Yakshagana: In Conversation with Amba Prasada Patala

Yakshagana: In Conversation with Amba Prasada Patala

in Interview
Published on: 10 September 2018
Edited version of an interview with eminent Yakshagana artiste Amba Prasad Patala by artiste and scholar Manorama B.N., conducted in 2017.


Amba Prasad Patala belongs to a long lineage of Yakshagana artists. With his father Patala Venkataramana’s support and guidance, Amba started out as a Yakshagana artiste and soon achieved eminence as a female role player.      


Manorama B.N. : I thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. Could you please recall the most memorable moments in your career as Yakshagana artiste?


Amba Prasad Patala: I left my school education when I was in class 9 because I wanted to learn Yakshagana. My father, Pathaala Venkataramana Bhat, is a renowned female artiste in Yakshagana. So I was exposed to Yakshagana since my childhood. When I was in school, my teachers always encouraged me to go on stage. I learned all about Yakshagana veshagarike (makeup) from Subraya master, one of my teachers at school like how to apply makeup and all. I debuted in the female role of Girije. My teachers wished to see me in a male character.  I did the role of Athikaaya. It was appreciated by the teachers. I studied the basic steps that were needed to play the role of Athikaaya. I had learned arthagaarike by heart. My passion for Yakshagana grew and I lost interest in my studies. Soon I left school. But my father was not happy with the decision.   


M.B.N.: Did you ever regret this decision later in your life?


A.P.P.: No, I am happy being a Yakshagana artiste. I have never regretted my decision. Yakshagana brought name and fame to me and I am satisfied with it. When I chose Yakshagana as my career, my father opposed it. I went to watch Yakshagana performances without letting him know. Somehow I managed to save a bit of money, and during weekends I attended performances. When my father was with Dharmasthala troupe I used to visit the place. At that time I didn’t know even the basic steps. Shridhara Rayaru was a makeup artist for female characters then and he prepared me with female make-up and made me perform in the play Dhananjaya Vijaya. As Draupadi I had to hold a garland and stand on the stage as a bride. I joined the troupe in every vacation just to perform this role. All these incidents increased my love for Yakshagana and I wished to achieve expertise in it. Thus I joined Yakshagana Kala Kendra in Dharmasthala run by Dr D. Veerendra Heggade.


M.B.N.: Could you talk about your experiences at Yakshagana Kala Kendra?


A.P.P.: Surikumeru Govinda Bhat and Nidle Narasimha Bhat were my teachers. I grew up like their child in Yakshagana Kala Kendra. My father had warned them at the time of admission that I was very naughty and that they should be very careful with me. He requested them to train me well and make me a good artiste like him. Both of them used to take much care of me. They even made me sleep in between them. I used to feel very guilty thinking that I was giving them trouble.


Govinda Bhat taught me every aspect of Yakshagana. He asked me to develop knowledge in raga and shruthi. I was gradually trained in bannagaarike (make up), hejjegarike (steps), etc. After the training in Kala Kendra, I joined as a female role artiste in Dharmasthala troupe itself. Not as a lead female artiste in a prasanga (play), but as one of the dancers who perform before a prasanga commences. So like this, I started my Yakshagana career. But after taking part in a tirugata (tour), the following year I was not given a chance. They told me there were too many artists and I had to leave the troupe. So I went to Sunkadakatte troupe. Niranjana Swami used to lead this troupe called Ambika Annapoorneshwari Yakshagana Mandali. I joined there as a female role artiste. But I didn’t have a chance to perform in a female role. I got a chance to perform in a male character. Thus for the first time I performed in a male role in the play Ramashwamedha. But as I had learned to play female roles, I didn’t know many steps. Once I even fell down on the stage during a performance. The troupe owner Gurkodi Guttu Sundar Shetru asked me `Maani, (a term to address Brahmin boys) did you fall down on the stage?’ I said, ‘Yes, I tripped on the rope’. But very confidently I promised that I would improve it the next day.


In Dharmasthala troupe I used to get three rupees as honorarium once in three days. At that time, a cup of tea or coffee cost just 15 paisa. With just 25 paisa, we could eat our fill. This was 37 years ago. Next year will mark my 38th tirugata. I have successfully completed 38 years in Yakshagana. I had started to perform in male characters in the beginning, but later they gave me female roles.  Slowly they started to assign me two roles in a day. I was supposed to perform in both female and male characters. Like Vishnu and Rambhe. I used to appear in both roles.


