Saturday, 24 October 2020

Book Review Alaya Vazhipattil “Chinna Melam”

 

Book Review Alaya Vazhipattil “Chinna Melam” by SNA awardee Shri B. Herambanathan (Mridangam Vidwan and Nattuvannar)

 




In March last year (2018) I received a book from Shri Herambanathan, the eminent Nattuvannar of Thanjavur. I met him first in 1993 when I visited Melattur Narasimha Jayanti for the first time. It was he who invited me on the stage and honoured me. He invited me on behalf of the Sangam to accept the Chair and guide them. During the performances I was totally mesmerised by his singing the jathis in deep musical voice. I had a sudden urge to run up and dance to his voice. The music by L. Venkatesa Iyengar and his disciple Shri Radhakrishnan took the performance to another level. It was difficult to decide whether to watch the excellent dance or close my eyes and listen to the music.

He facilitated a meeting with Revathi Amma (aka Doraikannu) a well-known dancer of the fifties.

Shri Herambanathan was unable to join the troupe on the first visit to Mumbai for the first ever Bhagavata mela Festival I curated in January 1994. But he was the main conductor of all subsequent performances. As the Guru to all the Bhagavat mela artistes for more than fifty decades he has a commanding presence which demands great respect from anyone in his presence.

The book had a letter hand written by him in beautiful handwriting appreciating my book Bhagavata mela My Tryst with Tradition.

His book has a Foreword by Shri Babaji Raje Bhonsle, the current senior member of the royal family. He mentions the great service the Chinna Melam artistes have done for dance and music since the Chola times. The Nayak and the Maratha kings too honoured and supported the dancers, mridangam artistes, instrumentalists and nattuvannars who were collectively known as Chinna Melam.

The first chapters describe the divine origin of dance, the Cosmic Dancer Nataraja and deities associated with dance and music.

 

In his chapter on Abhinaya, he mentions a Sanskrit text called Rasa Bhandar. The text says that a dancer must be very careful when expressing sentiments like Pathos or Fear. These emotions generate negative expressions which affects society. A person who wants to express Veeram or Valour must meditate on Sri Rama and internalise his qualities to succeed in expressing this emotion. Quoting and excerpt from the book, he reveals the secret advice Siva gives to Nandi- an actor must be responsible and maintain aesthetic limits when portraying a character. Or he will influence the viewer’s mind in a negative manner.

The main crux of the book is the information of the role of Devadasi families and their duties in temples. From service to Siva in the sanctum sanctorum to performing during festivals, and performing the compositions of the royalty like Kuravanjis and Pallaki Seva Prabandhams.

Shri Herambanathan’s book is like a bell which is tolls loud and clear reminding the world of the immense service of those artistes, their superlative talent and their status as repository of our rich Thanjavur Bharata Natyam traditions.

The book has details of important Nattuvannar families and the Devadasi dancers from the time of the Tanjore Quartette. Profusely illustrated with photographs of rare vintage it is an important text for dancers. It is definitely worth a translation into English for those art lovers from other regions.

 

Published by Thanjavur Heritage Arts & Cultural Academy,2016

Financed by Tamil Iyal Isai Nataka Manram

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

THANJAVUR MARATHA ROYALTY-LITTLE KNOWN FACTS


#AuthorIndumatiRaman Today is the 243rd birth anniversary of Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji II . My humble and grateful homage to this dynasty of erudite scholars whose rule saw the Golden Era of Carnatic music, Classical Bharata Natyam, Bhagavata mela, Literature, Painting, Sculptures and monuments.

#ThanjavurBhoslerajas,#SerfojiII,#Thanjavur,#BhagavataMela,#SaraswatiMahalLibrary,#BrihadeeswaraTemple,#BhagavataMelaMyTrystwithTradition,#Melattur,#PratapsinhRajeBhosle, #ShahjiII, #EkojiII,

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




(Image courtesy serfojimaharjamemorial museum)




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.


