Yakshagana- A Vibrant Dance-Drama of Karnataka

Folk dance forms are a significant part of the cultural identity of India. They depict the customs and traditions of every Indian state quite distinctively.

In this discussion, all of you will become acquainted with the peculiar aspects of Indian culture by understanding about the various characteristics of Yakshagana – a theatrical dance form from Karnataka.

The Essence of Yakshagana

Yakshagana is basically a theatrical type of representation of mythological and historical tales of the past.

It involves an effective narration of a specific story in order to extend a meaningful message to the society.

The performers of this mesmerizing dance form make a remarkable use of mudras and their applaudable acting skills to showcase the mythological stories in an interesting manner.

This dance form consists of a night long performance that extends from dusk to dawn.

Originally, the most popular themes of this dance form were based upon Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata.  In the modern era, the themes of majority of the performances are sourced from the Indian history in order to enhance the possibility of battle dances.

Tribute to Yakshagana by Ramesh Aravind ( Credits:

The Historical Connect and Classification of the Dance Form

Yakshagana is deeply influenced from the Vaishnav Bhakti movement of 11th century. It gained further popularity in the 13th century when it was performed in Udupi by a sage – Narahari Tirtha.

The term “Yakshagana” actually refers to the songs of the Demi – gods.

The mythological and historical tales of India are illustrated through this traditional dance form.

This folk dance has been divided into two types- Moodalapaya and Paduvalapaya.

Moodalapaya is an older version of this dance form. It is still performed in the rural areas.

Paduvalapaya is the more famous type of Yakshagana dance which is immensely popular amongst the tourists as well. Paduvalapaya are of two types – Badaguthittu annd Thenkuthittu . Badaguthittu has a major focus upon the facial expressions of artists and Thenkuthittu represents the unique features of the folk art and dance to the audience.

Musical Instruments traditionally used in Yakshagana (Credits-

A Well Contemplated Stage Performance

Yakshagana is organized on a rectangular stage which is constructed with four wooden poles which are decorated with palm leaves. The viewers are seated around three sides of the stage.

It is a quite popular dance form in Dakshina Kannada, Uttara Kannada, Dharwad, Mysore and Hassan.

In the rural parts of Karnataka, Yakshagana is conducted at night in the paddy fields after the completion of harvesting of rice in the cold weather.

Originally, this traditional dance drama included the usage of the enriching poetry, melodious music and interesting dance techniques.

Backstage Events

The green room is referred to as ‘Chowki‘. The outfits and jewellery of each artists are hanged upon the walls of the chowki.

A special ritual is conducted in chowki. Before the beginning of every Yakshagana, the Bhagavata along with the entire troupe worship Lord Ganesha. Then, all of them chant invocations together and offer coconut to the deity. After this, aarti is performed. It’s basically a way of taking prior permission from the Lord before proceeding to the stage.

At the Outset of the Dance

In the beginning of every Yakshagana dance, drum beating is done. In fact, a special instrumental retreat is given to the audience based on the fixed compositions called Abbara or Peetike.  This performance starts way before the artists take on the stage.

The Enthusiastic Group of Artists ( Credits-

An Interesting composition of the troupe

The troupe of Yakshagana consists of 20 members and its name is inspired either from a village or a temple. It includes actors, dancers, singers, musicians and stage assistants. The troupe leader who is referred to as Bhagavata in Yakshagana supervises the entire performance. The position of the Bhagavata becomes all the more significant given the roles played by him in Yakshagana . He narrates, sings and even leads the orchestra.

The members of the Mela (troupe) of Yakshagana are divided into the following  categories –

1) Mummela– They are the actors which are present on stage in various prasangs(scenes).

2) Himmela– They are the singers and instrumentalists who are present in the background.

There is an interesting manner in which the role of each artist is divided in the form of a hierarchy. Their roles are classified into the following types-

  • The artists who play their role in the introductory are classified within Peetike Vesha.
  • The actors whose characters play their role in the secondary phase of Yakshagana come under the category of Eradane Vesha.
  • Eduru Banna consists of the characters who play the opposing roles in the various prasangs.
  • The last category is full of artists having supporting roles of female characters, clowns, hunters and sages.
  • Within every troupe, there are special characters who are experts in playing the role of Gods and demons.

The Vibrant Performance by the Yakshagana Artists (Credits:

Notable Accessories augmenting the Aesthetics

The ornaments for Yakshagana are created using light wood, mirror pieces, and colourful stones and pearls.

Following are the major ornaments used in the performance-

  • Headgear – It is also referred to as Mundasa. There is a distinct variety of headgears are worn as per the role portrayed by the artists.                 

