Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Bhagavata Mela in Melattur -Natya Vidya Sangam

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)

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 Bhagavatulu
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 music
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.

Some Facts
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.
Prahlada was a perfect anti-thesis of his father. In a role that is almost as demanding, the 14-year old actor remained serene and calm. Not a muscle moved on his face, but he wore an intensely spiritual aura about him.

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.

Saturday, 15 July 2017


                          By Indu Raman- Hon.Chairman, Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam

This article was first published in the Festival Souvenir of Fine Arts Society, Chembur in 1994. This Society conducts excellent music, dance and drama performances throughout the year. The Seminars conducted by them are also noteworthy for their choice of themes and the well-known artistes who participate in them. F.A. Society sponsored a performance of Sakuntala Marathi Bhagavata Mela Natakam in 2002. Smt. Prabha Atre was the Chief Guest.

Bhagavata Mela is a unique blend of spiritualism, music, dance and drama. It is a rich art form of Tamil Nadu incorporating the prolific literary and musical outpourings of the Thanjavur region in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although we know that the form probably existed since the rule of the Cholas, what we see today are natakams composed just two hundred years ago.
 Bhagavatas are devotees whose mission in life is to spread bhakti through music and dance. They enact mythological stories to entertain and elevate the lay audience. All Bhagavata Mela artistes are male Brahmins. The dancers are trained in classical music and dance. They are well versed in the shastras and enact the plays in accordance with the rules laid down in the Natya Shastra. They don the female roles with grace and dignity. Melam is the ensemble of actors, dancers and musicians who form the troupe.
Bhagavata Mela is associated with Narsimha Jayanti. The most important play is that of Prahlada, who is considered the ideal Bhakta or devotee. Significantly, this play where Vishnu’s incarnation as the man-lion is celebrated, is performed as an annual ritual. A mask of Narsimha is worshipped in the local temple all the year round and taken out only on this occasion. The actor who plays Narsimha Swamy wears the mask at the climax of the story. The actor has to observe purifactory rituals and facts for two days prior to this moment. As the demon king Hiranyakashipu berates and provokes him, the actor with the mask becomes transformed with uncontrollable frenzy. The villagers believe that the spirit of Narsimha is invoked through this performance. This tradition exists in several villages around Thanjvur. Notably, Melattur, Saliyamangalam and Oothukadu. Although Melattur has become synonymous with Bhagavata Mela, Saliyamangalam also continue the tradition as a ritual. In Melattur, the Bhagavatas have developed the artistic potential of the natakams composed by Melattur Venkatrama Sastri. Today, the two troupes of the village present all ten plays :
1)Prahlada Charitram 2) Rukmini Kalyanam 3) Markandeya 4) Usha Parinayam  5) Harichandra  6) Seetarama Kalyanam  7) Parvathi Kalyanam 8) Kamsavadam  9) Dhruva Charithram 10) Hari Haravilasam.
The lyrics are composed in a variety of literary and musical forms like Dwipada, Seesapada, Daru, Shabdams, Gandha Padhyam, Churnika etc. There are dialogues for certain characters. The language is Telugu which was the royal language even when the Marathas came to power they adopted the language for their literature and music.
 Every family contributes in kind or cash towards the annual ritual. Most Brahmin families also encourage at least one male member to participate in the natakam. As long as royal support existed, the art thrived and every village where the tradition existed conducted Bhagavata Mela performances on a grand scale. Since 1885, the end of the imperial Maratha rule, this art too has suffered. For many years, it was reduced to having a simple performance during the annual Narsimha Jayanti festival. In most villages it disappeared completely. Today, the younger generation has left the village to seek education and employment elsewhere. There are very few Brahmin families in the villages, so participants are not easy to find. The native sons do return to the village every year without fail to perform during the festival. A special stage is erected, with a complete public address system and lights run with a generator. The future of this tradition continues to be bleak for want of support from the Government and philanthropic organisations.
It is imperative that a substantial corpus fund be generated to conduct the annual festival. It has been proposed to construct a low- cost artistic stage where the festival can be conducted.This structure will also house the rooms for music and dance, the green room, a library and guest rooms for musicians to come and stay each year.
Our country’s art heritage deserves to be protected and promoted.