Saturday, 9 May 2020

Bhiksham Dehi- Unchavritti Tradition


Bhiksham Dehi- Unchavritti Tradition

Bhiksham Dehi! Bhiksham Dehi! The first act of an initiated Brahmin after the Upanayanam ceremony is to go to his own mother with a bowl and say, Bhiksham Dehi.
Saints of our country Bharatavarsh followed this Unchavritti tradition as part of their worship. By observing Unchavritti, those who did answer his call at the doorstep were also blessed. Those who give bhiksha do not do so out of pity, but consider it an honour. To give bhiksha is an act of good karma, a noble act. Bhiksha has a whole philosophy behind it and cannot be translated as begging. Begging is a tamasaic while Bhiksha is a satvik guna. It has a long been a spiritual and religious tradition in our country.
Buddha and his monks, Sadguru Tyagaraja, Shirdi Saibaba, Sridhara Ayyaval, and many more than I can name here followed this noble tradition.





Every morning after a bath and offering service to the gods, the seeker sets out on the streets. He sings the name of the deities and the village wakes up to melodious music. The women or men of the house come to the street and offer a bowl of rice or pulses into the earthen bowl held out by the saint. The offering could be grain or fruit or whatever is possible for the householder. When he  feels it is enough for his family for the day, he stops and returns home. His wife and children, if any, willingly follow the tradition.



Unchavritti tradition is followed by saints who have renounced the world to dedicate themselves to the chanting of the deity’s name, be it Rama or Siva. This frugal lifestyle demands that one does not hoard food grains but live on what others offer him. It means he does not ever work for a living because work as employee or employer will tie him down to the bonds of material life. It relieves him of the tensions of having to hoard money, protect that wealth and then accumulate worldly material comforts. This in turn prevents him from involving in criminal acts like cheating others in the business. The saint’s mind is filled only with good thoughts, blessings and prayers for all, and total dedication to the supreme. Unchavritti disciplines the mind and destroys ego.





Sadguru Tyagaraja (4th May 1767 -6th January 1847) was initiated into Rama Mantra by his Guru Ramakrishnananda. Even as a child he was drawn into singing and composing kritis in praise of Sri Rama. His compositions became very popular and many disciples sat at his feet to learn and propagate these compositions. The news reached the Thanjavur Maratha king’s court who commanded him to attend his court. Tyagaraja not so humbly refused, asking,” What gives happiness? Wealth -Nidhi or Sri Rama’s shrine- sannidhi?” His own brother could not understand this madness of spurning wealth that came to their doorstep and threw the idol of Rama into the Kaveri.
Sadguru Tyagaraja faced great sorrows, trials and tribulation caused by jealous contemporaries and even his own family. His fame and honour grew irrespective of abuses hurled at him. Tyagaraja’s contribution to our music, religion and philosophy is immense and cannot be stained by lesser mortals. They do so because of arrogance and ignorance. May Sri Rama bless their souls.


Saturday, 22 February 2020

Kalakshetra Shri M. R. Krishnamurthy












In 1966, I joined Kalakshetra after completing a gruelling five-year course under Smt. Uma Devi, an alumna of Kalakshetra. After my arangetram, my teacher insisted that I join Kalakshetra for further training.  Training under her, learning the time-honoured items like the taxing Varnam and Thillana was so perfect that I could perform with my cousin without a rehearsal. When I joined, my initial few months was spent in polishing the posture and the adavus. I became aware of the finer points of eye movements, nuances and delicate flourishes of the wrist and shoulder, and the all important araimandi. I would get back to the ‘mirror’ cottage every afternoon and practice my adavus every day, without rest after lunch break. One afternoon, Kittu Anna as he was fondly addressed, came in wielding his thattukazhi threateningly, or so I thought. From that day for several months he took my class, one to one, encouraging me, explaining the importance of practicing three speeds and so on. His favourite word was ‘inhibition’. He immediately understood that I was timid and anxious to make the grade. He would repeat emphatically, do not have any inhibitions, be bold, you are working so hard, all will end well. I owe so much to Kittu Anna for his kindness, encouragement and the time he gave me.
Professor M. R. Krishnamurthy joined Kalakshetra when he was sixteen years of age with a three-year Government Scholarship under his arm.  Blessed with an impressive personality, he dedicated himself to dance and was trained under Rukmini Devi. He was fortunate to get his foundation for Bharata Natyam, under great teachers like Sarada Hoffman, Smt. Vasantha Vedam, Smt. Jayalakshmi, Pushpa Shankar and Mylapore Gowri Ammal. He learnt Kathakali under the legendary Chandu Panikker Asan. Bhagavata mela Guru Balu Bhagavatar was resident in the campus and trained students like Krishnamurthy, Janardanan, Dhananjayan and Shankar Hombal.
He played major roles in the famous Kalakshetra dance-dramas. As Jatayu, Vibheeshana, and Sugriva in the Ramayana series, Brahmana in Rukmini Kalyanam and Shakuntala are some that come to mind immediately.
Born in 1936, his dance career continued to bloom after he left the institution to establish his own in Bengaluru. ‘Kalakshithi’ is his homage to his Guru Rukmini Devi. He dedicatedly follows all the tenets and values he had imbibed at Kalakshetra. He never wavered from the Kalakshetra Bani and continued to uphold the strict adherence to the technical perfection ingrained in him for decades. He demands the same discipline and perfection from his students. His sister Rukma Narain is the pillar of support for his career and is the backbone of Kalakshithi. The school campus is artistically designed by her and has a beautiful theatre space designed by her. The classy stamp of beauty and refined taste in the d├ęcor is evident everywhere.








