A Full Night of Yakshagana @ Kateel

Feb 17, 2009

My mother tells me that we have been to Kateel along with my grandmother. It must been about 25 years ago. I have no recollection of it. A visit without memories is no visit at all. A life without memories is no life at all.

Kateel is famous for its small temple dedicated to Durga Parameshwari. The speciality of this temple is that it stands in the middle of river Nandini and can be accessed by a short bridge. On this visit, the river was a pathetic stream struggling to keep its meagre flow. Rubbish lay strewn along its limited flow. None of the romance I had imagined existed. I can very well imagine the temple when it was initially built. It would have been a small and compact temple. We could have seen it standing separate and isolated from the river banks. Today, the inner temple is covered by layers of newer buildings and extensions. The original romance is lost.

The inner sanctum is covered by a perforated wooden partition. This partition is clothed in silver sheets much like the one in Dharmasthala. The goddess is wonderful to look at in her decoration of saree and garlands. Her legs appear to be short until we realize that she is seated formally and straight with both legs down. There was a constant stream of devotees and a constant ritual of offerings, prayers and blessings. The temple musicians were below standard and failed to create any sort of mood.

The temple, its cheap accommodation and free food were actually a bonus package for me. I had not come to Kateel for the temple. The main purpose of my visit was to sample a traditional folk art form of song, dance and drama in these parts of Karnataka, known as yakshagana. At Moodbidri yesterday, I made enquiries about yakshagana performances in the region. I was told to check out the listings in a local newspaper. So I got the hotel receptionist to check these out in Udayavani. I was surprised to find more than 20 performances for last night alone. Fortunately, Kateel had a performance and that’s how I came to be in Kateel. Kateel is an important place for yakshagana. Durga Parameshwari is supposedly the goddess of the performing arts and there is no better place to watch yakshagana.

Makeup. Source: Wikipedia

Makeup. Source: Wikipedia

The performance started at 8.30 pm last night but I joined the audience an hour later. Dinner at the temple was served only at 8.00 pm. After dinner, I took time to watch the troupe prepare for the long night of performance. Preparations start with a prayer to the goddess. Important local authorities and organizers take part along with the entire troupe. The priest of the temple officiates the ceremony. Once the prayers are done, the long routine of makeup and dressing up in elaborate costumes takes place.

Each member of the troupe comes with his own cloth duffel bag and a box painted in blue. The former contains his costume. The latter contains the makeup and important pieces of imitation jewellery. I deliberately say “his costume” because there are no women artists in these performances. Women roles are also played by men. This has been the tradition for long but I see no reason why this shouldn’t be broken in the 21st century.

Each artist may use the help of the logistics team but they have to take charge of their own makeup and costume. Facial makeup is usually done first before the costume is worn. Dhotis are divested for pyjamas. A tight undershirt is worn next. This is tightened and knotted with strings. Next, form is given at waist level by tying empty folded sacks or layers of cloth. This gives the fullness needed when the main costume is worn over another inner vest. The main costume is tucked in. Below the waist is a skirt that hangs to knee level and frills out when the waist belt is tightened. Costume is never complete without arm bands, head bands, a crown, a belt and anklets with bells (gunghroo). Two important decorations are the crown and the hanging chest ornament – these are elaborate for the main characters, be it the good guys or the bad. Every piece of ornament is only imitation jewellery but they all look resplendent as befits the characters of gods, warriors or kings that they portray. When all these are accomplished, the common actor has lost his real self and has become the character.

Yakshagana faces; Source: flickr

Yakshagana faces; Source: flickr

It is said that this art form started about a thousand years ago as part of the Bhakti Movement. Thus, themes used in yakshagana borrow from the great epics of Hinduism. It was not just about introducing the common illiterate people to these epic stories but also educate them about codes of moral behaviour and religious practices.

Last night’s story was about Karna and his role in Mahabharata. But the story starts from one of Karna’s previous births, in the form of a demon king named Dumbotbhava and later titled Sahasrakavacha. It is one of those lesser known stories which makes it more interesting to watch. The entire play was sung and played out in extremely formal Kannada, well articulated and in pure language. I understood almost all of it which is why I enjoyed it so much. There is really not much benefit if one doesn’t understand it. Many years ago in Singapore I had watched a Balinese version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I knew the story but it would have been more enjoyable had I understood the language.

As can be expected in themes as this, comedy is minimal. Comedy gives energy to the audience who are otherwise silent. Where comedy exists, it is simply to lead to a moral. The triumph over good over evil is the unstated message. More direct are little doses of wisdom dispensed to the audience all through the night. When Narada visits Dumbotbhava, his main message is that a bachelor, despite all his achievements, is nothing without a fitting wife. This urges our hero to seek out his future wife. Right at the start when the vanquished demons approach Dumbotbhava to be their king, counsel is sought under the basis that the opinion of many is better than that of one. When Krishna praises Karna on the battlefield, it is to incide Arjuna to greater heroism.

A simple scene is stretched, not for the mere purpose of filling the hours but to articulate every thought of the characters. It is not just to tell the story in a blunt way but to follow every motion of societal conduct, culture and tradition. So when Indra in the form of a brahmin comes to Karna to ask his protective shield, we all know how it ends; yet we are full of interest in the dialogue and how one argument leads to another. First, Karna pays his obeisance to the brahmin and washes his feet. The brahmin praises Karna and the fame of his generosity. While the brahmin thinks of this as an opportunity to receive, Karna thinks as an opportunity to give. When the brahmin asks for the kavacha and the kundala, Karna speaks to the audience about how he had been forewarned by his father and is convinced that this brahmin is Indra. He gives it willingly saying that if he is willing to give his life why not these ornaments?

