Friday December 15, 2017

Yakhsagana Mandli’s Centenary tradition breaks amid reforming taste of masses


17MN_YAKSHAGANA_1522181fBy NewsGram Staff Writer

More than 100 years old in the performing arts, Dharmasthala Manjunatheswara Krupaposhitha Yakhsagana Mandli is undergoing customary amendment. The professional Yakshagana touring troupe will stop its all night performance from the current touring season.

The ancient folk theatre form which traditionally combines dance, music, dialogues and costumes with a unique style is widely popular in coastal districts of Karnataka. The major reason behind the action is the declining interest and mass numbers in the show.

The melas are also facing dearth of open space for the field shows. With several other forms of entertainment on offer, audiences generally don’t watch the show after midnight. The troupe being there for more than a century will now perform the shows till midnight starting from 7 p.m. in the evening.


With this modification, the duration of the most popular mela in the region has been cut down. It was earlier performed till 6 a.m. in the morning. It usually started at 9.30 p.m. but with the changing times and interest of the public, the change is enforced after consulting all the stakeholders.

The authorities after three years of deliberate thinking came to the decision of cutting short the performance to five hours. They believe that the new form will enhance the quality of the act.

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Reliving Christ Through Yakshagana : Is Evangelist Christianity Sneaking into Hindu Culture?

The book by Mulia Keshavaiah has caused a stir in the religious Indian diaspora. Is it a mere literary piece or there is more to the story?

Yakshagana is mainly found in parts of Karnataka, and Kerala
Yakshagana is a traditional theatre form combining dance, music and drama. Wikimedia
  • Yakshagana is an ancient form of theatre, predominantly performed in the Kannada regions
  • The art form has come under scrutiny following a book by writer Mulia Keshavaiah
  • Questions about the dominance and operation of Christian Missionaries have come up in the Indian landscape. 

Mangaluru, August 2, 2017: Yakshagana – a scholastic name used for the last 200 years meaning the song (gana) of the yaksha (nature spirits).

Originating in Karnataka around 500 years ago, Yakshagana acquired a theatrical form in the coastal belt by combining dance, music, and dialogue with a unique style and form. The themes for the show usually took inspiration from the Hindu Mythology, until noted writer Mulia Keshavaiah changed the course of the gana forever.

While the life of Jesus Christ has been told innumerable times previously through songs, films, poems, and stories, the tale had never been told in the form of a Yakshagana.

Keshavaiah combined the two, much to the amusement of the people. The shows then began to narrate stories of Jesus, Satan, Joseph and Mary among others.

The troupe did not falter the tradition and successfully staged shows across the North and South Kannada districts, attracting an audience of both the faiths during the 1970s.

The art of Yakshagana essentially involves conveying stories through extempore dialogues. However, Keshavaiah soon noticed that characters from Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Hindu epics were beginning to creep into the Bible narratives. This was because most of the actors were Hindus who were unacquainted with the traditional tales of the Bible, he had told The Hindu.

In order to educate the artists and uphold the sanctity of the stories, Keshavaiah took to writing a book of prasangas (poetry) based on Christian stories from the Bible.

‘Yesu Christha Mahathne’, a major exodus from a tradition largely dominated by the Hindus, was completed in 1976 and accepted without any criticism. In fact, it became so popular that the book was also translated into English and German.


After almost four decades, Keshavaiah revised his book and launched Mahachethana Yesu Christha Mahathne’ again on May 25 this year at Mangaluru by adding dialogues and commentaries. “The commentaries have been written to keep the storyline intact and guide the artists”, said Raghu Mulia, Kashavaiah’s son, in a statement to The Hindu.

Calling it a “purely literary work”, Mr. Raghu believes the book is intended to attract the Christian community of the coastal region to the art form. Following the release of the book, their troupe also performed a Bible Yakshagana performance.

ALSO READ: Padma Bhushan David Frawley points out Christian Missionaries’ assault on Hindu Dharma

However, with the change in time, a change in the mentality of the people has also been observed, who are no longer as welcoming to Yakshagana’s Christian stories as they were in the 1970s.

A question that immediately comes to mind here is whether to see this as an attempt by Christian Missionaries to try and sneak into Hindu culture through camouflage?