The school recently celebrated 25 years and a few contemporary artistes and colleagues were honoured on this occasion.
He has presented his students in various platforms. His choreographic presentations in classic themes like Pancha Kanya, Rasa Vilasa, Gokula Nirgamana, and Akka Mahadevi.
He has been honoured with prestigious awards: Chandana Puraskara (2014), Attendance Rukmini Devi Award (2012), Natya Tapasvi (2001, Karnataka Kalashri(1998)






I met Kittu Anna this year (February 2018) to gift my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition. It was an emotional and nostalgic meeting. My heart was overflowing with gratitude to have trained under such a wonderful teacher.









Bhagavata Mela in Kalakshetra


                                                               
 This article is a homage to our dear Peria Sarada teacher. The later generations of students were not fortunate to know her, or the many names mentioned here, but they should remember that they formed the backbone of Kalakshetra and its famous dance -dramas.  
The connection between Kalakshetra and Bhagavata Mela is brought to light by S. Sarada Teacher, in her book, ‘Kalakshetra-Rukmini Devi’ (1985)















S. Sarada Teacher or Peria Sarada as she was known was the backbone of Kalakshetra dance-dramas all her active life. Fascinated by Rukmini Devi’s beauty, talent, and vision from the first day she witnessed her historic public performance in 1935, she felt drawn towards those ideals. In her book ‘Kalakshetra-Rukmini Devi’ published in 1985, Sarada teacher gives us a fairly detailed account of the genesis of the dance-dramas from bud to bloom. This is a valuable book as it gives us a ring-side view to the work development of the dance-dramas. Peria Sarada was so dear to all of us and so accessible. She never wore her erudition, seniority, and importance like a chip on her shoulder. She remained modest and unassuming all her life.
I was a frequent visitor to Chennai for the December season for in the 80’s. On every visit I would make it a point to meet G. Sundari teacher and Sarada teacher at the Theosophical Society, Adyar. In 1985, she presented this book to me, with her own signature, making it an invaluable possession.



She graciously agreed to come for my performance of ‘Sumathi Tyagaraja’ at the Rasika Ranjani Sabha at Mylapore and presided as Chairperson in the panel over my Bhagavata Mela lec-dem and presentation at the Krishna Gana Sabha NatyaKala Conference and the Bhagavata Mela  performance at Sri Kabaliswar temple in 1994. Others on the panel were Sri.V.P. Dhananjayan (Convenor of the Conference) and Dr. Arudra.