These are my first observations about the city when I visited it in 1993 which was also my first visit to Melattur. There were so many changes from my childhood visits when I remember roads being less crowded.

What does the name Tanjore mean to you? Glass paintings? Gem-studded icons of a wide-eyed Krishna? Carved metal plates. The Big temple. Bharata Natyam. Yes, Tanjore is all this and much more. The city is traditional home of music and   musical instruments. Tanjore clay dolls, handloom silk, superb pith artefacts, and exotic garlands made of spices are other popular cottage industries found here.
A historical capital of many dynasties, it reached its pinnacle of glory during the tenth century when the Chola kings ruled here for three hundred years. Raja Raja Chola encouraged arts like sculpture and painting. The city resounded with tinkling bells and melodious notes of dancers and musicians. Scholars from distant lands came here seeking prosperity and fame.
The bustling city is today overcrowded with bicycles and three-wheelers, auto -rickshaws which weave in and out of the main streets. Add to this the super-efficient bus transport system which ensures a bus-a-minute to take you to anywhere within the state.  The best way to absorb the real flavour of the quaint town is to take the cycle rickshaw and go for a leisurely drive through narrow winding streets in the interiors. In fact, the pace is so slow and the streets so narrow you can window-shop from your perch on the rick. Your nostrils are assailed with the fragrance of pure distilled filter-coffee wafting from little wayside tiffin-rooms. You can hear the sizzle as the dosa crisps on the steaming griddle. The goldsmiths tinker away, fashioning exquisite gem-studded jewellery; craftsmen skilfully carve out the dome of a Tanjore veena; the tap-tap of a dance master’s thattukazhi (baton) floats down from one open window, fragments of music from another. As evening nears, the rich sound of a nadaswaram mingles with temple bells. It is aarati time in the hundreds of temple and shrines that greet you at every corner.
The men and women of these parts are old fashioned in dress and lifestyle-an anachronism in the electronic age. Their eyes are bright though and never seem to let you forget that it is for nothing that they enjoy the legendary reputation of being the home of the most intellectual brains in the country.
You need an entire morning to take in the magnificent Brihadeeswara temple- a marvel of 10th century Chola architecture. A 200 feet high gopuram is crowned with a cupola weighing 80 tons. The shadow of the gopuram never falls on the ground at any time of the day. The tower is intricately carved with figures of gods, goddesses, dancers, kings and warriors. A world heritage monument, protected by the UNESCO, the temple is well preserved. Take a walk around the vast precincts early in the morning before the sun heats up the flagstones on the ground. You cannot wear footwear inside. Pointing to visitors who were prancing around on one foot unable to bear the blistering heat of the stones under the blazing noon sun, our guide Raja quipped, “Ah, madam! Everyone who visits Tanjore must learn Bharata Natyam or do the Tanjore Tango”. An enormous Nandi, the Bull, strikes a majestic pose guarding the entrance to the shrine.

The royal Durbar Hall outside the palace lies in magnificent ruins. There is an eerie atmosphere and as you take in the crumbling frescoes and tarnished canopy you can conjure up the glorious scenes of the Maratha Emperors in the silken regalia.
The Saraswati Mahal Library next door houses around 44000 ancient manuscripts on palm leaf and paper, written in several languages and antiquated scripts. An art gallery displays the best of Chola bronzes and stone sculptures.
A Danish missionary Rev. Father Schwartz spent several years of his life here as tutor to the King Sarabhoji. A church built in his honour in 1779 stands as an impressive evidence of the catholicity of his royal student.
An ideal time to visit Tanjore is December through March, the coolest months when the brimming Kaveri flows like a strand of silver ore. If it is January it must be Thiruvaiyaru. Join the multitudes which gather to sing at the shrine of Sadguru Tyagaraja on the occasion of his Aradhana. But you have braved the heat and do land up here in May, do not miss the marvellous performance of Bhagavata Mela natakams in Melattur, a village about sixteen kilometres away. These dance-dramas are part of the annual worship at the local temple. a 500-year old tradition, all the actors are male Brahmin priests who tell stories from Indian mythology.

