Here is a review of my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition which was published in Samudhra a magazine dedicated to Music, Dance, Drama and Art Cinema. The review is written by the erudite Dr. Smt. Radha Bhaskar a musician, musicologist and convenor of many events in Chennai. Shri Mudra Bhaskar is a multi faceted personality both Mridangam artiste and Master printer. Thank you so much Samudhra.
Friday, 13 July 2018
Sunday, 8 July 2018
In 1966, I joined Kalakshetra after completing a gruelling five-year course under Smt. Uma Devi, an alumna of Kalakshetra. After my arangetram, my teacher insisted that I join Kalakshetra for further training. Training under her, learning the time-honoured items like the taxing Varnam and Thillana was so perfect that I could perform with my cousin without a rehearsal. When I joined, my initial few months was spent in polishing the posture and the adavus. I became aware of the finer points of eye movements, nuances and delicate flourishes of the wrist and shoulder, and the all important araimandi. I would get back to the ‘mirror’ cottage every afternoon and practice my adavus every day, without rest after lunch break. One afternoon, Kittu Anna as he was fondly addressed, came in wielding his thattukazhi threateningly, or so I thought. From that day for several months he took my class, one to one, encouraging me, explaining the importance of practicing three speeds and so on. His favourite word was ‘inhibition’. He immediately understood that I was timid and anxious to make the grade. He would repeat emphatically, do not have any inhibitions, be bold, you are working so hard, all will end well. I owe so much to Kittu Anna for his kindness, encouragement and the time he gave me.
Professor M. R. Krishnamurthy joined Kalakshetra when he was sixteen years of age with a three-year Government Scholarship under his arm. Blessed with an impressive personality, he dedicated himself to dance and was trained under Rukmini Devi. He was fortunate to get his foundation for Bharata Natyam, under great teachers like Sarada Hoffman, Smt. Vasantha Vedam, Smt. Jayalakshmi, Pushpa Shankar and Mylapore Gowri Ammal. He learnt Kathakali under the legendary Chandu Panikker Asan. Bhagavata mela Guru Balu Bhagavatar was resident in the campus and trained students like Krishnamurthy, Janardanan, Dhananjayan and Shankar Hombal.
He played major roles in the famous Kalakshetra dance-dramas. As Jatayu, Vibheeshana, and Sugriva in the Ramayana series, Brahmana in Rukmini Kalyanam and Shakuntala are some that come to mind immediately.
Born in 1936, his dance career continued to bloom after he left the institution to establish his own in Bengaluru. ‘Kalakshithi’ is his homage to his Guru Rukmini Devi. He dedicatedly follows all the tenets and values he had imbibed at Kalakshetra. He never wavered from the Kalakshetra Bani and continued to uphold the strict adherence to the technical perfection ingrained in him for decades. He demands the same discipline and perfection from his students. His sister Rukma Narain is the pillar of support for his career and is the backbone of Kalakshithi. The school campus is artistically designed by her and has a beautiful theatre space designed by her. The classy stamp of beauty and refined taste in the décor is evident everywhere.
The school recently celebrated 25 years and a few contemporary artistes and colleagues were honoured on this occasion.
He has presented his students in various platforms. His choreographic presentations in classic themes like Pancha Kanya, Rasa Vilasa, Gokula Nirgamana, and Akka Mahadevi.
He has been honoured with prestigious awards: Chandana Puraskara (2014), Attendance Rukmini Devi Award (2012), Natya Tapasvi (2001, Karnataka Kalashri(1998)
I met Kittu Anna this year (February 2018) to gift my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition. It was an emotional and nostalgic meeting. My heart was overflowing with gratitude to have trained under such a wonderful teacher.
Monday, 18 June 2018
G. Venu is a performer, teacher and scholar of Kutiyattam and a senior disciple of Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. He has devised 'Navarasa Sadhana' module as a transformative process for artistes seeking a deeper insight to the depths and diversity of human emotions. He is Chairman, Natanakairali, Ammannur Chakyar Madhom in Irinjalakuda.
I came across this extremely interesting and informative article by Shri G. Venu on Navarasa Sadhana in Narthaki.com the dance website of Dr. Anita Ratnam. These workshops are conducted by G. Venu, the veteran Kathakali and Kudiyattam artiste and revivalist of Natanakairali, Irinjnalakuda (Kerala) has the theatre world by storm.
The article contains the process of teaching the acting methodology for actors and dancers. Famous actors from cinema and theatre have benefitted from this workshop.
Venu ji has dived in the deep waters of the ocean of abhinaya and found some pearls of wisdom of Bharata’s Natya Sastra. It is an amazing read and I earnestly urge all dancers to read this article. Here is the link. http://www.narthaki.com/info/articles/art436.html
Way back in 1995, I met him for the first time in an 8-day workshop by Rajeev Sethi and performance organized by N.C.P.A. and its dynamic Director, Vijaya Mehta. I knew about his exhaustive work to revive Kudiyattam and other dying arts of Kerala. I spoke to him about my association with Bhagavata Mela and sought his guidance. The legendary Ammanur Madhava Chakyar was also present.
In 2000, I received an invitation from his institution to participate in a two-month residency workshop on Netra and Hasta Abhinaya. At that time, I was already in the process of bringing Melattur and Mumbai together for the Marathi natakam Sakuntala.
Those two months were educative and opened the horizons of what theatre and dance could achieve. The intensive eye exercises, meeting international artistes like Peter Oskarson besides artistes from China and Japan, infused new meaning into my life as a dancer.
