Possibilities of Innovations and Reformations in Yakṣagāna: Some Thoughts - Part 3

We will need to take stock of the experiments that have taken place with costumes of Yakṣagāna, especially in introducing new characters. Noteworthy attempts have been made by Karanth in developing animal characters such as Jaṭāyu and Māyāmṛga and by Raghava Nambiar in serpent-characters such as Takṣaka. While Karanth used masks, Raghava Nambiar has managed to bring out nuances merely with facial make-up. Use of masks is not new to Yakṣagāna – artistes have always put on masks to represent the Aśvamedha horse that appears as a part of Babhruvāhana-kāḻaga and Sudhanvārjuna-kāḻaga. Masks that obstruct the presentation of sāttvikābhinaya should not be preferred over mukha-varṇikā (facial make-up). A matured artiste can breathe life into a character with simple and effective facial make-up; he need not take refuge in a mask. It was quite natural for Karanth, who was largely influenced by the ballets of Europe, to introduce a mask; it is well known that western ballets hardly include mukhajābhinaya (facial expressions). Karanth makes his māyāmṛga run with its hands lifted up to suggest its horns, even though artificial horns are already present on the mask. Restricting the hands of the artiste merely to represent horns, delimits the possibilities of abhinaya; it also hampers the holistic beauty of the magical deer that needs to run around tempting Sītā. Instead, if Karanth had referred to the Nāṭyaśāstra and adopted cārīs like Mṛgapluta and karaṇas such as Hariṇapluta, the character would have become far more appealing. It is relevant to recall Bharata’s general instruction that hands and legs should be free to move while acting – prayogavaśagau hastau, prayogavaśagau pādau.

In the recent years, many amateurs have come with varieties of ideas for costumes and make-ups for characters representing different animals, birds, and daityas. It is needless to say that all experiments must be validated under the light of tradition and aesthetics. While in-cooperating new āhārya, one must examine if it blends organically with the existing elements; its influence on āṅgikābhinaya and sāttvikābhinaya must also be. It is also quite a challenge to bring in characters of history, of foreign origin and those who are alive in the contemporary society in Yakṣagāna. While bringing those, we will need to keep in might the overall aesthetics of the art form.

A few decades ago, the Yakṣagāna Kalākendra of Udupi had arranged a workshop on strī-veṣa. There was much debate in connection with representing a royal widow, a huntress, a matsya-kanyā (mermaid), a gòllatti (pastoral woman), etc. The kind of debates that ensued reflect the confusions and difficulties involved in presenting these characters. The modifications and adaptations made for productions in the Tulu language resulted in the birth of a school called Tuḻutiṭṭu. Though it was short-lived, it is an eye-opener and stands as a warning. Changes in costumes and presentation of different episodes in the Tuḻutiṭṭu require detailed examination. The current article, however, cannot ponder over these features in detail.

Let us now take a look at the nature and colour of clothes that are used for making costumes. Black, white, red, orange, yellow, brown, and green are the basic shades used in Yakṣagāna. Tèṅkutiṭṭu has added deep-blue and violet to this list. It is desirable to follow this colour code to the extent possible and it is advisable not to resort to typical European shades such as pink, sky-blue, light-green, and grey. Designs on the fabric also need to be made with care. Horizontal and vertical lines across the costume should be preferred over gaudy and elaborate designs. The lines should not be very thick.

Costumes made out of pure cotton or blended material with large proportion of cotton are comfortable for most artistes. Gaudy and flashy varieties such as velvet and China silk must be avoided. The usage of coloured beads needs similar discernment; semi-precious stones, plastic pendants, and glass jewellery must be strictly avoided; unaesthetic brocade design that isn’t pleasing to the eyes of the spectator.

The jewellery used for Baḍagutiṭṭu is more aesthetically appealing compared to its southern counter-part. This is because, artistes have limited themselves to using golden coloured foil, non-glittering white and saffron beads, and mirror pieces <page 16>. It is advisable for Tèṅkutiṭṭu to adopt such jewellery; they seem to have indiscriminately borrowed the gaudy jewellery of Kathakalī. In Baḍagutiṭṭu, the jewellery of puruṣa-veṣa consists of a large number of black-coloured woollen balls – their unwarranted size and number have oftentimes hampered the total harmony and beauty of the costume. It is laudable that Dr. Karanth reduced their size and number.

