A rare Yakshagana performance in Sydney

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Ancient dance form brings epics alive, writes SYDNEY SRINIVAS

On stage, Surpanakha, the stirrer of Ramayana after Kaikeyi, makes advances towards Rama in the forest. However Rama is committed to Sita, and tricks her by suggesting that Lakshmana may be an appropriate choice for her. With an arrow he writes a message on her back and sends Surpanakha to his brother, who at once follows Rama’s instruction to cut her nose off.  The moment the nose is cut off, the music heightens, the pitch rises, the sound beats all barriers and a shiver runs through the audience. An exotic dance in anger by Surpanakha follows.  At first we are attracted by the highly colourful and vivid costumes worn by the cast, then there is the dance with the characters going round in circles, all set to a rhythm. Deservedly so, it is the incident that resulted in the war between Rama and Ravana.

As I watched this enactment by the actors of the Yakshagana Kendra organised by Natyanjali, I joined the audience in thinking, “What an art form!”

The famed Yakshagana Kendra troupe from Udupi Karnataka performed two prasangas (acts) at the Redgum Centre in Sydney on Feb 10.

Yakshagana is a unique contribution of the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka state and dates back to 1300AD.  Colour, costumes, music, drums (chande and maddale), dance and dialogue form its ingredients. Traditionally, they are all-night performances.

Today it is highly improvised; lights and microphones are used, and it is performed internationally as well. The episodes are still from our epics.

The acts chosen for the performance were Jatayu Moksha (from Ramayana) and Nala Karkotaka (from Mahabharata). From the very start the audience was kept spellbound by the reverberating voice of Satish Kedalaya. What a range of pitch! What clarity in diction! Those that know Kannada were twice blessed. They could fully understand what he was singing, apart from appreciating his music. Of course, for the others, dance conveyed the message. Taking into account the international audience’s inability to follow the language, the director had dropped the dialogue altogether.  It was left for music and dance to speak for themselves. This, of course, they did admirably.  What resulted was a well-orchestrated ballet.

We all know the Ramayana. The Jatayu Moksha was an enactment of the key incidents that led to Jatayu (the bird) being hurt by Ravana. Enacted to the background of a full force of music, Surpanakha’s plotting, her encounter with Rama and Lakshmana, the meeting between her and Ravana, the disguised Ravana’s meeting with Sita and her capture, and the fight between Ravana and Jatayu, were all ably presented.

Sita’s plea with Rama not to leave her alone (Raghavane enna bittu pogadirayya), the soliloquy of Surpanakha and her dance mimicking an elephant were a treat. The episode when Mareecha arrives in disguise as a deer and attracts Sita was a pleasure to watch. The words uttered by Mareecha as he dies, “Ha Lakshmana, Ha Sita” echoed all over the auditorium. Lakshmana’s plea to Sita that what she heard was not the voice of Rama, but of someone else, was moving. At the climax was the fight between Jatayu and Ravana. The actors did a very good job of expressing emotions through gestures – Ravana’s anger, the shamed Surpanakha’s plight and Sita’s agony, among others.

The Nala Karkotaka episode is a tribute to the Mahabharata, and is a moving story. Nala is a handsome king with a lovely queen, Damayanti.

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