Saturday, 15 July 2017

BHAGAVATA MELA – A SURVIVOR




                          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.



THANJAVUR MARATHA ROYALTY-LITTLE KNOWN FACTS



An appreciation of the contribution of the Maratha kings of Thanjavur to music, dance, opera  literature, science , temples and monuments.

Every now and then, the subject of Maratha rule in Thanjavur, in the deep south of India, pops up in connection with the once magnificent palace, temples and monuments which are now in ruins, the one-off reports about Bhagavata Mela natakams  or dance compositions. There is more to this dynasty than is commonly known.
Ekoji I, son of Shahaji Bhonsle, was sent to Thanjavur to aid the Nayaks who were fighting to retain their hold but he established his own supremacy and Maratha rule in Thanjavur. In 1676, the Maratha kings gained control over the rich, fertile and culturally active Thanjavur region and till 1855 contributed prolifically to the dance, drama and literature of classical languages, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Marathi. The region was comparatively well-protected from Mughal and foreign invasions, so hundreds of artistes sought refuge in these lush lands.
Maratha soldiers had earned a fine reputation in the armies of the Deccan as they specialized in military tactics, cavalry and administration. They were dependable and fearless.
Thanjavur was then the richest region in the south at that time. The Kaveri delta ensured that the granaries were overflowing and water was available in plenty. The kings left the administration of the land to their elected representatives while they indulged in their scholastic and artistic pursuits. Deeply religious, they regularly went on pilgrimages. Towards the end of their life, Ekoji II and Shahji II renounced the world.
Ekoji I  did not introduce any major changes in the administration and Telugu continued to be the court language. Tamil, Telugu and Marathi were common languages spoken and understood by most of the population. Even today, Thanjavur is the cultural crucible of Tamil, Telugu and Marathi culture which flow freely in the region.

Literature, poetry, music and musical dance-theatre became the focus of the artistic activity during the Maratha regime.  Maratha kings were patrons and were themselves multilingual scholars who contributed to the corpus of the arts. The kings welcomed artistes of all languages. Western music and new instruments were introduced by the royal scholars.

Shahji II is revered by the theatre fraternity in the country as the first to write and stage a formal Marathi play and is honoured as pioneer of Marathi theatre. He gifted land to musicians and Brahmins where they could continue to practice and teach their art and knowledge. He wrote on the science and theory of music. He was a staunch supporter of Brahmin Bhagavata Mela. A chatram in the name of his wife Muktambal, in the form of a chariot, is well-preserved even today.

Tulaja I was a master in astrology and ayurvedic medicine besides being a prolific composer of music and plays. He built a temple to the Varaha or Boar, the third incarnation of Vishnu. Tulaja I’s great contribution to the musical history of our country is the text on musicology, Sangita Saramritam.  Tulaja I’s eldest son Ekoji II succeeded him to the throne. Although he ruled for just a year, he earned everlasting fame and honour with his Marathi Bhagavata Mela natakams like Sakuntala and Kamalambal Parinayam. Ekoji’s wife Sujanbai, who ruled after his death, gifted them a village Ekojirajapuram where the Bhagavatars could live in comfort.  
Tulaja I’s son Pratapasimha’s composed twelve dramas on mythological characters. His son Tulaja II continued the good work by his predecessors.
Amarasimha was a composer of plays in Marathi, and although he was embroiled in the political wars as a ruler, he continued his forays into literary accomplishments.
Sarabhoji II, or Serfoji II, had the benefit of education in western languages and culture. He set up a printing press with Devnagari font in 1805. Printing paper was manufactured in Kumbhakonam, Pandanallur, Tirukattupalli and Mannargudi. Astrology was high on the interest list of the Maratha kings. An almanac was printed every year by the palace. The printing press maintained the special symbols and signs used by astrologers in a separate trunk. The material for the binding and the cloth cover came from the court.
Their inclusive nature and catholic attitude was demonstrated during Moharram for the Muslim population to order a series of bells to ring hourly during the night. This served as an alarm to help the religious followers rise early.
A University was started where students could be taught Arts and fine arts like painting, sculpture and music. Astronomy, Philosophy, and languages like Persian, Arabic, Telugu, Sanskrit and English were introduced. All these came under the common umbrella institution named Nava Vidya.