With G. Venu, Niramala Paniker, Tomoe Irino , and Kapila. Kneeling L-R Reiko Irino, Arabella Lyons and flautist Ludwig Pesch at the workshop (2001)
I met his brilliant daughter Kapila whose Nangiar Koothu performances are exquisite and unforgettable. Every single nuance of abhinaya is performed with clarity through her eyes but seated on a wooden stool. She had undergone intensive training from the Guru Ammanur Madhava Chakyar which included exhaustive sessions of eye exercises and memorizing volumes of learning Sanskrit texts.
Ms. Tomoe Irino, a Japanese percussion artiste, also trained regularly in Nangiar Koothu. Here is a report of the workshop and its content written after the workshop in 2001.
Unique International Acting Laboratory
Natana Kairali of Irinjalakuda (Thrissur, Kerala) celebrated its silver jubilee year in 2001 with the inauguration of a unique concept -the 'Abhinayakalari'. Japan Foundation with Sanskriti Pravah as its executive agency supports the international Acting Laboratory, first of its kind in India. The Abhinayakalari was inaugurated in September 2000 and the first two- month long workshop on Netra-Abhinaya and Hasta Abhinaya was conducted in December. This project was launched at Natanakairali in association with the Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam.
The workshop is the brainchild of G.Venu, Director of Natana Kairali. Venu's research in Kerala's lost arts like puppets, Kutiyattam and Nangiar Koothu has resulted in their glorious revival and has created an international demand for them. His wife, Nirmala Paniker, was going back to the roots of Mohiniyattom when she discovered its close affinity to Nangiar Koothu. For over a decade, she collaborated with Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, the legendary Kutiyattam actor, to reconstruct the lost repertoire of Nangiar Koothu. The immense histrionic potential of these two arts is based on the use of eyes and elaborate hand gestures. The workshop focused on a holistic approach to juxtapose pan- Asian concepts of abhinaya. The dancer-participants and resource masters were selected from all over India and countries like Taiwan, Korea and Japan. The strenuous working schedule began at 7.30 am with Yoga lessons from Swami Hari Om Ananda of UttarKashi. The participants were then introduced to lessons in Kutiyattam (Ammannur Kuttan Asan), Kathakali (Sadanam Krishnan Kutty) Mohiniyattom (Nirmala Paniker) Bharata Natyam (Indu Raman), Le Coq dance Technique (Arabella Lyons), Dun Huang (Jessie Fan Ko) and Kamigata Mai (Keiin Yoshimura). Documentation of eye movement and hand gestures has now enabled the project to enlarge the vocabulary of dance. G. Venu conducted the master classes in eye exercise in front of an oil lamp and with application of ghee in and around the eyes. Senior Kathakali actors like Ananda Sivaram, V.P.Ramakrishna Nair, and Keezhpadam Kumaran Asan spoke extensively about their experiences and shared insights into the traditional eye care and exercise routines. These veterans discussed the Navarasas and their presentation at length. Octogenarian Ammannur Madhava Chakyar elaborated on Shringara Rasa with demonstrations and splendid performances of rare items from the Kutiyattam repertoire. The participants were taken to visit the Tantra Vidya Peetham near Alwaye where K.P.C. Bhattadripad spoke and demonstrated the use of mudras in tantra practice. A bit of history was introduced by Dr. K.G. Paulose who clarified the process of how Natya became "Attam" in Kerala. The Hindustan Kalari Sangam gave demonstrations of Kalari. The project Director, G.Venu's vision in planning this workshop was greatly appreciated by visiting payattu and the special oil massage for the face. The most illuminating lectures on Tantra as practiced by them came from this group. In a simplified manner, they explained the SriChakra and its equivalents and significance with relation to our body.
Dignitaries Tadishi Ogawa and Reiko Irino (Japan), Peter Oskarson (Sweden) Padma Subramanian, Ludwig Pesch, and Vasundhara Doraiswamy. A team from Folkteatern i Gavleborg (Sweden) who are working on the production of a Greek play was invited to study the ancient Sanskrit theatre traditions in India. They were present for the annual festival of Kutiyattam and Nangiar Koothu that took place at the beautiful NatanaKairali auditorium from Dec 1 to 14th. The young dancers of this tradition, Renjith, Rajneesh, Sooraj, Kapila, Aparna, Rajeev and Hari won the admiration of all for their devotion, dedication and performance of an exceedingly demanding tradition. They were also completely in charge of the arrangements of the workshop. In addition to this extravaganza, Venu had invited troupes to perform Pavakoothu (hand Puppets), Tolpavakoothu (Leather shadow puppets who perform Kamba Ramayana) Mudiyettam, Theyyam and Kummatikali (masked dancers). The beauty of the Natankairali campus, the generous and warm hospitality of the hosts and the excellent vegetarian Kerala cuisine made this an unforgettable and wonderful experience for the participants.
Thursday, 26 April 2018
With the blessings of my ancestors…says the author in the introduction to his book “Contributions of the Thanjavur Maratha Kings”. What an ancestry! The author, Prince Pratap Sinh Serfoji Raje Bhosle is a scion of the erstwhile royal Bhosle family of Thanjavur. He is the 14th descendant of King Venkoji (Ekoji I) founder of the Maratha rule at Thanjavur in 1676 CE and 6th descendant of Maharaja Serfoji II the great scholar.
Ekoji was a half-brother of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and was the first of several great kings who were scholars, authors and supporters of music, dance and drama. Born in 1993, the prince completed his B.Tech (Electronics and Communications Engineering). He quotes Marcus Garvey -A people without the knowledge of their past, history and origin and culture is like a tree without roots. This seems to be his inspiration to delve deep into his family ancestry, preserve antiques, coins, and photographs from their treasury of memories and possessions. He has supported his interest in research activity by completing a course Conservation of Museum, studied Modi and Marathi script at the Saraswati Mahal Library. In his eagerness to share all the information with the fans and friends around the world, he has created a blog, and a Facebook page and Instagram to share images and information about Thanjavur, the history and heritage monuments around the region.
