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.