The school geography books call Tanjore the rice-bowl of India. But this one city offers Indian history in a capsule. Every culture has left a stamp. Chola art, the Devadasi community, who alone have nurtured Bharata Natyam through the ages, Tamil, Marathi and Telugu literature; church steeples, masjid minarets and temple towers which rise together into the skyline. What kind of stamp will our electronic age leave behind on Tanjore?

They Are Avvai Shanmugis-Kumudam feature February 1997

They are Avvai Shanmughis- Kumudam Feature 1997
by V. Chandrasekharan, Kumudam February 13, 1997

The editors from this popular Tamil magazine were curious about this tradition and the waves it was making during the 150th Tyagaraja Aradhana at Thiruvaiyaru. This is a translation from the Tamil feature. Avvai Shanmughi is a reference to the actor Shanmugham who donned the role of Avvaiyar , the poetess who was a devotee of Murugan. The actor Kamal Hassan later made a Tamil film with this name and Chachi 420 in Hindi, where he transforms himself into a woman to take care of his children as their nanny.

It was an old-fashioned house. With a courtyard, a threshold. It was midday. In that longish room at least twenty men were engaged in a chat session , mouth full of betel leaves. Many of them were over thirty. After dozing for a short while, they told us, “Do come for the natakam at seven tonight.” Then they left in a hurry.
A great crowd had gathered at Panchanadiswarsar temple. The natakam began five minutes before time. Amidst the excitement, the characters were introduced. Kings and beautiful princesses walked around the stage with a spring in their step for the next four hours, leaving us amazed. All those attractive young girls were the young men with whom we had chatted that afternoon! They had transformed themselves completely into women in gait, costume and mannerisms. Acting female roles was something that came to them as inheritance ages ago, not just yesterday or today.
They are all members of Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam. Today’s generation of artistes who have preserved the art of the ancient dance-drama tradition called Bhagavata Mela.
Melattur is a prosperous village about 17kms from Thanjavur. Dependent wholly on agriculture, the forty or so families here have been nurturing Bhagavata Mela from generation to generation. They are not doing this as a profession but with a determination not to allow this art to die. In today’s terms, they are paying a high price for this. But they are not prepared to worry about that.
They had recently come to Thiruvaiyaru to perform coinciding with the 150th Aradhana celebrations of Sadguru Tyagaraja. As we entered the house they were staying in, they were hotly discussing the play “Rukmini Kalyanam” which was to be performed that night in the Thiruvaiyaru temple. Their hands and eyes were expressive, as though doing abhinaya even as they spoke.

“One section of scholars say that Bhagavata Mela originated from Andhra. We are doing research on this for several years now,” began Bharatam R. Mahalingam, one of the more important members, being Treasurer and Director of the Natya Vidya Sangam.
“ We have indications that this musical dance-drama existed since the ninth century. This art which is performed by men, that too Brahmins, was called Arya Koothu at that time. Assam, Kerala, Andhra each had its own tradition. In Tamil Nadu it developed into Bhagavata Mela. The plays we perform now were written by Venkatrama Sastri who lived around the year1800, says Mahalingam, outlining the history of Bhagavata Mela.
“In the beginning, we performed the natakams in the Varadaraja Perumal temple in Melattur every year in the month of May. In 1964, our Natya Vidya Sangam was registered as a society under the Societies Act. Do you know who helped us through the formalities and rendered great help? V. D. Swamy, actor Arvind Swamy’s father. He is from Melattur.  He would often say that we must not confine our art only to this village without exposing it to the outside world. He took us to Madras and made us perform in many sabhas. So we came out of Melattur to perform only after 1970.
Even today, they prefer to perform in temples. ”It is only in temples that we can expect devotion(Bhakti). We will not agree to perform in an auditorium with the audience eating popcorn and guzzling cold drinks as they watch. Even if there is such a necessity, we prefer an open -air theatre, says Indu Raman. She is the Chairman of the Natya Vidya Sangam. Born in Thanjavur and settled in Bombay. Indu Raman is the person who has become the patron of Bhagavata Mela after V.D. Swamy. In fact, she has become one with this ancient art.

