There are a lot of things to learn from one performance to another. The current success won’t make me forget my roots.
As the shadows of patriarchy loom large over the traditional art form of Yakshagana, one can count on their fingers the number of female artistes who have made an indelible mark in the field. But here is a woman who, her relatively young age of 28 notwithstanding, has been making waves as a talented Yakshagana bhagavata (playback singer). She has garnered appreciation from both old and new generations for carrying forward a legacy and widening its scope. And fingers would be flagrantly inadequate to count the numbers of her performances, accolades, fan following and the young people she has been inspiring.
Kavyashree Ajeru, who hails from a remote village called Ajeru, 60 km from Mangaluru of Dakshina Kannada district, had an early start to her career in Yakshagana at the age of 9, thanks to her artiste father Shreepathi Nayak.
When Nayak was being formally trained in Yakshagana bhagavathike (singing) by renowned artiste Mambadi Subrahmanya Bhat, young Kavya used to join him. Once, when Mambadi happened to make her sing a Yakshagana song, he saw her potential.
After studying foundational singing skills (such as raga-tala) under Mambadi for 7 months, Kavya started learning Yakshagana prasanga (sub-stories) under Harish Bolanthimogaru. “Kavya has had a lot of rigour and persistence since her childhood days. She would not go to sleep without practising bhagavathike every night,” says Harish, who has been guiding her for the last 17 years.
In a Yakshagana performance, a ‘bhagavata’ (playback singer-narrator) is a principal on-stage performer, as well as a director. A bhagavata and percussionists are central to both popular variants of Yakshagana, namely bayalata (wherein artistes perform prasanga through dance-drama) and talamaddale (artists perform prasanga orally).
Kavya’s first on-stage experience as a bhagavata was at the age of 10 for a prasanga called ‘Sharasethu Bandhana’- a talamaddale performance. Since then, she has given over 2,500 performances across the country. Video clips of her singing now have lakhs of views on social media. She has shared the stage with her favourite bhagavatas, including Padyana Ganapathi Bhat, Patla Sathish Shetty and Ravichandra Kannadikatte - all Yakshagana titans.
Success did not come easy. Struggles, setbacks and humiliation preceded her triumphs. Traditionally as well as historically, the art form of Yakshagana has been largely limited to men.
Though some women take part in the dance and dialogue (mummela), female artistes in ‘himmela’ or in the band of musicians are far and few in between. While there are some Yakshagana melas (troupes) solely consisting of women performers, established troupes do not usually hire women performers.
Kavyashree’s father Shreepathi Nayak recounts the taunts they used to hear from others.
Many questioned whether she could pull off a Yakshagana performance, as the stamina, perseverance and ‘never-say-die’ attitude required were considered male attributes.
Some senior artistes hesitated to perform with her. “Once, we travelled three hours to perform at an event. I was allowed to sing just one song and asked to wait. At the end, they did not let me perform as promised. I cried uncontrollably but Appa consoled me saying ‘kooglike enta illa, intaddella agta irtade’ (nothing to cry, this will keep happening),” recalls Kavya, with a rueful smile.
Breaking these barriers over the course of her career, Kavya has performed for well-known troupes such as Kateelu Mela, Bappanadu Mela, Sasihitlu Mela and Saligrama Mela.
Kavyashree’s first major breakthrough happened at the age of 16, when she came third in a Yakshagana singing competition held at Moodabidri where over 20 teams from Dakshina Kannada and Kerala’s Kasaragod district competed. She also participated and won several ‘Gaana Vaibhava’ singing competitions. People would upload her performances to YouTube and other social media platforms, bringing her further recognition.
The singer has regularly performed with a Yakshagana troupe based in Mulki – Kerekkadu Makkala Mela – for the last 10 years. In the Yakshagana season from March to May, she performs on an almost daily basis.
Hailing Kavyashree’s growth as an artiste, acclaimed Yakshagana bhagavata Patla Sathish Shetty says, “Her contribution in expanding the scope of Yakshagana is really commendable. She has proved her potential as an incredible bhagavata coming in the direction of other female achievers such as Leelavathi Baipadithaya (first professional woman bhagavata) and others.”
Kavya’s teacher Harish credits her dedication with setting her apart from her contemporaries. “There is a difference between merely singing on the stage and getting immersive with the art, and Kavya does the latter. That is why she has become a favourite of the art lovers,” he notes.
Inspired by her example, many women have begun taking up Yakshagana. “Seeing her perform has naturally inspired youth, especially women, to learn Yakshagana,” says Shetty. Kavyashree herself receives messages and calls from many women and young girls asking for advice.
Soft-spoken and humble, Kavyashree credits her father’s constructive criticism for always taking her to new heights while staying grounded. “I treat both positive and negative feedback, success and failure equally. There are a lot of things to learn from one performance to another. The current success won’t make me forget my roots.”
Kavyashree firmly believes that Yakshagana has a bright future and she wants to teach bhagavathike to younger generations in the coming years.