Monday 11 March 2024

The skill of the artiste decides the performance, not the character - Sivananda Hegde Interview

Sivananda Hegde

Yakshagana is a unique performance art of Karnataka. It is a combination of music, dance, dialogue, and bright costumes. Troupes have been performing this art for a long time and the events are performed all through the night. This art is popular among the people of Karnataka, especially the villagers from the west coast provide a lot of support. Just like Tamilnadu’s Therukkoothu (pageants or street plays) and Kerala’s Kathakali, Yakshagana was also performed only by men dressed as women. In this century, women are also participating.

In Kathakali, the stage actor only performs abhinaya (dance expressions) while the Bhagavatha (singer) sings in the background. In Therukkoothu, the actor sings as well as delivers the dialogue (verses). Whereas in Yakshagana, the Bhagavatha usually sings in the background and the actor delivers the dialogues. The actor dances with a stick wrapped in colored threads in his hand, which transforms into a scepter, a bow, or a sword based on the scene. Artistes who dance and act out the story on the front stage are known as Mummela. Bhagavatha and other musicians who sit and perform backstage are Himmela. Bhagavatha is accompanied by instruments such as Chende (percussion instrument), Maddale (drums), taala(cymbals) etc. The dance is not about easy movements, it includes adavu (movements) where the dancer has to swirl with his knees on the ground to the beats of the drums. This art form is performed regularly in Karnataka all through the season after the monsoons. During the offseason training and preparation of costumes, ornaments, etc. are undertaken. 

Keremane Shivarama Hegde (Grandfather)

Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali is located in the village of Gunavande in the northern tip of Karnataka. Among the hundreds of Yakshagana troupes today, the Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali is a prestigious troupe with a long tradition. Idagunji is a place near Murudeshwar in Karnataka state. The famous Mahaganapati temple here is one of the six important Vinayaka temples on the west coast including Gokarna. The Idagunji troupe was founded in 1934 by Keremane Shivarama Hegde, then led by his son Keremane Shambu Hegde for 40 years, now the third-generation Keremane Sivananda Hegde runs the troupe. The training center of this troupe is located in the beautiful village of Gunavande near Idagunji. In 1986 Shambu Hegde started a Yakshagana school called Idagunji Kalakendra. He introduced a one-year training program to train Yakshagana artistes, where students could stay and study free of charge in the school. Those who excel in the program are further given another year or two of training and an opportunity to join the troupe. 

There are two large auditoriums and a training hall in this complex along with lodging facilities for students who attend training. The old six-hundred-seater auditorium is set up in a conventional stage style, and as a new initiative, an open-air auditorium has also been set up by Sivananda Hegde. Fourteen years ago, Shambu, an artiste closely associated with the Idagunji Mahaganapati Temple, passed away while performing on stage during a Yakshagana event at the temple. At that time, he was performing the role of Rama, everyone's favorite. His memorial is located near this auditorium. The Idagunji troupe is striving to popularize this art form beyond Karnataka. They have regularly performed more than 6000 events in and outside of Karnataka.

Keremane Shambu Hegde (Father)

This group celebrates the cultural event "Keremane Shambu Hegde Rashtriya Natyotsava" in honor of Keremane Shambu Hegde (January-February). It has been a national-level dance festival held annually for 5 days since 2009. It is a festival of classical, folk, and tribal arts. It also includes discussion sessions with artistes, lectures for artistes, and special programs for school students. Eminent artistes from India and abroad participate in this event. Artistes are also honored with special awards in this event. The festival is important as it is an opportunity for artistes to know about other artistes and an opportunity to connect the artistes with the rural community, as the best cultural, folk, and tribal artistes from India and the world participate together.

Keremane Sivananda Hegde

Keremane Sivananda Hegde is a Yakshagana dancer, teacher, and the current director of Mandali. Along with various socio-cultural programs, he also runs a theater and a Yakshagana training center in Gunavande, a village in Honnavar taluk, Karnataka. His father is the famous Yakshagana artiste Shambu Hegde, and his mother is Gauri. He lives with his wife Rajeshwari and his two sons Sridhar and Sasidhar (both Yakshagana artistes) in Gunavande.

Hailing from a lineage of renowned Yakshagana performers, Hegde was introduced to Yakshagana at the age of twelve. He did not complete his law degree and followed the path of his father late Shri Keremane Shambu Hegde and completed his Diploma in Dance under the tutelage of his Guru Dr. Maya Rao. He learnt Kathak and many folk dances of India. He also learnt Chau and Manipuri wedding dances at Seraikala school.

Keremane Sivananda Hegde

Hello! Thank you for taking your time for us despite having a dance schedule in the evening. Which category does Yakshagana belong to, classical or folk art?