They perform Venkatramier’s Prahlada, Harishchandra again and again and are very particular about not deviating even a little from their avowed resolution of performing only Melattur Venkatramier’s repertoire of ten compositions. Once on the stage they get into the skin of the character they play, sometimes resulting in uncontrollable incidents. On both sides! In our natakam Prahlada Charitram Narasimha does not kill Hiranyakashipu. Do you know why? Many years ago there was an incident.
It was the climax scene when Narasimha is to kill Hiranyakashipu. The actor became frenzied and began to really pound him. The audience further incited him shouting, “Kill him, don’t leave him” 
The actor died on the stage in a pool of blood. It is said that this incident left the region shocked. From that time, the slaying of Hiranyakashipu was never enacted. “Similarly, the crowds have reacted to the cruel villain and have tried to attack him. We have had to drag them away and consoled them, says Indu laughing.

Another significant fact about Bhagavata Mela is that the actors do not accept money as payment for performances. Only the musicians and instrumentalists are paid.  Most of the participants live in and around Thanjavur and Melattur. Those in medium jobs spend gift money in purchasing cosmetics and costumes for the natakams. All the forty families do not differentiate between home and the stage. “ Most of wedding saris have been given for the plays. My nose-ring and gold belt (odiyanam) were also gifted to them. Can you guess how many nine-yard saris I have torn to be used for costumes?” This by the wife of one of the actors who specialised in female roles.
Seventy-year old Venguduswamy, the make-up artiste, has been working for the Bhagavata Mela for over thirty years. His method of applying make-up is extraordinary. While it was said that it took five hours for Kamal Hassan to apply make-up for his role in Avvai Shanmugi, here it only takes one-and a half hours to get ready twenty actors. Of these five are female characters. Just imagine, he transformed a young man Gopi into Rukmini in twenty minutes.
In the midst of the program it was announced that a Chief Guest would honour the artistes. He garlanded all the actors and when he came to those in female costumes, he hesitated and was confused. He gave the garlands in their hands, and they accepted, smiling at the confusion.



Then and Now -Bhagavata Mela in the Past Hundred Years

Changes in presentation, venue, costume and makeup.
Lecture Demonstration at Natyakala Conference Krishna Gana Sabha 1994 Chennai
 In 1994, I was invited to participate in a Lecture-demonstration on the changing trends in Bhagavata Mela Natakams. I was honorary Chairperson of Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam. The Convenor was Shri V. P. Dhananjayan and on the jury were eminent gurus like Peria Sarada Teacher from Kalakshetra and Dr. Arudra. This was the first four-day festival in Chennai. There was a performance of Parvathi Kalyanam inside the Kapaliswara Temple precincts which was attended by thousands who were watching this traditional dance-theatre for the first time. Another lec-dem by the Sangam was scheduled at the Music Academy’s annual conference. This is the text of my lecture.

