The performance by Ganapathi Yakshagana troupe had a blend of rustic charm and rhythmic melody.

They come on an annual sojourn during Dasara; they are rustic, garish, melodramatic, speak and act in an alien language (Kannada) and yet they keep you glued to the seat. What more, they do not perform in auditoriums; for most part, they choose to dance and act on the premises of temples. The Ganapathi Yakshagana troupe of Nidle in Dakshina Karnataka have made the city their Navaratri camp. They stage nine shows in keeping with the nine-day festival. And going by their genre, the dance-dramas are culled out of mythological stories. There are no female dancers among them and the female roles are also portrayed by men (impersonation).

Since it is a Yakshagana (song-dance of demigods), the music is not just an accompaniment; rather, it is the principle ingredient that pushes the story ahead. That may be the reason why the ‘Himmela’ (comprising the bhagavatar/vocalist, a percussionist) are perched on a high platform right in the centre of the stage towards the rear. Another percussionist holding the ‘Chande’ places himself in a standing position close to them. The bhagavatar doubles up as the narrator, conversationalist and singer whose tones are set to super high octave (tara and ati tara sthayi). Originally meant for street plays (‘bayalu aata’), this octave is jarring in an enclosed area with our electrical sound system.

Since it is the story of demi-gods (Yaksha or devas) and their opponents the daityas or rakshasas, it has characters who look larger than life with painted faces and huge flowing dresses. The black represent the daityas while other colours are meant for the devas. The beginning of the Yakshagana is marked by a loud beating of the ‘Chande’ heralding the entry of the main characters who file across the stage one by one, do a little footwork to the percussion and go into spins (‘dighna’) before they make way for the next actor.

The invocation by the bhagavatar follows and a brief on the story, in this case, it was Kollur kshetra mahime (Goddess Mookambika). There are certain features to this Yakshagana genre as such. The hastha mudra is for most part ‘pataka hastha’, the stance is akin to Kathakali (of Kerala) and the sudden launch into a ‘dighna’ (spin) which goes on till you can count 50 or 100 is done to show utter joy or victory of the character in question. The spin is markedly different from the regular chakkars of Kathak. This ‘dighna’ is done with one foot (toe) firmly planted on the ground/stage and the other foot off the stage!

The story is enacted with dance, song and dialogue between the characters as well as the bhagavatar. Kollur (near Mangalore) was supposed to be a paradise on earth, sanctified as it were by the great ascetic Kaula muni. The gods like Indra extol the place and the ascetic. All of a sudden we find the daitya king Kaulasura and his henchmen Chanda and Munda wreck havoc where the muni is in deep tapas. He eyes Sachidevi, consort of the deva Indra too. And when things go totally out of hand, the devas make a fervent plea to the mother goddess to rescue them. She pounces on the daitya and kills him in the fight, putting an end to misery of the people of Kollur.

The actors donning the roles of daityas were so convincing, especially in terms of physique and voice, though at times the humour element took over the seriousness of the narrative. Their strong footwork and the spins were mind-boggling. The devas, a more insipid lot compared to the imposing daityas, were also given to dance though not as vigorous. The best part of the Yakshagana is the intertwining of a sermon on the objective of human life, the futile negative human emotions of sorrow, envy, anger, etc., the omnipotency of the creator and so on which is usually narrated through a human character like a rishi. The dialogues also flow in this spiritual direction with questions being asked and answered like the Upanishadic teaching. The relief is provided by one or two comic characters that look more like appendages rather than part and parcel of the story.

Kaulasura being granted a boon by goddess Bhairavi, the rishi (Kola muni) giving a spiritual session about meditating on Shiva with the Panchakshari in the heart and the vision held heavenwards, the Chanda and Munda dance and finally the imposing figure of Devi Mookambika were some of the most impressive scenes in the play. The entry and presence of the goddess on stage was so striking that it sent shivers down the spine. The beauty of this Yakshagana is that despite the lack of backdrop or stage setting, its bucolic appearance and contrived characterisation, it makes a lasting imprint on the viewer, no matter how urbane you are. Therein lies the strength of our ancient art genre. The ballet was staged at Karnataka Sahitya Mandira premises under the aegis of ‘Naada habba 2012’ series in Hyderabad.