“Who? The man who is mad about Yakshagana?”, asked the auto wala.
“Yes, the very same”, I replied. “Can you take me to him?”
“Yes. It will cost 50 rupees”
We were in Muroor, in interior Uttara Kannada, a coastal district in Karnataka. The auto wala dropped me off at Ram Hegde’s house and sped off as soon as I paid him. Hegde was in the middle of his morning prayers, so I waited for him outside the house examining the plants in his garden. When he emerged outside clad simply in a white dhoti, he continued mumbling prayers to himself and made no acknowledgement of my presence. Twenty minutes later, when he was finally satisfied with his prayers, he ushered me in to his damp red-oxide floored living room where a showcase facing the door was adorned with a large headgear used in Yakshagana performances.
He urged us to follow him as he ascended a flight of stairs. Once we reached the store room full of wearables used in Yakshagana performances, the 68-year old Hegde broke into child-like enthusiasm as he held up a Hanumanthana bala (tail of Lord Hanuman). “This was used in the Dharmasthala mela,” he exclaimed.
Hegde was the go-to man for all things related to the art form of Yakshagana, a traditional theatre form in the Tulu Nadu and Malenadu region of Karnataka, which combines dance, music, dialogue, costume, make-up and stage techniques. Yakshagana performances often begin late in the night and last till dawn.
“Today, it (Yakshagana performances) has reduced, people end performances at 3 am, 4am and so on but there is still the Mandarthi mela that goes on till the morning”, says Hegde
The ‘madness’ began at the age of 15. An avid fan of Yakshagana, Hegde would hardly ever miss the Yakshagana performers that toured Muroor in the 1950’s. Soon enough, Hegde took an active interest in making the kirita (headgear) used in the Yakshagana. He began by using wood to make the kiritas and later yedekavachas (a wearable worn on the chest) from scratch.
“Today, we make everything. Kiritas, (headgear) veergase, hanumantana baala (Hanuman’s tail), mundasa, budhakirti, kai abharana (wearables on the hand) and so on – basically everything needed for a Yakshagana performance.”
Since Yakshagana performances often involve many gods with many different complexities in their costumes – for example, a Ravana costume needs ten separate kiritas (for the ten heads) and a Hanuman costume needs a tail and so on – Hegde spends two months to craft one full set of Yakshagana costumes. “A Yakshagana performance can have 30 or more people on stage! So we have to make 30 or more costumes for them.”
Coastal Karnataka is peppered with over 30 full-fledged troupes and about 200 amateur troupes of Yakshagana, performing from November to May in the various melas, which includes popular melas like the Dharmasthala mela in Dakshina Kannada and the Mandarthi mela in Udupi, and also smaller local melas in dozens of villages in the region. From dusk to dawn, the performances explore culture clashes, humour and love, while telling a story from ancient Hindu mythology laid down in the Puranas (texts) or Kavyas (poems)
“The Dharmasthala mela and Surathkal mela (250 kms south of Muroor) not only call us for costumes but also for any repairs they need”. Since Yakshagana performances sometimes go on for 12 hours, performers need repairs.
“They are unreasonable sometimes!,” exclaims Hegde. ” They dance and dance all night and when anything is damaged, they expect me to repair immediately!”
But Ram Hegde secretly does not mind it. The unreasonable demand of Yakshagana performers has ensured that Ram Hegde has been able to work on his passion for the last 53 years.
Hegde also teaches children Yakshagana in his free time. “Few children living nearby come to me for lessons and I try and teach them what I know,” he adds.
The auto-driver was right. Ram Hegde is the man who is mad about Yakshagana.
The art form, once wildly popular in villages, is increasingly falling victim to the trend of shorter attention spans. “When a movie in a theatre lasts all of three hours, how can you expect people to watch Yakshagana all night?,” asks Hegde. But he is defiant that the art form will survive for generations to come. “Some melas have stopped but the main ones in Mandarthi, Suratkal and Dharmasthala continue as they were. Their grandeur and glory is still the same and we have to make costumes befitting that.”