Sarabhoj II was fascinated by the western violin and introduced it to Indian music for the first time. He studied western music from a London School which sent him lessons regularly. He became adept at composing pieces for the music band which had musicians play rare western instruments.
Classical music and dance was at all time high during this time when artistes were welcomed and honoured at his court. He encouraged sports like wrestling. He encouraged and allotted lands for the sport in the eastern and western suburbs of the region. He enjoyed the trust and faith of the local population and could have easily raised an army to oust the British.
Sarabhoji II was sensitive to the cultural treasures he had accumulated in the Library. They would have been the first targets of the inimical armies and they would be lost to posterity. His love and respect for the arts, native science and literature overruled thoughts of war.
His most significant achievement was the expansion of the Saraswathi Mahal Library, the largest collection of medieval manuscripts and books acquired from all over the world. The Library was the centre of knowledge dispersal and the staff were highly qualified and trained to develop their departments. One section of the staff specialized in law and justice. A formal court dealt with four levels of hearing beginning from the petty cases to the Supreme court for serious cases.
Medical studies were a favourite with Sarabhoji II who was an expert healer of eye infections and diseases.  He ordered for books on the subjects from all over the world and preserved them in the Library. His payments were mostly through barter of his gold and ornaments as he had no princely funds to pay for them.

Tulaja established a Dhanvantri Mahal to manufacture and preserve native medicines. Unani and Ayurvedic systems of medicine were followed. The best quality camphor was manufactured for the use of temples which funded and supported the factory.
Veterinary specialists oversaw the healing and health of horses and elephants.

Effective water management by building dams to save water and open them at regular periods ensured that the farmers never suffered drought.
 As a vassal of the British, Sarabhoji II built a small fort to commemorate the victory of the British at Waterloo in 1815. The Bhonsle rajas built new temples and renovated old ones. The entire pilgrimage route from Thiruvaiyaru to Rameswaram is lined with chatrams or choultries which are rest houses for pilgrims and provided health care facilities. Pigeon-house towers dot the landscape. The pigeon houses were cleaned every day and the droppings were collected as rich manure material.
The splendid royal palace at Thanjavur was built during the previous Nayak’s reign. Spread over a hundred acres, the unique architectural features of the buildings reflect the Nayak’s sensibility with a touch of Roman influence. The Maratha kings expanded the structure, modifying it to suit their needs.
A richly decorated palace at Thiruvarur was built for the royal family’s convenience during their frequent visits to the temple. The kings applied a scientific bent of mind to fine arts and native medicine.
The last Maratha king of his dynasty, Sivaji II, encouraged Tamil and Telugu poetry. He was attracted to Lavanis, a Marathi folk form with catchy rhythms. He honoured artistes and was a talented composer. Besides chatrams, Sivaji II built four road bridges across the river Kaveri which are in use today.
The Thanjavur court had become the nucleus from which Bhagavata Mela, Sadir (classical dance), vocal and instrumental music reached the pinnacle of excellence. Literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, bronzes dance and music were of the highest standards and have been nurtured in this region from the times of the Cholas, the Nayaks and the Marathas.


TANTALISING TANJORE (1993)


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.
7p.m.
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.
Duration
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.
(Demonstration)
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.

Keep Dance Heritage Alive!

Trained in Bharata Natyam from Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra, Chennai (1966-70), Indu has been Teaching, performing and composing new repertoire since 1970. Chairman of Tanjore Brahmin temple dance-theatre Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam (1993-2002), Indu focussed her efforts to preserve, promote the art and sponsored performances of this ancient art in metros, temples, and art conferences. Indu published research papers in art journals and wrote features on music, dance, theatre and film in leading newspapers. Indu Raman was Producer, sponsor, part- choreographer, designer costumes and stage settings, of a new Marathi Bhagavata Mela play ‘Sakuntala’ in 2002. She initiated research on Bhagavata Mela and a publication is under way.



 The history of art is the history of revivals: Samuel Butler


Keep Dance Heritage Alive


 Is the urban audience is losing its sensitivity and taste for the rich, slow and elaborate theatre which is precious dance heritage?  Is this snob attitude adversely affecting the existing traditions causing them to hit the heading –for-extinction list? Ritualistic and classical theatre of the older civilizations like Greece, India & China are losing out rapidly to dazzling slick proscenium presentations of the modern entertainment world.

In the name of sophistication, influenced by snobbish city attitudes, the traditional performers are being influenced to forget their roots and heritage. Are we losing our rich cultural roots and identity?                  

