Seventy-seven-year-old Savithri Rao is a Yakshagana performer, who started learning the art form when she was 66 years of age. “It was a passion I had nurtured for very long, but with many other things happening in life, I never had the opportunity to pursue it,” she tells The Better India.
Yakshagana is a traditional theatre form from Karnataka, which can be described as a temple art form that depicts mythological stories and Puranas. It is often performed with massive headgears, elaborate facial make-up and vibrant costumes and ornaments.
Growing up, the one thing Savithri enjoyed indulging in most was role play, which translated into her love for this dance form. “I would often pick up sticks and pretend to be at war, and jump around from one corner to the other.”
“I’d smear my face with charcoal and almost magically become someone else,” she recalls with childlike enthusiasm.
While she wanted to be a Yakshagana performer from a young age, unfortunately, at the time Savithri was growing up, being part of a performance troupe was not considered appropriate for girls.
Her ‘loudest cheerleader’
So she went on to become a teacher, and excelled at that. In 1987, she received an award from the Indian Council for Child Education under the ‘Best Teacher’ category. She retired in 1990, and continued to ably support her husband in managing and running Makkala Sahithya Sangama, an organisation dedicated to encouraging children to cultivate their literary talents in Kannada.
Speaking about her husband, Srinivas Rao, also one of her loudest cheerleaders, she Savithri says, “Most women feel that once married, pursuing dreams should be forgotten. For me, the opposite happened. My husband is a huge fan of Yakshagana himself and encouraged me to take it up.” She recalls often visiting the town hall in Mangalore with her husband to watch performances.
“Those visits just helped me make my decision,” she adds.
It was only in 2009 that Savithri approached Sumangala Rathnakar, Director, Yaksharadhana Kala Kendra, Mangalore, who also happened to be Savithri’s neighbour. “I remember feeling very shy to go ask her to teach me. Again, my husband was the one to encourage me. I am glad I took that decision, because it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life,” she says. Yakshagana has always been a male bastion and it is only off late that women have started to partake in its performance. Savthiri tells me that there are about 60 women performers now, and she is perhaps one of the oldest.
In May 2018, Savithri took the stage for her 100th Yakshagana performance as Duryodhana in the mythological story ‘Narakasura Vadhe.’
A dance form with many intricacies
When I ask about her practise schedule, she says, “When we have a show coming up, we practise almost every day for a few hours at a stretch. Other times, it’s once a week for anywhere between one and two hours.” Some of the roles she has portrayed include Valmiki, Duryodhana, Sugreeva, Bheesma, and Dharmaraya. “I enjoyed the fight scenes I was able to perform when I essayed the role of Dharmaraya,” she says.
Aside from the intricacies of the performance, the make-up is also time consuming. For a show that begins at 6 pm, artists have to start with their make-up and costume at least three to four hours prior to the show. “Just getting into the costume and jewellery itself takes us close to half an hour. It is all very heavy, but there is much happiness in doing all this,” she says.
The sheer physical transformation that this dance requires one to go through is tough, to say the least. Someone like Savithri, who has a petite body type, not only wears a costume that is almost double her own body weight, but also needs to carry and perform complex dance movements, while being graceful. It’s not just the physical strength, but also one’s mental strength that is put to test.
“Yakshagana energises me,” she says and continues, “Everyone asks me how I do this at my age, but I say age is just a number. How can it define what I can and cannot do? I enjoy the dance form and am blessed to be able to partake in it.” Her message to girls and women is to never let go of their dreams.“Maybe not immediately, but you will always have a chance to live your dreams, so stay alert and when the moment comes by, grab it,” she says.
As we end our conversation, Savithri leaves me with a few wise words, “Never let your gender or age be the reason you do not achieve your dreams.”
(Edited by Divya Sethu)