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Jyothi Venkatachalam

Yakshagana is one of the most important folk theatres of Karnataka and Kasargod in Kerala, which has brought fame to this region. Every village in Kasargod is familiar with this art and there are a good number of artistes. The Terukkuthu of Tamilnadu, Koodiyatam and Chakyarkuttu of Kerala, Yakshagana was originally known by different names such as Bayalata (in Kannada Bayalata means play played in open air). The stories of Yakshagana were drawn from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavatha and other mythological episodes.

Almost all ancient arts are having a common world, in one way or other related to God worship. Ethical values are better inculcated in the minds of people through entertainment. Yakshagana no doubt is an ancient performing art. Some are of the opinion that Yakshagana evolved from the ancient form of Bhutha worship (Theyyam).

Bhutha worship is popular in South Canara of Karnataka and Kasaragod District of Kerala. In the process of evolution, Yakshagana also was influenced by the folk dance, song and Sanskrit drama, and also from Bharata's Natyashasthra. South Canara District and Kasargod District of Kerala (erstwhile South Canara District prior to state re-organization) is the motherland of Yakshagana. Parthisubba, one of the pioneers of Yakshagana, is the gift of this district. It is a theatre form of South India.

Performed as a temple art over the years, Yakshagana still forms an integral part of the cultural programmes presented during temple festivals in the Kasaragod region. Yakshagana began as a dance interpretation of one character who took many roles. Later, it added a second character, a female counterpart. In this phase, the male was called Yaksha and the female was known as Yakshi. In course of time, a clown was introduced to add humor and finally a fortune teller was included. 'Yaksh' means demigods associated with Kubera, God of wealth and 'Gana' is song. Thus, Yakshagana means songs of the demigods.

Yakshagana is lively, fast-paced form in which songs, dances and improvised dialogue mix according to a prescribed structure. It is popular with the rural audiences. At the heart of Yakshagana are the poetic songs sung by the main musician called Bhagavata, who controls the pace of the performance.

The acting or performing area or stage as it is now called was usually an open ground in front of a temple, a clearing in a paddy field or a space near the house of the patron. Mango leaves, flowers, garlands, coconuts, banana leaves and colored paper were used to decorate the stage where the performance took place. This decoration looked simple and at the same time gave a festive look.


Improvised dialogue by the actor-dancers expands on the content of the songs. Until recently, this portion was not written down because it changed from night to night and actor to actor. Most presentations are based on the stories from the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and the Purana and concern serious events from the lives of well-known epic figures. Humor is added in the performance by the clowns through comic antics and witty remarks. Yakshagana performers wear huge headgears, elaborate facial make-up, colorful costumes and ornaments which together give a superhuman appearance to the character presented. The themes of the plays are taken from the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Usually the art form is presented in Kannada, though it also is performed in Malayalam as well as Tulu (the dialect of south Karnataka). The accompanying orchestra includes percussion instruments such as chenda, maddalam, jagatta or chengila (cymbals) and chakratala or elathalam (small cymbals).

Jyothi Venkatachalam, director of Abhyasa School Of Dance, Club Tampa Palms, offers classes in Bharat Natyam, traditional folk dances, Indian percussion instruments (Mridangam, Dholak, Ghatam, Kanjira, Morsingh and Konakol). She can be reached at (813) 977-9039 or (813) 404-7899 or via e-mail at


Lavanya Dinesh

Our three-part series on Indian classical instruments concludes with a concise description of wind instruments.

Bansuri: This is the Indian bamboo flute, a transverse alto flute typically 20 inches long made out of a single length of bamboo shoot. Bansuris vary in length within a range of 12 to 40 inches. The instrument has 6-7 open finger holes. The ancient bansuri has been used in India from time immemorial by cowherds and pastoral nomads. It is the ultimate symbol of divine love in the legend and mythology of Krishna and his consort Radha depicted through the centuries in sculpture, painting, poetry, literature and other oral traditions.

The bansuri was used as accompaniment to lighter compositions and film music for many years until the maestro Pandit Pannalal Ghosh introduced it into serious Hindustani classical music. This artist made many modifications to it, increasing the length, making larger bores and also adding a seventh hole. The increased length enhanced the bansuri’s octave range – especially in the lower register. Bansuri maestros who continue to delight us with their mellifluous music include Pandit Vijay Raghav Rao, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Pandit Ronu Majumdar.

