Yakshagana: The Performance

in Overview
Published on: 29 December 2017

Manorama B.N.

An acknowledged Yakshagana and Bharatanatyam artiste, author and scholar, Dr Manorama runs the bi-monthly dance research journal 'Noopurabhramari'. She is the author of four books and one edited volume, including 'Mudrarnava' and 'Nritya Marga Mukura'.

Yakshagana is one of the most popular folk theatre forms of Karnataka. It is noted for its music, colourful costumes, vigorous dance movements, subtle expressions and extempore dialogues. Yakshagana has two main variations, each of which has many variations: Moodalapaya (the eastern form which is popular in north Karnataka) and Paduvalapaya (western style also known as coastal Yakshagana). Of the two, the coastal Yakshagana is more popular for the great sophistication that it has achieved over the years by the efforts of artistes, thinkers and researchers. It is more exuberant and refined when compared to all the other styles.


Paduvalapaya is performed in three coastal districts of Karnataka‒Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada. In the region with Mangalore at its centre (which includes Mangalore, Sullia, Puttur, Sampaaje, Bantwala, Belthangady, Karkala, Kasaragod (Kerala), Kodagu etc.) the tenkuthittu or the southern style is dominant. In Udupi district (spreading from Udupi to Kundapura and some parts of Uttara Kannada district), the badaguthittu or northern style holds sway. The extreme northern parts of Uttara Kannada district are known for the northern style (badaabadagu tittu).


Let us now look at the structure of a typical Yakshagana performance.


A traditional Yakshagana performance spans the period from dusk to dawn. Nowadays ‘limited-time’ Yakshagana has become more popular, as most spectators are taken up with busy schedules. In such cases, it is a three-to four-hour performance at least. Though this constraint on time has cut down many regular features, the glory of Yakshagana has not diminished so far. One gets to watch the splendour and grandeur of customs, the progression of characters and the scenes etched out in detail, in a full-scale Yakshagana performed by a mela or troupe. If the theme chosen is a short one, another theme is staged after the first. In some cases, three short themes may be performed during a single show.


Usually the mela invited to perform arrives before noon, and its members are offered food and lodging by the villagers or sponsors. The performers rest till nightfall, given that the Yakshagana is a night-long performance. For them, night becomes the day and vice versa.


Traditionally, the stage is constructed in an easily accessible place like a paddy field or a temple yard. Such traditional makeshift stages are small when compared to the modern ones. The traditional stage is usually 12 feet wide and 15 feet deep, and rectangular in shape. Four wooden poles are put up in four corners and are decorated with mango and palm leaves. The whole performance has to be carried out within this small space. There are some customs pertaining to how the Yakshagana stage is to be built. But those regulations are not applicable to stages built in the temple yard. The spectators are supposed to sit on the three sides of the stage. Now the Yakshagana is also performed in modern auditoria, where all the customs cannot be followed, nor can its whole splendour be recreated.



Traditional stage 


Regardless of where the Yakshagana is performed, at the back of the stage there is always a raised bench or table on which two persons (bhagavata or the playback singer and maddalegara, the artist who plays the percussion instrument maddale) can sit. Some space is allowed on either side of the bench for the entry and exit of characters.                                                                                                                             


In olden days, oil lamps and thudar (a torch light made of coconut fronds holding jute strings dipped in kerosene) were used to light up the stage. They have been replaced with electric bulbs now. Such modernisation in lighting and also the introduction of mikes have cost the art form a bit of its charm.





The green room constructed in one of the corner of the stage is known as chowki. The costumes and ornaments are hung on the walls of the chowki, with handy mirrors placed conveniently on the floor. The crown of the raja vesha (hero) symbolising Ganesha and the troupe’s deity is placed in the entrance corner of the chowki. The crown represents its wearer and the king was always considered to be the manifestation of God, which is one of the indigenous beliefs of this country, so the tradition overflows into the Yakshagana art form as well. The artists then sit down in rows after the deity as per seniority.






The sponsor is the one responsible for selecting the prasanga (storyline or play or act) for the night and extending invitation to the audience As soon as dusk sets in and the audience starts gathering in front of the stage, the performance begins with elaborate beats called keli or abbara or peetike on chende (drum).  


Let us look into the different aspects of a Yakhsagana performance in the following sections.


Chowki puje (rituals in the green room)

In the chowki, the bhagavata and his supporting vocalists stand before the image of Ganesha (crown of raja vesha), chant invocations, offer coconuts, plantains and perform aarti or puja.. The invocation begins as follows:

Gajamukhadavage Ganapage chelva


(O, Lord Ganesha, the beautiful one with elephant’s face

For you, worshipped in all the three worlds, we light this sacred flame)     


After receiving the prasaada (as blessings), the bhagavata asks for god’s permission to proceed to the stage. Thereafter everyone proceeds to the stage.



Poorvaranga: A Prologue

All Yakshagana performances share certain features that can be termed as constants as they remain the same in every performance. Then there are other features that can be called variables as they change depending on the prasanga to be performed. Things like musical interlude, rituals performed in the chowki, prologue and closing prayers are the constant features. They also emphasise the ritualistic framework of Yakshagana. Even oddolaga followed by pravesha kunita (dance segment that introduces the characters) can be categorised under the heading of constant features. All these are collectively known as sabhalakshana (qualities of stage).


