The night the Yakshas danced

A now-rare all-night performance of the art form takes Bajpe, near Mangaluru, back to the olden days

It’s nine in the morning, and in a vast field at Bajpe, near Mangaluru, in Karnataka, work is already on in full swing for the aata (show) that begins about 12 hours later. For the famous Kateelu Mela, a 128-year-old Yakshagana troupe attached to the Durga Parameshwari temple of the coastal Kateelu town, an all-night show is a round-the-clock affair.

All-night shows of Yakshagana, the best-known performing art form of coastal Karnataka that has survived the test of time, are a rarity these days. Abridged performances have become popular not only in the coastal villages but also in bigger cities with a large migrant population from the coast. But troupes such as Kateelu Mela keep the ancient all-night performing tradition alive. Nobody knows the year or date when the troupe was set up at the temple, but folklore puts it at 128 years old. The high demand for this troupe is at least partly because people believe that getting Kateelu Mela artistes to perform in their village is a service to god. They believe that the goddess herself witnesses each performance.

The groggy-eyed artists, who have performed from 8.30 p.m. to about 6 a.m. in the previous show, get off the troupe’s bus, have a hasty breakfast and hit the bed. The helpers start making preparations — pitching a tent and stage, cleaning and mending the costumes, cooking and so on — for the night’s show. It is their job to wake the artistes up for lunch and then again at sharp 5 p.m. for putting on the elaborate make-up and costume. The evening’s programme begins with “Chowki Puja” to the deity and the make-up chest. A priest travelling with the troupe conducts the puja, which follows a strict protocol.

The main artistes are themselves managers, putting up a rota of sorts, with details of who plays what role for the day and at what time they will have to make their entry. Depending on the rota, the artists begin their make-up, which takes a few hours. Some roles wind up by midnight, while some begin then and go on till early morning.

After the show, it is the same routine all over again. The expenses of each performance adds up to over ₹1 lakh. The demand for Yakshagana performances is so high that the temple now has six troupes with 250 artistes and 280 helpers. They are active for six months of the year, with back-to-back performances. Together they perform 1,100 shows a year and are booked for 25 years. The faithful have ensured that despite dwindling audiences, the show must go on.

Text and Photos by Sudhakara Jain