In this book, Sarada teacher has explained how Bhagavata Mela came to Kalakshetra.
In those days when Bhagavata mela was unknown and buried in the deep interiors of Thanjavur, scholars like Mohan Khokar, Dr. V. Raghavan and E. Krishna Iyer wrote about it in newspapers. Sarada came across an article by Mohan Khokar which mentioned the dancer-musician Natesa Iyer, who was known for his attempts to revive Bhagavata Mela. She knew both his daughters, Kunjamma and Kalyani who were childhood friends. She got in touch with the latter and broached the subject of lending the manuscripts of a few natakams. Kalyani Ammal gave Kalakshetra Natesa Iyer’s notebooks which had Prahlada Charitram, Usha Parinayam and Markandeya Charitram. As these were Grantha script, Venkatrama Sastri, the Telugu Pandit of the Adyar Library wrote them down in Sanskrit for use at Kalakshetra. Kalyani ammal then taught the Kalakshetra musicians the songs of Prahlada Charitram and Usha Parinayanam.

E.Krishna Iyer, a dancer and revivalist himself, was instrumental in introducing Rukmini Devi to Sadir and Bhagavata Mela. He suggested that Balu Bhagavatar of Melattur be invited to stay at Kalakshetra and help with the production. He came with his sister, who was his caretaker, and resided on the campus for several months.

Bhagavathar explained that Prahlada Charitram was a sacred natakam and many are rituals associated with it. It was to be performed in a purified environment by hereditary Bhagavatars. The Narasimha mask was worshipped in the temple and cannot be taken out. So, Usha Parinayam was selected.
Balu Bhagavatar and Kalyani Ammal taught them many theermanams from these natakams. “Balu Bhagavatar also taught the traditional method of using the movements, dance-patterns, characterisation”





Pandit Venkatachala Sastri, and Vidwan Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sarma helped in editing of the natakams. In 1970, all these stalwarts were an unforgettable part of our lives.
While composing of Usha Parinayam had begun, Rukmini Devi wanted to compose a short one hour drama and selected Rukmangada  Charitram. The Melattur Guru and Kalyani Ammal “were happy to see this Kalakshetra production, because it brought out the excellences of this type of dance-dramas.”
S.Sarada explains, “ Though Rukmini Devi followed the Bhagavatamela tradition basically in style and pattern when presenting Usha Parinayam…she completely modified the stage presentation., the scenes and the movements and positions of the various characters.”
In 1964, Rukmini Kalyanam was composed and presented. Kalyani Ammal gave the manuscripts and taught the songs. In 1966 when I joined Kalakshetra, the production was on in full speed. Although a fresh student, I was selected for the group dance of the Krishna Sabdam. I distinctly remember Balu Bhagavatar sitting outside the then Kathakali Cottage (opposite the Banyan tree) or watching us during class.
In 1971, the government sponsored the production of Dhruva Charitram to be produced in consultation with Balu Bhagavatar. At this time, Harishchandra was also selected but was found to be too long and as Rukmini Devi reacted by saying ‘it is too distressing to see the burning ghat scene, and the terrible suffering of the king and his wife.’ Dhruva Charitram was performed using the traditional aspects of Bhagavata Mela natakams like Konangi, Ganesha Patra Pravesham and Patra Pravesham of the major characters. Sarada Hoffman (Chinna Sarada) assisted Bhagavatar in the dance compositions.
For more information on Bhagavata Mela, its history, natakams and much more do read my book ‘Bhagavata Mela, My Tryst with Tradition’ published in January this year.



MY JOURNEY WITH BHAGAVATA MELA


This is an excerpt from my book ‘Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition’ which was published in 2018. This excerpt gives details of my decade long work with Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam.