When the performance is about to begin, the bhagavata and the accompanying musicians arrive on the chauka (stage) and take their seats  on an elevated structure right in front of the back curtain. He first invocates Ganapati followed by other gods. No actor on the stage is present at that time.


The prologue starts with two young characters called balagopalas (young Krishna and Rama) appearing on the stage. Their dance is brisk and fast-paced. In fact, novices start their careers by playing these roles. The song to which they dance is on Krishna or Govinda and his 10 incarnations. They also perform invocations to dikpalakas (deities presiding over the eight cardinal directions). After these detailed dance performances, the crown of Ganapati is brought and kept on the ratha (seat or the chariot installed in the middle of the stage right after the seat of bhagavata.) The balagopalas worship the crown by dancing and waving the sacred flame. Nowadays, using Ganapati masks is also common, where the symbolic style is more accentuated.  


In Yakshagana Tenkutittu (southern style), the balagopalas’ dance is followed by the appearance of the characters of Ardhanarishwara (half-man–half-woman character representing Shiva–Parvati) and Shanmukha Subraya (Lord Shanmukha) who symbolises the culture of snake-worship in coastal Karnataka. These are not otherwise common features in other styles.


The next part of prologue consists of the dance by two peetike stree vesha (female impersonators) which is common in all the three styles of Yakshagana. They are also referred as Chandabhama stree vesha, as the verse starts with the word Chandabhama. The songs and dance highlight shringara bhava as the play between with Krishna and gopikas of Brindavan is acted out. The costumes of these characters are similar to the balagopaala vesha. But unlike the dance of balagopaalas where virile qualities are highlighted, these female characters display grace and femininity in their movements.


The hasyagara or kodangi or hanumanayaka (clown) is introduced as one of the preliminary actors. He is the equivalent of the vidushaka in Samskrita dramas.


At the end of the preliminaries, rhythmic beats are played suggesting the start of the next part, i.e., the beginning of prasanga with oddolaga. This acts as a signal for the audience gathered to watch the performance.


Thus the poorvaranga establishes the right atmosphere for the spectators. Earlier it used to be an elaborate affair, but nowadays it is often truncated or rushed through.  



Oddolaga: A Prelude

The preliminaries and prasanga are differentiated chiefly by artha (improvised dialogues). The prasanga commences usually with the formation of sabhas (assemblies) called oddolaga (court of the king, the noble ruler and god) where the characters are introduced for the first time. The main character—the raja vesha—is presented with all pomp and ceremony, and surrounded by wise men, ministers, poets, musicians, clowns and others.


The oddolaga to be performed depends on the prasanga to follow and so the songs and dances performed in the oddolaga scenes are also different in various performances. For example, if the prasanga is from the Ramayana, the oddolaga of Dasharatha or Rama would be presented and if it is from the Mahabharata it would be of Dharmaraya or Yudhisthira followed by the other Pandavas. Other Pauranic prasangas begins with Indra’s oddolaga.


Usually five to six characters who create the assemblies enter the stage in the order of their age or seniority and perform the elaborate dance sequence. The king seats himself in the ratha, while others stand beside him. He begins to speak when the bhagavata asks, 'Bhalire praakrama kanteerava' (praise of the king’s valour by the use of figure of speech). The king frames his answer in such a manner that the bhagavata himself introduces and praises the king. Then the king speaks in detail about the honour, the condition of the state, and also graciously receive the praises accorded to him. This speech provides, to some extent, the backdrop of the story. But as the spectators would be fairly familiar with the story, they often pay little attention to this introductory speech.


The segment of oddolaga lasts for nearly half an hour, following which the actual prasanga starts. This part of the performance serves as an introduction to the ensuing performance, besides piquing the interest of the audience in the latter.


The oddolaga may be repeated in the course of a play while introducing other prominent characters like gods, or other noble kings, demons or villains, warrior queens and even hunters. In fact, the most colourful as well as the most hair-raising introduction of oddolaga is that of a demon character—the bannada vesha (coloured role). The demon starts his ferocious roar from the green room itself, rushes in and stands behind the curtain showing his back. The huge disc behind his crown, the profuse swaying tresses and the roar make him appear massive. He begins to dance in a slow tempo and later acts out the morning ablutions and pujas. Some rakshasas (demons) are introduced on the stage with sudden flares from the light torch, caused by throwing powdered resin (raala) onto the fire (dondi). Actors in the roles of gods and demigods are led to the stage from afar accompanied by torchbearers. But these oddolagas are not as elaborate as the first one with which the prasanga commences.




                                                                                                                                                                                     Bannada vesha

The oddolaga helps the actor slip into his character. It provides the mental frame whereby impersonation is achieved. The fast tempo of music, the physical energy it demands and the vigorous footwork help the actor in ‘becoming the character’.



Stage conventions

The Yakshagana stage makes use of a single curtain at the back. The characters enter the stage from the bhagavata’s left and exit from his right. This rule is very rarely broken. When two characters are on the stage, the one who is dancing or speaking is always on the right side and the passive one stands on the left of the stage. 