 Bhagavata mela is a regional dance-theatre form of Tamil Nadu. Today we shall attempt a study of the changes that have taken place in this tradition during the period 1855 to 1995.
Bhagavatas or Bhagavatulu are devotees who make it their mission in life to spread Bhakti through music, dance and storytelling.
Mela is an ensemble of dancers, actors, musicians and instrumentalists. Natakams are dance-dramas based on the ancient treatise on dramaturgy, Bharata’s Natya Sastra. All the elements of drama, mime and movement, dance and dialogue, lyrics and lore are found in this art form. The dance closely resembles Bharata Natyam as seen today. The dramas are based on stories from Indian mythology and today are restricted to the natakams written by Melattur Venkatrama Sastri (1800-1875). Bhagavata Mela today continues the tradition that all participants are male Brahmins and natives of the village and the art is an offering to the temple deity. If we look at the chronological map of this art in the last hundred years we find that it peaks and dips according to the amount of patronage it received.
I looked into U. V. Swaminatha Iyer’s autobiography as an authentic source for descriptions of Thanjavur in the last century. There was not a single mention of Bhagavata Mela although we believe it flourished in five villages around his birthplace. He mentions just once that the Telugu Brahmins of his village were well versed in music.
When I then went back into the detailed history of this art, the reason for this lacuna emerged. The Maratha rule ended in 1855, the year Swaminatha Iyer was born. Bhagavat mela was discontinued for 27 years till 1882. Even then only Prahlada was performed as a ritual during Narasimha Jayanti. Meanwhile Melattur Natesa Iyer was born in 1865. From 1895 when Natesa Iyer was above 30 years of age to 1931 Bhagavata Mela peaked again. After his death in 1935, performances were totally discontinued till Balu Bhagavthar took up the cymbals again in 1938 along with V. Ganesa Iyer. The art survived but was still languishing for want of support. From 1951 to 1966, E.Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi took up the art and introduced several refinements with regard to music, dance and presentation. Much publicity was given by other scholars like Mohan Khokar who also did considerable work for the art. Bhagavatha Mela continued, now despite intense hardship. A split in the group has proved providential in the long run though some like to think otherwise. A new set of youngsters have been inducted and where there were only ten dancers there are now twenty. Is this not a historical fallout? In 1984, Balu Bhagavathar died and the troupe led by him did suffer a setback. In the last ten years, P. K. Subbier and his brother Ramalinga Iyer along with well-wishers like S. Sethuraman continued with performances in Melattur. The legendary mridangam vidwan Thanjavur Bavu Pillai and his sons B. Herambanathan and B. J. Bharathy are now are associated with Bhagavata Mela. Under Bharatam Mahalingam (Mali) and V. Kailasam both nephews of P. K. Subbier, the art is being reinforced and reconstructed. Mali has undertaken several projects to ensure that Bhagavat Mela will not suffer again. I appeal to art lovers who have now heard the saga of survival of these brave Bhagavatulu to give them a hand-(Applause) a helping hand , ladies and gentlemen.
After this brief glance at the sporadic bursts of Bhagavata Mela history we will see how things have actively changed in this little village.
The Venue
We shall first consider the changes that the venue has undergone in the past 100 years. The performances were held in front of the temple. The spectators sat on either side, probably on the pyol of the houses, as the dancers and the musicians walked up and down about 70 or 80 feet in a clearing among the people. Oil lamps were the only illumination then. Later came the petromax lamps. The plays always began around 9 or 10 at night and lasted till dawn. A temporary stage was built sometime early in the 1950’s for the annual performance. There were no curtains, but the stagehands would hold a cloth across for an important character’s entry, if necessary.
In 1955, it became an accepted practice to seat the musicians on the left. But there was no sanctity attached to the venue as such. It has been performed at other venues in the village-for example at a spot where it was believed Venkatrama Sastri’s house stood. And once in the garden behind the Siva temple.
In 1964 an acre and half of agricultural land was gifted by industrialist V. D. Swamy. Every year a stage with curtains, lights and microphones is erected. A long pandal for the spectators is also built. At the far end of this pandal a shrine is built and the processional idol of Varadaraja Perumal is brought out with ceremony and placed there during the performance. It is believed that this land was once the precincts of a temple dedicated to Sri Lakshmi  Narasimha, the chief deity of Bhagavata Mela. In fact, the idol of Narasimha found here was installed in 1922 in the main Varadaraja temple by Melattur Natesa Iyer.