Kateelu Shrinivasa Rao assumed the role of a ranga guru (roughly translated as stage master) for me. We used to call him kateel sheenanna. He was a strict master. He uses to give me directions to perform on the stage.  Muliyala Bheema Bhat was my distant relative.  He taught me how to play the role of Devi differently in plays like Kateelu Kshestra Mahathme Devi Mahathme and Kolluru Kshetra Mahathme. He also taught me arthagaarike for these different roles. The arthagaarike which I perform today for the role of Devi is his gift to me. I follow it until today. I have not exaggerated the arthagaarike. I speak what people wish. I have brought many ideas in costume for the role of Devi. But not in arthagaarike.


The role of Devi means that the goddess that she is, her character doesn’t require many dialogues. Now many artists have incorporated dance in the role. But what I feel is that the goddess’s character should be reserved and deliver dignified speech. If we bring shringara rasa into the role, then how can we differentiate it from other roles that express the same rasa? At the time the Sunkadatte troupe staged more Tulu prasangas like Siri MahathmeKoti ChennaiyyaKanthabare Budabare etc. I started to do well in Tulu prasangas. So Kadri troupe invited me. That year they had introduced a new play  Gejjeda Pooje written by D. Manohar. In that I played the role of Tulasi which was well-received and I became very popular. Even today people remember my character.


M.B.M.: Why did that role occupy you so much?


A.P.P.: Kalpana, the Kannada movie star did the role in movie with the same name. The play is based on the story of the film 'Gejje Pooje’ (ritual performed as part of an initiation into prostitution) in Kannada. That story has been brought into Yakshagana with a few modifications. In the original story there was no king or queen but here the author created those characters as per the requirement of the dance-drama. Here the protagonist Tulasi, though she is a daughter of a king, was born and brought up in the house of a prostitute. She doesn’t want to get into that profession and wanted to lead a normal life like other women. She has manners and expressions befitting a princess. A king wants to marry her. But she reveals her story and warns him that marrying such a girl will harm his image. He withdraws his offer, and her father and brother decide that they will no longer protect her. Then the house owner decides to do a gejje pooja for her. Soon a situation arises where she has to dance in front of her father and lover. She does that and at the end, she takes a sword from the hand of her lover and kills herself. It is a very emotional role.


M.B.N.: You did the role of Ahalye too, which was the most famous, didn’t you?  


A.P.P.: Yes. Kanyaantharanga was the name of that play written by Siddhakatte Vishwanath Shetru. I performed it when I was with Hosanagar troupe. I got the guidance from Ujire Ashok Bhat for it. He taught me how to excel in dialogue delivery and I performed as he taught me.


M.B.N.: It seems that, in your artistic journey you have travelled along with several troupes, isn’t it?


A.P.P.: Yes, I started my career with  Dharmasthala troupe, then shifted to Sunkadakatte troupe, Kadri troupe, Surathkal troupe, Sirsi troupe in Uttarakannada and then again came back to Tenkuthittu school and  joined Mangaladevi Mela,  Karnataka Mela, Edaneeru Mela, Putturu troupe, Katipalla troupe, again Hosanagara troupe and at present I am with Bantwala taluk’s Paachakere troupe.  It is my comeback to a Tulu troupe.


M.B.N.: Could you please talk about the major differences between the tenku and badagu styles? Have you faced difficulties in handling both styles?


A.P.P.: Tenku and badagu styles are totally different. In the beginning, it was difficult for me. But well-known female role player M.N. Nayak from Mandarthi helped me a lot. My co-artiste Ukkunda Nagendra used to teach how to perform and dance for the play texts in the mornings. We rehearsed with the accompaniment of maddale played by Yallapura Shankara Bhagavatha. On the stage I performed with Ukkunda Nagedra, Gode Narayana Hegade and M.N. Nayak. M.N. Nayak would play the role of Devayani and I would play Sharmisthe.


M.B.N.: You did intensive training prior to performing on badagu school stage. Do you think this kind of discipline is very rare in tenkuthittu style?


A.P.P.: Yes, we artists had a good understanding. We did rehearse a lot in badagu troupe. Unlike tenkuthittuwe would never see actors in badagu troupes sitting and talking in the mornings. In tenku troupes they rarely practise in the morning. I am not saying that the interested persons will not be able to learn in tenkuthittu. Even there, we get plenty of opportunities. We get the company of many good artistes. If we are interested, we can imbibe knowledge from them. They too have time to teach us. We should wait for a good opportunity and request them to teach us.


