Yakṣagāna – A Deśī Theatre Art: Misconceptions - 2

This article is part 2 of 4 in the series Yakṣagāna – A Deśī Theatre Art

The word ‘Śāstra’ refers to a well-structured presentation with novel insights (Śaṃsana Śāsana-prajñā). Anything that has these characteristics can be said to be ‘Śāstrīya’. A Śāstra usually is in the form of a written set of rules as well as unwritten but traditional practises that come along with the community conciousness. Although folk forms of art might not conform to a set of written rules, they are the products of the tastes of people belonging to the particular community and have come down with time. When it is so in reality, how can anyone say that ‘folk’ knowledge/ arts and ‘śāstra’ are orthogonal to each other? The Vedas too are folk literature in the real sense. All the rituals connected with the ancient vedic tradition as recorded in the Brāhmaṇas are of folk origin (Here, ‘folk’ is taken to mean ‘of the people/ of a community/ of a land’). How can we say that everything vedic is ‘chaste’, ‘classical’ and ‘śāstric’?  I’ll need to delve in detail to establish the fact that vedic literature is of folk origin and it will need to be supported by sufficient examples. I shall refrain myself from doing so as the current discussion is of a different nature.

It is also wrong to say that ‘mārga’ is ‘śāstric’ (structured/ classical) and ‘deśī’ is not ‘śāstric’ (lacking structure/ non-classical). We have works which have documented and have defined the structures of several mārga and deśī traditions of India. Such works were composed until the seventeenth century. The timeline extends to about eighteen century too in some areas of knowledge and arts. To give an example, the ten rūpakas defined by Bharata in the Nāṭyaśāstra belong to the mārga tradition, while there are over twenty-five uparūpakas (Nāṭikā, Saṭṭaka, Bhāṇikā, Troṭaka, Rāsaka, Śrīgadita, Durmallikā and Dombikā – to name a few), that can be said to be ‘deśī’. Both these varieties, i.e., the rūpakas and uparūpakas are described in detail in works such as Abhinavabhāratī, Śṛṅgāra-prakāśam, Daśarūpakam, Bhāvaprakāśanam, Kāvyānuśāsanam, Nāṭakalakṣaṇaratnakoṣa, Sāhitya-darpaṇam and Alaṅkārasaṅgraham. The structure of the rūpakas and uparūpakas is defined in a formal manner. What’s more? The percussion instruments used as accompaniments in folk music and dance have been listed in their Sanskrit equivalents in works such as Saṅgītaratnākara, Mānasollāsa and Saṅgītacūḍāmaṇi. Amongst others, the following instruments find mention in śāstras -  Paṇava, Ānakha, Murajā, Ruñjā, Ḍhakkā and Ḍhakkulī. Similarly, Deśī-chandas (‘folk poetic meters’) such as Tripadi, Eḻe, Akkara, Ovī, Yālapada, Taruvoja, Dhavaḻa, Ragaḻe, Paddhaḻī, Dohā and Sāṅgatya are defined in several Sanskrit, Kannada and Telugu works on Chandas. Saṅgītaratnākara, Nṛttaratnāvaḻī, Nṛtyādhyāya and Nartananirṇaya contain definitions of many Deśi-nṛtta-karaṇas (movements in dance) such as Añcita, Alaga and Lohaḍi along with their respective Deśī-sthānakas and Cārīs. Many works of śāstra related to music document Deśī-rāgas like Ābhīri, Āherī, Dhanyāsi, Yarakalakāmbhojī, Kāmbhojī, Ānandabhairavi, Gouḻa, Kannaḍa, Gurjarī, Māḻavī, Deśī, Śāhana, Husenī, Navaroj and Kāphī. It is also note-worthy that a hundred and eight deśī-tāḻas also find their mention in these works of śāstra.

Thus, we see that in these śāstric works that karaṇas, cāris, rāgas, tāḻas, chandas and instruments that are classified as ‘mārga’ are described alongside their deśī varieties. Thus, the śāstras make no distinction between mārga and deśī. Thus, the connotation that mārga is ‘classical’ and deśī is ‘non-classical’, or that mārga is śāstric and deśī is not ‘śāstric’ does not hold.  It is only when we forget these facts or prefer to be selectively blind that we have develop leftist tendencies and call deśī forms as emanating from the oppressed and the dalits. It is only a sick mind that makes such statements, ignoring hard facts. However, we can say that everything that a deśī form contains is mārga in its essence. Another kind of misunderstanding arises out of fanaticism and conservatism. Out of blind adherence to rules and conventions and complexes of superiority and inferiority, people have the tendency to use the terms mārga and deśī in strange manner. However, the conservationists have lost their prominence today and their approach is not ‘profitable’. Thus, leftist mentality reigns supreme in India today. There are people who innocently believe that a well-structured classical form is of the best kind. It is only the ‘well-read’ perverts who draw great benefits in dividing the society based on cooked-up theories.