Now Prince Pratap Sinh Serfoji Raje Bhosle is the author of a monumental book of the history of Maratha Kings of Thanjavur. The first edition sold out within a few months and this book, released in December 2017 is the second edition. The information given in this book comes straight from the royal stable which itself is a guarantee of authenticity. We now have access to many details and rare photographs which are made public for the first time.
There is history of Thanjavur and the fourteen great Maratha Rajas, including Shahji I, Chatrapati Shivaji, and Sambhaji who were prominent and others who ruled from 1676 to 1903. A detailed history of the Cholas and Nayaks gives a holistic perspective. A summary of Thanjavur Maratha History beginning 1676 CE from the Inscriptions of Bhosle Vamsa Charitram is an important addition to this book.
There is history of Thanjavur and the twelveMaratha Rajas that ruled till 1903. A detailed history of the Cholas and Nayaks gives a holistic perspective. A summary of Thanjavur Maratha History from the Inscriptions of Bhosle Vamsa Charitram is an important addition to this book
There is history of Thanjavur and the twelveMaratha Rajas that ruled till 1903. A detailed history of the Cholas and Nayaks gives a holistic perspective. A summary of Thanjavur Maratha History from the Inscriptions of Bhosle Vamsa Charitram is an important addition to this book
Like his ancestors, Pratap Sinh’s interest in Bharata Natyam, is revealed in his chapters on Devadasi tradition, Natya Sastra and the Karanas. In his direct simple style, the author has made this interesting book easy for readers of all ages but is as invaluable to the historian as the epigraphic inscriptions of ancient kings.
The book would have benefitted with a glossary and an index besides a more vigilant eye on the typos that have crept in.
Shri Pratap Sinh’s book was released at the same time as my book, Bhagavata Mela-My Tryst with Tradition. We got in touch with each other on social media and were excited that the two books on Thanjavur were being released almost together. I have always expressed the fact that our arts and Bhagavata Mela in particular was eternally indebted to these royal families and was thrilled to be in the presence of one such descendant.
I met Shri Pratap Sinh in Chennai at the holy precincts of Sri Kapaliswarar temple in Mylapore. We exchanged books and have been in touch since. He comes across as an enthusiastic, academically inclined, and ambitious historian. I wish this young author success in every project he undertakes, because each book he authors will be an asset to our cultural history.
Follow the author on:
@Pratap_rpb- Instagram, Twitter
Friday, 2 March 2018
Respect Bollywood Dancers as Artistes
(Representative image taken from the internet)
Somewhere in middle of scores of tributes paid to Sridevi on her sudden and unnatural death, was a note of bitter regret from a dancer that the star’s death made national news for days and that she was given a formal funeral with a tricolour draped on her body.
Will a classical dancer ever get such coverage, ranted the columnist. Dance had never been important to the government, she said. How can you ‘clap Bollywood’?
These unfortunate remarks set me thinking and compare a classical dancer’s career with that of a Bollywood superstar.
Let’s analyse this in parts. Every Padma awardee is an honoured citizen of the country who has contributed to the growth of the country or to its culture in a special way. Hence the government pays homage after death by commissioning an honourable funeral with service and draping the body with the tricolour flag. Elsewhere someone wondered why a filmstar should get military honours which should be reserved only for the servicemen.
Classical dancers in the past have been given national coverage. How can we forget Rukmini Devi who the entire nation paid homage to? Many reports were published on her various achievements as pioneer in dance, revivalist, Prani Mitra, Rajya Sabha Member, Presidential nominee, theosophist, pioneer in education and founder of Kalakshetra. What about Balasaraswati, Sanjukta Panigrahi and more recently Mrinalini Sarabhai? One must reach that level of achievement and respect which these artistes enjoyed to attract national coverage. (But it is true that south Indian musicians never get even a cursory mention in national newspapers.)
The column makes derogatory remarks about Bollywood and places classical dance on a pedestal. How fair is that? Firstly, let us acknowledge the fact that Sridevi is a classically trained dancer. Then, onscreen too she is famous for her dances. Bollywood dances, even item numbers are not easy to perform and filming them requires hours of rehearsals and days to film it under the hot arc lamps and with several ‘takes’. The choreographer and the cinematographer demand perfection. The star dancer must also be adept at various forms and styles be it Indian or western. Most screen dances are done with a group of dancers whose wrong moves too, call for retakes. The steps and movements are different with each film and even for other songs within the film.
Compare this to a classical dancer’s performance. The good ones spend several hours in rehearsals of items that are taught to them by their gurus and practiced with musicians. They usually settle for one style, either Bharata Natyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi though they learn two or more styles initially. The main items are repeated, and occasionally new themes and concepts are presented. But what goes on in the name of contemporary dance on classical stages? How different is it from Bollywood dances? It can never claim to be framed in strict ‘shastraic’ norms, though it has earned itself a name as a genre.
Sridevi has proved herself as a dancer in classical terms in many southern films. I distinctly remember a duet between Telugu/Tamil actress Banupriya and Sridevi inside a temple (film??). It was brilliant. To mention a few, Revathy, Shobhna, Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai Bacchan are trained dancers. Padmini, Vyjayantimala and Waheeda Rehman have performed dances based on classical styles in films.
Sridevi’s talent as an actor is unsurpassed and as actor Vidya Balan once remarked in a television talk show, ‘she is an institution herself, even if you just take her work in Mr. India.’ It is this multi-talented display of angikam, aharyam and vachikam abhinaya that is in full display in films. Classical dancers are not required to sing onstage or spout expressive speech. Most facial expressions are rehearsed and performed in exactly the same way in every item as prescribed by the shastra.