Thank you for enthusiastically coming this far to see us for Yakshagana. Before answering your question, it is important that we have an understanding of art forms. Generally, for the convenience of research, art forms are divided into folk, classical, tribal, and modern. I agree with the Finnish scholar Peter Clarke on folk arts. Folk arts always have sublime moments, but all of them are limited and constrained. It does not have the expansive nature of classical arts. Although folk arts have their traditional and classical quality, they are limited. Assam's Bihu, Kolatam, and Dhandiya are art forms with such limits. As beautiful as classical art to look at, but with small boundaries and no expansiveness. 

Considering that Yakshagana’s plays can touch the subtle boundaries of humanity, it can be said to be a classical art. Some say it is a classical form because of the classical ragas used in it. I like to call Yakshagana, a ‘legacy traditional art'. Not only Yakshagana but also Therukkoothu and Koodiyattam are all traditional arts. 

Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali

Based on what you said about expansiveness, to what extent do you think an artiste has the freedom to transcend traditional boundaries?

Freedom on stage for artistes is inherent in Yakshagana’s art form itself. After learning the basics well, artistes can certainly take liberties, but those liberties should justify the art form. The basics should not be altered by the influence of other art forms. E.g., there are nuances between male and female roles. When playing the role of Chandabama (female). Those nuances should be perfectly expressed. The basic rule here is that the techniques acquired through practice will lead to better artistic expression. 

Kathakali is a subtle art form with primarily mudras (gestures). Yakshagana does not do that, and every aspect is given equal importance. In the full dance of Kathakali, adavu (Movements as footwork) are less when compared to Yakshagana, which provides equal importance to all, Abhinaya (dance expression), dance, song, and dialogues. They should all be in sync, and one cannot outdo the other. 

Then what is the place of the Bhagavatha (singer) in backstage, in Yakshagana?

Everyone in our group is trained in everything. Many times, Bhagavatha will also be a dance artiste. Apart from this, we also have traditional Bhagavathas. They are well-versed in Yakshagana procedures. Usually, it takes up to 10 years for one to become a good Bhagavatha. All artistes have similar training periods. Usually, a young artiste’s debut will be in any temple function. We call it Seve. Then his first stage performance will be done in a traditional event. Through small roles, he will get trained and become a complete artiste. 

Bhagavatha is the one who knows the complete Yakshagana play. His presence is crucial for stage control. Dance artistes discuss their part in the play with him. To enhance their artistic ability on the stage, they may also take assistance from Bhagavatha. Usually, the most senior artiste in the Yakshagana troupe will lead the play.

Even though Bhagavatha’s role is crucial from start to finish and he knows the whole play and ragas, it cannot be said that the stage will always be in Bhagavatha’s complete control. But some people think that Bhagavatha is in control of the whole play which is incorrect.

Can you please tell us about the types of Yakshaganas performed in different regions of Karnataka?

Western coastal Karnataka is the base of Yakshagana. Based on this, there are types like Thenku thittu (south), Badakku (north), Badabadakku (northernmost). A few, including Shivarama Karanth, speculate that “Naga” or “Boota Kola '' might be the predecessor of Yakshagana. But if we look at the tradition of Yakshagana, it does not seem so. From Kasaragod to the southern border of Udupi, southern style is performed. There will be differences in costumes, adornments and dialogues will be given more importance. In Udupi, Kundapura, and surrounding areas, the northern style is performed where dance has a prominent place. They both express different consciousness, and the music also differs. I am from Bada badakku region of North Karnataka. Here, in Yakshagana, both dialogues and dance have equal importance. 

In all three categories, the major plays, and stories are all common. Most of them are based on Ramayana, Mahabharatha, Bhagavatha, and mythologies. E.g., Krishna Sandhana, Vaali Moksha, Seetapahaara, Panchavati, Nala Damayanti, Lanka Dahana, Keechaka Vadhe, Duryodhana Vadhe, Kamsa Vadhe, Rukmani Swayamvara, Satya Harishchandra. Just like the famous Kalyana Saugandhikam in Kathakali, there is a play called Saugandhika Harana in Yakshagana.

 ‘Gadayudda Atta'Panchavati' and 'Krishna Sandhana' could be said as the three important plays of our group. The Gadayudda Atta is about the final war of Mahabharata. It features the roles of Bheema, Duryodhana, and Aswathama. ‘Panchavati’ is from Ramayana, the story of Sita and Rama’s stay in Panchavati during their exile. Krishna Sandhana is a story of Krishna’s visit to Duriyodhana’s court as a messenger. 