MY JOURNEY WITH BHAGAVATA MELA

A DECADE OF SUPPORT & COLLABORATION, 1992–2002
My first exposure to an authentic Bhagavata Mela performance was in Mumbai in December 1992. The high standard of pure classical music and sparkling artistic talent shone through their obvious discomfort on the sterile environs of a modern stage. The actors appeared like an anachronism, archaic characters from ancient times standing bewildered in an alien environment. The vast theatre with more than a thousand seats was empty but for ten enthusiasts.
As a regular freelance writer on arts for The Times of India and The Hindu, I approached the artistes for an interview. I took a few photographs inside the green room. They were a little unnerved by their experience of performing in Mumbai. They asked me to meet them again the next day at the guest house they were staying.
It was here that they poured their heart out about the problems they face every year. They asked me to attend the festival the following year to witness Prahlada Charitram. They discussed their problems of keeping the tradition going and requested help and guidance.
I was nonchalant and knew that going to Melattur during summer holidays was quite impossible. I wrote a piece for The Times of India and forgot about the invitation.
Three months later, on 12 March 1993, S. Gopalakrishnan, the secretary of Natya Vidya Sangam, and Srinivasan, R. Mahalingam’s father-in-law, visited Mumbai again (amid the riots) to persuade me to attend the Melattur festival that year and take over as honorary chairperson. I was hesitant and unsure of the extent of involvement my commitment would entail. Among those present at home was the legendary violinist Shri T.N. Krishnan who persuaded me to accept the request. He promised to help me in any way he could. He later kept his word.
May 1993
Travelling with me to Melattur in May 1993 were my parents and Smt. Shanta Gokhale, the eminent theatre personality, author, and historian.
The play Prahlada Charitram was truly a splendid presentation and I was mesmerised by the young dancer Nagarajan who played Leelavathi and R. Mahalingam (Mali) who donned the fearsome crown of Hiranyakashipu. The Manifestation of Narasimha avatar was a spine-tingling experience.
The next evening there was no performance as it was rest day at Melattur. I went with a group to Saliyamangalam, another village where Bhagavata Mela was conducted regularly, to watch Prahlada Charitram. There was a fascinating difference in the music, dialogues, and presentation.
Bhagavata Mela’s scripts had been safeguarded from the general public so far. There was no awareness of the greatness of this special genre of literature and style of music. Dr V. Raghavan of the Music Academy (Chennai) had earlier published the script of Prahlada Charitram with music notation after extensive research and study of various versions.
The Natya Vidya Sangam revived and staged a new natakam the following day. Mali’s son Vinod had his debut as Seetha in Seetharama Kalyanam.
For the first time, the Sangam’s pandits, N. Viswanathan and Thanjavur N. Srinivasan, collaborated with Sarasvati Mahal Library to publish Melattur Venkatrama Sastri’s Seetharama Kalyanam. The manuscript only indicates the ragas and talas for the darus and credit for reconstructing the music goes to L. Venkatesa Iyengar. The script is printed in Devanagari, followed by transcription in Tamil. Explanatory notes for each scene are provided in Tamil. This book was released at the festival.
The Sangam decided to announce my name as the chairperson and I was given a formal welcome in a speech by B. Herambanathan. Arulthiru Sayimatha Siva Dr Brinda Devi was the chief guest. R. Mahalingam and his father K. Ramalinga Iyer were on the stage. Thus began a tumultuous decade of activity punctuated with my annual visits to Melattur and the Sangam’s visits to Mumbai.
I returned home to Mumbai with a heart full of possibilities and a head full of ideas. The first interview was with Melattur Ganesa Bhagavatar, a prominent personality in Mumbai. At his home we spoke at length about the history of the tradition and the people behind its revival. Here I met G. Krishnamurthy Sarma, musician and Sanskrit scholar, who had assisted Balu Bhagavatar in his heyday as a singer and conductor. As a youngster, Ganesa Bhagavatar said he had played the role of Bhoomi Devi.
The appealing music, sincerity of the artists, and the charm of the technique compelled me to accept this challenge in October 1993. I had no experience of working with an organisation. The distance was a concern. But here was a precious living art tradition which was obviously dying. The emphasis is on the devotional aspect, but how can we allow a potentially rich art to become defunct through neglect?