The legendary actor G. Swaminatha Iyer who is considered one of the finest actors, continues to guide his son S. Natarajan whose group continues to perform on a stage constructed in front of the temple.
Prahlada Charitram will be continued to be presented only at Melattur because of the religious rituals that are part of the play. But we at the Naya Vidya Sangam have agreed that once a year we could perform outside the village provided the ambience is suitable. A modern proscenium theatre is not suitable for such a performance. Next- with your help- we hope to construct a low cost artistic stage where performances will be held perhaps more often.
The Orchestra
Today we have four singers, a mridangam, flute and violin. We have a Director V. Kailasam who controls all aspects of the performance. In earlier days, there used to be instruments like Tutti and Mukha veena. Even the mridangam was worn across the shoulders and played standing. For a short while the Veena replaced the above  mentioned instruments followed by the harmonium. Today we have a violin and flute.
Order of The Preliminaries.
The play begins with a Pundarikam as we began today as is the tradition of all Bhajana Sampradaya. This is followed by Konangi, a strange character probably the one who cannot be really described as the traditional buffoon or Vidhushaka. But he inspects the stage, the orchestra and shouts ‘Sadhu, Sadhu’ or quiet, quiet. Then follows the Todaya mangalam establishing the connection with Bhajana Sampradaya. The Ganapathy Patrapravesha with which the Natakam begins has undergone a change. While earlier a boy wearing a Ganapathy mask was led on to the stage, today he dances a few steps before being seated. A gurukal offers an aarati and then leads him back inside.
Next comes the Katiakkaran, the courtier of the king and then the main characters are introduced one by one.
Today we shall perform the Leelavathi Patrapravesham from Prahlada Charitram performed by Nagarajan who is the recipient of the scholarship awarded by the Human Resources Ministry this year. Patrapraveshams are an extended and often the most important part of the play. The stress is on the display of the nature of the character. This gives a strong identification and awards a status according to their importance in the play. The music plays an important role in its choice of raga in order to create the mood. Often the same raga is used each time the character makes an entry. The lyrics of the Patrapravesha daru is cleverly used by the composer to include the stage directions, description of the costume and the movements or abhinaya that the character is expected to do. A special feature of this Patram, Leelavati, the wife of Hiranyakashipu in the play Prahlada Charitram is the entry behind a thiraiseelai or decorative screen.
(Demonstration of Leelavati Patrapravesham)
The Costume
To demonstrate the changes that have taken place in the costume, we have two young girls here. One is dressed in the original Thoyya sari, a kind that the temple idols were decorated with. Then came the cyclecut made famous by the Devadais who danced in the temples many years ago. We have tried to btain original jewellery, sari etc. The makeup, as you can see, was called Aridaram, a reddish powder made of Aconite, a stone. The powder was mixed with coconut oil and apply it on the face. Later they discovered that it was harmful to the skin and therefore discontinued. Now they ask me for Max Factor.
Today the costume is the same as a modern Bharata Natya costume, as you have seen Leelavati wear. I think you will agree with me that the beauty of this costume, the cyclecut is unmatched. Perhaps we should introduce it in Bhagavata Mela.