Abrahamic religions, that include Christianity and Islam, are popularly believed to uphold their religions as the absolute truth and spread the ‘word of God’, which often takes the shape of Missionaries. However, the honesty and purity of this act remain debatable.

Why do Christian missionaries do ‘evangelisation’ in India?

Although missionaries cannot be stereotyped, they each have a calling.

The faith holds that God has sent a missionary to promote the religious or social beliefs of the organization they represent, which often takes the form of evangelism, discipleship, and church planting.

Previously, missionaries have had a lot of success in Africa, the South Sea Islands, and Latin America. And India remains an easy target because of its inherent flexibility. In such a situation, polarization continues to prove a threat to the innate Hindu design.

In the Indian landscape where religious opinions exercise an active presence, situations don’t take long to take a turn.

Social media and public discussion platforms have remained abuzz ever since the release of the book, as it received flak and disapproval from people affiliated with Hindutva groups over the traditional form of Yakshagana being used to ‘propagate’ Christian faith.

Public forums have at length discussed the purpose and effect the act can possibly have on the Hindu design, as questions on proselytization (convert or attempt to convert from one religion, belief, or opinion to another) are raised.

Keshavaiah is also believed to have been threatened by right-wing Hindutva groups for promoting religious conversions in Karnataka, who allege that he is beguiling Hindu believers to embrace Christianity using Yakshagana as a tool.

Yakshagana traditionally depicts stories from kavya (epic poems) and the Puranas (ancient Hindu texts).  Believed to have been strongly influenced by the Vaishnava Bhakti movement in its present form, its roots and ties to various aspects of Hinduism remain evident. In such a scenario, according to popular opinions, it was never appropriate in the first place to use the art for a ‘foreign’ religion.  Mixing the art form further holds a potential to result in religious confusions.

Yakshagana is usually based on tales from Hindu Puranas and kavyas
Yakshagana dancers performing a prasang on Jatayu, a bird-character from the Hindu mythology. Wikimedia

Kashavaiah and his family, who now carry the legacy of his troupe, however, maintain that the Yakshagana is a traditional art form of Karnataka that has never belonged to any one religion exclusively.

Calling it literature, Raghu Mulia told The Hindu, “No bias should be attributed to it. Those raising objections have not read the book and are not familiar with Yakshagana”.

-prepared by Soha Kala of NewsGram. Twitter @SohaKala

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Knowing Indian traditional theatre and its relevance

A performance of Yakshagaan in progress

All the parts of India have its own culture and traditions and have different performing arts. The Indian traditional theatre has preserved the identity, uniqueness as well as the history of the area. These art forms, from whichever area they belong to, have evolved with the times yet are deeply rooted in their past.

Generally they have survived due to their deliverance of values and newness of presentation to the society. They still exist because they have too much to tell to the society. The current generation, as well as governments in respective states, has revived these art forms which were losing their sheen two decades ago.

It is an indispensible part of societal structure. People draw inspiration from local heroes to the folklore and culture-specific stories to present them in a region’s known style of theatre.


Yakshgaan, Ankia Naat, Bhaona, Chhau, Turra Kalangi, Nautanki, Ram Leela, Aalha Udal, Raas Leela are all different styles of taditional theatre in India and they belong to different parts.

Local weather and season along with the culture and tradition prepare the base for traditional theatre. For example the ‘Bhangra’ dance form from Punjab has old actions and movements as it experiences better climate than Kashmir where ‘Bhand Pather’ has very limited movements due to the severe cold conditions.

Local heroes have enriched the traditional theatre. Heroic stories from past are presented with dance and music to the audience today. It not only reminds them of a glory but preserves the art form as well. The traditional theatres have evolved from the historical times, be it oral tradition of storytelling, written texts, mythologies or legends.

Stories they tell

The base of the traditional theatre is the stories they tell. Folktales, stories from epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas are prevalent but at the same time stories of local heroes and legends are also performed. Nowadays, modern day elements as well as achievements of Indians are also added as part of story to pay respect to them. One can easily spot the Mangalyaan, Chandrayaan, Kalpana Chawal and many other heroes from our past being presented on stage, in temples and mandaps across the nation.