The scene as above is not just an uninterrupted dialogue. It is interposed with whispered monologues, singing and dancing to the beat of drums. The idea is to being the audience into the emotions of the characters. A ritual such as washing of the brahmin’s feet is accompanied by background music that fills the break in dialogue. When an important event takes place, such as handing over of the ornaments, the drum beats get energetic and so do the dances.

Stage performance; Source: mashtyin@flickr

Stage performance; Source: mashtyin@flickr

For me, the singing and accompanying music was the most interesting aspect of the whole performance. If there was a raga in the music, I couldn’t make it out. Rhythms were very brief, changed continously and were often interrupted. It is clear that Indian classical music’s raga and tala do not apply here. Folk art is truly a genre of its own.

Singing is most often at a high pitch and embellished with elaborate gamakas. Gamakas are variations of a note, often perceived as a note interspersed with brief pauses. A note that could be sung in a second is stretched out to many seconds. Gamakas are the most imporant tools to the singer and the performance as a whole. It makes yakshagana come alive. It adds to the feeling. It gives energy to the dancing characters on stage.

When song and music take over the initiative from character dialogue, it is often to emphasize a point or paraphrase the story poetically. Music is the poem and dialogue is the prose. Song and music are also used to introduce the next scene or recapitulate a scene. In the whole night of performance, which lasted from 8.30 pm to 6.30 am the next day, there was not a single minute of silence. The performance was continous. Such was the energy these artists had. The story moved headlong scene to scene. The audience was engaged from the start to the end. Even when the tea and coffee were served at midnight, for many so used to overnight yakshagana, the performance was enough to keep them awake.

Two drums, a harmonium and one pairs of cymbals were used at this performance. One drum was the chande, a processional drum with a loud sound. The other drum was the mridangam or perhaps a variant. The male singer and his musicians were sometimes replaced by others from the troupe. Sometimes only one drum was played. The climax included both drums.

Once in a while, yakshagana performances are organized in Bangalore. Nothing comes close to watching it in its heartland, in open air on an open stage. The night started with villagers standing around until seats were laid out a little later. People were invited for dinner but many had already taken dinner at the temple. Slowly the seats were filled up. A fake sadhu and a resident beggar, who live off the temple’s free food, took to their bare beds next to the temple. The smoke of country bidi filled the air.

When the first light of dawn breaks out, shops start to open. Newpapers and milk arrive. Early birds leave home for work. The first buses pass by. The performance draws to its climax and comes to an energetic end. There is no applause, no single acknowledgement of the efforts of cast or crew. The whole performance is like a prayer or a dedication to the gods.

The audience strength was about 100 and by the next morning it was still strong at 30. I am proud to say that I was among the last to leave, having survived a wonderful night of non-stop entertainment, village style.

getting-there Getting There
I was in Moodbidri and it was easy to get to Kateel since there are direct buses available between the two places. The usual route is via Kinnigoli where most others will get off. Kateel is easily accessible from Mangalore.
hotel Accommodation
The temple management will let rooms at Rs. 50 and Rs. 70 (double). I was given the latter. Rooms are clean with attached toilet. There is no hot water facility. As an alternative,
Soundarya Palace is a good mid-range option.
food Food
Temple food is free. Like in Dharmasthala, rasam is served before sambhar, a custom that seems to be common in these parts. A meagre portion of vegetables is served. A sweet dish is also served. There is a good restaurant at Soundarya Palace at 5 minutes walk from the temple.


  • Sudhir says:

    I am overwhelmed and mesmerized at the same time. I felt I was actually watching a live performance of the Yakshagana….such is the power of your description. A big Thank You. In fact, I just talked to a couple of my colleagues and they also waxed eloquent about it. One of them has promised to give me CDs. But of course, nothing would beat watching and enjoying a live performance.
    Keep on enriching us, Arvind !!!

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Amazing. One full night watching a play. Wow.

    And the way you explained it. Time to take a bow.

  • arvindpadmanabhan says:

    Haven’t checked ghumakkar for a while. I am glad you liked the write up.

  • Narayan says:

    I am a yakshagana addict and it was great to read your article.

    Indeed a great description of one of the most powerful theater forms, which brings epics to life night after nights, but strangely confined to just two to three districts of Karnataka.

    A piece of information which readers of this column might find interesting is that the shows of Kateel troupes (all the four) and four troupes run by another temple, Mandarthi, are booked for the next 25 years. So, if any one wants to arrange a show he will have to wait till 2035.
    @ Sudhir, I suggest please do not watch a CD before watching a live performance (you need not lose sleep for the entire night. There are short duration shows in Bangalore, in other metros occasionally. The CDs available in the market are poorly made and does not convey the richness of the art…they will disappoint you greatly…
    There are blogs on Yakshagana where you may get interesting snippets about Yakshagana
    and if you can read Kannada

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Beautiful Arvind, what a detailed description. Hats off to you.
    I was not aware of Yakshagana, thanks for this very elaborate interesting article.

    After watching the performance for the whole night, its time for me to take little rest, I hope you will agree :-)

  • guarda movel says:

    your article help me a lot for my job.

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