Dancing to the Yakshagana beat

Sanjeeva Suvarna and Catrin Fischer ... moving in tandem.

Sanjeeva Suvarna and Catrin Fischer ... moving in tandem.  

MIDWAY THROUGH drowsy lectures on heritage preservation in Manipal, a friend whispers, "I'm going to the Yakshagana Kendra. Want to come?" There is no choice really. After all, Yakshagana is a magnificent heritage art, revitalised and nourished in the Kendra by polymath Shivarama Karanth, best known as a Kannada novelist. A wing of the Mahatma Gandhi College, Udipi, the training centre boasts of a fine repertory in Yaksharanga, with Professor Krishna Bhatt as director and Sanjeeva Suvarna as lead performer and guide. He is fine-tuning the youngsters in the modest building, for "Jambhavati Kalyanam," their night show in a village nearby. A corner clothesline overflows with hair switches, tassels, garlands and `jewels.' The dim walls are agleam with bright headgear, chest and shoulder armour and the shelves packed with ornaments and anklets. The table is a mass of crushed and ironed costumes.

As Suvarna shows the boys how to vary their leaps and jumps, he becomes the sprightliest Balagopala among them. The teacher puts the boys through a range of comic expressions. And when he dances his own roles — in crumpled dhoti and faded waist sash, the man becomes god and hero — strong, awesome, commanding. Drumbeat, cymbal clash and high-pitched song and dance rhythms trigger a flashback. During a years-ago visit with Shivarama Karanth the same classroom was Kurukshetra for Abhimanyu, surrounded by menacing warriors. The battle is too tame for Karanth, founder of the Kendra. He jumps up from the same bench where you are sitting now, roars for anklets and maddale — "louder," he signals imperiously. Then, shedding 60 years, he twirls the sword and mace with the zest of a 16 year-old Braveheart.

Suddenly your reverie is broken. A girl in the all-male bastion? Playing Narada? And not Indian either? You burn with questions but Suvarna knows only Kannada, not even Hindi. That is how you find the German Katrin Fischer, a gurukula disciple living in her teacher's home, translating English and Kannada with practised ease. No surprise that Fischer's PhD at Trebingen University is on the Yakshagana talas in relationship to Carnatic music, but her practical skill in the subject does widen your eye. "I can perform extracts, not a full length play. I perform solo at home," she says bashfully. She also joined the repertory when it visited her motherland, and the show's live advertisement — a full costume parade on the streets.

Why did Suvarna learn Yakshagana? "To fill my stomach, what else? My father died when I was eight, and unlike regular school, you got fed in the guru's house if you learnt this art." He learnt from others before coming to the Kendra and to Karanth. "I was like a son to him. I wanted to learn the good, old style, artistic and sensitive." An exemplary student, he became a fine guru, and a performer who has done hundreds of roles in every play at the Kendra. Suvarna also had the experience of touring abroad with dancer Maya Rao and working at the National School of Drama with the legendary innovator B. V. Karanth. "All these experiences made me think and improve myself."

Shivarama Karanth's stylistics had been criticised in its time, you remind him. "Yes, but Karanth improved abhinaya. He introduced the violin and saxophone as suitable to Yakshagana. He refined the presentation, music and dialogue. He revived some forgotten aspects of the old tradition. This is a fully traditional style, aesthetic and classical, and I follow it."

Having seen Karanth's imaginative choreography for the old prasangas you have no quarrel with Suvarna's tribute. "No one had Karanth's body language and abhinaya," he adds. You too recall how it evoked powerful emotions without melodrama or theatricality. Ask him about girl performers and he admits that few women come forward to join the repertory. The Kendra has 20 live-in male students. "We have no facilities for women." Any hesitation in accepting a female foreign disciple? "What does country or colour matter? Interest and dedication will do."

Suvarna is happy about the increasing number of non-professionals, men and women, who learn the art as a hobby, between 5 and 10p.m, at the Kendra.

"I challenged the Dean of a medical college here that he would be able to do a particular movement, and soon. Sceptical at first, he did succeed!" There are other troupes and schools. Unlike many seasonal schools in South Kanara, the Kendra is a year round school and resource centre. "We get a good audience, but only for the old stories like the Ramayana."

Does Yakshagana offer a secure career? "Not if you want a lot of money," Suvarna laughs. But the region has over 60 troupes. Some temples support four groups. The belief that sponsoring a Yakshagana performance brings prosperity also ensures income. Troupes are booked well in advance. There are commercial companies, selling tickets and imitating gaudy cinema styles.

Finally, you want to take some pictures. Can Suvarna and Katrin have a class by themselves?

That is how Fischer finds herself dancing in tandem with the guru whose �lan and control are obvious in every lift of eyebrow, flick of wrist and stamp of foot. For Sanjeev Suvarna has the gift of the true artiste: charisma.

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