Taboos Are Funny Things

There is a performing form of art called Yakshagana, prevalent in coastal Karnataka. In Yakshagana, women’s roles, called “stree vesha”, are usually performed by men. While this happens to be true for many folk art forms in India (and historically, it used to be true of operas and dramas even in the West), you have not really seen a man perform a woman’s role till you have seen it in a Yakshagana performance.

It used to be that Yakshagana was performed by professional troupes. A hundred years back, it used to be that women performing in professional troupes were reputed to be whores – and a reputation like this tends to be self-fulfilling. If the profession’s reputation is that only whores will work in it, only the kind of women who don’t mind that reputation will work in that profession. Yakshagana, unlike the Tamasha of Maharashtra, could not live with such a reputation, because it primarily depicted mythological themes and depended heavily on patronage from temples. Yakshagana performers carried low status, but not so low a status, if you get what I mean.

Then, amateur hobbyists started performing the Yakshagana, and amateur troupes started. Performing Yakshagana as a hobby was considered mildly disreputable. If you had this as a hobby, you were probably going to neglect home and hearth. This reputation extended even to excessive viewing of Yakshagana. Yakshagana performances used to go on throughout the night. While viewing in moderation was considered healthy and something the entire family used to do on occasion, a craze for it was typically male. Women were still not allowed to perform.

Then, it happened that all over India, the taboo on women dancing started going away. Bharatanatyam was being rescued from the grip of the devadasi tradition and became acceptable for nice Brahmin young girls to do. Not just acceptable. It soon became expected. Dakshina Kannada could not escape this trend and upper class girls took to Bharatanatyam in a big way.

The acceptance of women dancing was part of a larger trend where performers gained in status to become “artists”. Yakshagana was late to this trend, so it continued to be considered a low-class art form, something only villagers engage in. A Bharatanatyam dancer would never dream of dancing  the Yakshagana. This alleged superiority was claimed, presumably on the basis of the fact that the former was rescued from the brothel a couple of decades before the Yakshagana attained respectability. So, women would still not perform the Yakshagana.

Gradually, Yakshagana became “respectable”. People like Kota Shivarama Karanth a variant of it that tried to strip it of its folksiness and convert it into high art.  Venues of performance started moving from open fields to air conditioned auditoria.

Women started performing in Yakshaganas… and now the conservative performers were uncomfortable about this because it detracted from the essence of this high art.

7 thoughts on “Taboos Are Funny Things

  1. Perfectly said. I am struggling to say why this is so, but I dont have an answer. The funny thing is that the same scheme of events have resulted in many taboos being acceptable and vice versa. Tipping point?

  2. I left a comment, here but it never came up.[I resurrected it from spam – Ravi] In any case, your observations are perfect – why does it happen? Not sure. Tipping point?

  3. I am not sure if it still is a taboo. In fact since quite a few years, in places like Sirsi in North Kanara district have children’s troupes (Makkala Mele) where I’ve seen good participation by girls. In fact, I still remember a tall girl who was the star performer and who used to get plum roles like that of Ravana.

    Interestingly, in Yakshagana the “villain’s” roles are the ones that are the best since they have the most scope for emoting and high energy dance.

  4. > Interestingly, in Yakshagana the “villain’s” roles are the
    > ones that are the best since they have the most scope > for emoting and high energy dance.

    Also, isn’t the definition of ‘villain’ not so black-and-white in Yakshagana interpretations. It is left to the actors how best to convey it…but they all strive to convey the grey in characters like Ravana; so much so that they over-compensate sometimes and portray him as the good person.

    Not saying this is right or wrong …just a statement. In fact, as a personal preference, I find variations on a theme more interesting than the original story which has gotten jaded and uninteresting after many lame re-tellings since childhood. Damn Ramanand Sagar!

  5. In the Yakshagana, every scene is enacted twice. First, the bhagavata (singer) sings the verse related to the scene accompanied by music, and the actors enact the scene in dance – this is like an opera and the verses are scripted. After this, the scene is reenacted in prose by the same performers. Traditionally, for this part, actors do not rely on a script at all. The dialogues are left entirely to the performers. If the guy playing Ravana is well-read and skilled, he is free to not only inject shades of grey, but also try to turn him into a character wronged by circumstances. If the person playing Rama is equally skilled, then the discussion can go on and on – especially in the traditional Yakshagana which takes place through the night and there is no rigid time limit. In that sense, no two performances of a Yakshagana are the same.

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