My priority therefore was to initiate serious research in the history of Bhagavata Mela. The team had erudite scholars like Pandit N. Viswanathan of the Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji Sarasvati Mahal Library. He is the author of several publications which include translations of Tamil, Telugu, and Marathi lyrics. He has published a compilation of “Five Marathi Natakams” which includes the Marathi natakam Sakuntala by Ekoji II. He initiated the idea that we should perform a Marathi natakam. Sanskrit Pandit Thanjavur Shri N. Srinivasan has been enthusiastically involved in historical research and scrutiny of manuscripts. A popular Harikatha artiste, he is also the lead singer on the stage. The second priority was to create awareness among the connoisseurs and dance scholars about this dance tradition. I spoke to many scholars and patrons and asked them for guidance.
I consulted legendary musicians like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, Shri T.N. Krishnan, Shri G. Venu (Kudiyattam), T.S. Parthasarathy, and Smt. Shanta and Shri V.P. Dhananjayan, my gurus at Kalakshetra.
The Central Sangeet Natak Akademi responded to my petition and doubled the annual allowance from that year not only for the Melattur sangams but for all the villages. They had no funds to continue the tradition of celebrating a ten-day festival. In 1994, I recommended that we prune this to three days, to the great relief of the artistes and their families. I also encouraged them to revive one forgotten play every year.
I was associated with the artistes of one group in Melattur called Natya Vidya Sangam. The other group in the same village, Natya Nataka Sangam was run by Shri. S. Natarajan. It was my privilege that I could meet Natarajan’s father G. Swaminathan, the legendary actor and doyen of Bhagavata Mela. Though he was frail due to age-related issues, I was accorded a warm welcome in his home. I attended the Prahlada Charitram natakam performed by Shri Natarajan’s group. I was impressed with the performance of the two brothers Natarajan and Kumar as Leelavathi and Hiranyakashipu respectively. The music was excellent and the sincerity and devotion of this group was palpable. They perform on a stage in front of the temple entrance and the audience sit on the road leading to it.
When both groups perform Prahlada Charitam on the same night, the same Narasimha mask has to be used for the last scene. In such a situation, one group begins two hours earlier and hands over the mask at the temple in time for the next group. If Shri Natarajan, who lived and worked abroad, was unable to perform on the Narasimha Jayanti Day, his group’s festival would be held at the earliest suitable date.
January 1994
I was formally appointed as chairperson in October 1993 and the first five-day festival in Mumbai was organized in January 1994. Within those two months I persuaded four organisations to sponsor the performances — Kala Rasika Sangam (Sion), Gana Kala Vidya Nilayam (Goregaon), Andhra Mahasabha (Dadar), and N.C.P.A. (Nariman Point). An invitation to city dancers and the print media brought in much publicity.
One of the most beautiful events was a traditional welcome to the Bhagavatars by T. K. Mahalingam Pillai and Kalasadan Mani, respected Bharata Natyam gurus of Mumbai. They felt that, as the artistes of this tradition were coming here for the first time, they must express their respect and admiration for them. The artistes were greeted with nadaswaram (temple pipe instruments) players and traditional poorna-kumbham (tray with coconuts, fruits, and betel leaves). The committee of Kala Rasika Sangam presented the Melattur artistes with a purse and a citation. A travelling suitcase for every member of the troupe was sponsored by a well-wisher. Hundreds of the city’s dancers were present to welcome the torch-bearers of this ancient tradition. Ganesa Bhagavatar offered all guests the customary panagam (spiced jaggery drink), the traditional Lakshmi Narasimhaswami prasad (offering) from the Bhajana Samaj Sri Rama temple. The visiting artistes were enthusiastic and cooperated whole-heartedly. They performed an excerpt from a natakam for the audience.
I must confess that it was not roses all the way, for thorns were scattered by prickly local bandicoots with vested interests and other “traditionalists” to stall this first Bhagavata Mela festival in Mumbai. The first blow came from the main conductor of the troupe who refused to join at the last minute, so a substitute was urgently summoned. The dancers rehearsed with him during the train journey. In Mumbai, some staged a door-to-door campaign and threatened those who supported the festival with ostracism from religious functions.
I realised then that my mission must be significant and important enough to provoke such a reaction. It is to the credit of Guru Kalasadan Mani and the Melattur Sangam that they stood staunchly by me and my efforts. I was determined to continue my work regardless.
There were two full-house performances at the Gana Kala Vidya Nilayam at Goregaon, and the audience was spellbound by the Sangam’s performances. The other two performances in Andhra Mahasabha at Dadar and N.C.P.A. at Nariman Point were also well-received.