Prahlada Charitram
The most radical change that has been introduced in Bhagavata Mela is in the last scene of Prahlada Charitram. As many of you are aware, in the last climax scene Narasimhaswamy carries Hiranyakshipu , puts him on his thigh and tears his torso apart with his talons. This scene was also enacted in exactly the same way.
But Bhagavata Mela is unique in that a Narasimha Mask, believed to be worshipped by Melattur Venkatrama Sastri himself is preserved in a glass shelf inside the sanctum of the Varadaraja Perumal temple in Melattur. The actor who plays the role wears the mask first before the climax scene. He has to observe certain rituals including prayers and fasting at least 24 hours prior to this moment.  In this devout mood he wears the mask and becomes transformed and uncontrollable with fury and anger. It is believed that the spirit of Narasimhaswmy  is invoked in him. In the past it has led to violence on the stage. So the practice has been discontinued in Melattur. After the Samvadam, a verbal duel between god and demon, prayers are chanted to appease the god. Aarati is shown and a pot of jaggery water (panagam) is offered.
Another important change that has been introduced is the curtailing of the length of the play. This is a major problem facing arts like Kathakali and Bhagavata Mela in the modern context. The leisurely exposition of anecdotes that are woven into the recital are in fact the richest core of these styles. Some of the artistes are well-versed in the sastras and can get carried away by the music to do elaborate sancharis to every line. Normally the duration is 5 to 6 hours. Every character mentioned in the play was expected to make an appearance. Today we have condensed the plays to 4 hours by judiciously selecting what is vital to the story. Patrapraveshams which collectively consume an hour or more are always to be retained. The most delectable music is always found in this part of the play. To discontinue Patrapraveshams is to dilute Bhagavata Mela. In accordance with Darwin’s theory that though mandescended from monkeys he does not have a tail because of generations of disuse (or misuse) ! In the same way we stand to lose a great chunk of inheritance if we discontinue Patrapravesha darus.
However all restrictions of time are lifted during the festival at Melattur as spontaneity and improvisation on stage is crucial to the development of an artiste. And somebody like R. Mahalingam (Mali) needs to be allowed freedom during a varnam or daru when  Sancharis which flow from his imagination is allowed full rein.
Today the Natya Vidya Sangam follows a policy where we do not perform extracts of a play to suit urban impatience. It has to be performed for four hours. We do not have comic interludes in Tamil as was the practice some years ago.
In lecture demonstrations like this one we perform a scene relevant to the theme. I have mentioned before that all the aspects of dance and drama can be found in Bhagavata Mela. The Melaprapti and Sollukattus for which it is so famous were sung in tune with the music.

Although this practice is still continued, the nattuvannar also recites the theermanams as in a Bharata Natyam performance. In order to demonstrate a contemporary work, a scene from the newly composed play Seetha Kalyanam which was premiered in Melattur this year. Dialogue is an important part of Bhagavata Mela. We have chosen a scene between Viswamitra and Dasharatha after the former asks the king to send Rama to the forest with him. Two aspects must be noted here. One of course is the innovative way the action is composed. Secondly the music is newly composed by our veteran Vidwan L. Venkatesa Iyengar. He has followed the original ragas mentioned in the manuscript, but has used his originality and scholarship and made some changes in raga and tala. With the exception of Prahlada Charitram which is definitely original music, as it has been performed or sung every year and passed down the generations, others may have been composed early this century (1900). Kalyani Ammal, the daughter of Natesa Iyer, has made an invaluable contribution by writing down the notation of the music and scripts accurately which is followed today.
The content of dance has always been high. As some of you are aware, Melattur repertoire is rich in Alarippu, Sabdams , Varnams and Thillanas.
It is no surprise that the natakams have also several such compositions incorporate din them. You can find this mostly in the Patrapraveshams. The dance content is less if there are no competent dancers available at a particular time. But if there are trained dancers in the troupe like we have currently, there is greater scope for dance. The Melattur style is distinctly different with its extensive usage of footwork which is maintained without change.
Many refinements have been introduced in the presentation. Without affecting the quality of the actual dance-or attempting to introduce sophistication. Entries and exits have been worked out to avoid excessive use of curtains.
While we endeavour to maintain tradition, and the artistes and musicians are devout and dedicated, we expect that changes for the better will not compromise or dilute Bhagavata mela.