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Karnataka Folk Theatre - Imitation of the Divine

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 actor’s 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.

Dasarata, Sannatas, 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 Tamasha.

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 husband’s 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 sadhu.

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 – satyabhama.

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 blessings.