BENGALURU: Born in Kumble and growing up in Kanhangad, a town in Kasargod district of Kerala, K Gowri Srinivas was profoundly influenced by the prevailing culture of Yakshagana and Theyyam in the region. She was enamoured by the sublime grace of the protagonists and the towering superbity of the antagonists, picked from mythology.
But the traditional theatre, which gave the freedom of sententious storytelling, transcending into the world of gorgeous gods through music, dance and elaborate make-up, restricted her desire to don the avatar of divinity. Women were traditionally not part of the art, with men playing the female characters too.
But Gowri was among those who dreamt in the day, not willing to let go of her ambition as futile, instead making it possible.
Now, 54 years old, she runs the only all-women troupe of Yakshagana in Bengaluru. Opened in 1999, Karnataka Mahila Yakshagana, which operates from a three-storied building plus a basement for dance workshops in J P Nagar, has opened up the once barred artistic world to many women.
“Compared to Bharatanatyam or Odissi, Yakshagana is not popular. But it is an art that is elaborate and there is conversation that makes it more effable, lively and involved,” says Gowri, who works as the branch manager of Syndicate Bank in Padmanabhanagar.
With a close-knit team of 20 women in her troupe, she is a staunch believer that art has to change with times. While prasangas or scenes of Krishna-Arjuna, Ramayana Darshan, Panchavati, Kamsa Vadha, Lava-Kusha Kalaga, Veera Abhimanyu form the core of their performances, the troupe has also moved away from traditional stories to send messages of financial inclusion, saving the girl child, rural upliftment, among others.
“We change the language according to the location or audience. So we have performed in Kannada, Tulu, Hindi, English and even silent shows,” she says and adds that they received encouragement from many quarters, while some staunch followers of the art form have also criticised the shift. “Critics are required for us to relook our pursuit and refine further,” she mentions.
But Gowri reveals that the confidence she feels now never existed prior to her marriage with Srinivas Shastan, an avid Yakshagana performer. “Without any intention of questioning tradition, and with the pure will to be part of it, I waited silently for encouragement. 1n 1986, when I got married, I received the much needed boost and started seeing myself on stage,” she says.
With her husband’s support, Gowri started performing all the moves that she had only seen and dreamt, the character of Kamsa being her favourite. But the urge to spread the art form among other women led her to register Karnataka Mahila Yakshagana. “I got my friends introduced to the art but there was lot of reluctance. Making it more difficult was the attire. These days, with the use of thermocol for the head gear, the weight has reduced a bit. Also, the make-up takes almost two hours,” says Gowri.
Speaking about commercial gains, she says that while her profession as a banker is about money, her passion as a Yakshagana dancer is nothing about it. “The artists are paid a small honorarium. It is not at all about money. I want the art to spread among the younger generation. They should take it up seriously and not as a casual hobby,” she mentions.