M.B.N.: What is your opinion about mixing both (tenku and badagu) styles in a performance?


A.P.P.: I had attempted this once. But after my father advised me not to merge the styles, I stopped doing so. But now everyone does it. They mix steps from tenku with badagu style for the dance. In badagu they use the tenku style (kalari) steps to express the veera rasa (emotion of courage). In such scenes tenku and badagu styles will go together. But what I prefer is that these two styles should maintain their unique characteristics separately. I don’t say we should not mix them at all, we can combine both styles judiciously wherever suitable, e.g. in a dance sequence.


M.B.N.: How do you view female roles in Yakshagana?


A.P.P.: First and foremost, we should understand the very nature of the female character in that playtext. We should not start to dance on stage just because we are playing the female role. For example, take the role of Subhadhra in Abhimanyu Kalaga. It is a very emotional character. The artiste should understand that she is playing a role of a mother of a grown-up son who is married. He should keep it in mind and only then he can perform the role in a better way. Instead, if the artiste dances like a young lady, it will look awkward. Of course, we need hejjegarike (dancing) but it should be restrained.


M.B.N.: But nowadays female characters spend nearly half-an-hour in performing dance sequences.


A.P.P.: Yes, once I watched an artiste acting as Devi dancing for nearly 20 minutes. But really, the Devi character is not meant for dancing.


M.B.N.: But the general view is that people expect such long dances?


A.P.P.: Who are these audiences who want to see it?  Who exposed them to such dances in the first place? We should show diverse characters to the audience, otherwise the audience will be unable to differentiate between Devi’s role and other roles. Even though the costumes are different, if all female characters dance in the same way, dignity of Devi’s character will be diminished. Nowadays, the artistes dance just mindlessly, going round and round.


M.B.N.: How should a female role player conduct herself on stage and in real life?


A.P.P.: He should behave in a dignified way in real life.


M.B.N.: I asked so because a female role players would arouse a lot of curiosity from the audience.


A.P.P.: The female impersonator should restrict his character to the stage and not outside. He should uphold the dignity of a female role player. Off stage, his persona shouldn’t be an extension of his on-screen persona. My father used to sit on a mat or a piece of clothing after wearing his costume. He used to take good care of the sari. I too do the same but I used to sit on the trunk. Or I used to stand backside in rangasthala (stage) waiting for my turn and thinking about my character. I never added fodder for gossip. We should think only about the character we are going to play.


M.B.N.: Some people, out of curiosity, visit the green room when female role artists dress up for their character. Have you come across such situations?


A.P.P.: Yes, some people do visit us. But we should not give them the opportunity to converse with us. We should behave in a dignified way; our demeanor affects the dignity of our character.


M.B.N.: Your father has tried to bring in innovations in Yakshagana in the aspects of costume, makeup etc.


A.P.P.: Yes, he had contributed a lot to the field. He studied sculptures in Beluru temple and Natyaraani Shanthala’s dance steps and tried to introduce the same in Yakshagana. On a few occasions, I too had experimented with the sari costume on stage. I implemented it where I found it necessary. Usually I adopt it for my demonstrations.  


M.B.N.: Is it because you are less inclined to adopt it on stage?


A.P.P.: Yes, I agree. I wanted to implement it but my colleagues in Yakshagana didn’t show much interest towards adopting new experiments. They would say why do you use such costumes? You just wear the sari, right?  For their sake, I did not adopt the innovation in the costume on stage. But some would ask me to dress up in the style prescribed by my father. When Krishna Sabha organizes Yakshagana programmes in the town hall, they expect me to dress up in that way only. In Udupi also a few demand the same. So whenever such demands rise, I dress up like that only.


M.B.N.: Have you tried to bring innovations in Yakshagana like your father?


A.P.P.: I did the roles of Dakshayini, Subadhra etc. No one played those characters like me. I did not follow anybody’s style. No one has been able to copy mine too. Based on my own imagination I tried to bring freshness to my characters’ portrayal. Luckily people liked it and they do remember me still in those roles. Those roles became kind of my signature roles and my own assets. Audiences expected only me in those roles. I had marked my name even in a small role like Shabari. That role was limited to only three poems but until today no one is able to copy me in that role. Another well-appreciated role is that of Bakule in Shrinivasa Kalyana. I gave a humour touch to that role and no one has been able to repeat it since. Even today, in Hosanagara troupe, they remember it and say that my act as Bakule was stunning.