How important is preservation of ancient theatre traditions? How do we ensure it is not lost to posterity? We must not forget that modern presentations are based on  (a) tradition (b) are transient and (c) are not expected to last for centuries.

Time is running out……..

 1. Introduction to Indian Theatre

The ancient civilization of India is recognized as highly developed and sophisticated beyond our comprehension. Theatre is the traditional repository and the treasury that preserves and integrates rituals, rites, folk cultures, and customs. Theatre is the throbbing pulse of countryside India where there is a song and dance for everything from the birth of a child to marriages, harvest, seasons, and even death. The panorama of Indian Theatre is vast and complex and fall into various genre like classical, folk, devotional, and ritual. The rites and rituals enshrined in the Vedas are acted out in everyday life. Hinduism offers three paths, i.e., action, knowledge and devotion that lead to or salvation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death (Karma). Devotion is considered the superior path with music, dance and theatre as the medium through which the actor and the spectator can reach the Divine. Many plays normally reach an ecstatic climax where the entire audience is transformed into a mass of human souls yearning to reach the Higher Self. The spectators get so involved in the event that they transcend their role of mere spectators and become participants.  Every corner of the country has theatre rooted in the temple tradition. Theatre and the arts originate in religion in many countries, more so in this land of many tongues and a hundred alien invasions.
The farmers, wandering nomads and hill-tribes have no formal training but yet can sing and dance in unison. Music and rhythm flows through their veins. But the temple theatre is a strict and formal ground where the training is long and arduous. There are voluminous texts to be learnt and scriptures to be studied. The royal patrons supported the temple and its art and thus theatre enjoyed a high status. Tradition was enforced and change was strongly discouraged. Dance, music and theatre were an integrated artform.  Mythological stories formed the core of the content. The stories served to teach moral principles, educate and unify the community.

2.History.

There is no historical evidence of the origin of dance and theatre in India where the arts are considered to be divine blessings and celestial gods like Shiva and Vishnu are the fountainhead of all inspiration. Sanskrit drama developed around 2nd century BC. It was at its peak till 15th century AD . It continued to influence and spawn a dozen regional variations for another three centuries. While Greek and Roman theatre is known to have existed in 6th and 2nd Century BC respectively, it is interesting to observe that Medieval theatre in Europe began around 9th century AD while Noh of Japan, and Chinese Opera were developed in 15th century AD.

3. Important Aspects of Classical Indian Theatre.

a) The Structure of the Play

Bharata’s Natya Sastra dated 2nd or 3rd century BC is the most comprehensive text on theatre. From the architectural aspects of a theatre structure to body movement, music, costume and inner emotional states, the Natya Sastra covers every aspect of performance. These rules are followed uniformly throughout the country with every regional language and customs lending their hue to create an astonishing variety of theatre and dance forms.  There is a vibrant synergy connecting verbal dialogue and vocal music, pure movement and expressive dance, story-telling and dramatics An ensemble (Mela) of musicians, instrumentalists, dancers, actors come together in a performance. In the multifarious cultural scene in India, theatre forms reveal interesting similarity even between geographically and linguistically distanced styles.

Classical Indian dance has three aspects, Nritta, Nritya and Natya. Nritta is pure dance movement which is performed to preset intricate rhythmic patterns in a song or melody. It does not have significance or meaning, but may be used for such a purpose. Nrtya is interpretative dance used when conveying the meaning of the lyrics or content of a song. It involves a codified language of hand gestures and expression of the face. Natya is the dramatic enactment of the story. A theatre or dance form may combine these aspects in varying ratio. For example, Bharata natyam , a solo dance , has nritta and nritya  in equal proportions, while Kathak may have more emphasis on Nrtta or rhythmic movements and some natya. Bhagavata Mela Natakams have an equal proportion of the three aspects. The essence of Kudiyattam is the astonishing use of the eye with minimal movement and music.

b) Aesthetics: The Concept of Rasa.