The artiste who drums the chende sits in the right corner (in Yakshagana Badaguthittu) or stands at the left corner (in Yakshagana Tenkutittu) of the bhagavata. Chende is a high-strung drum played by two sticks. Its sound is said to reach long distances. Thus it plays a pivotal role in informing people in far-flung places that the performance has begun. The performer who plays the maddale sits to the right of the bhagavata.


The movements on the stage are usually circular or semi-circular except in the battle scenes where diagonal movements are used. Each character has his or her own style of dancing, acting and placement in stages. This circular motion helps in the ‘shifting’. It may be a shift from one emotional state to another, or from nritta (pure dance in rhythmical pattern) to nritya (emotive acting accompanied by dance), or from one stanza to another or from one character to another. The transition from one domain to another is suggested by the exit and entry of characters or even by the character going round the stage once. 


One of the important aspects of oddolaga is the tere or curtain. This curtain is very different from the one used in the modern theatre. It is a piece of cloth measuring four feet by eight feet, sometimes with the name of the troupe appliquéd on it.


The tere is usually held by the sides by two persons, dressed in everyday clothes or pyjamas with turbans. They do not partake in the performance and the spectators pay them no attention. This temporary curtain conceals the characters who are to be introduced. The characters enter the stage hiding behind the curtain. At first glance, only the top of the headgear and the feet are visible to the audience. As the actor begins to reveal himself gradually, the spectator’s attention is drawn to those parts that are being exposed. Initially, the actor holds the tere in his hand, begins to shake it lightly and performs some footwork. Then he slowly unfolds it to reveal his face. After performing some dances prescribed for specific characters (raja vesha, parampareya, Hanumanta, etc.) or roaring (especially if it is a demon character), the artiste shows his hands in front of the tere and signals to unfold it. This technique is very effective in introducing characters of Devi, Krishna, etc. 


The progression of revealing the characters gradually with their costumes is possible through the tere. The actor emerges from behind the curtain in stages. It also becomes the device for demarcating the world of spectators and the new world created on the stage. It exhibits the new domain slowly and in degrees. This allows the audience scope to adjust to the grand spectacle they see before them. Scholars also opine that the struggle of the character with the tere can be equated to the struggle of the character to be ‘born’.   


The tere also acts like a close-up device not only for introducing the character but also indicating the death or defeat of any character. Slaying is not shown on a Yakshagana stage. Instead, the defeated opponent withdraws from the stage. In a few cases, for example, if a character is to be killed in battle and his parents have to lament over the death, he lies still on the stage. After the scene is over, the curtain is held to hide the body and the characters slip out unnoticed.


No other stage props are used as in other dance dramas or dramas, except the seat placed on the stage called ratha. There are definite conventions regarding who can make use of the chariot. The king sits in his own court, while the other characters have to stand. Sometimes the king may offer the seat to a sage or a god. In such cases, the position of power is shifted to the other person and the king now has to move as other characters go to the left corner to perform their respective songs and dialogues.


The ratha also represents the throne, mountain or the royal chariot. If Lord Shiva and Parvati stand on it, it becomes their sacred abode—Mount Kailasa. Again, it is used as a chariot in battles. Sometimes it is also used to express a heightened emotional state. When the king is not on stage, the lowly characters, such as the servant or clown, do not have the right to sit on it without any proper reason. But when two or more characters are on the stage, only the superior character has the right to use the chariot.



Costumes and Make-up

The costumes and make-up of a Yakshagana performance are a form of effective non-verbal visual communication. The pauranic characters belong to another world; a realistic approach in costume is thus neither expected nor suited. The make-up and costumes lend a more majestic appearance, especially at a time when Yakshagana dance-dramas were performed in the light of oil-lamps. Surely the mind of a creative genius must have worked behind this. The treatment of natyadharmi (ideational presentation) is the highlight of Yakshagana, which is evident in its costumes, music and dances.


Yakshagana follows a categorisation where the characters are divided into hierarchical roles—introductory (peetike vesha), secondary (eradane vesha), opposing (eduru banna), supporting roles like female characters, clowns, hunters and sages. Within these categories some sub-categories can also be recognised. There are certain special characters such as Jambavanta, Jatayu, Nandi, Maayajinke, Simha or man-beast characters like Hanumantha, Narasimha, etc. Normally every troupe has actors specialising in these roles, especially for the panel of gods and demons.


Before the application of make-up begins, the artistes who play the male roles put on black pyjamas and those who play the female roles wear skirts. They tie up their hair and proceed to paint their faces. Base material for any kind of Yakshagana make-up is white zinc (saphed) and carmine (ingalika). A slight yellowish powder (haladi) is also used now. These colours are mixed with coconut oil and the paste is applied as base to cover the face and neck, etc.  Later it is touched up with face powder. Then various colours, such as white (chutti), red, green, yellow, black, are used to draw designs, mark lines and paint, all according to the character one is portraying. Lips are touched with carmine, and eyebrows and eye lashes with black colour. Elderly male characters wear black heavy moustaches. Caste marks like tilaka, nama, mudra, kumkuma are added afterwards.


