Yakshagana is a classical folk art form of the state of Karnataka in India mostly popular in the districts of North Canara, Shimoga, Udupi and South Canara.Yakshagana is the most famous theatre form of Karnataka. In Yakshagana theatre, dance, music, dialogue all are harmoniously blended. Its theatre tradition goes back to the 17 th century. Not only is it very old but it is a continous tradition. For 400 years it has entertained and instructed the rural masses of Karnataka. Its main attractions are its gorgeous masks and costumes and themes from the Epics of India. This would be considered to be a form of opera in western eyes. Actors wear costumes and enact the various roles. Traditionally, Yakshaganas would go on all night.
A Yakshagana performance begins at the twilight hours with the beating of drums for up to a couple of hours before the 'actors' get on the stage. The actors wear resplendent costumes, head-dresses, and painted faces which they paint themselves. A performance usually depicts a story from the Hindu epics and puranas. It consists of a narrator who narrates the story in a song-like fashion, backed by musicians playing on traditional musical instruments as the actors dance to the tune, with actions that portray the story as it is being narrated. The actors have a limited dialog during the course of the performance.
With the socio-economic changes of the 19th Century, arts like Yakshagana also changed. The 19th Century produced a big number of compositions. Around 1800, a troupe from Dharmastala visited the court of the king of Mysore and established a troupe there. In the 1840s, a troupe from Uttara Kannada (North Kanara) visited Maharastra, and inspired the first modern age mythological drama by Vishudas Bhave. A number of troupes arose all over the Coastal Karnataka and probably in other parts of Karnataka too. By the early decades of this Century the structure of Yakshagana reached a definite shape and form.
1930s saw some changes in compositions, organisations and presentation. Dance and the spoken word was further developed and refined. But in costume, a type of degeneration started setting in due to the use of 'modern' clothing and stone jewellery, in place of handloom clothing and wooden ornaments.
The Year 1950 saw the birth of 'tent' troupes, giving performances to audience by tickets, with 'tent theatres' and furniture for seating. These troupes brought in commercialisation of Yakshagana, with both merits and demerits. Yakshagana saw major changes in form and organisation, electrical lights replaced the 'gas lights' or 'petromax' lamps. Seating arrangements improved. Major changes came in the themes, with the inclusion of folk epics, Sanskrit dramas and created (imaginary) stories forming the thematic base. Popular entertainment became the criterion in place of 'classical' presentation. Tulu, the language of the Southern part of the D.K. district was introduced on the stage, where hitherto only Kannada was used. This gained great popularity. All these trends continued with added vigour after 1970s, with a new element of influence.
The North Kanara style of Yakshagana hitherto not know outside, started making a big impact on other styles. This trend continues even today.
Along with all these, the traditional type of troupes, giving free shows financed by devotees still continue and have a very good support.
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