‘मृग्यते इति मार्गः’ and  ‘देशे देशे प्रसिद्धेति देशी’ are the etymological derivatives of term mārga and deśī. Accordingly, mārga is that which is realized out of intense search and transcends time and space. It is based on universal human nature and caters to universal experience. Deśī is what is found in practise in the respective regions. Thus, when mārga is adapted to different regions by catering to regional tastes, it takes the form of deśī. Similarly, when Deśī forms transcend spatial boundaries and graduate to the level of universal human characteristics and experience, it takes the form of mārga. It is note-worthy that the Nātyaśāstra describes vṛttis which can be seen as mārga and pravṛttis which are equivalents of deśī, i.e., regional variants. Though Bharata does not explicitly call them ‘mārga’ and ‘deśī’, he suggests the parent-offspring nature of these definitions. This accommodation can also be seen in the inclusion of various prākṛt dialects in Sanskrit plays.

We have quoted several examples from the śāstras so far. Let us take a quick look at a performing theatrical art where mārga and deśī blend together, without standing out separately. ‘Kūḍiyāṭṭam’ is a traditional theatrical art-form of Kerala with its roots in Sanskrit dramaturgy. The staging of one of the classical Daśa-rūpakas in this form of art employs deśī-hastas, mudras, movements, costume, music and language. Moreover, to elaborate on the original text of the Sanskrit play, commentaries such as Kramdīpikā and Nirvahaṇam which are written in Sanskrit and Malayalam are used. These provide material for Padārtha and Vākyārtha abhinaya. This extends the enactment of a particular act of a classical Sanskrit play to several nights, which would have otherwise been limited to just one night. [It is to be noted that several traditional theatre arts were staged during the nights. They started late evening and went on until the next morning]. Sadir or Dāsiāttam, the dance form of Tamil Nadu, which is popularly known as Bharatanātyam today is considered as mārga. Its original Ekāhārya system, i.e., the dancer remaining in the same costume throughout and not getting into ‘character-costumes’ is slowing turning into a Bahvāhārya nāṭya tradition (i.e., a theatre art with different actors playing different roles wearing character-specific costumes). Thus, it is hard to make a strict distinction between what is mārga and what is deśī in different forms of art. The terms are only relative and can be used to indicate the predominance of one over the other.

Let us now take a look at the Pāḍuvalapāya-yakṣagāna. The stories and plots that are chosen for presentation are usually dominated by raudra-bībhatsa and bhayānaka rasas, giving rise to vīra and adbhuta rasas. They are closer in definition to Ḍima, Vyāyoga, Samavakāra, Aṅka and Īhāmṛga among the daśa-rūpakas and lesser to the popular form of ‘Nāṭaka’. The language used for the dialogues in this form of art is not prose but involved poetry that is sung, either being set to a Tāḻa or independent thereof (termed as ‘Satāḻa and Vitāḻa, respectively). Here too, there is lot of artistry is staging mythological episodes and the art form does not completely depend on words. This form resembles Hanūmannāṭaka – a chāyānāṭaka, Gītagovinda – a geya-nāṭya-prabandha or the prabandhas of cākyār-kūttu and naṅgiyār-kūttu of Kerala. The literature of Andhra’s traditional Yakṣagāna is similar too and so is the tradition of Tamil Nadu’s ‘Nāḍam’ and Terukkūttu. Tyāgarāja’s Naukācaritraṃ and Prahlādabhaktivijayam belong to this genre as well. The scripts of bhāgavata-meḻas, a tradition borrowed from Andhrapradesh and staged in Tamil Nadu temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu are of this nature too. Pallakisevāprabandha, Pārvatīpraṇayakalaha, Padmāvatīpraṇayakalaha and such other plays have scripts which have the above said qualities. Koravañji-nāṭakas are of this genre too. One can compare them with the literature used for Harikathā (Kathākīrtana or Kathākālakṣepa). In sum, these can be classified as campū-prabandhas.


To be continued..

Translated from the original Kannada essay by Arjun Bharadwaj. This essay appears in the anthology ‘Yakṣarātri.’



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 poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He is currently serves as Assistant Professor at Amrita Darshanam - International Centre for Spiritual Studies at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Bangalore. He research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.