I must express my immense gratitude to my husband Ramnath Raman who supported my involvement with the Sangam. He designed and printed flyers, posters and playlists, and arranged the transport to all corners of the city every time the troupe visited.
April 1994
Sruti, a magazine for the arts requested me to write a cover story about the tradition for their April 1994 issue to time with the annual Narasimha Jayanti festival. This was an honour for the Natya Vidya Sangam which had been languishing without popular support or appreciation. At that time, the magazine was considered a dignified supporter of artistes and encouraged research-oriented articles from scholars. In the feature, I covered many aspects of Bhagavata Mela and included a report on the Saliyamangalam tradition as well. The front cover featured the Narasimha mask.
May 1994
This special issue of Sruti drummed up great interest and a record-breaking one thousand strong audience attended the festival at Melattur that year. Shri V.P. Dhanajayan and Smt. Shanta Dhananjayan inaugurated the festival. Journalists from Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi, and Chennai like R.G. Krishna of the Illustrated Weekly of India, R. Sethuraman of Sruti, and V.A.K. Ranga Rao, eminent dance critic and scholar, witnessed the natakams.
December 1994
In 1994, the next three-day Bhagavata Mela festival was held in Chennai. The pandits, N. Viswanathan and N. Srinivasan, and some other artistes came with me to personally invite eminent personalities.
For the first time ever, Bhagavata Mela performed Parvathi Kalyanam inside the precincts of Sri Kapaliswara temple in Chennai during the peak “music season” in December. This was possible with the kind courtesy of Shri Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti. More than three thousand people turned up in the audience. The chief guests were D.K. Pattammal and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. It was attended by scholars, dancers, and musicians, my Guru S. (Peria) Sarada, Dr Arudra, T.S. Parthasarathy, A.S. Raman (former editor, Illustrated Weekly of India, who promoted the arts through this magazine), Smt. Vani Jairam, Nirmala Ramachandran, Malavika Sarukkai, U.S. Rao and his wife Chandrabhaga, to name a few. A souvenir was released by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and T.S. Parthasarathy received the first copy. A local television channel gave full coverage to the event.
The next day I was invited to give a presentation at the prestigious Natya Kala Conference at Krishna Gana Sabha. Shri V.P. Dhananjayan was the convenor that year. He invited me to present the Bhagavata Mela artistes as the subject of an illustrative lecture-demonstration “Then and Now”. I spoke about the changes in the costume, make-up, and presentation of Bhagavata Mela in the last century. The lecture ended with a dance demonstration by the artistes. After a panel discussion with Dr Arudra, my gurus S. Sarada, and Shri Dhananjayan, there was an interactive session with the jury, critics, and journalists in the audience.
On the third day, T.S. Parthasarathy, secretary for the Music Academy, had invited me to present a demonstration about “Dance Music in Bhagavata Mela” at the prestigious annual Experts Committee Conference. I requested Shri R. Mahalingam (Mali) to take the opportunity. He used the music of Usha Parinayam, Harishchandra, and Prahlada Charitram to augment his lecture with a demonstration by Bhagavata Mela dancers.
May 1995
The next script to be published was Markandeya in May 1995. The publication of the Natya Vidya Sangam was sponsored by my husband R. Raman. In the Foreword to this book I have mentioned the unique versatility of this tradition which “encompasses music, dance and theatre. The structure of the play includes a rich variety of poetic devices which ensures its status as outstanding literature.” The play was staged for the first time at the annual festival.
October 1995
 In October of the same year, the Sangam was back again in Mumbai in full strength. They participated in the Kuchipudi Conference organised by Kuchipudi Kala Kendra. At another venue, I presented a lecture-demonstration on “Patrapravesha in Bhagavata Mela”, with a demonstration by the Sangam artistes.
The breathless pace of activity of the preceding year left us all exhilarated and determined to continue the lucky phase. There was no stopping the juggernaut which had started to roll.
May 1996
The annual festival at Melattur was a great success with the revival and staging of Krishna Leela Jananam.
After the festival, a group of us went to Madurai and organised publicity for the event through Dinamalar, the daily newspaper of Madurai which had issued a supplement for the 1994 festival.
January 1997
It was my husband’s suggestion that the Sangam should perform in Thiruvaiyaru during the 150th Aradhana of Saint Tyagaraja in January 1997. It would be a tribute to Tyagaraja, who belonged to the Bhagavata Mela tradition.