Another stressful factor for a high-profile heroine working in mainstream films in a leading role, is physical appearance. They are expected to maintain their attractive looks caring for their body from their shining hair to the tips of their manicured nails. This puts enormous pressure on their psyche. They workout at the gym, follow a diet and take supplements for health and energy. They are compelled to freeze their facial muscles to earn an extension for their place in the numbers’ game. They cannot afford to injure themselves as their ‘active’ career years are not more than a decade.
Actors like Sridevi, and Madhuri Dixit retired from action for fourteen years to pay full attention to family, marriage and kids. Some, like Nargis, Helen, Sadhna and Vyjayantimala left at the height of their career and never returned to the screen after marriage. Dancer gurus continue to lead an active domestic life parallel to their dance career.
What of the classical dancer? She can begin as a mugdha nayika in her teens and perform well into old age and will be accepted for her talents despite inability to sit down (muzhu mandi), bend the knees (araimandi) or waist or hold the elbows up. How many teachers insist on a round of warm-up exercises before class? Have we not seen young and middle-aged dancers 'rolling' on the stage? Do we chastise students who are unkempt or cannot control their expanding waistline?
The two arts are different. When Balasaraswati was recognised she was already into her mid-forties. Her large physique and heavy build was not pleasant, but the connoisseur and rasika could overlook these physical attributes and see the diamond shining within. Rukmini Devi, too, was in her thirties when she began training. Mrinalini Devi, Sitara Devi, Yamini, Kalanidhi Mami and Chandralekha continued to create fresh concepts and perform. Uma Sharma, Birju Maharaj, Padma Subrahmanian and C. V. Chandrasekhar are in great demand. Vyjayantimala continues to give full performances and maintains the exacting requirements of classical dances. Should we credit her the discipline and experience of her film career for this miracle?
And to crib that they get paid more or rewarded more for their talents is not acceptable. They set the box-office registers ringing to the benefit of the entire team and the producer. If we classical dancers were so precious, why do organisers treat us so callously and expect us to pay for our own time on the public stage? Why have we not set standards of payment? Can we afford to forgo an opportunity or stage a dharna that dancers must get their due? And, in passing, do we attract an audience? But that is another story.
Being a Bollywood Tollywood Mollywood or Kollywood star is a not a joke. It is an art. In fact, no artist must look upon another art or artiste with condescension. Artistes should come down from their ivory towers, step down from their pedestal and respect others and their arts.
Thursday, 11 January 2018
Above- LSRajagopal with RGK. Below: With Writer and Mrs. Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan
RGK aka R. Gopalakrishnan aka R. G. Krishna (the illustrious writer and assistant Editor from the stable of Times of India) invited me to meet his friend L.S. Rajagopalan. We had a wonderfully nostalgic afternoon when the two veterans exchanged memories about music, dancers and musicians. LSR was an amiable conversationalist and shared some personal incidents about his life.
LSR was born in 1922 at Konnangulam near Guruvayur. He was a student of St. Xavier’s college in Mumbai where eminent journalist M.V. Kamath was a classmate. After graduating in Chemistry, he procured a job in Kemp & Co. as a chemist. Kamath was employed elsewhere and as soon as a vacancy occurred in Kemp & Co, LSR called his friend over to work at a salary of thirty rupees.
The earliest contact with music was when he heard a classical music concert on the radio. While his sister learned the violin, he opted for the flute, which cost the least and required no maintenance. Vishnu Prasad Shirali who played jalatarangam inspired him, so he searched for a teacher who can teach him that instrument. Another event which inspired him was Uday Shankar’s performance at the Capitol (Mumbai) when he witnessed the dance-drama Man & Machine. with a one-rupee ticket.
Someone suggested Manohar Barve, a musician who conducted classes at Dadar. When Barve heard he was from Trichur, the first question he asked was , “ How is the King Cobra in the Trichur Zoo? When I went there for a performance I visited the zoo. The head master of Sarkar High School was my host.”
“My father is the headmaster. You stayed at my house.”, replied an astonished LSR.
Barve could play a hundred instruments and is known to play the violin held behind his back. LSR learnt Tilak Kamod on the flute after unsuccessfully trying out the whimsical jalatarangam. One day, the instructor did not turn up but a young man sitting in his place said he has been deputised to teach that day. After the class, they made their way home together. Their conversation ran something like this:
I didn’t get your name.
Not Ram Marathe, is it? Ha, ha.
Yes, Ram Marathe.
Not Ram Marathe the singer, actor?
Yes, the same.
LSR describes this moment as thrilling and kept him on a high all his life to think he has been learning from Ram Marathe. He continued learning music and explored Carnatic music. He has a letter from Tiger Varadachari who advised him that the best way to learn Carnatic music is to learn as many varnams as you can.
In 1944, he returned to Thrissur and began a pharmaceutical industry making medicines for rheumatism and filaria.
In 1950, LSR witnessed Koodiyattam for the first time. He remembered a verse from the Tamil epic Silapaddikaram: “His red eyes set forth a thousand ideas.” The red eyes are caused by a seed inserted in the eye to enhance Netra-Abhinaya. After considerable research in Koodiyattam and folk arts, he was considered a scholar who was a mentor for students. LSR was equally highly impressed by the folk and tribal artists who had fine voices perfectly aligned to sruti.
Folk arts need a platform and be accorded a status, he says. “Money can come later. Otherwise we may lose these arts.”
He was fascinated by the music of the Chakyars accompanying the dance. He began to analyse the performances for the swaras (notes) and their arrangement. In 1973, he gave a lecture demonstration on Kudiyattam at the Madras Music Academy with Mani Madhava Chakyar. This gave instant recognition to the art which was till then confined to Kerala.
He is the author of two books on Kudiyattam. His keen interest in Kathakali led him to experimental production of a Kathakali play based on Arunachala Kavi’s Rama Natakam in Tamil.