Following are the major types of headgears –

  • Pundu Vesha- They are heart shaped headgears which are used by the warrior characters.
  • Raja Vesha- They are the crowns worn by the emperors.
  • Bannada Vesha- The large head accessories are adorned by the demonic characters.
  • Kavacha– The chest area is adorned using this accessory.
  • Bujakeerthi– They are the armlets worn according to the character portrayed by the artist.
  • Daabu– They are basically the belts worn by the artists.
  • Tola pavada is worn on the wrist.
  • Earrings worn by the artists are called Kennappo.
  • The crowns of the ruling characters have wings attached to them which are known as Karnapatra.
  • Buja Keerthi is used for adorning the shoulders. Their appearance has a lot of resemblance with wings.
  • A special piece is also worn by the actors on the chest area which is called Edehara. Wood is its major material and it’s embellished with paper and mirrors in order to make it attractive.
  • Veeragase is an ornament which is tied around the waist portion.

Priyanka Mohan (An Artist from the First Family of Yakshagana) Performing with An Attractive Headgear ( Credits –

A Non- Verbal Pattern of Communication

The attire and make up of every artist serves as a significant medium of expression which is non-verbal.

The most prominent colour in the make up and costumes of each character has a specific meaning. Every colour signifies a particular temperament of the role played by each artist. The red colour depicts heroism, warfare and haughtiness. Green colour exhibits peace and eroticism. Death, cruelty and tragedy are associated with black colour.

The characters showcasing satvika qualities and romantic traits wear green shirts called dagale. The role of ‘Krishna’ illustrates satvika traits. The artists playing the role of emperors adorn red colored outfits. It consists of the roles played by Karna and Arjuna. The characters with demonic or tamas roles wear black costumes. They include roles of Ravana, Mahishasura and Duryodhana.

Bannada Vesha (Demon depicted in Yakshagana) ( Credits-

The Impressive Adornments

The make up of each and every artist corresponds to the role allocated to him. The base material which is used for the make up of all the artists is white zinc and carmine. Turmeric is also used nowadays for this purpose. The coconut oil is combined with each colour for applying them over the facial and neck area of the actors. The final touch is given using face powder. Thereafter, different designs of various colours are made as per the character portrayed by the artist.

Moreover, the nature of the facial makeover is quite comprehensive as it has a significant impact upon the entire performance.

In addition to this, each and every artist is adorned with exquisite costumes and elegant headgears. The headgears are known as Mundasu which are customized in nature. The vibrant colour palette of their attire makes the environment all the more lively.

The Relatedness between Yakshagana and Kathakali

Kathakali emphasizes excessively over music and dance. The origin of the present form of this dance can be traced back to 17th century. The historical accounts suggests it’s proximity to the Malabar and specifically to the Travancore region.

Both Kathakali and Yakshagana are quite similar in terms of the musical instruments, outfits and make up of the artists. Even the manner in which they are presented is more or less the same.

While Yakshagana is quite rigid in its form, there is a greater flexibility in kathakali. Both of them can also be differentiated on the extent of expressiveness which is higher in case of Kathakali.

Kathakali Performance ( Credits –

Yakshagana: Embracing the Diversity

With the passage of time, Yakshagana has become all the more inclusive in nature. This is evident from the increased participation from women and the youngsters despite the fact that Yakshagana is a male dominated dance form. All of them are immensely enthusiastic about their affiliation with Yakshagana.

This has also attracted participation from the females of other religious communities. For instance, the very first woman from the muslim community- Arshiya began performing this popular dance form in the recent past. She belonged to Mangaluru. Since, this art form has immense male presence, this is an exceptional achievement in facilitating inclusiveness within it.

A Male Artist Performing Yakshagana (Credits-

Another meaningful cause behind the inclination of the women with Yakshagana exists in the experience of physical freedom within the unique dance postures. This makes the entire experience is quite liberating.

All of you must have identified each dance form through its unique expressions and body movements time and again. Moreover, this discussion must have altered your pre existing viewpoint by shifting your focus towards the representation of the enriching cultural heritage of India with the medium of dance. Until today, you all must have known Karnataka for its historical heritage and its princely vibe, but this discussion has emphasized enough over the cultural offerings that the state has for all its visitors. When you all happen to reach this south western state, don’t miss a chance to view a Yakshagana performance and immerse yourselves in an unforgettable experience.

About Author

Oh My Nation brings to you, the Ancient Indian Culture, Traditional Handicrafts and the Indian Village tours history showcases to you.