For the first time ever, the temple authorities of the Panchanadiswara temple gave permission for performances inside the vast precincts for two nights during the Aradhana week. The Sangam selected the plays Harishchandra and Rukmini Kalyanam, to be staged in Thiruvaiyaru, both noted for its excellent musical values.
My entire family including my husband, children, parents, and sister went on this week-long pilgrimage to Thiruvaiyaru. Thanjavur was the base camp. We were also celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary.
We visited my father’s home in Thirumangalakudi, my mother’s birthplace Tiruchirappalli besides Thiruvarur, Thiruvidaimarudur, Mannargudi, Kumbhakonam, and Melattur. We rented a house near the Panchanadiswara temple which could accommodate us, the artistes, and other guests. The popular Tamil weekly magazine Kumudam had sent a senior journalist to interview us. Dinamalar brought out a supplement on the Aradhana and Bhagavata Mela. Other magazines wrote extensively on this unique event which almost overshadowed the Aradhana concerts. There was talk that the Aradhana organisers might prevent our shows from taking place. Five thousand people thronged the spacious temple on both days as the Sangam performed the plays in full length. Umayalapuram Sivaraman, the mridangam maestro was the chief guest on the first day.
May 1997
I missed the annual festival in May 1997 as my father-in-law had passed away and I had to refrain from temple visits for a year. In December, a personal tragedy changed my family’s future. I pulled myself together and brushed it aside to conduct the arangetram of my student in January 1998.
May 1998
I was not sure whether I would be able to attend the Narasimha Jayanti Festival that year, but at the earnest request of the members of the Sangam I decided to attend the festival.
It was at this meeting, in 1998, that we renewed the discussion about the possibility of making the Marathi natakam. I was not confident about the organisation of such a big project, as at that time I had no infrastructural support or funds to pull this off.
I could not visit Melattur in 1999 and 2000. I was working full time at N.C.P.A., the prestigious art institution, and later at a software company related to the arts. Many domestic issues like relocating to a new house, my dance performance, renewing cultural activities, and being at home for my children became priority. Of course, I had already begun work and planning for 2002.
May 2000
In 2000, a tragic event left us all devastated. A fire broke out on the stage of the Natya Vidya Sangam just before the performance of Prahlada Charitram. They called at midnight to inform me. Electrical equipment, costumes, props, and much else was burnt to ashes. Fortunately, no one was hurt. They wanted to know what should be done. I had no idea. Stopping or leaving the festival incomplete is considered sacrilege, so the festival was postponed to the next month.
I was quite shaken and petrified of the religious implications and superstitions that abound such traditions. I had a purifying bath and recited the slokas of Vishnu Sahasranamam (Thousand Names of Vishnu) and Lakshmi Narasimha stotrams till dawn. In the past, the Sangam faced many incidents when attempts were made by local vandals to sabotage the festival. Once, snakes were left loose as the play began, scattering the audience. On another occasion, I personally cleared the stage of glass pieces from a broken tube light on the stage. This was during Prahlada Charitram and Mahalingam, the actor playing Hiranyakashipu, had a large piece embedded in his heel. We removed the glass piece, bandaged the heel, and he continued to perform despite the pain.
January 2001
In January 2001, I attended a two-month residential workshop at Natanakairali, the Kudiyattam centre (Irinjnalakuda) run by G. Venu. It was an international effort and artists from Japan, China, and Sweden participated. I conducted the workshops on Bharata Natyam.
I returned refreshed and more determined to make the Sakuntala natakam a success.
In September, I went to Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi to garner support for the festival. It took a year of hard work and constant communication with the Sangam to compose the music, train the actors, design costumes, finalise the venues, and collect funds for the next Mumbai festival in January 2002.
Our destiny is written in the ancient books, our karma designs our life, and the journey is full of omens and signs, whispers and nudges, incidents and coincidences. I look back at my tryst with tradition and the string of coincidences that led to my spending ten years in the service of the art. It was now clear why I was ordained, by the grace of the Universe, to become a small part of the history of twenty-first-century Bhagavata Mela.

Bhagavatamela My Tryst with Tradition’ published by Indus Source Books, Mumbai (2018)
ISBN978-93-85509-08-7 [Includes Digital Resources]