As a scholar who promoted not only the classical arts but also tribal arts and folk music, he devoted his efforts on his own steam and because of his passion for them.
At the time, I met LSR, I had not witnessed any Koodiyattam recital. When I was in Irinjalakuda in 2001 for a two-month Netra Abhinaya residential workshop, I visited LSR at his home.
Performing artistes of Indian classical and folk art forms were bereaved as L.S. Rajagopal, an eminent scholar and researcher, passed away in Thrissur in 2008 at the age of 86.
Tuesday, 1 August 2017
This cover feature on Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam was first published in April 1994 in a Chennai-based magazine for the arts SRUTI No. 115 (See pages 35-39)
BHAGAVATA MELA IN MELATTUR
ROLE OF BHAGAVATA MELA NATYA VIDYA SANGAM
The following feature was written by Sruti staffer INDU RAMAN, who has been elected as the chairperson of the Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam. It complements the feature on Bhagavata Mela published earlier (Sruti 22)
Bhagavata Mela is a unique blend of dance, drama and music. Practiced by Brahmins from the 14th century onwards, it came into vogue in Melattur, Saliyamangalam, Oothukadu, Soolamangalam, Nallur and Teperumalnallur in Tanjavur district. But it has suffered a steady decline over the decades. Scholars like E. Krishna Iyer and Mohan Khokar, as well as Rukmini Devi, have attempted to revive it; yet, it is not exactly flourishing. Today only the first two and last-named villages are clinging to the tradition and observing the rituals.
The tiny two-street village of Melattur has always enjoyed a special status and received greater attention compared to the other five villages. It has the pride of being the birth place of Venkatarama Sastri, the author of the dance-dramas being enacted today. It is believed that the mask in existence today was worshipped by him.
Melattur has preserved the tradition of annual performances more regularly than the other villages. In fact, since 1964, there are two troupes conducting festivals every summer: the Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam, which enjoys greater recognition and local support and is led by Dubai based S. Natarajan; and the Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam led by Bharatam R. Mahalingam. The two factions have existed independently for 30 years. A competitive spirit prevails between the two groups, but it augurs well for the tradition, in as much as, in the long run, this spirit will help to foster their common goal of maintaining the tradition.
The Natya Vidya Sangam
The bhagavatars of Melattur have kept alive a 500-year old tradition through this living ritual of faith. They have nurtured a dance-theatre as close as possible to its original form. Resisting change, struggling to survive, but steadfast in faith. The Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam has conducted an annual festival for 29 consecutive years, in recent years at the Balu Bhagavatar Memorial open-air auditorium just outside the village. Somehow, this group has hardly received any recognition from the media and public. Nonetheless, it has been concentrating on improvements to the dance and training more youngsters to continue the tradition. This year it will stage the new production Seetha Kalyanam, for the first time on 22 May, followed by Prahlada Charitram the next day, which is Narasimha Jayanti.
The dance-actors of the Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam are all amateurs; their professional interest lies elsewhere. Bharatam R. Mahalingam (Mali), its chief dancer and lead actor, is the village administration officer. S. Gopalakrishnan (Gopu) gave up a job as an accountant to become its Secretary. S. Nagarajan is a sales person who has requested a transfer to Thiruchi from Bombay so that he can practice dance more often. R. Subramanian is a Customs officer. They all converge at Melattur at least two weeks before the annual festival, so that they can rehearse their roles.
Mali is the nephew of P. K. ‘Melattur’ Subbier, a disciple of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Subbier was the main musician and moving spirit behind the group till his death two years ago. His brother P.K. Ramalingam (92), Mali’s father, was a source of inspiration and unifying factor till his demise in October 1993. Mali had his debut as Prahlada when he was seven. He grew into the female lead, as Rukmini, Parvati and other characters. He is endowed with a highly mobile face and his large eyes are a vehicle for the subtle expression of fleeting emotions. Last year he made a smooth transition to male leads- as Hiranyakasipu and Harischandra. The dramatic, masculine histrionics come easily to him. His abilities are evident when he helps fellow dancers to bring out their best. Even rehearsals become an intense spiritual experience when he takes the floor. He is still reticent about dialogue delivery. If he would overcome this hurdle, the quality of his performance should be splendid.
R. Subramanian (Mani) and S. Nagarajan pull off their female roles with great aplomb. Mani’s Bhooma Devi in Prahlada Charitram is an essay in dignity. Looking as though he has stepped out of a Ravi Varma painting, he executes his pravesa daru and a teermanam flawlessly and with grace. One never suspected that he could score in abhinaya as well, but what a charming, mischievous Matanga kanya he makes, attempting to seduce the noble Harischandra!
In fact, this is one scene which illustrates the fact that spontaneity is one of the strong points of Bhagavata Mela Natakam. Two Matanga kanya-s are sent by Vishwamitra to test Harischandra’s character. As the guards try to chase them away, the girls run around trying to reach the king. Chandramati is horrified and protectively shields her husband while shooing the two away. There is much running around, confusion, feminine mischief and frivolity in this scene. The action-reaction sequence is spontaneous, and the better for not being rehearsed painstakingly.
A major talent discovery is S. Nagarajan, a government-scholarship holder for training in Bharatanatyam. He is performing the lead female roles this year. He has a finely chiselled facial structure which seems masculine enough, until one sees him transformed in a women’s costume. Moreover, in his performance, there are no self-conscious mannerisms to emphasise femininity. Only 21, he has been learning dance under Guru Herambanathan for four years. His roles have therefore built into them the most intricate alarippu-s, teermanam-s and tillana-s that his teacher can compose. His patrapravesam as Leelaavati (Prahlada Charitram) begins with a strenuous tiraseela (curtain) composition replete with mandi adavu-s. This is followed by a chatusra alarippu and a teermanam. Nagarajan goes through this demanding introductory scene with precision and practised ease.
