Now 15, Tulasi Hegde has been performing the traditional Yakshagana dance-drama for 12 years. The TOI #Unstoppable21 jury has picked the teenager from Karnataka as one of the Unstoppable 21 Indians under 21 years
Yakshagana is a form of dance-drama at least 500 years old that is exclusive to coastal Karnataka. This dance-drama captures the essence of classic episodes from Hindu epics. You wouldn’t expect a child to make a mark in this field, but that’s what Tulasi Hegde did, aged just three, when she made her first stage appearance, possibly setting a record as the youngest ever to do so.
By age 4, Tulasi from Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district started sharing the stage with leading and renowned Yakshagana artistes and portraying multi-layered characters like Abhimanyu in the Yakshagana prasanga Krishnarjuna Kaalaga (an episode that captures the battle between Krishna and Arjuna). Soon, she would essay the roles of Angada, Lohitashwa, Vrushasena, among many others.
Now, 15 years old, Tulasi is synonymous with solo performances, negotiating effortlessly complex roles of finely etched characters from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Gita. She has been mesmerising audiences with solo performances in the vibrant world of Badagutittu Yakshagana.
In contemporary Yakshagana performances, the style predominant in the southern coastal regions of Karnataka is referred to as ‘Tenkutittu’, while the style common in the northern areas of this region is known as ‘Badagutittu’. In a break from tradition, most Yakshagana melas have cut short the duration of their daily all-night performances to five hours.
Tulasi’s performances last for an hour. During a Yakshagana solo performance, a single artiste takes on various roles and characters within the narrative. These performances often involve elaborate costumes, make-up, and vibrant facial expressions to depict different characters.
Daughter of journalist Raghavendra Bettakoppa and hobby poet Gayatri, Tulasi took to Yakshagana naturally. Gayatri Hegde would sing Yakshagana songs as lullabies to her daughter. That left a lasting imprint on the child’s tender mind. She became a natural performer very early.
At age five, Tulasi kicked off a mission to perform Yakshagana for ‘world peace’. Over the past 10-12 years, she has given at least 800 Yakshagana performances across India, at venues as varied as pilgrim centres Tirupati and Dharmasthala to well-curated literary jamboree Alva’s Nudisiri in Moodbidri and some events in Mumbai.
Tulasi’s family lives in Malenadu, a lush outback 8km from Sirsi town in Uttara Kannada district in coastal Karnataka, and she is studying in class 9 at Government Marikamba High School in Sirsi. Beyond Yakshagana, Tulasi is interested in allied areas of music, drama, besides agriculture and dairy farming. She also won accolades in a science-based national drama competition.
“My dream is to popularise Yakshagana throughout the country, emphasising its cultural and traditional significance,” she said. She recalled her experiences of performing alongside Yakshagana legends Kolagi Keshav Hegde and Vidya Vachaspathi Umkanth Bhat, describing the momentous events as “valuable learning opportunities”. She thanks her parents and teachers for extending non-stop support as they help her catch up on missed classes. Tulasi wants to further explore the world of Yakshagana and aims to pursue a doctorate in the field.
Tulasi’s mother Gayatri recognised her daughter’s early passion for music, particularly Yakshagana songs. Gayatri herself has cherished Yakshagana since her own childhood, and during her pregnancy with Tulasi, she would sing Yakshagana songs. “After Tulasi’s birth, I continued singing devotional and Yakshagana songs while giving her a bath, and even at the age of three months, Tulasi displayed a responsiveness to these songs. As she grew older, she would express her interest in the art form by crying when the singing stopped,” she said.
Recognising her daughter’s passion, Gayatri began teaching her Yakshagana dances as soon as Tulasi could stand on her own. Tulasi’s ability to learn these dances exceeded her parents’ expectations. Quite naturally.