‘Dramatic, funny, professional...’ may describe the Soorpanaka Prasanga by Shri Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali, Karnataka.
It was presented by Kalakshetra Foundation in their interactive festival of puppetry and performing arts, ‘Niram Thiram- 2016’.
The show was an abridged version of the centuries-old, all-night Yakshagana dramas usually performed in open paddy fields and temples in villages.
With its origins in the rural milieu, this art form can be over-the-top in terms of dramatisation and presentation, but the Soorpanaka episode was different.
It may have been rustic, but it was not crude; there was, in fact, an underlying sophistication in the acting and in the dialogue.
It did not matter that it was in Kannada or that the folk version differed from the original Valmiki Ramayana; it only required a rudimentary knowledge of the language and the story to appreciate the timing of the all-male cast and enjoy the laugh-riot.
The Mandali, founded by Keremane Shivarama Hegde in 1934, and headed by a fifth generation artist and grandson of the founder, Keremane Shivanand Hegde, clearly has high performance standards.
Given that the Yakshagana script, consisting of songs that narrate the story, has a loose framework, it is up to the actor-dancers to flesh out the characters with spontaneous dialogue, dance and acting.
The scenes at Panchavati ending with Soorpanaka’s defacement came alive in a seamless flow of uninhibited acting and special effects from the bhagavatha (singer) and the percussionists, a few of them standing out.
One was the conversation between Rama and Janaki, in which Janaki (Nagaraj Bhat) expresses fear of the demons in the thick forest in ‘Vanaja lochana kela munde.’ A sensitively indulgent Rama (Shivanand) assures her of his protective presence and advises her to face the fear rather than hide. The soft, romantic scene was alternated with the other unforgettable one, Soopanaka’s loud entry and her excitement at having smelt human blood.
The demoness (Ishwar Bhat) stole the show.
On seeing Rama, she is surprised and says, ‘I came to eat but he is so handsome to see!’ She changes her mind, and greed turns to lust in the padya, ‘Kandare kandare madanananta,’ in which she devises ways to seduce him.
She disguises herself as a beautiful damsel (Sadashiva Bhat) and approaches Rama in another entertaining scene with the beautiful Khamas-inspired padya, ‘Raghava narapathe’ (talamalika).
A word about the music here — initially pre-Carnatic but now Carnatic-inspired, it has a unique style of rendition. The singer uses flat notes and less gamakas in the singing, besides using variations in volume to add drama. The songs have to be sung to the beat mentioned though the ragas maybe switched at the instance of the singer.
In this instance, the full-throated Bhagavatha was Ananth Hegde. He was supported by the dexterous percussionists, Parameshwara Hegde (maddala) and Sridhara Gowda (chenda). Raghava Hegde as the devoted but angry Lakshmana deserves special mention.