Nagarajan’s abhinaya is subtle and restrained. In the sequence where Leelavati uses her charms to deflect Hiranyakashipu from the wrong path, he displays sringara in all its nuances. His portrayal of Chandramati (Harischandra) a noble queen, mother and devoted wife, shows a deep understanding of a women’s psyche. This is an achievement for one so young, considering especially that this role makes a heavy demand on his ability to sustain the sthayi bhava of karuna as the queen faces her travails. Nagarajan is also well-versed in music and nattuvangam, making him the pride of his doting guru. His approach to Bhagavata Mela is serious and his religious fervour gives an intensity to his performance. He is a dancer to be watched.
Gopu and Kannan are the two others who enliven the natakams. Neither of them is a dancer but they represent the natya or dramatic element where articulate dialogue delivery is an essential element.
G. N. Chandramouli, who has re-joined the troupe after six years, is another youngster who is a well-trained dancer. He has a fine stage presence, and is impressive as Krishna or Siva.
There are, too, young boys like R. Gopi, a dancer-actor who can deliver dialogues as well as do comedy roles, or charming female impersonations. At 19, he has also to work for his living, and squeeze in a study programme to better his job prospects.
The high point of Bhagavata Mela Natakam is music. A senior contemporary of the Trinity of Carnatic music, Melattur Venkatrama Sastri has succeeded in extracting every ounce of rasa from the raga-s. The splendiferous rakti raga-s becomes an ideal medium for the lucid Telugu lyrics. An astounding variety of literary devices like daru, dwipada, sisapadya, prose and jati are combined imaginatively. The music has instant appeal.
The compositions- kriti-s, pada-s, etc. - mostly in madhya laya or vilamba laya, are simple in structure and effective. Some kritis-s are instantly identifiable as the model for the more popular kritis composed by the Trinity. For example, the mettu of Sree Rajagopala in Kurinji, composed for Parvati Kalyanam and that of Sree Venugopala composed in the same raga by Muthuswami Dikshitar are identical. In the same drama, a piece in Keeravani is identical to Thyagaraja’s Kaligiyuntey. One does wonder which came first, the mango or the seed?
The exposition of a dance-drama in its complete version lasts about four hours. A contingent of five singers takes on the responsibility of non-stop singing. There are two main singers, others specialise in singing an introductory alapana or the dwipada-s only, as they are not bound by complicated rhythm or dance. The extra singers help in maintaining the momentum and support the long repetitions during elaborate sanchari-s excuted by the dancer. The orchestra usually includes a mridanga, a flute and a violin or harmonium.
The music section of the Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam is led by the veteran Thanjavur L. Venkatesa Iyengar. He has been associated with the group for the past 30 years. Age has diminished only his stamina; he has retained his voice as well as chaste fidelity to tradition. Iyengar was recently felicitated by rasika-s and students for completing 50 years of service to music.
The major responsibility of singing for the natakams rests with S. Radhakrishnan, an established teacher and a concert musician. Radhakrishnan has been associated with Melattur and Saliyamangalam natakams for over 30 years. His old-school rendering of these kriti-s is in refreshing contrast to contemporary trends. He is able to sustain the sense of drama and devotional fervour which are integral to the whole experience.
N. Srinivasan, Sanskrit scholar of the Saraswati Mahal Library, is a Harikatha exponent. His bell-like voice has a true ring and he sings the dwipada-s with clarity and expression. K. Sivasubramanian is another stalwart member of the music team, while a recent addition to it is Mannargudi V. Muthuraman who has a voice rich in emotive power.
Veteran flutist T. R. Navaneetham, and N. Saktivadivel, son of Morsing Natesa Pillai, lend solid support to the team.
S. Viswanathan, a Telugu scholar recently retired from the Saraswati Mahal Library, is serving as a guide, advising on correct pronunciation and clarifying lyrics and dramatic situations.
N. Kailasam, another nephew of Subbier, actually controls the entire production in his capacity as Director. He is well-versed in music and dance and has a thorough knowledge of all the natakams.
A word about the costumes and the make-up would be appropriate at this juncture. T. K. Venguduswamy has several years of experience in make-up, costume and stage settings. He has with economy and innovation produced the special effects required by dance-dramas like Prahlada Charitram, Harischandra and Parvati Kalyanam.
There is a danger that the natakams will lose certain features and specialities because of the eagerness of the Sangam to earn acceptance of the modern, urban audience. Konangi, the buffoon, is important to the natakam but has lost its earlier importance. Today he merely circumbulates the stage with a few steps, but earlier, he was probably expected to conduct a conversation with the Sutradhara to introduce the story. It is essential that the natakams maintain their completeness. Kathakali and Kuchipudi have yielded to urban impatience and truncated their performances, losing several valuable aspects in the bargain. Bhagavata Mela Natakams are not performances meant for entertainment; their strong emphasis on religious rituals is an important aspect, as is audience participation. The dancers are not professional performers. One cannot expect polished, sophisticated presentations from them. However, the spirit that enthuses them to learn, rehearse and perform pervades the atmosphere, and touches the spectator’s heart. The dancers, after all, are not on the stage hankering after fame or money. They do not get paid for their trouble. The musicians, who are paid, are professionals but they often sacrifice other lucrative engagements like recordings to be a part of the festival. The entire team lives together like one family for a month.
The main problem they face, besides insufficient finance, is the non-availability of young boys who are willing to learn the roles and commit themselves to the natakams. There are two parameters which have to be fulfilled by aspirants- they must be Brahmins and must be natives of Melattur itself. This is now being fulfilled by recruiting young boys to play Prahlada, the roles of his playmates and other children in the various plays. But there is no systematic indoctrination or training facility available right now. The same is true of musicians. A second line of vocal support must be trained to ensure continuity. Thus is becoming increasingly difficult as the sheer volume and variety of texts to be learnt is formidable. The stamina and staying power required to sing for four hours every evening for a week can be generated only be devotion and dedication to the cause.
