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.

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