Behind Yakshagana, the Artists Struggle With High Vocal Stress
 Yakshagana is a form of folk theatre involving music, dance and drama.
Yakshagana is a form of folk theatre involving music, dance and drama.(Photo Courtesy: Lensation.picture.studio/Facebook)

Behind Yakshagana, the Artists Struggle With High Vocal Stress

Dance, Music and Dialogue! Yakshagana is a form of folk theatre which seamlessly blends these elements. Being one of the most cherished cultural possessions of the coastal districts of Karnataka, it presents mythological stories through a vibrant and robust tell-tale. The characters are made to come alive through the beats of musical instruments, dramatic gestures and colourful costumes.

The Yakshagana form of music uses sharp, high-pitched voices to express various emotions like love, anger, hate, bravery and horror. This sixteenth century dance-drama is depicted in open spaces with most of the performances lasting for about three hours.

On account of this, the vocalists, especially the Bhagawatas (lead singer) are exposed to voice problems like vocal chord fatigue, voice hoarseness, throat dryness and general vocal exhaustion.

Researchers at the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing (AIISH), Mysore, and Manipal University noticed increased levels of vocal stress among 91.2 percent of singers and 74 percent of actors from a sample of Yakshagana artists. As part of the act, the singers voice the narration while the actors deliver the dialogues.

Specifics of the Study

The research at AIISH was conducted by distributing self-reported questionnaires to 34 singers and 95 actors from Yakshagana troupes belonging to the Udupi and Mangaluru districts of southern Karnataka. The artists were aged between 26 and 50 years old and had started performing after around two years of training under senior artists.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Voice, found that Yakshagana folk singers and actors experienced frequent vocal health issues and were under a constant stress to protect their voice. Approximately 55% of artists missed their work for 2 to 3 days or more due to vocal fatigue. The possible reasons for this trend can be categorised into demographic, occupational, lifestyle and health-related.

Dr Maruthi Santosh, Reader in Speech Sciences who led the study said that the result painted a scary picture since a number of Yakshagana singers were found to abuse their vocal chords repeatedly.

Yakshagana artists are definitely at a higher risk of developing voice problems compared to other professions like teachers, call-centre operators, street vendors and even politicians. Their sound levels during narration and singing can go up to 100 decibels.
Dr Maruthi Santosh, Reader in Speech Sciences at AIISH

Vocal Technique Is the Bottom-Line

Training Yakshagana artists on vocal techniques will help them preserve the quality of their voices.
Training Yakshagana artists on vocal techniques will help them preserve the quality of their voices.
(Photo Courtesy: T Chendil Kumar/Facebook)

Tenkutittu, a traditional variation of Yakshagana, is prominent in the coastal regions of Karnataka and is influenced by Carnatic music. The narration is accompanied by the rhythm of percussion instruments called chande and maddale. Hence, it is imperative for the artists to raise their voice against the symphonic sounds of the background music.

One of the main reasons for voice problems stated in the AIISH study was lack of vocal and voice modulation training.

Artists have to be trained adequately for high-pitched performances. Using the wrong technique can lead to vocal stress. For example, loudness of the voice should be raised only by using abdominal muscles, whereas regulating the pitch should be done through neck muscles.
Dr Maruthi Santosh, Reader in Speech Sciences at AIISH

Keremane Shivarama Hegde has been learning folk theatre since the age of 12. He is the director of Sri Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali, one of the most reputed Yakshagana troupes in the country. Voice training forms an integral part of the practice sessions he undertakes.

The songs in Yakshagana are written according to specific raagas (melody that conforms to a set of notes) involving wide frequency and intensity ranges. Very often the scale demands high-pitched singing. Artists have to get trained to maintain vocal hygiene but I doubt if training institutes provide for this.
Keremane Shivarama Hegde, Director of Sri Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali

Vocal Variety Linked to the Characters

The Yakshagana form of music uses high-pitched voices to express emotions.
The Yakshagana form of music uses high-pitched voices to express emotions.
(Photo Courtesy: Murali M Abbemane/Facebook)

Yakshagana performers wear plenty of facial make-up, vivid costumes, huge head gear and ornaments, which together give a superhero like appearance to the characters.

Most of the themes for the acts are taken from the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharatha. “Playing villainous characters like Surpanaka or Ravana can be quite challenging because the singer needs to have a deep bass voice. If artists who inherently have feeble voices attempt this role, it can lead to exertion. It is important for an artist to identify his vocal capability before taking up a role,” said Sanjeeva Suvarna, artist at Yakshagana Kendra.

A Hefty Price for Poor Lifestyle

Yakshagana artists undergo a number of rehearsals and long practice sessions before the final performance.
Yakshagana artists undergo a number of rehearsals and long practice sessions before the final performance.
(Photo Courtesy: Yakshagana UK/Facebook)

Another cause of frequent voice problems has been attributed to poor lifestyle habits of artists. Actors and singers of Yakshagana have long practice sessions and the rehearsals continue till late in the night.

Certain habits like consumption of alcohol, tobacco, irregular sleeping patterns, excess caffeine take a heavy toll on their vocal hygiene. “Yakshagana singers are more prone to fatigue compared to other artists. Hence, they need to pay special heed to their daily routine. Lack of awareness among singers with regard to this needs to be addressed,” said Hegde.

Fallouts of Inadequate Sound Systems

Many of the Yakshagana shows lack effective sound and amplification systems.
Many of the Yakshagana shows lack effective sound and amplification systems.
(Photo Courtesy: Kiran Vitla/Facebook)

The various incarnations of Gods and Goddesses are usually performed in open air theaters or make-shift podiums. Each syllable of the musical note has a deep significance behind it. In many of the outdoor shows the sound and mike systems tend to be ill-equipped.

A good amplification system is necessary for Yakshagana to be effective. The facilities in most of the venues is not up to the mark. In such cases, the Bhagawata (lead singer) is forced to raise his voice beyond normal levels leading to vocal stress.
Srinivasa Sastanam, Director of the Karnataka Kala Darshini troupe.

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