This year, the central Sangeet Natak Akademi has enhanced its annual adhoc grant. In recognition of the importance of the Bhagavata Mela festival held in Bombay in January, SNA gave a generous grant of 25.000 rupees to pay honorarium to all the artists. The scholarship awarded by the Government to deserving youngsters was given to S. Nagarajan, the most promising performer. The urgent need is to generate additional funds, hold down expenses and become self-sufficient. Furthermore, the troupe needs more performance opportunities to ensure that the members are reactivated and feel motivated enough to keep the tradition alive.
The Myth of Narasimha’s Mask
The most striking factor in the Bhagavata Mela Natakam is the mask of Narasimha used in the climactic scene of Prahlada Charitram.
Although there is rich epigraphic evidence concerning dancers, musicians and instrumentalists who play a predominant role in religious practices, definite data regarding drama has not been available. Drama as an art-form is believed to have grown out of the primitive rituals. This is true of India as well as of Greece, Japan and the European countries. “In the Dionysian cult, the main feature of worship is a procession of dancers intoxicated by wine and wearing animal masks” says Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao. “Wearing a mask symbolised that the dancer was possessed by that animal or god whose mask he was wearing.”
The mask of Narasimha in Melattur is believed to be the one worshipped by Venkatarama Sastri. It has a cream-coloured face and a crown that is decorated with the typical Tanjavur mosaic pattern of small gold, green and red triangles. Fairly large and imposing, it is kept in a glass cupboard near the sanctum sanctorum. On the morning of Narasimha Jayanti, the actors participate in a special prayer at the Vadaraja Perumal temple. After the various ablutions are offered to the utsava moorti, the mask is worshipped with flowers and arati of camphor. In the evening, the mask is brought to the venue in a small procession carrying the idol and placed directly opposite the stage at the far end. A few minutes before the climax, a trusted person carries the covered mask to the green room where the actor wears it. The actor’s privilege of wearing the mask has been handed down to him by his ancestors. He observes a fast during the day and once the mask is worn, is transformed into an apparition full of fury. He tries to break past the wary helpers who hold him back with the help of sashes strung around his waist and arms.
This is a phenomenon that never fails to capture the imagination of the devotees. The lives of the people of Melattur are irrevocably intertwined with Narasimha, and they believe the deity blesses them in spirit every year by entering the body of the actor.
Many weird tales are related by the locals.
· “He dragged four of us who were holding him, as well the heavy throne on which he was seated, right to the middle of the stage. Some strange power seems to have given him the extraordinary strength to do so”!
· “We could once hear four different voices emanating from him.”
· “The only palliative for Narasimha is jaggery water or paanagam. It has to be made by one who has been purified by a ritual bath. No one else must taste or touch it. Once a child had unknowingly tasted it. The god would not accept it. We could not calm him at all until a fresh pitcher was prepared.”
· Only a few years ago, a real-life enmity ended on the stage, when the Swami actually tore open his opponent’s torso. This happened in Soolamangalam where the deity is an ugra deivatam or an angry one. Ever since then we avoid a direct confrontation in Melattur.
An eyewitness of this horrifying incident shudders as he recalls it.
This time, the actor who played Swami was in convulsion even as the procession led him back to the temple with loud chanting of “Jai Narasimha, Sree Narasimha”. The mask was reverentially taken out and replaced in the cupboard and its doors shut firmly. The man had fainted in the meanwhile, and after being fed more paanagam, he came out of the trance totally innocent of what had transpired.
In Saliyamangalam, the mask is much smaller and predominantly white. The mask is kept at the home of a bhagavatar where it is worshipped along with idols of Rama, Seeta and Lakshmana. Although there is direct confrontation between Narasimha and Hiranyakasipu, much care is taken to prevent any untoward incident.
Prahlada Charitram In Saliyamangalam
Saliyamangalam lies 15 kilometres east of Tanjore on the way to Nagore. The dance-dramas performed here were written here by one Panchanatha Bhagavatar, who is also credited with Vipranarayana, Rukmangada, Rukmini Kalyanam and Seeta Kalyanam, besides Prahlada Charitram for presenting an intensely ritualistic ritualistic version of which the village has become has become famous. The local deity is Sreenivasa who appears here with his consorts Bhoodevi and Sreedevi.
The bus stops on the main road and a 10-minute walk on the dusty dirt-path takes us through the village to the agraharam. We were late by a few minutes and we could hear the music on the loudspeakers long before we actually reached the enclave. The narrow street was crammed with an assorted audience of men, women and children seated on the ground. On either side were houses built wall-to-wall, their Malabar-tiled roofs sloping right down over the pyol (tinnai) on which some were sleeping and others sprawled in various positions of languorous ease. All eyes were riveted on the stage where an elderly man held the hands of a little boy lost behind an enormous Ganesa mask. He conducted him through his mandatory steps. The stage was the far end of the street, directly opposite the utsava moorti or processional deity placed at this end.
The play commenced with the actor (S. Srinivasan), clad in a white dhoti and a kurta, rendering abhinaya to the traditional sabdam. The sabdam in a Bhagavata Mela Natakam is one of the preliminary compositions which introduce the play, the composer and the story to be enacted that night. It is sung in Kambhoji, with jati phrases in between stanzas, identical to the item performed by today’s Bharatanatyam dancer.