The costumes and make-up not only project the roles and the internal qualities of the characters, but they also aid the actor in internalising the character. The dress and the colours are supposed to depict the habits and behaviour of a particular role. Thus the costumes are distinct from character to character.


Significance of colour in costume and make-up





Colour plays an important role in identifying the character on stage is any Yakshagana performance. To understand the point of emphasising on what colour a character dons, it is essential to understand what a particular colour denotes—while red stands for heroism, war, haughtiness, temper and so on, green denotes peace and eroticism, and black is related to death, cruelty and tragedy.


For example, in Yakshagana Tenkutittu, three iconic sets of colours are used: raajabanna (heroic colour: red and green), kaatubanna (demon’s colour: black), and sthreebanna (female role colour: green and red). Very often they paint these colours around their eyes.


The artists playing satvika (saintly characters) and sringara (romantic, beautiful, attractive characters) use green shirts or tunics called dagale. Rajasa (kings and rulers) normally dress in red tunics and taamasa (the dark characters like demons) wear black tunics. For example, the role of Karna, Arjuna, Krishna, etc., are treated as romantic roles and are considered as rajasa and satvika, whereas the demonic characters like Ravana, Mahishasura, Duryodhana, Kamsa, etc., are taamasa roles.


The base paint for demonic roles are black and red. These characters require three hours to complete their make-up. The chutti (ground rice paste applied as dots) makes the face look extremely ferocious. The nose of a male demon is covered with two balls made of cotton lint which makes his face grotesque. Two artificial canine teeth are drawn to the edges of the mouth. Dotted lines of chuttis are sparingly used in the case of characters like Narasimha and Hanuman. Rakshasi (demoness) characters are usually not given chutti.


Earlier the aharya (costume) of female roles were not given as much significance as that of their male counterparts. But later, several costume improvisations were brought in by the scholars. Now stree veshas use saris with attractive borders and decorative ornaments. 


Traditionally, males played the female roles in professional troupes. It is said that once they were done with the costume and make-up, so beautiful and graceful were they in their expressions, body language and movements that no one would believe they were male actors. However, more recently, female artistes have also begun to mark their presence in both male and female roles.


Again, characters like the servant, priest, guard, clown, jester or any layman are projected in lokadharmi (realistic presentation) with regard to their costumes and dialogues. For example, the hasyagara wears a red-bordered white dhoti, black pyjama, a loose white upper garment and a red/white tur (costume) band of large proportions.


The characters like sages or Narada do not have such impressive costumes as that of the hero or antihero characters. But the character like kirata (hunter) is colourful and impressive in his costumes, though his speech is unsophisticated.


Yakshagana ornaments are made out of light wood, pieces of mirror and coloured stones and pearls. Costumes consist of headgear (kirita or mundasa or pagade), kavacha (decorates the chest), bujakeerthi (armlets) and daabu (belts). They all are made up of light wood and covered with golden foil, and cover the upper half of the body. Mirror work on these ornaments helps to reflect light during shows and add more bling to the costumes.


The headgear has its own distinctive features depending on various characters. Heart-shaped headdresses are worn by warriors (pundu vesha), crowns are worn by kings (raja vesha) and large impressive headdresses are worn by demons (bannada vesha). Apart from these types, there are approximately 60 other types of headgear, designed for specific characters.




The main male characters usually carry with them fake weapons like bow, arrow, mace, chakra, sword and trishula. Vigorous body movements holding the weapons create a realistic illusion of fighting. It is also possible to discard the symbolic weapons and instead use arms, palms and fingers for gestures with appropriate footwork.



Music and musical pattern

The literal meaning of Yakshagana is divine music. The entire progression of the performance is controlled by music. According to Dr Shivarama Karantha, the one who revived the art form, there are three kinds of music systems.


The Karnataki style evolved from madhyama grama, whereas the Hindustani style evolved from the shadja grama. Yakshagana style is evolved from the gandhara grama. However, today all Indian styles of music have adopted the scale of shadja grama. Though the Yakshagana raga system contains the ragas belonging to both these schools, some are very specific to the form. High-pitched tone is the unique characteristic of gandharva grama. It has its own peculiarities in modulation and aalapa (rendering).


In fact, we can safely say that Yakshagana music belongs to prabhandha gayana pattern. There are ragas which denotes pratimadhyama. Samashruti is maintained wherever madhyama shruti is supposed to be employed. The verses employed in the prasanga are written in different meters (Sanskrit and Kannada), tala (beats to measure time) and raga.  They are sung by the bhagavata who controls the pace of the performance. Ragas in Yakshagana are closely associated with a set of melodic forms called mattu.


A brilliant bhagavata may know more than 50 ragas. But the bhagavata mostly remembers the musical patterns or dhaati or mattu rather than a raga. He has no liberty to elaborate on the parameters of the raga. Hence he normally begins the song with the words of the song especially focusing on the second letter. But nowadays since many singers are trained in classical music they bring their classical music expertise to Yakshagana.


