29 May 2008

Some Observations on Yakshagana

Yakshagana is a musical theatre art form developed in Karnataka, India. A unique art form where all of its components: music (both singing and rhythms), dance, dialogue and plot development, are improvised. The framework for improvisation is: for rhythm, the Tala; for dialogue, the character; for plot the theme. Singing and dancing, in my opinion, do not have a stricter framework yet. I note, in the same breath, that it is naive to label this a folk art. Yakshagana is more refined and richer in some aspects than so called classical art forms.

Singing is unique in that it is sung in a high pitch with a thick folk flavour (Male: E, F) making it more popular. Singing vaguely adheres to some Raaga. Although songs are composed in a particular Raaga, they are always rendered according to the tradition. Thus, adherence to Raaga is only guided/determined by the strength of the syllables in the song since the Baagavatha (singer) does not have voice training other than the traditional training. Traditional training does not consider scales. The lack of a stringed instrument in the performance clearly shows that Yakshagana does not focus on sophistication in melody. I believe that the focus is rather on rhythms. The reasons I can think of for such inclination are niche following focusing on rhythms and commercial viability. We can clearly see an advantage here. This lack of conformity has enabled development of a distinct form of singing. A form that will establish itself as a completely separate school of music. Yakshagana signing already has enough unique features in it. Singing in a Raaga keeping the flavour of Yakshagana is a highly probable development which might take several hundred years to emerge and also might need a huge amount of interest. Drone always uses sa and Sa (an octave high). Singing a composition may involve more than one Raaga.

Rhythms are the most prominent part of Yakshagana. Yakshagana rhythms are separate and likely predate the Karnataka Sangeetha rhythms. Yakshagana rhythms have more fillers in between the beats especially played on Chande. These filling beats render Taals unrecognisable. The complexity of Yakshagana rhythms is unique in its own way. If Yakshagana were to improve sophistication by caring more about Chande's (drum) ability to produce distinct sounds, complexity will have to come down. It is this complexity (and powerful beats) that makes Yakshagana popular. Contrary to the belief that more complex the rhythm becomes people tend not to understand and follow, complexity makes the rhythm melodic. When the beats get close enough, a melody emerges and people easily follow the melody. The melody of rhythms buries the complexity and makes it sound simple. In any case, Maddale (mrudanga) is played without more distinct rhythm syllables. Sophistication in the tatkara (bols) is lost in performance. Recently a composition always has more than one Taala as opposed to single Taala compositions around 40 years ago (I have been told!).

Dancing although is supposed to follow the tradition of Yakshagana, it is not the case in reality. Recently Yakshagana dance is turning into break dance and folk dance. Nevertheless, there is an established style. The style is specific to a character as well. All aspects dance, music, dialogue are controlled to develop and portray a character as traditionally intended. Mudra and posture are well defined. Improvisation also has a framework which is a responsibility not to violate the features of a character. However, the framework is not well developed enough to bring some amount of conformity. The less emphasis on abhinaya is due to the presence of dialogues. Shivaram Karantha's ballet attempt was to enhance abhinaya by removing dialogue.

A very good dialogue demands scholarship. Although dialogues have gotten loose in the name of on the fly speaking, it still remains charming. One important thing that still remains interesting is, speaking to a drone! Dialogues are always to a drone making the dialogue music to the ears. We also get that kick out of those dialogues. It makes the dialogues sound extraordinary.

The Yakshagana aata (play) as a whole is a performance. Audience are a part of it. The discussion of the performance, paan filled red mouth, comments on characters, green room visits and chat with the performers, snacks, appreciation, everything is a part of the performance. It is a family night out; an art crawl. Now with the introduction of 3hr performances, some of its charms are lost but is more accessible to the busy crowd in the cities.

I will eagerly wait (I will ask my kids when I die!) for the day when Yakshagana turns into a Mattu (school of classical dance) from merely a Tittu (a variation of musical art) while I continue to enjoy what it is now.

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