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.