The most significant contribution of Indian aesthetics is the analysis of the basic eight sentiments; erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrible, odious and marvelous and the corresponding the eight emotional states; love, humour, sorrow, anger, valour, terror, disgust and astonishment. There are thirty-three transitory states and five vital involuntary states of the mind; Numbness, horripilation, change of voice, tears and loss of consciousness. Perspiration and change of colour may be included in this list.
The Natya Sastra describes Rasa as the emotional response of the spectator to whole theatre experience. Did the actors convey the story effectively? Was their emoting convincing enough to pull at the heart- strings? The text even compares this experience to that of a gourmet who has been served a fine meal. It is not whether he enjoyed the soup, the main course or the dessert more but what the total experience meant to him. A holistic purview of the theatre experience that the spectator carries with him is Rasa.
c) Literature
The classical theatre uses written scripts, thus generating a vast literature tradition in every language and form. These plays have an array of poems in varied metres that are recited, sung, dance or enacted. The literary structure of these plays imparts a richness and texture to the play and is an important built-in artistic device. The scripts offer historic evidence and much information on the social customs of their times. The playwright includes a mention of his family tree, names of his teachers, the date of writing, and the name of his patron.

*1.This introduction is spoken by the Sutradhar in ‘Sakuntala’ a play in Marathi, written by Ekoji II, a Maratha ruler in Tanjore.

“Sutradhar: Thus commences the play called Sakuntala after praising Chandramouliswara, goddess Bhavani, Khanderayya and all other family deities and praising favourite gods.
With a prayer to Shahendra , here follows a description of the Bhosale lineage.
I bow to you, O Full Moon of the Bhosale family, father Maloji Purandra, Shahji Maharaja, his son Eka Maharaj, whose elder son Shaha  Maharaj and Sarabha Maharaj’s  younger brother, grandson of Dipakambika, Ekoji Maharaja’s work Sakuntala is being presented for the pleasure of all.”
In a play ‘Markandeya’, we have the only evidence of the date of Melattur Venkatrama Sastri  in the introduction.
“ Written in the reign of the great warrior Sri Sivaji (II)…. ”
 d) The Performance- With Particular Reference to Bhagavata Mela Natakam.
While the classical theatre has overlapping functions of devotional, literary presentation and technical achievements, it is invariably a part of ritualistic commemoration. It may not be performed for mere entertainment or profit, but it is part of rituals to propitiate the gods. The rituals are integrated into the performance. For example, many artforms include an onstage appearance of Ganesha (remover of obstacles and therefore worshipped before any life activity by all) in an elephant mask. He dances a blessing and is worshipped with fruits, coconut and flowers and camphor is lit . This burning camphor is    then symbolically shown to the spectators and orchestra. Everyone responds by accepting the flame, muttering a silent prayer and joining the hands above the head in a prayerful attitude. In Bhagavata Mela , the story of a small boy named Prahlada is enacted annually on a fixed day in the village. The story is of the appearance of Vishnu in his incarnation of Narasimha, a man-lion. The actor who portrays this character purifies himself with prayers and fasting before wearing the mask of Narasimha. The mask itself is considered so holy and powerful that it is worshipped in the temple. The spectators bow down to the actor in costume as he makes a dramatic appearance at the climax.  Devotees are also known to commission a performance as thanksgiving for prayers granted and wishes fulfilled.
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*1. Originally Tamil speaking, Tanjore was the melting pot of three cultures. The Vijayanagar Nayaks (1565) introduced Tamil and the Marathas (1684-1855) wrote in Marathi. The royalty of both cultures were scholars of music and literature. They encouraged local talent without bias. Shahendra was a king who is considered the first Marathi playwright and hence worthy of salutation.

The Performance Area


 Bhagavata Mela was earlier performed on the street in front of the temple. Spectators sit in two rows leaving an aisle in the middle. The narrow street had row houses on either side with their open verandahs (sit-out) facing the street. This offered extra seating. With the generally low noise level during the night, sound of music and dialogue carried through to the hundred or so in the audience. The performers and the spectators were on the same level. The musicians stood around the actors. Large oil lamps and blazing torches lit up the performance area. 


f) The Community
Melattur Bhagavata Mela is a Brahmin tradition. *2 The actors belong to the highest caste whose duties are to interpret Vedas, conduct religious ceremonies, teach and sing the praise of the gods.  Each family dedicates one of the sons to the tradition. In Melattur, only the natives of the village are allowed to participate. The son inherits the roles from the males in the family. These roles become the cherished property of the family.
 The community comes together as one and contributes cash, offer food and welcome visitors in their houses who stayed for the entire festival. The date is fixed on a particular day each year, so the actors and spectators schedule their commitments and ensure that they are present. They are not professional or itinerant groups. All the actors are male so the wives lend their personal dresses and jewelry for their husbands or sons to wear.

