Yakshagana, or the song of the demigods, originated in Karnataka around 500 years ago. It acquired a theatrical form by blending elements of music, dance, mime, costume and dialogue. The themes for the shows were usually drawn from the Hindu epics, but Keshavaiyya Muliya’s troupe changed the tradition 40 years ago, by adopting stories from the Bible.

“Many eyebrows were raised when we announced that we would stage Bible yakshagana in 1970,” said Muliya, as he took out the old, colourful pamphlets one by one. “People were curious to know what kind of stories we would adopt.”

Muliya had more than 50 pamphlets, kept in a personal file. Printed in 1970, the pamphlets were printed to publicise yakshagana shows by Bharatamba Yakshagana Mandali, the troupe formed by Muliya and his friends in Mangalore, Dakshina Kannada.

The shows narrated the stories of Jesus, Gabriel, Satan, King Herod, Joseph and Mary.

Pamphlets of the Bible yakshagana shows. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

“We didn’t disappoint yakshagana lovers, their faith kept us going,” said Muliya. “We staged in around 100 shows across South and North Kannada districts, in the same year.”

Yakshagana actors delineate stories through extempore dialogues. While the shows drew huge crowds, Muliya noticed that his artistes (most of whom were Hindu) struggled to deliver extempore dialogues, because they were ignorant about the stories in the Bible.

A scene from the Bible yakshagana show held in 1976. Photo courtesy: Keshavaiyya Muliya

“This gave us a lot of trouble,” Muliya recalled. “Characters from Ramayana and Mahabharata would creep into Bible narratives on several occasions. It perplexed the audience.”

Deciding to educate the artistes, Muliya undertook the task of writing a book of yakshagana prasanga or narrative based on stories from the Bible. He completed the book Yesu Kriste Mahatme or the magnanimity of Jesus Christ in 1976.

Felicitation for Keshavaiyya Muliya (right) in Mangalore in 1976. Photo courtesy: Keshavaiyya Muliya

Four decades later, Muliya has revised his book with the addition of poems and dialogues. The book was re-launched at a function in Mangaluru, on May 25. It was followed by a Bible yakshagana performance.

The audience was no longer as accepting as in the 1970s – after invitations were sent out, right-wing Hindutva groups threatened to disrupt the function, alleging that Muliya was promoting religious conversions in Karnataka. The Bible yakshagana, according to right-wing elements, would entice believers of the Hindu faith to embrace Christianity.

The function ended without incident, but Muliya was shaken.

A scene from the Bible yakshagana show held in 1976. Photo courtesy: Keshavaiyya Muliya

“Religious fanatics are ruling in our country these days,” he said. “No one objected to the Bible yakshagana in the 1970s or threatened me when I published Yesu Kriste Mahatme in 1976. But the scenario has changed now and it is scary.”

But Muliya remained adamant that Yakshagana was the traditional art of Karnataka, and did not belong exclusively to any religion. He said he wanted the youth to study all religions sincerely. “Reading takes you closer to God.”

Keshavaiyya Muliya at his home in Mangaluru. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Muliya’s love for yakshagana began during his childhood. Born in Vittal village, 20 km from Mangalore, he grew up watching yakshagana performances of famous artistes.

He was good at extempore speaking at school, which prompted him to join the Taala Maddale yakshagana troupe in his village, at the age of 15. Taala Maddale was a compact version of yakshagana, performed without the elaborate costumes and movements.

He continued his association with various troupes even after joining the Karnataka Bank as an officer in 1963, and worked backstage many years later, when poor health prevented him from donning roles.

A scene from the Bible yakshagana show held in 1976. Photo courtesy: Keshavaiyya Muliya

Now, his children are carrying forward the rich yakshagana legacy. His second son, Raghuram Muliya, is the chief operating officer of a multinational company in Bengaluru, but he takes time off his busy schedule to perform Taala Maddale during weekends.

“I am just following the path shown by my father to promote yakshagana,” said Raghuram. “He is our leading light.”