpretation of an episode. Many characters come and go at the beck and call of a single artiste. But in ekapaatra abhinaya, where an artiste represents a single character, many implied expressions and suggestions are to be taken care of. Every other character in interaction with the ekapaatra must be established through reactions in the absence of separate artistes for each character. While this naatyadharmi element is a good concept, there is a great chance for monotony to set in, as we are deprived of the variety of angika of other characters (were they also enacted). This is so even in Yakshagana. Hence when two or three artistes take up ekapaatra abhinaya compensating for many other characters, who are established through these limited characters by way of reactions, then its appropriateness and effectiveness need to be properly assessed. The challenge is even bigger when both Bharatanritya and Yakshagana styles are adopted in different characters. The compatibility of the styles have to be taken care of. The suitability of the style to the character portrayed is another important issue.




Yakshagana is not a very rigidly structured form. It is developed spontaneously on stage, especially in terms of vachika. The himmela also complements the ideas of the artiste at the moment. As the angika is not highly stylised, the tala system is not very rigid and the dance tradition is totally depictive in nature; spontaneity is the hallmark of Yakshagana. On the other hand, Bharatanritya though highly supportive to manodharma nritya, has rich and stylised angika. As the angika is highly technical, it is balanced by an equally technical music support. Nevertheless, due to transparency in angika of the predominant satva, manodharma is a welcome element. But an additional challenge will emerge in the case of jugalbandhi. The question is how to match the manodharma of two artistes? If their lines of thinking are totally independent of each other, it would end up as chaos on stage. Hence manodharma also has to be executed within a structure. For an artiste, the rapport with his or her co-artistes towards complementing his or her manodharma is very important.




The dual concepts of natyadharmi and lokadharmi, which apparently appear to belong to two extreme poles, start to travel towards each other in a true artiste. It is the thirst of a true artiste to discover how these two elements start converging and eventually merge to give the most appropriate angika through optimal application of natyadharmi on the one hand, and the deepest satvika through the optimal portrayal of lokadharmi on the other.


While the goal is the same, whether it is Bharatanritya or Yakshagana, their paths diverge due to the uniqueness of their own forms. It is important for an artiste to learn, analyse, perceive the  differences between these two art forms for the utmost application of the form to rasottpatti, but at the same time to recognize that these differences are more superficial and relative than real.


Such comparative analysis can be done between other forms too. While the differences in the forms become clear and evident in the course of discussion, what is surprisingly also revealed is that such differences cater to variety rather than to conflict, if properly placed. In the absence of a deep understanding of the differences and challenges, endeavours to merge the styles towards a single objective become futile. Hence such experimentations open doors to the inner secrets of blending styles.



Further Reading

Bharatamuni. 1996. The Nāṭya Śāstra of Bharatamuni. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.


Kundar, Manohar S., ed. 2013. The Glory of Yakshagana Theatre. Udupi: Seena Meena Prakashana.


Subrahmanyam, Padma. 2003. Karanas: Common Dance Codes of India and Indonesia, vols. 1 & 2. Madras: Nrityodaya.


Raghavan, V. 1993. Sanskrit Drama: Its Aesthetics and Production. Madras: Paprinpack Printers.


———. 2004. Splendor of Indian Dance. Chennai: Dr. Raghavan Centre for Performing Arts.