Tradition & Culture

February 25, 2013






Yakshagana is a dance drama popular in Tulunadu and Malenadu regions of Karnataka. It is believed to have evolved from pre-classical music and theatre. Yakshagana is popular in the districts of Uttara Kannada, Udupi, Dakshina Kannada, Shimoga and Kasaragod district of Kerala. Yakshagana is gaining popularity in Bengaluru since a few years. It has drawn comparisons to the Western tradition of opera. Actors wear costumes and enact various roles. Traditionally, Yakshagana would go on all night. It is sometimes simply called as Aataā in both Kannada and Tulu, meaning “play”.Yaksha-gana literally means the song (gana) of a Yaksha. Yakshas were an exotic tribe mentioned in the Sanskrit literature of ancient India.


Yakshagana is a recent scholastic name adopted for what were and are known as Kelike, Aata, Bayalaata, Dashavatara in Karnataka. Yakshagana actually refers to a style of writing and to the written material or the Yakshagana poems. There are questions on whether this writing system originated in Telugu literature and used for poems enacted in Bayalaata. Yakshagana performance is believed to have evolved from the now-extinct Ghandharva Grama musical system.Earliest mention is in Sangeetha Ratnakara of Sarngadeva (AD 1210) as Jakka later called Yekkalagaana.Yakshagana in its present form is believed to be influenced by the Vaishnava Bhakthi movement. Yakshagana is a separate system of music independent of Karnataka Sangeetha and the Hindustani music of India, believed to survive as an indigenous phenomenon only in parts of Karnataka and Kerala.Although origins of Yakshagana is traced to Historic period and even Pre- historic periods, linking Ganddharagrama and Natya shastra and ekkalagana, first written evidence about present day Yakshagana is available on an inscription dated 1556 CE found at Lakshminarayana Temple, Kurugodu, Somasamudra, Bellary district, a copy of which is available at University of Madras.This inscription mentions of a land donated to the performers of the art, so as to enable people enjoy tala maddaleprogrammes at temple. Another important evidence is available in the form of a manuscript of Virata Parva on palm-leaf found at Ajapura (present day Brahmavara) and the poet’s name was Vishnu.One more historic Palm-leaf manuscript dated 1621 CE describes Sabhalakshana.

There is some resemblance among the members of the ‘Traditional Theater Family’ like Ankhia Nata(Assam), Jathra (Bengal), Chau (Bihar, Bengal), Prahlada Nata (Orissa), Veedhinatakam & Chindu (Andhra),Terukoothu Bhagawathamela (Tamil Nadu), Kathakkali (Kerala). Researchers have argued that Yakshagana is markedly different from this group.

Experts have placed the origin of Yakshagana from the 11th century to the 16th century. Earliest limit is fixed by a finding by Vidwan Bannanje Govindacharya who says a legend goes to show that Sage Narahari Thirtha (c, 1300) started a Dasavathara Ata performance and a troupe in Udupi and later this spread to other places and grew into what we call Yakshagana today.[citation needed]

Yakshagana must have been an established form by the time of famous Yakshagana poet Parthi Subba (1600) to whom Ramayana in Yakshagana is attributed. Shivarama Karantha in his research work argues that it is Subba son of Venkata who is its author, rejecting claims by Muliya Thimmappa and Govinda Pai citing procedural lapses in their findings.Because he is said to be a Bhagawatha (singer) himself and is believed to have founded a troupe, and probably he is the formulator of the Tenkuthittu (Southern style) of the art. Troupe centers like Koodlu and Kumbala in Kasaragod District, and Amritheshwari, Kota near Kundapur claim having a troupe three to four centuries ago. So we can safely assume that this art form had taken shape by about 1500. However, what we see today as Yakshagana, must have been the result of a slow evolution, drawing its elements from ritual theater, temple arts, secular arts like Bahurupi, royal courts of the time and artists imaginations – all interwoven over period.

It is related with other forms prevailing in other parts of Karnataka and neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharastra.Yakshagana, like many other forms, defies neat classification into categories like folk, classical, rural. It can be included into each of these, or all of them together, depending upon our line of approach. Being a theater form, unlike a dance form, it is more plural and dynamic. And hence it exhibits many types and varieties inside itself. However, Yakshagana can be rightly called a traditional form. Primarily it is a name given to the form prevailing in Coastal and Malnad areas of Karnataka, though forms like Doddata are also called by the same name often. The traditional theater form Mudalpaya of Southern Karnataka, theDoddata of Northern Karnataka, the Kelike in the borders of Andhra Pradesh, the Ghattadakore of Kollegal in Chamarajnagar district – are such forms. Among them, the Ghattadakore is a direct branch of Coastal Yakshagana, while Mudalapaya is the most closely connected form.



