Yakṣagāna – A Deśī Theatre Art: Misconceptions – 3

This article is part 3 of 4 in the series Yakṣagāna – A Deśī Theatre Art

In his insightful essay titled ‘Uparūpakas and Nāṭyaprabandhas’, Dr. V Raghavan classifies these (i.e., the lyrics/ scripts used for different theatrical/ Yakṣagāna-like presentations) as ‘Kāvya’ or ‘Citrakāvya’, a kind of Uparūpaka. (Refer –

[caption id="attachment_13946" align="alignleft" width="166"]Dr. V. Raghavan Dr. V. Raghavan[/caption]

Sanskrit Drama – Its Aesthetics and Production, page 183). One should not mistake these either for pure poetry or for complex poems which can amuse people merely by their form. ‘Kāvya’ is something that is set to a particular rāga and a tāḻa and is enacted. Citrakāvya is usually sung in a string of different rāgas and tāḻas (rāgamālikā and tāḻamālikā) and has greater affinity for large-scale theatrical production. Dr. V. Raghavan also examines in detail the birth and evolution of the genre of literature which we today see as yakṣagāna-prabandhas. He has spoken about this at length in a thoroughly researched article titled ‘Yakṣagāna – an old drama of South Karnataka’ and an allied article – ‘Yakṣagāna’.  In addition to these, one may also refer to the a few other research papers by the author, namely ‘Kūḍiyāṭṭam – Its form and significance as Sanskrit Drama’, ‘Kathakali and other forms of Bharatanāṭya outside Kerala” and “Bhāgavatameḻa Nāṭaka”. These will serve as preliminary reading to the essays on Yakṣagāna. As a summary of Raghavan’s thoughts, one can say that the Regional Theatre forms of North India such as Lalita, Bhavāy, Yaatraa, Nauṭankī and Chāv), South Indian forms have preserved more elements of Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra. They also contain features of the later works (i.e., later than the Natyaśāstra) on Sanskrit theatre, music and aesthetics.

It is interesting and at the same time surprising to see that the fourteenth century play (ekāṅka-nāṭaka – a one-act play) called ‘Pārijātāpaharaṇa-nāṭaka’ by Umāpati of Mithilā has characteristics that closely resemble the southern variety of Yakṣagāna. [It is also noteworthy that the songs in this play are in the Maithilī dialect. This is indeed in line with the view expressed by Bharata in his Nāṭyaśāstra – the Dhruvagītā, i.e., interludes/ permanent fixtures in theatrical presentations, are to be in deśabhāṣās (i.e., regional language)]. The play Kuṭṭinīmatam written by Dāmodaragupta, a native of Kashmir has the Nāṭikā ‘Ratnāvaḻī’ embedded in it. The details about the stage-craft given here closely resemble that of Yakṣagāna. The Sanskrit Dṛśya-kāvya-prabandhas composed in the Thanjavur region around 15th and 16th Century CE stand out as representatives of a theatrical production of Yakṣagāna. These stand a culmination of all similarities spread throughout the large geography of India and as testimonies for the common thread of theatre aesthetics.

An Indian need not be educated about the impact Gītagovinda has had over all fine arts, ranging from Gīta (music) to Nṛtya (dance), Citra (painting) Śilpa (sculpture) and Rūpaka (theatre). It is in fact in the form of a prabandha and can be classified as a dṛśya-kāvya. Gītagovinda has had innumerable imitations such as Gītagaurīpati, Gītagāndhāra, Rāmāṣṭapadi and Saṅgītarāghava. These too fall under the category of Dṛśya-kāvya-prabandha. Gītagovinda has found its echoes and imitations in Southern Indian literature too. Works such as ‘Śrīkṛṣṇalīlātraṅgiṇī’ of Nārāyaṇatīrtha (Andhra-Tamil Nadu) and ‘Śrīkṛṣṇagīti’ of King Mānaveda (Kerala) have captured the hearts of connoisseurs. They have added to the rich variety of literature and have helped in the blossoming of theatre forms like Yakṣagāna. They have also added flavour and charm to the prevalent forms of art.

