Few months back I had a chance to know about this performing art of Japan from Prof. Sumio Murijiri, who is a Fellow of Tokyo Foundation and a project scholar of Waseda University, Theater Museum, Tokyo. He is also a visiting professor of Mangalore University. His research focuses on the comparative study of Hayachine kagura ( A performing art in Japan) and Yakshagana (A folk and semi-classical performing art of coastal Karnataka).
I was working for visual media and my work during that time was to carry out research about art and culture of coastal Karnataka for television programs. I approached the professor to know about his research and to take get a sense of his analysis of Tulu culture. During our talks the professor told me about Hayachine Kagura. He showed me the photographs and videos of this art. He gave me an article written by him about the similarities between these two art forms. It was interesting to know about two art forms which are centuries old and are geographically separated by thousands of miles to have some striking similarities between them.
In Japanese language, Hayachina means ‘sacred mountain’. As we know most of the Japanese relegions give a great importance to the mountains. For them these mountains are life and God. There are many villages in the foothills of these mountains following the age-old traditions of Japan.These villages are isolated from the modern towns which makes them sustain their traditional lifestyle like they do. There are many Kaguras still existing in these mountains, Hayachine kagura being one among them.
Hayachine Kagura was initially a part of royal traditions. Gradually, it got separated from the palace and developed in to being a folk art. Hayachina Kagura is performed in villages. Just like Yakshagana, there are many troups which roam from one village to another. These troups perform only in the pre-decided villages called as ‘kasumys’. It rarely happens that one troupe performing in the village allocated to other troupe. But when this thing happens, two artists from opposite troupes have to wear the Lion Mask and battle it out. The one whose mask falls first or the one whose lion’s tongue comes out will be the loser.
The artists keep the box containing the dress and other things in a house called as the ‘Kagura house’. This is either a priest’s house or the house of a daughter of an artist from their own troupe. The villagers have a great deal of respect for these houses. The stage to perform kagura is usually the front yard of a house. The stage set-up is quite simple. The stage is open from three sides and the audience can watch the performance from these sides. The backdrop of the stage carries the symbol of the troup.
There is a special ritual to mark the taking of the dress from the box. Then a lion dance follows. The initial phase of kagura is of prayers. Then the performance starts which is full of hand movements. Unlike Yakshagana, there are no dialogues to the charecters. The artists have to say everything from their facial expressions and hand movements. Sometimes the charecters are seen wearing the masks and sometimes without the masks. One more feature of this kagura is all the actors are given same preference. In Yakshagana that is not the case. Senior artist is always considered superior to the young artists and they appear in the later phase of the performance of yakshagana. In Kagura the singer of the backstage play a vital role, which makes him the key person or a director of the of the show.
In Yakshagana, the basic scripts are usually are based on ancient mythology and are taken from the writings of ‘Parthisubba’. Hayachina Kagura also follows the same path. The Kagura songs are based on the traditional mountain worshipping scripts of Japan. Professor Morijiri finds lot of such similarities between these two art forms. There should be more research on this area.