M.B.N.: Which aspects did you improvise—dance or makeup, or expressing emotions? You portrayed especially the character of Shoorpanakhi in Panchavati Prasanga very differently.  What inspired you to bring in such improvisations in your roles?


A.P.P.: I improvised mainly in make-up and emotions. In Parthi Subba’s Panchavati Prasanga, the facets of the character Shoorpanakhi— Maya (illusion) Shoorpanakhi and Ghora (violentShoorpanakhi— are different. In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Shoorpanakhi visits Ashokavana and expresses her feelings. Keeping that in my mind,  I  created my role of Shoorpanakhi as having a ponytail and also bushy eyebrows, two dots near eyes,  unkind expression in the eyes, jewels which provokes shrungara rasa like earrings mundaleaddigemaalekaikattu, different other ornaments etc. Instead of the regular blouse for the character of Shoorpanakha, I wore a full sleeved blouse. I wore a short sari. It looks similar to Kathakali costume. Like this, I performed both Maya Shoorpanakhi and Ghora Shoorpanakhi in one costume itself. The inspiration behind these new experiments is the motive to keep my role remembered forever. In the song sequence in the play `Hadinaru vatsarada hennadalu avalu mudadinda shungara gondu', I danced beautifully.


M.B.N.: The expression of suitable emotions is crucial, right?


A.P.P.: Yes, it always follows the nature of the character. For example, take the role of Shoorpanakhi. She is a demonness and transforms into a girl. 'Hadinaru varshada hennadalavalu (she became a girl of 16 years)’. Through this song the audience should come to know that character is changing her basic attitude. The audience should notice that stage of transformation from demon to Maya Shoorpanakhi. When Laxmana says to Shoorpanakhi that go to Rama and bring a kuruhu (symbol) as a sign of his permission, she gets angry. She says that I have become a toy in your hand. Here again, she expresses both anger and shrungara. Then she goes to Laxmana and says that I have brought a kuruhu. When he asks where it is, she says 'It is drawn on my back’ in shrungara rasa. Shoorpanakhi imagines that Rama has asked Laxmana to marry her. But actually, Rama has indicated to Laxmana in the drawing that he should cut her nose. He has drawn a picture of a crow that eats filth. Rama’s hint to Laxmana is to kill that crow which eats filth. Rama symbolically draws it on her back. He doesn’t write any word. Rama communicates to him that she is a filth-eating crow and she will become a black mark in your life, and so, don’t accept her proposal.


M.B.N.: Do you mean the character of Shoorpanahi written by Valmiki and Parthi Subba is entirely different?


A.P.P.: Yes. Parthi Subba modified that story to suit the Yakshagana stage.


M.B.N.: In such situations what do you do usually— follow the original text or the playtext?


A.P.P.: We should follow the playtext. Parthi Subba was a poet. These are his imaginations.


M.B.N.: Don’t you think you are belittling the original text?


A.P.P.: We have adopted the original text in other play texts. Here we basically follow the original text. In the original text, Rama asks Laxmana to cut her nose. But here we made slight modifications. Of the two faces of Shoorpanakhi, one is cruel and another expresses shrungara. But the original text has only one character and that character expresses both emotions.


M.B.N.: Is cutting her nose and breast there in the play text written by Parthi Subba?


A.P.P.: Her attitude provokes Rama to suggest to Lakshman to cut her nose. But while cutting her nose he doesn’t touch her. When he cuts her nose in anger he cuts other parts too.


M.B.N.: Of all the characters that you have played, which are your favourite ones?


A.P.P.: My favourite character is Dakshayini. Followed by Subhadhre and Seethe.


M.B.N.: Why? 


A.P.P.: The character of Dakshayini represents the portrait of a family. Her character is not just restricted to her identity as the daughter of Daksha and wife of Shiva; it is much more. She is like an ordinary woman who goes to her father’s house, enjoys herself and thereafter she returns to her husband’s house. This emotion mainly prevails in this playtext. It highlights an ordinary girl’s love towards her parent’s house; she loves her birthplace and wants to attend the functions. But here, Dakshayini’s husband Shiva doesn’t want to attend the function arranged by her father. On the other hand, she doesn’t want to go alone without her husband. She is in confusion. Once, she tells her husband, 'If you are not interested then I will also not attend the function’. But on the other hand, she can’t stop her wish to attend the function. Her husband maintains silence and she tries to change his mind. But he is very firm about his decision.