Maruti Prathapa’ is also an important play. Once Krishna and Balarama had a fight and Balarama disrespects Krishna. Garuda proclaims he is the most powerful of all. Sathyabama says she is the most beautiful of all. They avoid Krishna due to their affinity to their authority, strength, and beauty respectively. Krishna is sitting sadly. Narada consoles him and reminds him that in Dwapara Yuga, he promised to appear as Rama in front of Hanuman. Through Hanuman, Krishna destroys the three egoisms, Roopa(beauty), Sakthi (strength) and Athikara (authority). This story is narrated in Maruti Pratapa. Apart from these, there are hundreds of plays, and many other stories like Kartaviryaarjuna Kaalaka and Ramanjaneya Yudda that are not in mythology.

In the play Jarasandha Vadhe, Bheema and Arjuna first destroy Jarasandha’s Nagaari (drum), because Krishna explains that this magical drum’s beat will make his enemies run away, so it must be destroyed first. The destruction of the drum itself will be performed elaborately. 

In present times, in many places, the glories of temples (Kshetra Mahatmiya) are performed as Yakshagana. These changes are seen only in the last 40 years. Glories of temples like Dharmasthala have already become popular. Similarly, stories of folk(local) deities are also performed. These are added as per the needs of the present time, but these are not traditional plays. 

Some time ago, Yakshagana was performed all night till dawn. They used to perform all the songs; some 300 to 400 songs were performed. Some songs may not even be necessary, but the act has to go on all night isn’t it? Now the stories that are acted have shrunk with each play being performed only for a maximum of 3 to 4 hours. 

Please tell us about Yakshagana songs

Copies of many of the plays are available in print and the plays are in poetry form. We have those collections in our library, and I wish to expand the library further. Here in this ‘Kayasura Vatam’ book, ragas and rhythms (taala) like Shankaraparanam and Ketharakowlai are mentioned along with the songs. Bhagavathas may follow these, or they also have the liberty to change them according to their needs.

Yakshagana’s music has a unique tradition. Today, even though Carnatic music’s ragas are used to mention the Yakshagana’s music, in its initial days it was not dependent on either Carnatic or Hindustani music. Even though the Yakshagana is performed as a musical narrative (Prasanga), various research was undertaken to explore its distinct raga forms. Its music is considered to predate current music forms since its music does not exist as an individual art form but is in combination with the play. image

Today 70 to 100 ragas are considered to exist in Yakshagana and 600 musical narratives exist. Mostly, the story in the act will be narrated by the songs of the Bhagavatha. Many good songs come to mind, Gajamukha Dhavaye Ganapaye is sung in the dressing room during Ganesa Vandana. During Poorva Ranga (prelude to an event on stage), a song called Varana Vadana is sung. The songs that come to my mind now are 'Nuvu Nalivugalindha Gooditha Jeevana Kandaayitha' in Rama Niryana, a sad philosophical song, 'Nodidho Dharmaja' in Gadayudda, 'Ondhu Divasa Nanu Kulithirupa Sabake' in Daksha Yajna, 'Seluvarana Nodidhare Nalivutennaya Hrudhaya' in Sita Vyoga are all songs that unite the singer and the fan with that particular moment.

Similarly, ‘Taala maddale’ is a form, where a group of people without any costumes and ornaments, sit in a circle and perform Yakshagana with songs and dialogues. Not only artistes from the group, but any scholars well versed in mythology also can participate. It started as a training method to create dialogues and the course of the play. Now, 'Taala maddale’ is also performed as a separate art form on stage. 

Usually, in performance arts, negative characters are more popular among the masses. For example, in Kathakali and Therukkoothu, characters like Ravana and Kamsa will be played only by the best artistes. Is it the same in Yakshagana also?

Yes, even here it is the same. But hero characters are also popular. I feel the skill of the artiste is more important than the role. For example, ‘Harishchandra’ is a positive one, in ‘Keechaka vadhe’ Bheema and Keechaka, both have equal importance. A great artiste can elevate even an ordinary character. A mediocre artist can spoil any great character. The performance of the artiste is more important than the character. 

My father Shambu Hegde has performed the roles of Duryodhana, Karna, and Harishchandra. His role as Durjara, a villain in the play ‘Sati Sushila’ and his dialogues are still popular among Yakshagana fans. Another character that he popularized was the role of Salvan in Bhishma Vijaya. He changed Salvan's usual evil form and portrayed him as a sad and tender lover in the play. Only the caliber of an actor enhances the roles.

Anangan, Thamaraikannan Puducherry, Vishnukumar with Sivananda Hegde

Sridharan (Son)

Vishnukumar with Idagunji Mahaganapati troup

How has today's Yakshagana changed? Are there any pre-performance rituals?

The rituals in Yakshagana are very basic. In the green room, the crown and ornaments are considered as Ganesha and Ganesha Vandana is performed. This is the first event in Yakshagana. Then the crown is brought to the stage for preliminary pooja. Then events like Balagopala dance, Chandabama dance, and Ottolaka will be performed in sequence. 