The stage was pathetically small, and had a red curtain which was pulled across after every scene. The major portion of the stage was occupied by a large contingent of vocalists, the nattuvanar, the mridanga player, the other accompanists and the prompters. The centre stage was blocked by an old rexine-covered two-seater sofa which doubled as a throne for the king. Only the main actors, portraying Hiranyakasipu, Prahlada and Leelavati, wore full make-up. The others wore costumes and no make-up. There were no wings at the side; the pyol of the adjoining house served as a green room.
Strangely, none of this apparently unsophisticated ambience distracted the viewer or dampened the general spirit of the performance. Even when the nattuvanar who was conducting the drama got up and walked away for an inevitable break, the dancer enacting Leelavati was prodded and prompted on by others in the orchestra to complete the sequence.
A few interesting observations. The kattiakaran- the person who announces and then introduces at length the various characters in a play- announced the arrival of king with the final warning in Hindi: “Maharaja Hiranyakasipu padhaar rahen hai.” An interlude featuring a panchangakarar (almanac reader) is a peculiarity of the Saliyamangalam tradition. The dialogue was spoken in Tamil. A few jokes served as comic relief, and touched current topics like water scarcity. These were highly appreciated by the audience.
While the music contained mainly Ghana raga-s, the lyrics had a fair sprinkling of colloquial phrases. One song in particular seemed very familiar, but I could not place it for some time. When I did, I was heartily amused. The mettu was the same as that for the unforgettable super hit from the Tamil film ‘Miss Mary’- Brindavanattil Nanda kumaran….!
The Saliyamangalam natakam was dominated by the role of the evil king. Powerfully played by Srinivasan, it was a case of near total identification with the role. In his portrayal, one could discern his deep understanding of the scriptures and tireless dedication. The play kept him on his feet, in a suspended state of high strung emotion, for almost six hours. Tall and well-built, he wore his demon-fangs and wielded his club like a natural. His stentorian voice ideally suited the character, and eloquent lines in Telugu and Sanskrit were a high point that night; he ad-libbed most of the time. His sense of drama, ability to sustain a mood, and realistic acting kept alive the interest of the audience.
The Bhagavata Mela tradition is among the few surviving links to ancient theatre
· The compositions, music and dance as rendered are of very high order.
· Only males portray the female roles
· All dance-actors are amateurs engaged in different professions in different parts of India, one even abroad. They assemble at Melattur at their own expense
· As the nataka-s are presented on the stage, the viewers and the actors lose their individual identities as they are transformed into devotees surcharged with emotion praying for the blessings of Sree Sri Narasimha.
Leelavati, as expected, had several Bharatanatyam sequences, but did not have a tiraseela (curtain) entry. The female roles need especially careful make-up application, which was lacking in this case. But the actor acquitted himself adequately in his role. The climax of the drama occurred when Hiranyakasipu tauntingly shouted, “Prahlada, is your Narayana in this?” while striking a pillar angrily. “Yes, my father”, replied Prahlada. Here, actually everything came to a sudden stop, an anti-climax. The curtain was pulled across, an interval was announced, and the audience shuffled to its feet. It was 4 am. All those who were sleeping were shaken awake. One was puzzled by a slurry of mysterious activity.
The members of Srinivasan’s family who were conducting the festival purified themselves with a bath. The lady of the house then prepared several litres of paanagam, beverage of water mixed with jaggery and spice. The audience gathered on either side, leaving a long narrow passage from the stage to the shrine where the utsava-moorti was kept.
Meanwhile the musicians standing in a group at the far end began to sing the ‘stambha strotra’, eulogising Vishnu and enumerating various legends of the miracles wrought by him. For almost an hour Prahlada danced, unmindful of the confusion all around him. There was an air full of expectancy. Many devotees had brought white garlands as offerings to Narasimha-swami. A four-board partition was held together by a few men and the actor who did this role was quickly led into this enclosure. Prahlada continued to dance, walking up and down the passage, addressing the idols in front of him. Now Hiranyakashipu joined him and loudly berated Vishnu.
The story has it that Narasimhaswami appeared at twilight, so now there was a slight lull in the activity, as the actors waited for the auspicious moment. Subsequently, two helpers held up a two-piece plywood pillar in front of the enclosure. The moment had come.
Several things miraculously happened at the same time. The garlands hung over the top of the enclosure disappeared, causing some to exclaim: “Swami has worn the garlands.” Fireworks were set off, the pillar split open and, amidst smoke and spiritual chanting, Narasimhaswami rushed forth. A truly hair-raising moment. Dressed in voluminous white skirting, a white Narasimha mask, and several garlands, the actor thrashed about uncontrollably. A small stool was brought and he was helped to it down. Four men stood cautiously by his side, holding him down.
The musicians split into two groups, and a wordy duel between Hiranyakasipu and his divine nemesis commenced. Unfortunately, the words and the music were quite lost in the general noise. As the audience settled down to get a better view, the two walked backwards and forwards with an air of belligerence. The spectators were quite involved and transported into an esoteric trance by the proximity of the other-worldly figures in their midst. The vain king became bolder and bolder. Fighting the men who held him back, Hiranykashipu suddenly drew his sword and lunged dangerously close to his weird-looking enemy. Someone quickly took the sword out of his hands. Now the king demanded his club and, swinging it, showered stinging remarks and unveiled threats with reckless bravado. Most of the dialogue was based on the various myths.
Finally, the distance between the antagonists was reduced and the man-lion grabbed the king and literally dragged him to his seat. An actor dressed as Bhooma Devi stayed close to him and the three were enveloped in a white dhoti concealing them for a minute or so. When the screen was removed, the king had fainted and was now carried away. From the mouth of the mask hung red ‘intestines’. The entire audience chanted, “Jai Narasimha, Sree Narasimha”. Strains of Bhoopalam played on the nagaswara floated melodiously in the air. Arati was shown, and pots of paanagam were fed to the swami, still convulsing with fury. The crowd dispersed. It was six O’clock in the morning.