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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 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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