Yakshagana Dance – Traditional Folk Art of Karnataka


Image – Kaustubh Naik / Flickr

Yakshagana is a traditional folk dance popular in the coastal districts of Karnataka. This is a distinctive dance form representing mythological and historical stories of India. A lot of effort and details go into the performance of the Yakshagana dance. 

Suggested Read – Karnataka Culture – A Directory Of Rich Tradition, Art, Music, Food And Festivals

In this article, we will learn about the different features of the Yakshagana dance. The dance form requires a lot of planning and practice before staging the performance. The article will highlight everything, from the origin of the dance to the small elements that are crucial parts of producing the dance. The music, dance moves, costumes, dialogues, and expressions, all lead to a compact recital of the Yakshagana dance.  

History Yakshagana Dance

History Yakshagana Dance
Image – Wikimedia

The Yakshagana dance form came into existence during the 11th-16th Century in coastal Karnataka and Kasargod district of Kerala. Etymologically Yakshagana means the songs of the Demi-Gods. The performance includes songs, dance, and dialogues that narrate the poems of Yakshagana. The Vaishnava Bhakti movement, which spread its roots in the 11th Century, is the inspiration of this narrative dance. A sage named Narahari Thirtha started performing Dashavathara in the 13th Century in Udupi, which later developed into Yakshagana today. The plot of the Yakshagana dance revolves around the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

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Types of Yakshagana Dance 

The Yakshagana dance is of two types broadly- Moodalapaya and Paduvalapaya.  


Moodalapaya is the old form of the Yakshagana dance, and this dance form is still prevalent in the village where the lead singer lives. Unlike the famous folk dances, Moodalapaya is not a commercial dance form. The primitive quality of the dance was achievable because of its limitation within the village of the lead singers. 


Paduvalapaya is the more popular of the two types of dance forms. The Yakshagana dance shown to tourists when they visit Karnataka is Paduvalapaya. This particular type of dance form further has two groups.  

Badaguthittu and Thenkuthittu are the two types of Paduvalapaya. Badaguthittu is particular to the northern coast of Karnataka. In Badaguthittu, the artists put more emphasis on their facial expressions. Thenkuthittu is prevalent on the southern coast of Karnataka. In Thenkuthittu, folk art and folk dance are more distinct.  

Components of Yakshagana 

A lot of details need to be taken into account to stage a performance successfully. This invigorating dance form is in honour of the Gods and therefore requires a lot of accompaniments.  

Following is the list of components that are crucial for performing the Yakshagana dance. 

Artists of Yakshagana Dance

Yakshagana Dance - Traditional Folk dance of Karnataka - Artists 
Image – Wikimedia

Art cannot take place without artists. Artists are the most essential part of any show. The Yakshagana artists are professionals who immerse themselves into the role they play. In the Indian tradition, dance troupes from earlier days were of all male members only. The Yakshagana male artists play the female parts and portray the female characters very beautifully. Nowadays, these troupes have become more inclusive. Women are also part of these performances. Some Yakshagana dance groups are all women as well. 

Facial Makeup of Yakshagana Dance

Facial Makeup of Yakshagana Dance
Image – Vandan Desai / Flickr

Theatre demands a lot of expressions. Artists need to skillfully express every movement through their faces and graceful dance moves. Makeup is, therefore, a very vital part of the dance. It puts a lot of emphasis on the elaborate facial makeup of the artists. They use natural dyes to paint their faces. The inspiration for the intricate makeup is visuals and sculptures. Particular attention is given to role-specific makeup.  

Headgear and Costumes of Yakshagana Dance

Image – Nayana Sondi / Flickr

The folk dance of India is famous for its dynamic costumes and fancy headgears. The evocative headgears are beautifully made. The headgears are called Yakshagana Pagade and are custom-made for each actor and performance. The costumes are also very colourful and vary according to the role the artist plays. 

Music of Yakshagana Dance

Yakshagana Dance - Traditional Folk dance of Karnataka - Music  
Image – Wikimedia

The use of live instruments for performance bring out the authenticity of the Yakshagana dance. The music is in perfect synchronization with the dance moves, and the artists’ dialogues are efficiently in sync with the music. Flute, drum, harmonium, cymbals, and Maddale, a drum variation, are the accompanying musical instruments. The speciality of Yakshagana dance is the unique combination of cymbals and Maddale.

Plot Used in Yakshagana Dance

The basis of any performance is a plot or theme. Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two epics of India, form the story of the Yakshagana dance. The artists display particular scenes from the epics. Yakshagana performances that lasted all night were once typical. However, they have now been cut down to under three hours.

Resemblance to Bhoota-kola and Theyyam

Theyyam – Dhruvaraj S via Flickr

It is evident from the above discussion that Yakshagana dance takes inspiration from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Another strong belief regarding the originality of the Yakshagana dance is the motivation from Bhoota-kola of coastal Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and Theyyam of Kerala. Bhoota-Kola and Theyyam have very similar origins. The specialty of these two types of folk dances is the representation of the local deities. The only difference with the Yakshagana dance is that it is more influenced by Sanskrit drama. The representation of the Indian epics is more particular to Yakshagana dance than to that of Bhoota-Kola and Theyyam.   

Staging of the Yakshagana Dance 

Yakshagana Dance - Traditional Folk dance of Karnataka - cover
Image – Wikimedia

The main attractions of the Yakshagana dance are the beautiful facial expressions, dialogues, and graceful dance moves. The other important feature of the Yakshagana dance is the way they stage the performance.  

The elaborate and expressive dance of the Yakshagana takes place at night. The dynamic costumes and makeup, along with the vibrating rhythms of the instruments, creates a stimulating environment. The beating drums and the intoxicating recitation of the songs and mantras develop an electric effect during its performance.  

The performance begins with Bhagavatha, the lead singer, invoking the gods, and he calls upon the gods for a successful recital. Later, as the characters take center stage, Bhagavatha continues his live commentary.  

Image – Nayana Sondi / Flickr

These shows, the folk theatre dance, would carry on for an entire night. It was the norm to stage these shows late at night and continue it throughout as mentioned earlier. At present, the dance shows are only for a few hours. But even with less time, the quality of the dance remains intact. The exhilaration of the bold dance moves, vibration of the live music, and eloquence of the dialogues everything still evokes a positive response from the audience.

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Given the fast growth and development, it is essential to keep alive the traditional art and culture. Yakshagana is one such art form that retains the old customs and history of long generations of involvement with it, To have a complete experience of your trip to Karnataka, make sure to catch a Yakshagana dance performance and get to witness mythology come alive on stage. 

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