In the school of Baḍagutiṭṭu as practised in Uttara Kannada district, the èdèya-padaka (chest ornament) is overloaded all along its circumference with woollen balls that are jet-black in colour; it almost looks like a black garland worn by the characters; this has been the feature since long. Such unaesthetic practices have to be discarded irrespective of the claims of tradition. Even in Tèṅkutiṭṭu, the usage of gaudy woollen balls has reduced the overall aesthetics but it is better than Baḍagutiṭṭu, especially in the choice of colours.

Stage and Stage Properties

Let us now turn our attention to stage properties – another important aspect of āhārya. As Nāṭya-dharmī is the primary mode of communication in Yakṣagāna, it does not really need stage props. A small stool, popularly called ratha, has traditionally come to be a part of the Yakṣagāna stage; it serves multiple purposes and can suggest many different meanings. This element would be suffice for the stage. Sometimes, huge rathas in the form of thrones are used – they invariably spoil the aesthetics of the stage.

The manner in which the stage was set when Yakṣagāna was purely a bayalāṭa is quite different from how it appears today; when it has largely moved to the proscenium stage. There would have been many beautiful elements in the bayalāṭa form of Yakṣagāna; but all such elements cannot be retained in its current form. Dr. Raghava Nambiar has discussed this in quite some detail in his work Dīvaṭigè. He has also argued that Yakṣagāna should only remain a bayalāṭa. This cannot be strictly practised because every art has to adapt itself to the needs of the particular time and space where it must be staged. The harmonious communion between the worldly and the über-worldly is essential for art. Stalwarts like D V Gundappa and Sediyapu Krishna Bhat have always said that the known and the unknown must be brought together in the right proportion for the creation of great art.

Many have discussed yet another fundamental question. Should art undergo any ‘refinement’ or ‘transformation’ at all? The question is discussed at the beginning of this article. Even so, a few relevant aspects can be brought to our mind once again. Changes take place at a rapid place in the material world. Our world is subjective, and runs on personal egos and ambitions. Therefore, the world is a mixture of joys and sorrows. Change in the field of art is rather slow. Art should always remain true to Rasa and therefore cannot change fast. Art is ideal and is universalized in spirit. It has its roots in Ānanda. This aspect is all the more evident in classical art. Though the nature of the world and the nature of art are contrary to each other, we enter the world of art through the world of matter. Therefore, art has to change to some extent as the world changes. We will also need to remember that the form should always subserve the content and not the other way round. This is important because art is anukīrtana (exalted imitation) and largely depends on the world. With this background, let us return to the discussion on the stage and stage props of Yakṣagāna.

It is possible to make Yakṣagāna an intimate form of art even when it has to be performed on proscenium stages. It is important to have optimum lighting; a screen at the back will add to the aesthetics. People who prefer using earthen lamps should keep many practical aspects in mind – there can be unwarranted shadows on the stage; the light can be wavy or shimmering, smoke can block the vision and sāttvikābhinaya might go unnoticed because of poor lighting. It is true that lamps can enrich baṇṇada-veṣa[1] to some extent, but we must keep in mind that the time spent by such characters on the stage is relatively less. Roles such as kirīṭa-veṣa, kedagè-mundalè-veṣa (used for king and princes, respectively), muṇḍāsu-veṣa (chieftains), and strī-veṣas (female roles) appear frequently on the stage and remain for longer durations. Their facial make-up, which is closer to loka-dharmī, is naturally convenient for sāttvikābhinaya. Their costume and jewellery are comparatively lighter and help in smooth āṅgikābhinaya. All these features will go unnoticed if the lighting is insufficient. Hence, one should not yield to the temptation of blind adherence to tradition. We must give up our conservative mindsets. That said, tube lights, serial lights, and lights of different colours should certainly not be used. Electric light should be employed such that they work just like the earthen lamps of the past, but without their disadvantages. As required by the situation, the intensity of the electric light can be increased or decreased; they should have the flexibility of being directed to different places at different angles in order to create the required impact.


To be continued...
This series of articles is authored by Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh and have been rendered into English with additional material and footnotes by Arjun Bharadwaj. The article first appeared in the anthology Prekṣaṇīyaṃ, published by the Prekshaa Pratishtana in Feburary 2020.


[1] coloured costumes used for depicting rākṣasas




Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh

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