g) Preliminaries
The Natya Sastra describes rituals pertaining to the performance like placement of musical instruments, the singers enter and begin warm-up, alignment of drums and musical instruments, dancers warm-up, and then a long complicated drum playing which also serves to indicate to the villagers for miles around that the play is ready to commence.

h) Invocation
Officially, the ‘play’ commences late in the night with invocations to the pantheon of both male and female deities, among whom Ganesha and Indra , (the king of gods and patron of  actors) are important. Many of the verses sung before the actors enter relate to the stage Director (Sutradhar) announcements of the content of the play, description of the playwright, and the thanksgiving to the patron who in most cases is the ruling royalty.
Sakuntala

i) Entry
The main protagonist makes his entry with a song. In fact all characters are introduced with a song to which they execute rhythmic steps. These songs are set to rhythmic cycles and are sung in a melody (Raga) most suited to the character’s nature and appearance. The lyrics describe his costume, his manner of walking, the effect his entry has on other beings and Nature, the mannerisms of his entourage and generally indicate whether he is evil, good and noble.

*2. The other three castes in the Hindu social system are Vaishya-merchants, Kshatriyas-warriors, and Sudra-menial workers. Though the government has declared the caste system is invalid, there is discrimination in society on the basis of caste and religion.

*4In the play ‘Prahlada’, the evil demon king Hiranyakashipu’s entry is a good example.

“Hiranyakashipu entered with a fast gait. Asura(demon) courtiers accompanied him with demonic actions and gestures. The earth trembled with the firm footsteps of the valiant, unrivalled warrior. His face reflected his pride and self- importance. Ministers and generals stood by his side.  The king rested his arms on their shoulders as he walked majestically. People an all directions extolled his virtues.”

These interludes do nothing to take the story forward, but are the most interesting and establish the status and characteristics of the character. They are important because of the actor dances intricately choreographed rhythmic phrases and uses elaborate interpretation. Such compositions have been handed down from father to son and are valuable heritage to be treasured. Interpretation of a line means dancing the same line about 50 times expanding its meaning each time. It is fascinating to see the dancer intensify his emotions in stages and give several layers of meaning to a single idea. The Bhagavata Mela actors are particularly expert in these passages and a scholarly dancer can truly appreciate the heightened feelings and deep understanding shown by these actors. Some lyrics are sung to rhythms, which vary from slow and medium to fast. Some are sung in a free melody with a slow elaboration. There are prose passages that the Director may speak or appear as dialogue between two characters. This variety offered rich texture and great aural pleasure. There is an air of informality and it is not a slick or sophisticated presentation in the modern sense. The make-up is natural and the costumes reflect the attire of the ruling royalty. There are more than four singers and a dance conductor who actually controls the entire orchestral team and coordinates with the actors. There is a double –faced drum (mridangam) and an Indian lute (Veena) and a flute to accompany and support the singers. The voluminous script and the length of the performance take its toll on the energy and voices of the singers. Thus, the play has much to offer to lovers of music, dance and theatre.


After the major characters of a scene enter, the story unfolds. The story is told in elaborate detail and in reference to the context leading to this incident. The actors are trained in the basic technique and are knowledgeable about the scriptures; know music and the lyrics so they improvise on the stage. At times a hero or heroine may take an entire hour to complete  the entry. If it is a dancing heroine, she may use this entry to establish herself as an accomplished dancer and show off her skills and technique. The play lasts all night. When the play ends with the appearance of the relevant god and the sky is pink with the rising sun. Prayers of benediction and thanksgiving are chanted and the actors and musicians go in a procession to the temple.



_______________________________________________________________________________ This translation is taken from Raman Indu: Vanishing Traditions-Bhagavata mela-Special Edition Indian Music Journal, Baroda.
This play is the most significant for Bhagavata Mela  which is found in Tanjore district of southern India. Five villages were granted to the tradition in 1577 by Achyuthappa Nayak, Besides Melattur where there are two groups, Saliyamangalam, and Teperumal Nallur also have annual performances. Each village has a special mask for Narasimha. The scripts are different as is the presentation.The other two villages . Soolamangalam and Oothukadu only perform the rituals.