The Badagutittu style, as its name indicates, is prevalent in Northern parts of South Canara, that is, from Padubidri to Byndoor and North Kanara District. The Badagutittu school of yakshagana gives emphasis on facial expression, matugarike (dailogues) and dance appropriate for the character depicted in the episode. It makes use of a typical Karnataka chande. The Badagutittu style was popularized by Shivram Karanth’s Yakshagana Mandira at Saligrama village in Dakshina Kannada as a shorter, more modern form of Yakshagana.Keremane Shivarama Hegde, the founder of the Yakshagana troupe, Idagunji Mahaganapathi Yakshagana Mandali is an exponent of this style of Yakshagana. He is also the first Yakshagana artist to receive the Rashtrapati Award. Sri Chittani Ramachandra Hegde won Padmashri award for his life time contribution to the art.



One of the traditional variation, the Tenkutittu style, is prevalent in Dakshina Kannada, Kasaragod district, Western parts of Coorg (Sampaje) and few areas of Udupi district. The influence of Karnatic Music is apparent in tenkutittu buttressed by the type of Maddale used and in Bhaagavathike. This does not mean that Yakshagana is completely classic. At best, we can say that Yakshagana is a folk art influenced by classical aspects. Tenkutittu amply exhibits that Yakshagana is basically a folk art and not of classic or elite tradition. In Tenkutittu traditionally more than 15 types of colours have been identified. But in practice three important set of colours are identified: 1. Raajabanna 2. Kaatbanna 3. Sthreebanna

Himmela in Tenkutittu is a coherent one with beats of Chande and Maddale coupled with chakrataala and Jaagate of bhaagavatha result into an excellent symphony. Dance form of tenkutittu strikes the attention of audience by ‘Dheengina’ or ‘Guttu’-Performers often do Dhiginas, jumping spins in the air and often continuously spin hundreds of times. Tenkutittu is a variation of Yakshagana more focused on high flying dance moves. Tenkutittu is well known for its extravagant Rakshasas (Demons) and its incredible dance steps. The Tenkutittu, albeit, has remained a popular form and has its own audience even outside the coastal areas. DHARMASTHALA MELA and KATEELU DURGAPARAMESHWARI MELA (most popular melas), HOSANAGARA mela and other melas have popularized this form. Several creative plays have been composed by noted scholars such as Amritha Someshwara.

Yakshagana Raga

Yakshagana Rāga refers to melodic framework used in yakshagana. It is based on pre-classical melodic forms that comprise a series of five or more musical notes upon which a melody is founded. Ragas in Yakshagana are closely associated with a set of melodic forms called Mattu. In Yakshagana tradition, rāgas are associated with different times of the night throughout which Yakshagana is performed.

Yakshagana Tala

Yakshagana Tala are frameworks for rhythms in Yakshagana that are determined by a composition called Yakshagana Padya. Tala also decides how a composition is enacted by dancers. It is similar to Tala in other forms of Indian music, but is structurally different from them. Each composition is set to one or more talas, and as a composition is rendered by Himmela, the percussion artist(s) play supporting the dance performance.

Yakshagana Prasanga and literature

Yakshagana poetry is a collection of poems written to form a music drama called Yakshagana. The poems are composed in well known Kannada metres using the frame work of Yakshagana Raga and Yakshagana Tala. Yakshagana also has what is called a Yakshagana metre (prosody). The collection of Yakshagana poems forming a musical drama is called a Prasanga. Oldest surviving parasanga books are believed to have been composed in 15th century. Many compositions have been lost. There are evidences to show that oral compositions were in use before 15th century. The Yakshagana Prasangas (Literature) are printed in paperback editions nowadays and sold in bookstalls.

Costumes and ornaments


Yakshagna costumes are rich in color. The costumes or Vesha in Kannada depends on characters depicted in the play or prasanga. It also depends on Yakshagana style or tittu.

Badagutittu Yakshagana Ornaments are made out of light wood, mirror work, colored stones.Though, lighter materials like thermocol are used in modern days, ornaments are still predominantly woodwork.

Yakshagana costumes consist of headgear (Kirita or Pagade), Kavacha that decorates chest, Buja Keerthi (armlets) that decorate shoulders, and belts (Dabu) all made up of light wood and covered with golden foil. Mirror works on these ornaments helps to reflect light during show and adds more color to costumes. These armaments are worn on a vest and covers upper half of the body. Lower half is covered with Kachche that comes in a unique combination of red, yellow and orange checks. Bulky pads (cloths) are used under Kachche and this makes actors different from general audience in size.

Bannada Vesha that involves detailed facial makeup is used to depict monsters. It may take 3 to 4hrs to complete makeup for certain vesha.

Traditionally, males are playing female roles in Yakshagana. However, more recently yakshagana has seen female artists, who have performed in both male and female roles. Stree Vesha uses sari and other decorative ornaments.

Kateel Mela

Untitled-4 copy


Full Pagade vesha in Yakshagana


Kings costume (Raja vesha)





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