Compared to other schools of music, shruti (tempo) is always on a higher scale. The bhagavata begins and moves in the middle and higher octaves and rarely comes down to the lower octave. Softness in the presentation of ragas is absent but there is a striking rhythmic beauty. It is deliberately kept and practised so, probably because earlier the singers had to be audible to a large audience, who sat in open air spaces, without the aid of any modern technology like sound amplifiers. The bhagavata’s tone is always in high octaves, especially in the early morning prasangas or sequences. This practice may be symbolic too, as the night belongs to the demonic forces that have defied the order, and with the approach of day, order is restored.


In Yakshagana, the learners undergo vigorous formal training similar to the students of classical music. The novitiate normally learns the music directly from the senior bhagavata. As a result, the emphasis is on learning the tunes of the songs rather than on learning the ragas. Though the early composers must have composed them with a full knowledge of each raga’s possibilities, later ones might have copied the pattern and were never sure of the ascending and descending notes of the particular ragas.


Yakshagana employs only seven talas. But there is a custom of shifting from one tala to another in the same verse. It is done to bring variety and for the demands of the dance. At the same time these talas are played in either slow or fast tempos. Within this tala structure there are more varieties. Aaditala, chaoutala, ekatala, dhruatala, matte or mathyatala, rupakatala, chaoujamphe tala, thittittai kore tala, ashtatala (two types: nidhana and twarita, meaning slow and fast respectively), jhampe (nidhana and twarita), triputa or trivude (nidhana and twarita). 


The choice of the tempo called kala (time or period) depends on the emotional content of the song. For example, pathos is played out in slow and heroic beats and furious is played in fast beats. Playing of the tiny cymbals or jaagate and elaborate maddale syllables dictate the entire gamut of the footwork.


Irrespective of the importance given to music, it still has not acquired independent position. The role of music in Yakshagana is only to complement the dance and acting. The bhagavata’s singing cannot be mere raga or tala affair. As most of the songs are accompanied by dance, the bhagavata has to keep in the mind the particular dancer or actor. He has to bring out the right emotions in his singing as well. Excellent vocals result in exuberant dance performances. The Yakshagana bhagavatas usually succeed in expressing every human emotion possible despite the limited ambit of ragas available to them.  



Bhagavata and accompaniment

The bhagavata exercises total artistic control over the proceedings on the stage. He is known as the modalane vesha (first character or role). The hero is called eradane vesha (second character).


Earlier the bhagavata sang to the accompaniments of a sruti or drone, which would be a gourd pipe (pungi). But the srutipettige or harmonium has replaced it over the course of time.


In the Tenkutittu style, the bhagavata sings to the accompaniment of jaagate (thick metallic circular disc), maddale (hollow cylindrical drum with leather coverings on both sides and played with both hands), chakrataala (large pair of cymbals) and chende (a hollow cylindrical instrument which is kept vertically and struck on one side with sticks). Tenkutittu chende is similar to the chende (chanda in Malayalam) used in Kathakali; whereas the Badagutittu style employs bells or cymbals (gubbitaala). It is a small thick metallic pair of finger bells made of a five-metal alloy. They are made to fit the tone of the bhagavata’s voice. Singers carry more than one set, enabling them to sing in different pitches. Other than this, they use the chende of Karnataka style and the maddale.



Performance style

There are two seating styles for a typical Yakshagana orchestra—either standing behind or sitting on a platfrom (hadi mancha). The bhagavata with the maddalegara sits on this raised platform on the stage right in front of the back curtain.


A number of fixed compositions are sung before the commencement of poorvaranga. This instrumental performance continues for an hour, before the audience can see the actors on the stage.


The Chende produces loud and forceful sounds that can be heard over great distances. It is mandatory to beat the chende to complement the expression of veera or roudra rasa, which is expressed in battles and vigorous dance movements. However, the Chende is strictly not used during the songs pertaining to female characters or when emotions like sorrow, devotion, love etc. are being depicted. But now, unfortunately, the chende is used indiscriminately in every scene regardless of the emotions expressed.


Music and dance are acutely interdependent in a Yakshagana performance. The song is elaborated through dance and words are brought to life through gestures. Immediately after singing the first line, the bhagavata plays a particular rhythmic beat known as muktaaya or bidtige (closure). Muktaaya signifies the closure of one phase, and the beginning of another. These beats have definite correlated dance steps too. The muktaaya beats are played again when the song is over. The first muktaaya helps the actors shift to dance, or from one tala to another, and the last muktaaya helps in their shift from song to speech.



                                                                                                                                                                  Yakshagana musicians


The first half of the song is usually used for the emotive expression of its content. In some songs the lines are repeated several times by the singer. There are no fixed rules regarding the number of times the lines are usually repeated. It depends on the coordination between the singer and the actor-dancer.




The team of actors who interpret and act out the songs in Yakshagana are known as mummela.


