Yakshagana: The war between Sudhanva and Arjuna

It was a long tiring day – a long drive in the morning plus more than two hours of playing in the beach. All I need was a place to crash and doze off. As I dragged myself out of the beach and was on the way to the room, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Ratnakar, the ever smiling, soft-spoken office in-charge at Sai Vishram beach resort. He cheerily informed me about the evening’s event at the small open air theater – Yakshagana, the unique art form of coastal Karnataka. The Yakshagana group were enacting the war between Sudhanva and Arjuna. Just the mention of Yakshagana was enough for me to refill my drained out energy. I almost galloped to the room and was back in time to get lost into the world of mythological story.

Payaniga: Yakshagana: The war between Sudhanva and Arjuna
Sudhnva mocking the mighty Arjuna after killing his charioteer

Yakshagana (pronounced as Yaksha-gaana) is a unique folk theater form that is mainly found in coastal and Malanad region of Karnataka. Yakshagana means the songs (gana) sung by the spirits (Yakshas). It is a combination of dance, music, dialogue and involves a colorful costume & make-up. A typical Yakshagana performance is played from dusk to dawn narrating Indian mythological stories. In the recent days, the Yakshagana groups have started adapting stories from current days (a group even adopted the recent Bollywood movie ‘Baahubali’ into a Yakshagana act). Though the performances run seven to ten hours, the groups have also adopted to shorter versions to cater to the busy lifestyles of the people. The performance I got a chance to witness was also curtailed to one hour act.

Payaniga: Yakshagana: The war between Sudhanva and Arjuna
Arjuna trying to keep his cool as Sudhanva continues humiliating him
Payaniga: Yakshagana: The war between Sudhanva and Arjuna
War of words continues

The story that unfolded in front of was from the Indian epic ‘Mahabharatha’ post the Kurukshetra war. We were presented with the epic war between Arjuna and Sudhanva, son of Hamsadhvaja. Being a mythological story, there are different versions of this story. Here is my attempt to narrate the version of the story we were presented with. The story begins with capture of the stallion let out to wander by Pandavas as part of ‘Ashwamedha yaga’. Sudhanva, son of Hamsadhvaja, stops the horse with only one intention. Being an ardent devotee of Lord Krishna, Sudhanva wanted to see him and attain emancipation (moksha) in front of Krishna. As the war begins, Sudhanva is disappointed that Krishna is not the charioteer for Arjuna who as come down. Sudhanva is equally skilled in the war compared to Arjuna and kills the charioteer. Thus forcing Lord Krishna into the battlefront. After an intense fight between the two, Sudhanva gains a slight upper hand against Arjuna. He vows to kill Arjuna within next three arrows. When it appears that Arjuna is about to be killed, Krishna comes to his help to counter the arrows. While the first two arrows are broken by Krishna’s powers, he makes the third and last arrow to turn back towards Sudhanva killing him. Thus providing Sudhanva what he desired – to die in front of Lord Krishna.

Payaniga: Yakshagana: The war between Sudhanva and Arjuna
Krishna enters the battleground
Payaniga: Yakshagana: The war between Sudhanva and Arjuna
Krishna advising Arjuna on how to counter Sudhanva

The act was short (slightly over an hour), similar to the previous two acts that I had witnessed a couple of years ago. But the performance from the group was amazing. More than that watching the performance with the background of roaring waves and a gentle sea breeze made it a special one. Hope I get to sit through the night and watch a full length Yakshagana performance soon.


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