The Art Of Storytelling

Yakshagana Traditional Dance & Theatre, History, Style, Origin

India has always been the land of diverse beauty, culture, tradition, and ethnicity. Each state in this country is brimming with unique and exquisite art, dance, music, food, and the best part even different districts in each state of India are different from each other and have so much to offer for all those people who want to experience the very essence of this country. Today my article is going to be about a famous traditional dance that is in performance in the southern state of Karnataka known as the Yakshagana. There is a quote by Sadhguru, which suits perfectly this topic, and he says and quotes “Indian classical music and dance are not just for entertainment rather they are designed to elevate your consciousness.”

Each state in India has its traditional dances based on their originating places. The state of Uttar Pradesh has its traditional dance of Kathak, while Tamil Nadu has Bharatanatyam, and so on. Each state has its specialty and these traditional dances bring out the essence and beauty of the state. The traditional dance that is in focus in this article is Yakshagana. To all the people reading this article if you ever get the chance of going to the splendid state of Karnataka do make a trip to a show Yakshagana. Karnataka is a state that has something for everybody. It is not only famous for its big buildings and metropolitan cities but its beautiful beaches, forests, temples, food, architecture, and so much more.

Understanding the Yakshagana

The traditional dance of Yakshagana unbelievably dates back to the time of 1556 CE. Yakshagana is a traditional theatre dance that came into development in southern districts of Karnataka mainly in Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada, Shimoga, Udupi, and the southern part of Chikmanagaluru. Yakshagana is a dance form that combines dance, music, costume, makeup, dialogues, and a unique style and form of stage techniques. This dance form is also very famous in the Kasargod district of Kerala. Not many people know that a traditional dance form has different names when referred to in different districts. The Tulu Nadu region starts from Dakshina Kannada and ends in Kasargod, the people in these regions refer to Yakshagana as “Thenku thittu” while from Udupi to Uttara Kannada, people in these regions refer to Yakshagana as “Badaga thittu”. The story and concept of which Yakshagana is in performance are the stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata, and all the other epics. The epics come from both the Hindu and the Jain ancient traditions with the inclusion of other ancient traditions as well. Yakshagana is to surface during the Bhakti movement. Another important thing about this traditional dance is that it is not just a dance form but is also a theatre performance. Yakshagana is a combination of dance and plays that makes it unique and distinct from the rest of the dance forms.

Everyone must be wondering what the word Yakshagana itself means. The answer to this query is the word Yaksha, which means the natural spirits, and Gaana, which means music. The word Yakshagana itself has so much history. If I write just about history then it will take forever. So do go on various sites and do make it a point to read about the history of Yakshagana that is available online.

Yakshagana has a rich amount of culture and tradition. Therefore, every element of this traditional dance has its beauty and importance. One of the most fundamental elements that stand out from the rest is music. Yakshagana has separate traditional music that is devoted especially only for this dance. However, Yakshagana music has the same ancestors as Classical Karnatik music and Hindustani music yet it is still very different from the two of them. The music consists of Himmela, which is the background music group of instrumental music of the maddale (hand drum), pungi (pipe), harmonium, and chande (loud drums). The dance and the dialogue group of the Yakshagana consist of actors and dancers as the mummela.

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Fascinating things about Yakshagana

Yakshagana is a very old folk tradition combination of dance and play. One of the most fascinating things about folk tradition, which one can see in Yakshagana as well, is the breaking of the fourth wall. Let us understand this.

 Anything that is shown has three major visible walls which are on the left, right, and behind. There is also the existence of a fourth invisible wall between the audience and the people on the stage; this is commonly the fourth wall. This fourth wall is visible in old English plays where there is no interaction or obvious acknowledgment of the presence of the audience. This fourth wall is usually broken in Indian Folk Tradition. There is constant interaction, communication, and dialogues that acknowledge and make the audience feel their presence during the show. If you visit any show then you can see observe this in their performance.

 The next folk tradition of Yakshagana is the introduction of Bhagavata. The Bhagavata in the performance of Yakshagana sings with the group of Himmela about the happenings of the scene, which shows through dance, by the Mummela group. The Bhagavata in the performance of Yakshagana is the god of the play. They are responsible for the panning of the story in the performance. We can see the Bhagavata in and out of the very fascinating play and is an out-of-the-box structure.

Another fascinating thing about Yakshagana is that no performance is the same. There are no particular dialogues that are in the setting for the actors. It is impromptu yet very methodical and structural. That is the beauty of Yakshagana. Even if one sits the same play twice, one can instantly notice that the dialogues are different both the times but the story structure is still the same.

Yakshagana is typically in performance in temples. It starts very early in the morning and ends usually at night. The fascinating reason here is the reason for the place of performance. Temples are usually in selection because people need food and shelter during the performance as it takes place the entire day. The temple and stage look beautiful with leaves and flowers emphasizing and showing that something is happening in the temple. Today, Yakshagana performances also happen in the cities as well and these usually happen in the auditoriums.

One of the most eye-catching and breathtaking parts of Yakshagana is the makeup and the costume. The costume of the actors is very colorful and plays an important role in holding the gaze of the audience. The costume is slightly heavy and the headgears that are worn are very heavy. There is thick and dense makeup that is worn by the actors who are dancing and enacting. This is done to make the facial expressions more distinct and visible to the audience. The fascinating part is how these experienced Yakshagana actors dance, jump, and speak so loudly without any devices that everyone will know what is happening and the audience without any problem will be able to hear the actors clearly and properly.

There is so much more in Yakshagana’s components that can be studied in detail through various sites available online. I have just provided some basic information about this beautiful, historical, and traditional dance form that tells us stories in ways out of our imagination. One should read about Yakshagana more and learn about this dance. I would like to conclude with a meaningful quote by Adithya. R. Upadhya where says, “Yakshagana is the art at its finest form”.


  1. Google searches for images and quotes
  2. Information on Yakshagana – Wikipedia