The musical structure of the songs and verses of Yakshagana lend themselves to rhythmic dance accompanied by maddale syllables. This dance form consists of nritta aspects like footwork, rhythmic movements of neck, arms and palms, fine postures, body flexions, as well as squatting, jumping and reeling movements. The function of dance is to enrich and intensify the emotional content of the play and enhance the beauty by employing nritya. In short, the intent of the Yakshagana natya (dance theatre) primarily is to convey the sthayi bhava (fundamental emotional state) and sanchari bhava (transient emotional state) of the song. Hence there are no fixed dance movements for any of the songs. The artiste has all the freedom to use his body language to effectively express the meaning within the parameters of the art form. The referential function of conveying information is usually performed with the help of dialogue exchange. Thus the function of dance in Yakshagana is only partial and not total.


It seems that the dance of Yakshagana has been inspired, to a large extent, by the folk ritualistic practices of the coastal regions, such as bhootaaraadhane (worship of local deities) and naagamandala (worship of snakes). Since Yakshagana grew and flourished as a folk art form, the gestures are not as stylised or symbolised as in Bharatanatyam or Kathakali. The few gestures and symbols used are the ones that one normally uses in day-to-day conversation. For example, the salutations that a Yakshagana artiste uses, such as joining the palms or bringing the right palm across the head are stylised adaptations of real-life gestures. When such gestures are combined with facial expressions, rhythmically synchronised with footwork and body flexions, it can fully express every human emotion.


The dance, it may be said, also synchronises with the costume structure. The gesture language is more convenient to adopt when a minimum of costume and accessories are employed. However, the Yakshagana actor has to perform in heavy costumes that cover the whole body. Ponderous headgear doesn’t allow one to make elaborate gestures or movements with the head. Thus the hand movements may seem repetitive and have only secondary role in the performance; whereas the movements of the feet are varied and gain primary significance. Body lines and angles are also frequently utilised for this sake. However, we can trace the hasta mudras on further study of the treatises.


Since the movements of multiple dancers have to be synchronised and correlated, certain rules are prescribed in dance as well. When a dancer on stage expresses his emotions through dance, his counterpart pauses and observes his movements. 


The movements and steps of dance are almost the same for all the characters, but subtle variations can be seen depending on the different characters being represented. Broadly, Yakshagana dance performances can be classified into two types: dance based on characters, and dance based on sequences.


Dance based on characters

In this category, the dance depends on the character an actor is depicting. Male roles specialise in valorous and battle movements. Heroic characters are dignified and stiff. The young hero is fast and brisk. Demonic characters perform slow, broad and measured movements.  


The clown makes use of the same dance steps and rhythms but breaks the accepted canon in his dance execution. His body posture or limb movements and gait are meant to create humour. The hasyagara is employed in Indian dance and drama for comic relief. His followers—a few boy characters called kodangis (monkeys)—come on stage half-clad, with mango leaves tied to their body, and dance in awkward movements.


While the female characters are only equipped for sukumara (soft and elegant) movements, the women jester is free to make use of body movements to evoke laughter.


There are special dance patterns for characters such as Devi, Narasimha, Veerabhadra, Kali, Simha (Lion), Preta (witch), Nandi,  Mahishasura and other superhuman characters. For example, in Devi’s dance, the ashgourd is broken and kumkum water is sprinkled to calm her down. Paddy corns and bananas and tender coconuts are offered to Veerabhadra when he enters the stage, which he consumes immediately after his introduction. Such dance rituals performed differs from one character to another based on the nature and norms of the role.


Dance based on sequences

Again, dance can be classified based on the sequence it follows. Different parts of a Yakshagana performance demand a different dance treatment, such as preliminary dance, exit and entry dance, oddalaga dance, choreographed items depicting hunting, bathing in water, journeys, etc., dance for elaboration of the songs, dance depicting battles and so on.


Preliminaries and entry-exit dances are almost the same in any Yakshagana performance. All kinds of excellent male performances can be seen in balagopalas and pundu veshas. In Yakshagana, the vigorous twists and turns of the body are performed most times without emotions, but these dance units are highly appreciated by the audience. The characters usually move in a circular or semi-circular shape, displaying footwork, including impressive squatting and jumping movements. In the oddolaga sequence, the personality of a particular character is brought out amply supported by the bhagavata. There are particular sets of dance movements for each character, i.e., an orderly way of presenting characters, which are compulsory during such character introductions. The characters of a rakshasa or Hanuman are presented in the most mysterious manner. There will be pushing and pulling of tere upto their waists and dance movements in sync with the progression of tala. In the oddolaga sequence of the Tenkutittu style, Indra, Rama and Dharmaraya have specially elaborate and intricate dance representations called sabhakalaas, which are rarely performed nowadays. These dance movements have to be perfectly synchronised and if the dancers are not trained adequately, the oddolaga fails to achieve its effect.    


Coordinated group movements and choreographic patterns are very limited in Yakshagana. But sequences like oddolaga, jalakreeda (playfulness in a pool or river), stick dances, travel, battle, vanavihara (wandering in a forest or garden) may carry choreographed movements and soft or stiff rhythmical stances.


The dance also interprets the different moods of the song from stanza to stanza. The very first refrain or pallavi of the song reveals the mood of the composition. Sometimes the dancer begins his dance when the refrain refers to him and leaves it to the bhagavata to take it up and continue. Thus dance can be used in the elaboration of the songs as well. After singing some verses, the bhagavata may shift to mere rhythmic patterns and leave the rest to the instrumentalists to stretch the duration of the dance. This custom is more prevalent in Badagutittu than in Tenkutittu.