The beauty and uniqueness of the traditional art form is they remain local in all aspects. Be it musical instruments, the songs, language or the materials used for stage, it is always the local-made and socially produced.

Bhand People ather
Kashmiri people enjoying ‘Bhand Pather’, a traditional theatre form from Kashmir

The stage is made of local and easily available things like bamboo sticks, planks, wooden cots etc. There are no closed spaces as in modern day proscenium theatre. The stage is made out in open area, be it inside temple premises or in a ground. All the decorations are indigenous and are prepared from natural product. The lighting aspect is not much sophisticated. It just solves the purpose of visibility and does not have much to do with ‘effects’ as such.

Make-up and costumes

The make-up of the artistes are very much rustic and earthen. Only natural and local things are used for makeup. Costumes are chosen as per the requirement of the characters. The colours of the costumes are generally gay and bright in the traditional theatre. Use of red, yellow, green can be observed almost everywhere in all the art or dance forms.


As the art form is traditional, the make rustic, and the music indigenous, the presentation is often dramatic, musical, poetic, and rustic. It carries a smell of the soil. However, the performance (of some art forms along with its preparation) can be highly codified as in strict classical sense, following Bharat Muni’s ‘Natya Shastra’ and its guidelines on stage structure, audience sitting arrangement etc.

At the same time, it can be very loose and semi classical in approach. The performers follow a routine and try to bring newness to the already known stories. As the story is generally known to the audience in traditional theatre so the innovation becomes very essential in presentation. The performance generally starts in nights and goes on till the dawn. There are no time limits and it is highly flexible.


The traditional theatre of India enjoys all the three kinds of patronage: Lokashray, which means dependent on people; Devashray or dependent on temples for funds; Rajyaashray which means the state gives grants to the art form and is the provider.

Different areas have survived on different patronage. Some places have survived without any help from the temple or state and people have kept the art form alive. Purulia Chhau is an example where the performance is ritualistic and rustic because it is performed in a destitute society with no funding from state or temples. At the same time, another variant of Chhau, Saraikela Chhau, is supported by the elite class of the region.


The language used in the performance has to be from the local area. It can’t even be a language rather a dialect of the village. The director adopts the script in the local dialect and artistes perform it in their mother tongue. Language is of the people and for the people. A single language or dialect prevails throughout the play.


The instruments used to create and perform music are local. Music is indispensible from any theatre form. Some of the instruments that are prevalent are: bansuri, manjira, idakkya, chendu, jhanjh, dhamsa, dholak, harmonium, veena, dafli, tabla among many others. The music can be classical or semi classical.

Generally the instrument are region specific and indigenous to that particular area. One interesting bit is the Harmonium, an instrument modified in India from the piano and other smaller versions of it, is integral to almost all the regional traditional theatres in India.

Audience-actor relationship

Actors are always from the village or locality itself. They do all their work in the day and rehearse in the evenings or during a decided time. Normally, the same person does the same part every year till the village or he himself decides to retire from it.

The audience and the actors, normally males even form female roles, are highly bound to each other. If the performer is getting loose at some place, the elder or the person who knows the art can point the mistakes out and correct the during the performance itself.


We mustn’t forget our traditions. These art forms have carried on our collective values and way of life since they took shape. They remind us of the inspirational people and stories which inspire us to achieve more and become ideal human beings.

Nowadays, government is making efforts to make people understand the policies and schemes through the traditional theatre. These art forms are used to educate people on various topics, issues of social importance. One can spot integration of ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’, ‘Beti Padhao’, ‘Sarva Shikha Abhiyaan’ etc during Ram Leelas and nautanki.

The advantage with these art forms is that one can easily make the audience understand what he/she wants to convey. These are easily associable and identifiable with almost all the people as all of us have either watched these performances or listened stories from our parents and grandparents.

Nowadays even advertisers are using these traditional art forms to put their views across. The message reaches to the audience in simpler ways and conveniently than from a TV set or radio. The reason is that these art forms are in their own language and the audience feel themselves to be a part of that larger picture.

With many scholars and government institutions pumping money and mind, the traditional theatre can only go ahead. It not only solves the aforesaid purpose but also takes us close to our roots and asks us to be more responsible towards our fellow beings and society as a whole.