After the play, we will finally end the event by performing aarti to Ganesha again in the green room. For us, the play begins at the time when we start doing our makeup. We call this Paththira Pravesam (transforming into the role played)

These are all existing customs. But nowadays I see, circus acts like bringing a dummy elephant, that looks like a real one. Earlier Yakshagana was performed in the open air with Yakshagana artistes entering the stage from the audience. In those days without electricity, tricks with fire and torches would have been required. But today it has become an art form performed only on the stage. When watching several shows, one cannot but feel that importance has to be given to art forms rather than tricks to amuse viewers. 

In some places, the artistry of Yakshagana is brought down, and appeasing the audience is favored. These acts of diluting the art cause me immense grief. 

Could you please share with us your family’s association with Yakshagana?

My lineage starts from Nanappa Hegde of Melkote, my grandfather Shivarama Hegde is his descendent, his son is my father, Shambu Hegde and today my sons Sridharan and his younger brother are performing on stage. Our association with Yakshagana has continued for more than seven generations. Shivarama Hegde is the founder of this troupe. He streamlined the lessons and rules of Yakshagana and built self-respect for artistes. He is a great artiste, and his autobiography, ‘Nenapina Rangasthala’ was published as a book. 

My father Shambu led this group and provided free training. Even today, his name is mentioned with great reverence in Karnataka’s Yakshagana circle. Many of today’s artistes were trained and inspired by him. My father’s Seve (debut), ranga pravesa (first entry on stage in a traditional event), and final stage act were all performed in Idagunji Ganapathi temple. On that day, he was playing the character Rama in ‘Lavakusa Kalaka’ play. After completing his scene, he handed over the crown to me behind the stage and in his next scene, while singing ‘Eli pohuva navu muni nittage’ (Get up, let us go to sage Valimiki’s place), he passed away.

There are a few more artists in our ‘Keremane’ family. Mahapala Hegde, Shivarama Karanth’s friend and who restructured the narrative parts of the plays, Gajanana Hegde who died young was famous for playing female roles, both have contributed immensely to Yakshagana. I pass on what they have given me to the next generation. In Honnavar, there was a family that performed Yakshagana for eleven generations, but today none of their descendants pursue Yakshagana. My father wanted me to study law, but I could not stay in college for more than a year. I returned to our stage and acted in many plays. It seems to be my ancestor’s wish that I keep my feet firmly on the stage.

The annual art festival that was started in memory of my father and organized by us today, has become a cultural landmark. It is regarded as an important festival in India by artistes. They come to honor a Yakshagana artiste and certainly not for monetary benefits. The five-day festival, with up to three events per day, is open free of charge for anyone interested in art. All Indian art forms including Kathakali and Manipuri are performed here. Even your therukkoothu has been performed here, and Draupati Vasthrabarana was enacted by the koothu artistes. We are extremely proud to offer all these together to people. This year we are planning to hold our fourteenth Natyotsava Festival from the 16th to 20th March. 

Karnataka’s literary writers Chandrasekhara Kambara and Shivarama Karanth have written about Yakshagana and performed in it; can you tell us about their contribution?

I have spoken to Kambara, but I have not watched his ‘Sireesambike’ on stage. I have great respect for Shivarama Karanth, he has written a good book on Yakshagana. He tried to bring about changes and created awareness among artistes through those changes. Mahabala Hegde, a member of our family, has contributed to his experiments on Yakshagana. But later, Karanth started claiming it as his own Yakshagana and his tone implied we have to accept it. It created repulsion to us. However, any contribution of modern literary writers is still important.

Mahabala Hegde

How is society respecting Yakshagana artistes?

At present time, respect for Yakshagana has increased. Not bad in terms of income either. Generally, more financial assistance is provided in South Kanara (surroundings of Kasseragod and Udupi). Mutts are helping. Here we operate in our name, and we find difficulties in getting assistance. We are unable to continue even the one-year free training program since the Covid outbreak. Now training is conducted once a week. Training and other things could be improved if more assistance is available from the government. 

I also have a request for Mutts and organizations. You must help Yakshagana, and it is certainly required, but do not take training into your own hands. For years, artistes have been doing this and even if it is difficult, we will shoulder the burden. You cannot take complete responsibility for an art and ‘Art’ is not a simple thing as you think. 

Interviewed by - Vishnukumar, Thamaraikannan Puducherry, Anangan 

Translated from Tamil by - Saravanan Puducherry

Sivananda Hegde Website

Sri Idagunji Mela Keremane - YouTube

Read this interview on Tamil

Saravanan Puducherry

Saravanan is well versed in modern Tamil literature and doing translations from Tamil to English and lives in Puducherry.