The tempo of dance and music rises in battle scenes and the pace quickens. The scenes where the character is roused to anger or marches to the battlefield have vigorous dance movements marked by curved, angular, zig-zag, hard and mellow moves, though the body and feet may not move very briskly. We are made to feel that something terrible is taking place. They may slowly push each other’s elbows, hold their palms and jump, reel, squat, lean backwards and act as if shooting at each other with bows and arrows. These expansive but powerful movements create an illusion of intense conflict against the background of clashing drums and flying trappings.






Yakshagana is often likened to Kathakali of Kerala or Kuchipudi of Andhra Pradesh. All of them lay importance on gesture language. But Yakshagana employs the speech medium extensively in depicting dramatic situations.


The dialogue in Yakshagana is very rich in informative content. After completing the song-dance sequences, the actor creates his dialogue during the performance itself, basing it on the song just sung. His aim will be to introduce himself and so he uses the first-person pronoun. Except for the clown, all the other characters have polished and high-sounding speeches.  


The speeches are presented in either soliloquies or dialogues. If it is the latter, the dancer’s counterpart replies, and in the former the bhagavata, supposed to be the omnipresent controller of the proceedings, responds with short replies.


The songs of one character are followed by the songs of the other. Thus whenever a character is speaking, the other character reacts only in monosyllables like ‘huh’, ‘oho’, etc. When it is his turn, he dominates the dialogue in a similar manner. Sometimes a sharp exchange also takes place. For example, the arguments or debates with the hasyagara. These dialogues work effectively in communicating the thread of the narrative and also in interpreting the character.


The dialogues spoken by the actors are not written down or fixed. The written text contains only the songs sung by the bhagavata. The speeches are spoken extempore. Over time, every actor would have had the experience of listening to his seniors’ spontaneous dialogue on the stage and would have prepared himself for this. Sometimes, the speeches can go on for a very long time if the artiste is experienced and knows his character well.


The Yakshagana stage also in many ways departs from the norms of the Sanskrit stage. Flowery language cannot be expected from all the characters. For example, the vidushaka’s role is well-delineated in Samskrita plays; he follows the written text. But in Yakshagana, no such written text is binding on the hanumanayaka or kodangi or hasya vesha. Even when he plays a role in the main prasanga, his speech is unbridled. Even the characters like the servant, priest, guard or the character representing the common people present in lokadharmi with regard to their costume, dance and speech. They even have the freedom to employ local dialects. It is also appreciated and intended, if it sounds funny and pleasing.


No two performances or two series of dialogue are ever the same. A lack of dance or music may be seen in some shows, but the Yakshagana ambience can be created entirely through words and their interpretation, and the spectators understand and accept it as such.


Aesthetic pleasure and freedom

Audience participation is always a central component in any performance. It is expected that the actors would involve the audience in their dance and interpretations or in comic dialogues in one way or other. Knowledgeable spectators also look forward to the interpretations, explanations and elaborations of what they have already observed in the song-dance sequences.


In Indian theatre, shringara rasa—the sentiment connected with love—has a dominant place among the nine rasas. Most of the time, the shringara rasa encompasses all the other rasas to support the main sthayi bhava of rati, which is the root cause for shringara. Thus the path of true love is always a thorny one in Yakshagana. This element is dominant in themes like kalyaana (marriage) prasangas.


Great valour, deep pathos, love and separation and comic sequences hold the attention of the audience. A battle between two adversaries raises the mood of the audience. Drumming synchronisation and the rich high-pitched voice of the bhagavata also help in creating a frenzied atmosphere.


When two adversaries are engaged in conflict, each comments on the other, reminds the other of their past follies, failures and defeats, or contemptuously abuses the other’s lack of culture, low birth and immaturity. The spectators enjoy such stinging conversations and provoking of repartee.


The introduction of superhuman characters also creates suspense. The entry of a demon character arouses even the sleepy spectator. It is an exciting moment for the children in the audience when the demon actor enters with high-pitched shouts, accompanied with loud beats of the chende.


The songs rarely provide any scope for hasya rasa (humour). But interestingly, the hasya vesha has limitless freedom in Yakshagana to comment and lampoon contemporary issues, though, of course, he is bound by the story from the Puranas. His jokes may even come from deliberate 'slips of the tongue'. Clownish dance movements and comic grimaces add to his repertoire.


This kind of freedom is allowed in prasangas too. As long as the story itself doesn’t shift from the original plot, there are no restrictions on introducing new characters. The interpretations by artistes are determined by the audience demographics and changing tastes. Though the themes are drawn from Puranic sources, contemporary issues like bribery, conflicts with systems of governance, the state of politics and corruption find mention in the performances.



Mangalam: concluding part

Mangalam is the ritualistic closing of the performance. After the story is concluded, the stree vesha performs the mangala dance and the bhagavata seeks audience’s permission to sing the closing song. Songs in praise of mother goddesses, Shiva, Vishnu's 10 incarnations, local deities and the deity praised by poet are sung here. The female actors also use the sacred flame in the dance.