 

 

 3.The Changes in Performance Today


The narrow street in front of the temple in Melattur is too narrow and when the crowds became unbearable and suffocating, a well-wisher gifted an acre of land. This also split the troupe into two factions. The original group moved into the open land and build a temporary stage for the annual festival. When the village was connected to electricity the oil lamps went out. There is sound amplification, and the musicians now sit on the left in a long line. Bright incandescent lamps strung in rows light up the stage.
This writer’s association with this group began in 1992 they performed in a modern proscenium theatre in Mumbai. Clearly, they were overwhelmed by the vast stage, enormous but empty theatre, the chill of the air-conditioning, and the absence of identifiable exit and entry points. They had edited the play to accommodate the 120- minute time limit given by the organizers. They were uncomfortable and put up a pitiable performance. But it was the absolutely divine music and the intrinsic talent that shone through.  At their insistence I took up a more formal role in their organization. Research was initiated, regular practice was insisted on and awareness of the formality of performances.was created. We took greater care about the colours and textiles used for costumes. The make-up for female roles was improved and better wigs were procured. Actually, a little guidance went a long way and the actors worked very hard. Till then they performed only once a year. Now more performance opportunities were created and presentations in conferences for scholarly audiences gave them much confidence and made them realize the value of their art.

4. Areas Where Problems Arise.

  1. The Time Factor.

The plays are performed in the complete version at the village festival. This means approximately five hours as we have seen earlier. When performing outside in proscenium theatre for an urban audience, the play is edited to 120 minutes. What parts of the play gets edited? The grand entry songs, rich interpretative dance elaboration, and the peripheral characters. With this the respective musical compositions, rare melodies, and the intricate rhythmic dance passages are also edited.  Soon these portions will be forgotten and the next generation will be deprived of the pleasure of performing them and viewing them. The three hundred-year old format of the play is shrinking and may become misshapen beyond recognition. Like teeth pulled out randomly, there are gaping holes instead of a beautiful smile. This means a great loss to our dance heritage.

B. Effects of Modernity
The proscenium theatre experience can be seen to bring in uneasy and acute awareness of time, audience response and personal appearance. There is loss of spontaneity and the freedom to improvise. The younger generation is missing out on inspiring role models to emulate. The satellite invasion brings shocking images from across the globe attacks the roots of their simple life and beliefs.

 

C. Lack of Sophistication

Informed critics claim that traditional dancers compare poorly with professional dancers where technique, polish and presentation is concerned.  The sophisticated technique of the institution- trained dancers raise the expectations of the urban audience But the traditional actor has this innate ability to immerse himself in his role. It is not material gain that has brought him on the stage.  He transforms himself into the role and these strong vibrations evoke great Rasa, spectator response. The seasoned, professional actor’s self-consciousness blocks this spontaneity and involvement. Does this indicate that the actor’s traditional inheritance and basic mind-set works for more real theatre?
 
D. Dwindling Community
The actors are confined to a small community. These families are growing smaller and modern education and better prospects lure sons away from the family tradition. Some do not realize the historical and social value of the art. Peer pressure and fear of ridicule for donning female make-up may be a cause for keeping away from the art.

E. Musicians-financial drain
The musicians of the large orchestra are professional artists. The actors are dependent on them. The fees to be paid to them are a drain on the resources. The Bhagavata mela cannot use recorded music. *5Melattur Bhagavata Mela music is precious heritage that carries the secret links of a grey area of the chronological map of Southern Indian music. The orthodox  style of singing  is difficult and  very few  singers have the energy and ability to hold their own for five hours.


F. Limited Repertoire
There are only 12 plays written in Telugu language by one Bhagavata Mela playwright, Melattur Venkatrama Sastri. An effort to surmount this limiting boundary was made by producing a play in Marathi, the language in which many Bhagavata Nataka plays have been written. It was envisaged that enlarging the repertoire in would create more performing opportunities, a new audience, and re-kindle interest in the art. The event drew a positive response from the public and the press. The government’s cultural agencies now recognize the scope and potential of the art. Unexpectedly, it  also attracted future sponsors .
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*5. Melattur was the birth place of many music composers. They were pioneers in original compositions like Shabdams and Swarajatis. There has not been much research or acknowledgement of their contribution to Indian music.



 Other Similar Artforms: How do they cope?