Due to the influence of Gītagovinda and Śrīkṛṣṇalīlātraṅgiṇī’ on them, the southern Indian theatre forms like Kūcupuḍi-bhāgavatameḻa of Andhra have started incorporating bhakti-śṛṅgāra (Divine Romance/ Romantic Devotion) as the main theme. Kṛṣṇanāṭṭa of Kerala too has taken to this path. Naṅiyārkūttu and Kūḍiyāṭṭam had their role to play in this gradual incorporation of bhakti-śṛṅgāra themes. Kuravañji of Tamil Nadu is predominantly śṛṅgāra-based. It is perhaps for this reason, i.e., bhakti-śṛṅgāra coming to the foray, that the theatrical traditions of Andhra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu gave birth to dance forms, namely - Kūcupuḍi (Navajanārdhana-keḻikā and Vilāsinīnṛtyam too), Mohinīāṭṭam and Sadir, respectively. Thus, the tradition of drama, which has actors in various costumes playing specific roles (i.e., bahvāhārya) gave birth to śṛṅgāra-oriented, predominantly solo dance forms, which are classical in their framework. Taking to the bāhyaprayoga genre, the daśarūpakas such as ḍima, vyāyoga, samavakāra and aṅka metamorphosed into different dance forms in the South Indian states. All these, as described by Bharata in the definition of bāhyaprayoga, are dominant in ārabhaṭī-vṛtti. [The Nāṭyaśāstra describes how the same form of art takes two different dimensions depending on the mode and place of execution. Bāhyaprayoga is outdoor theatrical technique and ābhyantara is its indoor counterpart]. The forms which belong to this genre are - Kathakaḻi of Kerala, Cindu-yakṣagāna and Tūrpu-yakṣagāna of Andhra and Terukkūttu of Tamil Nadu. Taking to this path, Karnataka has given birth to Mūḍalapāya, Paḍuvalapāya, Doḍḍāṭa, Ghaṭṭadakore, Keḻike and several other allied forms of art. These fall under the category called āviddha-prayoga, a kind of bāhyaprayoga abundant ārabhaṭī-vṛtti as defined in the Nāṭyaśāstra. The predominant rasas are vīra, raudra, bībhatsa, bhayānaka and exaggerated comedy. These also come with bhakti and karuṇa and are executed in the uddhata mode. It is true that a form of theatrical art that is predominantly soft, mellow and graceful in its execution (Kaiśikī) has not taken birth in Karnataka. While we know for a fact that there was a style of presentation belonging to the Tāphā tradition, which had śṛṅgāra as its dominant theme and also a form like gouṇḍalī existed in Karnataka, the portion of dance/ theatre forms based on softer modes of execution (sukumāra) have always been lesser than those that belong to the more energetic kind. Karnataka does not have an art form that is popularly practised all over the state and is predominantly feminine and graceful, in contrast to the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Kerala. Therefore, now, it weighs upon the existing forms of Yakṣagāna (paḍuvalapāya and baḍagutiṭṭu) to come up with a sub-genre that incorporates lāsya and kaiśikī- vṛtti.

[caption id="attachment_13948" align="alignleft" width="300"]Mantapa Prabhakara Upadhyaya - Ekavyakti-Yakṣagāna Mantapa Prabhakara Upadhyaya - Ekavyakti-Yakṣagāna[/caption]

[The current author, along with Mantapa Prabhakara Upadhyaya has made an humble attempt in this direction. We have come up with a form called the Ekavyakti-Yakṣagāna. There are several who say that the Mysore style of dance anyway exists and what is the necessity of this new form. They might also suggest that one could revive and rejuvenate the Mysore style instead of designing a new style of Yakṣagāna. While their argument holds some ground, we must keep in mind that the Mysore style we see today has got merged with Tamil Nadu’s Sadir. The music used in the Mysore style, nṛtta (pure dance), nepathya (stage design and decoration) and all aspects of execution has borrowed heavily from Tamil Nadu’s Sadir. If one claims that pure abhinaya is its only signature quality, we must keep in mind that the form dissolves and loses its significance in sāttvikābhinaya. Thus, abhinaya cannot be hailed as the unique aspect of the Mysore style. These and several other considerations resort to Yakṣagāna and to bring it out in a new avatar, filled with lāsya]

Yakṣagāna is ‘jānapada’, in the sense that it has captured the hearts of all people and has grown its roots deep in the society. However, going by its popular meaning, a form of art is ‘jānapada’ when the artists and audience both take part in dance and singing, thereby thinning the line between the two. There is no one who is exclusively an artist and merely a connoisseur. Everyone takes part equally in the presentation of the art. Such theatrical presentations usually do not have the five sandhis that the Nāṭyaśāstra speaks about. Its āṅgika and vācika are simple and contain simple words and movements. The movement of the limbs, the rhythmic pattern and the words used in the lyrics are simple and can be followed by everyone. Though there is no dearth for enjoyment and beauty in these forms of art too, there is not much scope for creative elaboration as it lacks the framework or structure given by a śāstra. This leads to monotony and boredom. There are times when complex speech, dance and singing techniques are employed to challenge the artist-connoisseurs. These fall under the category of ‘citra’ (acrobatic) execution and such modes cannot be sustained for long duration. Moreover, there is not much variety possible. In sum, though the ‘jānapada’ (folk) forms of art are rich in their exuberance, liveliness, simplicity and are attractive, they will not be able to cater to the tastes of a large spectrum of connoisseurs at the same time. Such forms lack the ability to entertain the masses in one sitting by bringing variety and intensity in execution. By saying this, I am not demeaning the folk forms of art, but just elaborating upon their general qualities. Thus, keeping these typical features in mind, Yakṣagāna cannot be classified as a folk/ ‘jānapada’ form of art.

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 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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