The mangalam sequence includes some ceremonies. The performers go to the chowki where the bhagavata sings a couple of prayer songs accompanied by music. They bring back Balarama and Gopala (two pieces of headgear) to the green room where the chowki puje was performed initially. Here, the stree vesha worships Ganesha and other deities with the sacred flame. The sponsor winds up the performance with the offering of the honorarium to the performers. The money to be offered is placed on a plate along with betel nut and leaves (veelya). This is also a very important part of Yakshagana.


Thus each play starts from the chowki and winds up there. The stage acts merely as a passage. The whole performance is conceived more as a ritual than as mere entertainment.



Qualities of Artistes

It is not so easy to become a good artiste in Yakshagana. One should be a scholar equipped with knowledge of culture and stories from mythology along with many other skills, such as the ability to join the thoughts, a keen sense of the science of rhythm and movement and vibrant dynamic changes during the execution of the dance, and has to be ready to act in any given role. One should also have knowledge of make-up as there will be no make-up man to help in the melas. 


Yakshagana employs the medium of speech extensively. This critical approach in the depiction of character is an important element of performance, because the songs provide only an outline of the narrative. Thus the actor has to be an expert orator, with the ability to inspire the spectators through his interpretation of a character. In order to create the character, the actor needs to be a creative genius and to be equipped with critical faculties as well. The actor is required to not only to fill out the details of the song but also to provide the psychological framework of the character.


Each performance becomes a new creation. A play's success is always dependent on multiple variables like the mood of the actor, belongingness, environment, the performative context, his interaction with fellow artists and the rapport between him and the audience. At the same time, the actor’s talent, his conception of the character he is representing, knowledge of the musical patterns of the song, and epics and Puranas also matter a lot. Only if all these boxes are ticked can an actor become so famous that he comes to be identified by his ‘signature’ role. Most actors tend to grow into certain roles over the course of a decade or more. Almost all actors start their career by playing junior roles and some may ‘graduate’ into a role by virtue of their experience and knowledge. A good actor knows by his sense of aouchitya (propriety) the bounds of his role, how to play out every element and contribute to the total effect of each play. 



Changes in performative practices

Unlike other art forms, Yakshagana has been seen lots of experimentation in recent years. In the old days, the mela consisted of around 25 people or more, whereas now a minimum of 15 people can produce a performance reasonably well. Earlier, torches were lit on the stage, the unsteady light of which lent a sense of mystery to the atmosphere, now, with the introduction of brighter and steadier electric lights, this effect is totally lost.   


Earlier, Yakshagana music boasted an independent style. But gradually, the influences of other styles, especially Karnataki music, have crept in and minimised the essential differences between the two. Again, with time, the bhagavatas have lost touch with ragas that were in use in earlier times, which can now be found only in texts. Earlier the bhagavatas had to sing in the middle and top octaves, especially for open-air performances, so that the voice could be heard over long distances. But this traditional practice, which continued well into the latter decades of 20th century, eventually became a liability. Only a well-balanced range of music is appreciated in closed auditoria and that too aided by mikes and sound systems.


In recent decades, a lot of improvements and innovations have gone into developing Yakshagana for the larger audience. Some creative and scholarly artistes have removed many bad practices. But at the same time, many professional troupes have resorted to omitting most of the rich materials of the prologue. It is also disappointing to find the colourful oddolaga sequence omitted; it has been replaced by elaborate but improper dance, that too accompanied by songs that are high on musical scores but have fewer lyrics. Thus the dances in earlier Yakshaganas, which were internalised by assiduous practice, are being turned into something greatly different from the original, as a result of the influence of other dance styles and films. Highlighting of certain characters by introducing new episodes has resulted in reinterpreting the evil characters. Surprisingly, this trend is also gaining acceptance among the audience. Earlier, spoken prose was never learnt by heart but always improvised on the spur of the moment. But nowadays, it is mostly memorized. The materials used for the costumes and make-up are also undergoing change to a large extent. Today, lighter materials, such as thermocol and plastic, are being used. Even the props are made of steel and plastic.


Up to the early decades of this century the elderly bhagavatas used to train pupils in their homes during the slack monsoon season. These pupils would then accompany their teachers throughout the performing season, gaining in experience. But today, the pace has changed entirely; many institutions have flourished and Yakshagana performances have become common in the rainy season too, due to which the bhagavatas are fully engaged throughout the year. Many amateur institutes are coming up, and women and children are coming forward to participate actively. The youth in the cities are also taking an interest, promising a better future for the art form.


Indeed, there have been many subtle changes in style and form, but the essence of Yakshagana has remained unchanged. The seeping in of new styles is unavoidable as the art form offers tremendous scope for experimentation, exploration and creativity. It may thus be said with some hope that Yakshagana will continue to thrive with and in spite of extensive experimentation.   




Bapat, Gururao. 1998. Semiotics of Yakshagana. Udupi: Regional Resources Centre for Folk Performing Arts.


Karanth, K. Shivarama. 1974.Yakshagana. Mysore: Institute of Kannada Studies, Mysore University.