Monday, August 30, 2010


"Yakshagana is not meant only for certain category of people. It is everybody’s play. It is your elders property. Don’t vanish this art, pass it on for next generations too," says Kumble Sundar Rao

Renowned Yakshagana artiste-cum-politican, Kumble Sundar Rao, was in city recently to deliver a talk on the occasion of 72nd Chaturmasya Vratha being observed by Pejawar Swamiji at Krishnadhama. Having carved a niche in Yakshagana with his vivid portrayal of various characters and dialogue delivery in his own inimitable style, he is the recipient of numerous awards, the most recent being the Yaksha Nidhi award - 2010 by the New Delhi-based Academy Thenku Thittu Yakshagana. He has also been conferred with the title 'Yakshanugrahi' and is the President of Karnataka Yakshagana Bayalata Academy since 2008. Here is a brief write up of his journey in the world of Yakshagana.

Born into a weaver’s family in 1934 in Kerala, Kumble Sundar Rao like many unfortunate victims of circumstances was educated till seventh standard. Not interested in learning the traditional skills of weaving which was the source of livelihood for the family, it was again the same fate which made Sundar Rao take to Yakshagana.

Being a regular visitor to a hotel in his home town, one day a stranger approached him and asked him if he could render certain dialogues of a character in the Yakshagana play as the regular artiste suddenly took ill. That proved to be the turning point in Sundar Rao’s life. His first role of delivering dialogue (who is known as Bhagawata at the age of 19, was such an instant success that opportunities started pouring in and he never turned back again. Over the years he gradually gained mastery over all the other features of the play such as the Raga, Tala and Prasanga.

Kumble, as he is affectionately called by the Yakshagana lovers, stands out as a unique person for several reasons and not merely for his dialogue rendering skills. Though born into a Malayalam-speaking family, he mastered speaking Kannada so fluently that anyone listening to him would be bewildered to know that his mother-tongue is not Kannada.

The 76-year-old Yakshagana veteran is very much remembered for his outstanding performances in his roles as Rama, Krishna, Bharata, Parikshita, Vishvamitra, and Ramacharvaka which he played with equal precision and variation over the years. Kumble is known for his intrinsic ability to relate with the audience, making them laugh, weep, dance and sing with him.

His journey into Yakshagana began in 1953 when he joined the Kudlu Gopalakrishna Yakshagana Mandali which went on to reach new peaks as he participated in drama fairs held at Ira Somanatheshwara, Surathkal, and Dharmasthala. At Dharmasthala, he gave performances for 25 consecutive years. He was even invited to countries like Abudhabi, Dubai, Bahrain and others to demonstrate his artistic prowess there.

What is remarkable about Kumble is his penchant for using alliterations. He weaves them spontaneously into his dialogues. In the process, he has created an inimitable style of his own. His dialogues are not in-depth as that of the late Sheni Gopala Krishna Bhat, another doyen of Yakshagana.

Sheni’s dialogues demand a very high level of understanding from the audience, whereas Kumble’s dialogues are more instantaneous, witty and appealing to the masses.

Though politics and Yakshagana make strange bedfellows, Kumble tried his luck in politics and has been quite successful too. He is the first professional Yaksha-gana artiste to be elected as MLA. His political career took off to a flying start, just like his entry to Yakshagana, when he was elected as MLA from the Surathkal constituency in 1994, representing the BJP. He is credited with yeomen services to the field of theatre and performing arts in his capacity as a Member of Legislative Assembly during his four year tenure at the office.

Once when he spoke in the Legislative Assembly, the then speaker Ramesh Kumar asked other MLAs to learn from Kumble the right way of speaking in Kannada. It was Kumble’s gift of the gab that earned him laurels both on stage while performing Yakshagana as well as in the political arena. In fact, impressed by his oratorical skills during the Ramajanmabhoomi campaign conducted by the BJP in the early 90s, it rewarded him with an MLA ticket to contest the Surathkal seat in 1994 Parliamentary elections. By winning the elections Kumble did what only cinema artistes had been known to do — graduating from the world of arts to what Bismarck had called ‘the art of possible.’

Like his performances onstage, he is equally at ease wielding the pen as well. His poems and odes appear regularly in the Kannada daily. Hosa Digantha His name would appear in the credit line of Udayavani wherein he writes about Narayana Guru’s memoirs. His autobiography 'Sundarakaanda' is a testimony to his writing skills as well.

For a man of such artistic calibre, awards and recognitions are bound to come by. He is credited with honours such as the Vishwa Kannada Sammelana Prashasthi, Karnataka Rajya Prashasthi, Rajyothsava Prashasthi by the Bahrain Karnataka Sangha, Polali Shankaranarayana Prashasthi, Muliya Timmappayya Prashasthi and several others. He is also a recipient of the Vijaya Vithala Prashasthi from Pejawar Vishwesha Theertha Swamiji.

Though Kathakali, the traditional dance form of Kerala and Yakshagana were treated at par with each other about 50 years ago, today Kathakali has achieved the status of classical art and has made name at the international level. Art forms can receive patronage both from the Centre and UNESCO if it gains classical art status. It is time that Yakshagana is accorded that status. In this context Kumble has undertaken many awareness campaigns about the art by releasing books, CDs, holding Kammatagalu – Chanda Madhale, Hadugarike and extending support to Yakshagana training centers.

Kumble Sundar Rao resides with his wife Sushila at mangalore. He has three daughters and two sons.

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