Kutiyattam:
Kutiyattam was once the preserve of the Chakyars and Nangiars , an orthodox  community of Kerala. The performance was strictly performed in the temple theatre known as ‘Kutambalam” to be witnessed only by the Brahmins and royalty. This art form is entirely in Sanskrit, and Prakrit. Some of the scenes use the local language, Malayalam. It is so elaborate and stylized that it attracted only the learned and intellectual scholars. Kutiyattam is now performed in theatres and in kutambalams not connected to temples. Temple coffers have dwindled and today there are rarely any performances in the Kutambalams. . Many of the present actors do not necessarily belong to this community so a newer, younger generation is being trained. 6*A training institution, which has a research bureau and annual festivals has helped to revive this art. Most performers have to turn to other means of livelihood if there are no performances. Most urban art lovers are treated to fragmented scenes in public performances that limit performance time to 60 or 90 minutes.

Kuchipudi:
The Brahmin males-only dance theatre of Andhra is today better known as a solo dance form.
 When the art was languishing, a senior guru threw open the bastions of the art and declared that women and any one else can learn and perform this art. Today it has survived as a solo art though there are dance drama performances too. In fact, sometimes women dancers don male roles!


Ankiya Nat:
The temple dance tradition was created in the 15th century as an expression of devotion by  Sankaradeva. Originated in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam, Ankiya Nat (literally one-act play) has neither ventured outside its state, nor has ambitions to be recognized as a performing art. But it is practiced on a regular basis in its native state. Unlike the other forms, this theatre has an elaborate mis-en-scene and use larger than life props to denote trees, mountains etc.

Yakshagana:
 It has a continued tradition of over 400 years and is performed in the open fields at night with fire torches for lighting. The actors wear striking red, yellow, black, and green costumes with a splendid headdress and stylized make-up. Dr. K. Shivarama Karanth worked to bring cohesion to the performance and his research has contributed enormously towards the amelioration of the dance theatre form. The several existing troupes have been fortunate to receive help from the state and the central government besides invitations to perform abroad.




*6. There are two Centres for Kudiyattam in Kerala. Ammanur Madhava Chakyar , the oldest guru teaches at Natanakairali, Irinjalakuda. Margi in Trivandrum is a later offshoot with most of the teachers trained by Madhava Chakyar. It is not confined to the Chakyar community, but Chakyar youngsters are being encouraged to come back into the fold by G.Venu, Director, Natanakairali.

 Kathakali:

 The elaborate mask like make-up and bejeweled crowns are immediately identified anywhere in the world. Among the first of Indian performing arts to be appreciated world wide, Kathakali  was traditionally a male bastion. A single scene from the epics can last a whole night.  The only lighting was a large oil lamp in the front of the performing area. The combination of drums, slow poignant music and elaborate mimetic interpretation transports the viewer to a world of magic and fantasy. Kerala Kalamandalam was set up early last century to revive and preserve manyy artforms of this area. Today women actors take on both male and female roles. The urban performances feature just one episode or one character from a play on any kind of platform under neon and electric lights. The art continues to flourish both at home and globally, but this overexposure sometimes results in jaded performances with little merit or aesthetic fulfillment.


5. What loss of indigenous culture can mean. A Westerner’s view.
I met Peter and Inger, authorities on theatre from Sweden, at the Kudiyattam Center Natana kairali, Irinjalakuda, Kerala. Peter had worked with World Theatre where the cast comprises actors from India, China, Africa, Sweden and Germany. They were there to coordinate with Kudiyattam theatre and attend an International workshop. Reproduced below is a verbatim excerpt from a taped interview where Peter speaks of the problems of trying to find one’s roots. I asked Peter what brings him to study other cultures in this journey.
Peter says,”
We try to understand our culture better. It is hard enough. Especially if you are a westerner. So many of our traditions are gone. Or broken. Or only on paper. Not body to body as the guru and pupil who are making the tradition alive. But of course, the others also wanted to develop their own, but for a Chinese actor the question was how can we come out of an old tradition that was come to stagnation? Where it is not any longer communicating with the audience. It is only a forum. What can we learn from the others? Africa had been occupied for 500 years. Not a similar situation as in India because you kept your culture. But in Mozambique language was forbidden, religion was forbidden and so on for 500 years. It is a very long time. *7You were saying here that theatre here lost its power for an intermission of 60-80 years. But 500 years! So they tried to find out. What is our roots? What is our culture? If we see beyond these 500 years of European influence can we make a theatre tradition that is built on our own? Because, it was a splendid culture. So when they meet Indian Kudiyattam theatre they could have a kind of vision of how their theatre could have been, if there was one. Then there are elements of course. They have the dance, they have the music, costumes, rituals… Many things that survived. From these fragments, they are trying to put something together. As we are doing.