Venu: Synonymous with Lord Krishna, the term is used to describe the Karnatic classical flute prevalent in south India. Being one of the oldest instruments, the venu is a keyless transverse flute made of bamboo just like the bansuri. Its sizes and lengths vary. Compared to the north Indian bansuri the venu produces a shriller soprano-pitched tone. The fingers of both hands are used to close and open holes. On the one end is a blowing hole with eight finder holes placed closely on the length of the instrument. This flute mimics the human voice range of two and a half octaves. Flute maestros of the past and present include T. R. Manalingam, Dr. N. Ramani, Sikkil Sisters, B. N. Suresh and S. Shashank.

Nadaswara (Nagaswaram): This highly popular south Indian instrument is acoustic in nature. It is a long pipe, body made of hardwood with a large flaring bell at the end constructed with either metal or wood. The nadaswara has double reeds; the top portion contains a flattened mouth piece in which the musician blows. The long cylindrical body has seven finger holes on it; the nuanced music is produced by partial or full opening and closing of the finger holes all the while controlling the pressure and airflow through skillful blowing techniques. The practitioner of this discipline needs immense stamina and breath control. Because of the physical challenges involved in playing the nadaswara, this field has long been dominated by male musicians alone. Lately, a few female nadaswara players have tried to break the mold. Great exponents include Rajaratnam Pillai, N. Krishnan, K. Arunachalam, Subramanya Pillai and Sheikh Chinna Maulana.

The nadaswara is referred to as ‘mangala vadya’ denoting an instrument played on joyous and auspicious occasions such as temple celebrations, festivals, processions and especially south Indian weddings. Also because of its intense volume and forceful sound, the instrument is better suited for outdoor settings.

Shehnai: This instrument, like its southern counterpart (nadaswara), is played at auspicious occasions in northern India and is widely believed to bring good luck. One can get a taste of shehnai music from Bollywood movies especially in scenes of jubilation, celebration or romantic victories. The late music maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan’s name is practically synonymous with the shehnai. We do have some present day torch-bearers of this tradition, although only a handful.

The shehnai is a quadruple reed wood wind employing two sets of double reeds. This tube-like instrument gradually becomes wider at the lower end. It has about 6-9 holes and is smaller in size than the nadaswara. There are many legends surrounding the evolution of the shehnai – which in Persian literally means ‘the emperor’s flute.’

Other wind instruments such as the clarinet and the saxophone have been embraced by some adventurous Indian instrumentalists like Narasimhalu Wadiwatti (clarinet) and Kadri Gopalnath (saxophone) who are from the southern state of Karnataka.

Harmonium: Originally a western instrument, the harmonium has been Indianized over a period of one and a half centuries since being introduced to the Indian subcontinent by French missionaries in the mid 1800s. The harmonium is commonly present in many Indian homes and is popular as an accompaniment to vocal music like khyal gayaki as also semi-classical and light-music genres such as thumrii, ghazal, qawwali, bhajan, kirtan, stage and film music. It also is referred to as ‘peti’ (box).

Being a western import, this instrument has a tempered scale and cannot typically mimic stylized Indian music, which employs meends (glissandos). For this reason, the harmonium is shunned by a few purists in favor of the more authentic sarangi as the preferred accompanying instrument. The harmonium has 42 black and white keys played with the right hand, while the left hand activates and pumps air into the bellow of the instrument. The versatile harmonium has of late emerged as a solo instrument. Maestros include Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh, Pandit Panchakshara Gavai, Pandit Puttaraja Gavai, Pandit Sheshadri Gavai, Pandit Tulsidas Borkar, Pandit Appa Jalgaonkar, Pandit Purushottam Walawalkar, D. Arvind Thatte, Pandit Sudhanshu Kulkarni, Pandit Manohar Chimote, Rajendra Vaishampayan and Dr. Ravindra Katoti, among others.

Lavanya Dinesh is an accomplished performer and teacher of Hindustani classical vocal music. Lavanya regularly performs at musical venues both in India and the U.S. The artist has worked as a music critic and feature writer for The Times of India and Deccan Herald. She can be reached at

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