A group of actors travels
from village to village enacting plays. Any open house, Village
Square, street or a mandapa can be their stage. They prop up a
blanket to construct a stage and back stage and begin their
performance usually at night.
The themes of these plays
are religious and begin with an invocation to the divine. If the
audience likes it the stories of the incarnations continue
each lasting an hour of two. Otherwise the dasis (servants of
god) move on to enacting love themes or even film songs. The
performances are punctuated by the vulgar touches provided by the
jester. The entertainment lasts until the early morning.
This is one aspect of the
folk theatre of Karnataka Bayalata (open air theatre). The
Bayalata has taken its form from religious ritual of which the most
important aspect is the imitation of the divine. Since religious
experience represents the highest life experience, all art has to
have divine undertones. All folk performances are part of a ritual
festival conducted in the name of the local deity.
The outlines of a folk
play does not have the organization or the totality of structure that
we find in an art play. It is simple in all respects
structure, plot, theme, and performance. The plot is usually a
well-known local myth and the attitudes exhibited are all straight
forward and familiar. What fascinates the audience is the
improvisation by the actors. No two performances can be alike as
there is no fixed dialogue or action the performance depends
on the actors talent. The actors are of necessity familiar
with myths and also have oratorical skills. An actor can enliven the
performance by references to extra-textual myths.
Doddatas, Parijata or Yakshagana are the five types of Bayalata
commonly performed in Karnataka. In Parijata and Yakshagana a single
narrator (sutradhar) controls the story whereas the other have a
chorus of four or five narrators aided by a Vidhushaka or a
clown who adds the local colour.
The Dasarata is performed
by a group of dasas (mela) men and women. Every mela has at
least one leading lady who is a highly talented singer and dancer.
Enacting themes of Radha and Krishna she interprets the emotions with
vivid gestures providing the audience immense entertainment,
information and humour. The Dasarata style has become so popular
that it has been adapted to the Marathi stage under the name of
Sannata or the small play
is an improvised form of Dasarata. Instead of several small stories
the sannata has a full length story that lasts for about six hours.
The dances in this performance are so simple and easy to identify
with that almost every village in north Karnataka has its own troupes
though there are some that specialize in certain plays and are
invited by far off villages for festive occasions. Some troupes make
vows to a famous deity and perform every year without an invitation.
The troupes re invited to perform in villages for several reasons
weddings, birth of a male child, religious festivals and even to
tempt the rain gods in times of drought.
The Sannata can be
divided into three kinds the Vaishnava, the Shaiva and the
social plays. The prelude to each one differs. In the Vaishnava,
Radha and Krishna are invocated, whereas in the Shaiva it is Shiva
and Parvati who make an appearance. The social plays begin with the
Kathabija (the core of the story) being outlined and the story is
then woven around it.
A folk play is found in
its authentic form only in performance and not in any literary form.
For example, the themes of Radha and Krishna performed in the Sannata
have no literary basis. It is an expression of the need to realize
the ideal love of Radha and Krishna in human lives.
Radha appears on stage
behind a curtain music evocative of her personality is played.
The chorus welcomes her describing vividly her dress, beauty and
gait. Then the curtain is removed and the story begins. Radha
informs Krishna that she is a milk maid, her husbands village
is Gokula and asks him where she can sell her milk. As in the
Dasarata performance, Radha and Krishna quarrel and woo each other
but in Sannata she does not accept his invitation. She asks him to
try his luck again in their next life. They are both reborn in the
village where the performance is taking place she as Cimnabai
and he as Galpoji becomes a sadhu. When she hears of this (from the
chorus) Cimnabai goes in search of him. She begs him to return.
Thereafter there are two versions of the play performed in different
regions in one he returns to family life and in the other they
debate on the superiority; of Shiva or Shakti.
In Shaiva plays also
there is a difference between literary sources and folk stories
though they both depict lives of the same saints. Lord Shiva appears
with a tiger skin wrapped around his body, trident in hand. Parvati
sings and requests Shiva to preach to her the importance of
renunciation. He refuses on the grounds that he is no authority as
he has married her and refers her to a saint living on earth. Angry
referred to a mortal she decides to test him. She sends a maid
servant to earth to seduce the man a king who disillusioned
with life leaves his kingdom to become a sanyasi. His guru directs
him to serve a prostitute (the maid servant) and her blind mother.
He becomes their servant and also thwarts all attempts of the woman
to seduce him. He delivers lectures on renunciation. The story
reaches a climax when the girl unable to control herself, embraces
him, but instead she embraces a bear. The hero reaches out and
touches the mother who regains her sight. He returns to the guru and
practices penance. The play ends with Shiva and Parvati blessing the
The social plays on the
other hand are based on incidents from real life each dealing with a
romantic theme. One such story is Sangya Balya. Sangya a
rich man falls in love with Ganga, the wife of lranna. When the
husband finds out he seeks the help of his brothers and kills Sangya
in a dramatic and effective murder scene. A court scene follows but
the final appeal is made to the audience.
In contrast to the other
types of plays like Yakshagna, Doddata and puppet plays, Sannata
brings the folk theatre to the social plane. It reflects the native
intelligence, wit and sharp response of the villagers. Mythology is
adapted to suit local legends. Both Krishna and Shiva are incidental
to the plays. Like the Sannata the Prijata is also an opera where
the actor summarizes and explains the song. The essential character
in the Parijata is the Bhagvata who plays the dual role of narrator
and clown. But before the characters appear on stage there is an
invocation by the Bhagvata an invocation to Ganesha. This is
followed by the prelude the story of Radha and Krishna. The
main story is based on the myth of the romance of Krishna and Rukmani
Like the Parijata, the
Doddata begins with an invocation to Ganesha. The Sarathi offers
prayers to the deity before the story begins. The composition of the
play is a mixture of verse and prose. The performances are on an
elaborate scale with rich costumes, wide stage, a number of
characters and a lot of sound and fury with all the male characters
shouting shabaash! The Doddata does not have the
facility for display of delicate emotion. Though the text is almost
like the Yakshagana the dance and the singing are very different. The
Yakshagana is far more refined though the Doddata can create a
fantastic atmosphere the war cries, wild dances, fierce
language all make for a thrilling performance.
Yakshagana like all the
others is performed through the night. The stage is set in front of
a temple open to the audience on three sides. The first character
that enters on stage is the clown. He has immense freedom to make
fun of any character. The pleasantries exchanged between the
Bhagvata and the clown have no obvious relation to the main play.
The stories are taken from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. An
attractive aspect of Yakshagana is the Rakshas (demon). The arrival
of this character is announced amidst din and fury and his voice can
he heard from the dressing room. Stage effects are used to create a
sensational entrance. Every character dances onto the stage
the pattern of dancing marking the difference between the characters.
The inevitable battle scene at the climax is accompanied with severe
beating of drums while the characters perform the war dance with
rustic vigour and grandeur until evil is overcome.
Performance of the folk
plays always continue through the night holding the audience
spell-bound. It was the custom now extinct to watch
the sun rise in the east and end the p lay after invoking his