BENGALURU: Dramatic, accentuated gestures, energetic performances, painted faces, spotlights and thunderous dialogues are what makes the traditional art form of the coastal region, Yakshagana, exciting. Artistes clad in colourful costumes captivate the audience, bringing mythological characters to life. And Bannanje Sanjeeva Suvarna (68), who is a renowned Yakshagana guru, is among the finest exponents of the art form.
From Budnar in Udupi district, Suvarna, who runs the Yaksha Sanjeeva Yakshagana Kendra, has dedicated his entire life to this enthralling, ancient art, especially the Badagu Thittu (northern school) form of Yakshagana.
Initiated into Yakshagana at the tender age of 14, Suvarna learnt the rudiments of the art from Yakshagana Bhagawatha Gundibailu Narayana Shetty. Hailing from a humble background, Suvarna had formal schooling only up to Class 2 and then learnt tailoring. Realising his interest in Yakshagana, Naryana Shetty introduced him to Yakshagana guru Veerabhadra Naik. Suvarna then joined the Yakshagana Kendra, an ancillary unit of Mahatma Gandhi Memorial (MGM) College in Udupi in 1972. “Yakshagana guru Margoli Govinda Sheregara taught me the dance steps. I was lucky to have learnt all aspects of Yakshagana from expert teachers,” Suvarna says.
In 1974, Suvarna and his earlier guru Veerabhadra Naik joined the Saligrama Mela Yakshagana troupe. Later, he also worked as an artist in Hiriyadka and Goligardi melas. “I got tired of working in the melas and was looking for some other opportunities,” he says.
In 1978, late BV Karanth (1929-2002), the then Director of the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi, was looking for artists to stage the play ‘Macbeth’ in Yakshagana style. KS Haridasa Bhat, the then principal of MGM College, sent Suvarna and another artiste to Delhi. From then, a different world opened up for Suvarna as he was picked by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) to be part of the Indian team to perform in Germany, France, Nigeria and other countries in 1982.
But, the teacher in Suvarna wanted to bring changes in the manner in which Yakshagana was taught. “Earlier, if an artiste played a role, say Rakshasa Vesha, he would be tied to it throughout his life. I wanted students to learn and play all kinds of veshas — a hero, heroine or a comedian. I got trained under Yakshagana gurus, like Harady Narayana Ganiga, Harady Mahabala, Cherkady Madhava Naik and Birthi Balakrishna. The training gave me an insight into the depths of Yakshagana,” he says.
As an artist, Suvarna was at his best playing roles like Babhruvahana, Abhimanyu and Surpanaka. But he shone in comical roles as well. He is among the few Yakshagana artistes who know nearly 20 prasangas (episodes) by rote. In 1982, he joined the Yaksha Ranga ballet of noted litterateur and Jnanpith awardee Kota Shivaram Karanth. “Karanth treated me like his son and even gave me money to purchase a site to construct a house. I was associated with the ballet till Karanth’s death,” Suvarna says.
He also joined Yakshangana Kendra (MGM College) as a teacher in 1982 and went on to become its principal in 2004, a post that he held till 2022. During that time, he taught Yakshagana to a large number of students, senior citizens and also a few doctors of Kasturba Medical College, Manipal. In 2022, he started his own Yaksha Sanjeeva Yakshagana Kendra in Udupi. He also teaches Yakshagana at the Poornaprajna Yakshagana Kendra run by the Admar Mutt in Udupi. He is also a Yakshagana teacher for NSD and teaches NSD students across the country.
ML Samaga, former chairman, of Karnataka Yakshagana Bayalata Academy, says Suvarna is an expert in teaching and enacting Yakshagana plays for any roles, male, female, young heroes, kings, rakshasas (demons) or comedy. “As a teacher and an artiste, he has creative ideas for the choreographic movement of Yakshagana, including yuddha kunitha (battle dance) and odolaga (entry dance). He is of the Badagu Thittu dance varieties, odolaga, yudha kunitha and purva ranga, which have been lost in the last 50 years due to commercialisation,” he says.
“Suvarna is, in fact, a trendsetter in Badagu Thittu school. In the last 30 years, he has perfected the dance form and it is being carried forward by his students,” he adds.
Always an artiste with creative ideas, he has staged Yakshagana in Hindi and Sanskrit. It was in 2005-06 that NSD students staged the Yakshagana episode Chitrapat Ramayana in Hindi. A humble and self-effacing guru, he has won several accolades, including the Karnataka Rajyotsava and Karnataka Yakshagana Bayalata Academy awards.
On a parting note, Suvarna says today’s Yakshanga artistes get good money, unlike in the past. “But they should concentrate on improving their skills,” he adds.