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*7. There was a discussion of the Devadasi Act in pre-independence India when the British ruled that all dance in temples and all payment to such artists be stopped.





The natural living with religion is very difficult in so called developed countries. Even if the longing is there. But many don’t find a forum for this longing for wholeness. We do things like New Age and coming to India….”

“We had some golden ages in Western Theatre history. Greek theatre, Shakespeare theatre, for example. But no one can say how did they act on the Shakespearean stage. We know very little about it. Could you imagine if you wrote down a text from a Kudiyattam play? Only the text? 10 lines for six hours? And that was all that remained? What would you do? Even if you had the manuals for acting and direction, it would be very difficult to reconstruct if that was the only thing you had and did not have a guru. Kudiyattam has changed, of course, in the past years, but the guru can tell with a 90% accuracy how an actor acted in the sixteenth century. Remember, Greek theatre is 4th century BC!”

6.Why Revive?
A performance of a new play  in Bombay in January this year raised many questions and *8 some informed critics and  influential connoisseurs struck at the very roots of the immense and important revival efforts . Excerpts:
1. “It is the common people that these dramas address, their express purpose being to familiarize the general populace with the legends and their lessons in moral and ethical values.”
 Art lovers must learn to respect the traditional artist for the contribution of his art to the country’s culture. This is a matter of concern to all heritage lovers.
2. Many of the viewers were left wondering why Bhagavata Mela natakams had to be staged at all even if their themes are non-religious.
According to this writer, creating awareness of the artform is of the highest priority. Many forget that these artists have made many sacrifices and preserved the art not for material gain but with a sense of responsibility.
3. “Would the offering have been better in a local temple or as part of annual festivals?”
This is a vanishing tradition and it was expected that serious art lovers would sit up and take cognizance of what the culture is losing. The purpose of holding these performances in a city is the hope that enlightened critics and scholars will come forward to encourage and support the efforts positively. This is not mere entertainment for groups of illiterate audiences-in-transit.

4. Perhaps traditional Bhagavata Mela can be led through a transformation with stagings outside the temple precincts taking on the character of an art form rather that of a religious rite.’

These comments seem to miss the forest for the trees. It is possible to perform the religious rites only in the village. The devotional fervour will come through only in the village ambience which takes on a special festive air during the annual festival. The exercise of bringing the artists to perform outside is to garner support and sponsorship. Thousands of spectators would not have been able to view this dance-theatre if they did not perform in cities. They need recognition and acceptance from society and through them from the government agencies.

*8 See Sruti Issue 213, May 2002



7.Possible Solutions for Survival

After studying the options chosen by other arts in the same classification, we can conclude that there are indeed choices, but will they destroy the essence of Bhagavata Mela?

1.One solution is to open the doors for all communities and women at the risk of destroying the religious sanctity for propagation of the art. A training school that will teach the music, dance and the theatre to all must be established. These students could be used for performances outside the village.
2.The urban performances must be edited but the village performances should be complete in all respect.  Only traditional performers should participate. This will ensure that the tradition is carried on.
3. Documentation of the performances by senior artists will ensure that the original choreography is preserved for future reference.
4. Music must be recorded in a studio with modern equipment. The music must also be written down in notation.
5. A research bureau should be constituted to collect photographs, information, tape interviews and collect manuscripts, books and memorabilia for reference.
6. Private sponsors may not support what does not generate publicity for their brands. Therefore cultural clubs, central and state government agencies should be requested to fund the efforts.


References

1.      Richmond/Swann/Zarrilli- “Indian Theatre Traditions of Performance” Motilal Banarsidass –1993
2.      Raman Indu-“Bhagavata Mela-Vanishing Traditions” Special Edition, Indian Music Journal, Baroda.
3.      Wilson Edwin ‘The Theatre Experience”-Mcgraw-Hill Book Co. 1976
4.      Vatsyayan Kapila : Traditional Indian Theatre : National Book Trust, 1980
5.      Raman Indu : Editor, Commemmorative Issue , Bhagavata Mela Nataka Utsav-Mumbai 2002.