Finally, she becomes unable to resist her intense love towards her maternal home and goes and attends the function. There she remembers her husband and starts to worry about going back. All of us know how she sacrifices her life. It is the story of ordinary married women. These two faces of her character make her a favourite to me. I love to do characters who have two conflicting emotions. The character of Ahalya also imagines Devendra in her mind but her husband is Gouthama. How we show these two faces on stage is a real challenge and I succeeded in doing that. But now artistes fail to portray such characters because of the excessive importance given to dance. After dancing for a long time, they are too tired to emote correctly. Even dialogue delivery also becomes difficult for them. They can’t express shrungara rasa also.


M.B.N.: You mean, the artiste should do justice to the character rather than catering to audience’s demand.


A.P.P.: To attract the audience, the artiste dances for a long time. But it won’t serve the purpose of a character.


M.B.N.: You said that you have enacted male roles too. But the audience is interested in seeing you in female characters, right? Please delineate.


A.P.P.: Yes, I even acted in male roles like Ishwara, Krishna, Vishnu, Arjuna, Devendra, Athikaaya etc. As I told you earlier female roles were my favourite characters. If they didn’t give me any female character, then I took up other roles. I would make a note of the mistakes that the female role players on stage made. I would feel that if I had acted in that role I would have performed better.


M.B.N.: You performed in several kasevesha (soldier women role), right?


A.P.P.: Yes, along with Govinda Bhat and Aruva Koragappa Shetty, I did Prameele. At the time my acting as Prameele with Arjuna became very popular. My role as Urvashi with Arjuna also became a success show. We had to repeat the performance upon audience’s demand. Such was its popularity. 


M.B.N.: Whom do you think can be looked upon as a model in Yakshagana female roles and other characters? Who is your favourite artiste?


A.P.P.: For me, my father was a model. I followed Kolyuru Ramachandra Rao in arthagaarike. Then Bheem Bhat, Ukkunda Sanjeevanna, Siddhakatte Chennappa Shetty—all these artistes accompanied me during Tirugata.


M.B.N.: How do you prepare for the role —do you read texts to equip yourself? 


A.P.P.: Yes, but instead of reading, I prefer to learn from others. Like from their experiences and knowledge. When I had the leisure to read then I was affected by personal problems. I lost my wife and I was not able to concentrate much on reading. When we are young, we are able to concentrate and retain memory. But then I was in sorrow and couldn’t read widely.


M.B.N.: Now the common opinion is that the female role player should be physically fit to perform on stage. What is your opinion about it? Did you ever feel that you should retire from playing female characters?


A.P.P.: Yes, I feel so and have retired too. But it doesn’t mean that I have not acted since. During the last year’s tirugata I successfully staged the villain role and impressed the audience. In the playtext based on an imaginary story, I appeared as a Brahmin man Neelakantha Shashtri. My guru Govind Bhat had performed the role of Deekshithavaani Malathi in Dharmasthala Kshetra Mahathme emoting shrungara rasa. I was influenced by that character and introduced few aspects of that role in my performance as Shastri.


M.B.N.: Do you mean if and when you retire from female roles, you could take up other roles?


 A.P.P.: Yes, I am doing it. I don’t expect lead roles. I am ready to perform in any role. Last year I performed as a villain. I try to bring uniqueness to my character through my experiments. I put a mark (like a dark spot) on my face. It would vibrate when villain hears something which is not favourable to him. My dialogues were very popular and as soon as I begin to speak, the audience would take it up.


M.B.N.: Do you think the female role player has less age span on stage as compared to other performers?


A.P.P.: Yes, if we cross 50 then we get fewer chances to act in a female role. Till we attain 50, we can perform female characters successfully. To reach perfection in acting, a female role artiste should get married. Then only he recognizes the emotions of a female character. When he starts a family life he will understand about that character. To perform the role of a mother he should be a parent.


M.B.N.: What tips do you suggest to a female role player to sustain the appeal?


A.P.P.: Body movements and facial expressions should be good. The build of the body shouldn’t be very weak or very strong. Female artiste should be slim and should be able to emote with eyes and face. The audience expect more than just delivering dialogues on stage or overacting. First and foremost, he should understand the nature of the role and try to act accordingly. Otherwise, he won’t become the character.


M.B.N.: What should a female role player keep in mind when performing on stage?


A.P.P.: Before playing any character try to understand its deeper layers. In the beginning of the play itself, the audience should get a complete picture of that role. A female character can achieve success through understanding the character thoroughly and performing it well.