The timeless appeal of the centuries-old Melattur Bhagavata Mela utsavam

Each year, in the month of May, a village close to the Chola heartland of Thanjavur illuminates with much pomp and splendor. Narasimha Jayanthi, a Hindu festival commemorated in the month of Vaisakha, holds immense importance for the village and consequently, a grand fortnight-long Nritya-Nataka Utsavam is organized. In the truest sense, Melattur is an art village as it has produced some of the most remarkable artistes, composers, and figures, who have made unmatched contributions to art. Even now, the plays written by the distinguished playwright Melattur Venkatarama Sastri are performed to honor the exceptional artistic heritage of this village. The unsurpassed and heartwarming hospitality offered by villagers to their guests needs no elaboration. Members of each household escort visitors to the Varadaraja Temple where a stage is set up on the street, facing the deity.Maintaining a tradition like Bhagavata Mela is a colossal task, and the festival thrives even today due to the efforts of numerous artistes and art enthusiasts. The family of the celebrated dance guru and Bhagavata Mela authority Melattur S. Natarajan continues to organize the Utsavam even after his passing. Natarajan’s brother, Kumar, took over the responsibility and has taken several measures to ensure a larger audience attends and, most notably, appreciates the value of the tradition. The entire fest is streamed live for the benefit of global audiences. Additionally, Kumar has released several videos on the group’s official YouTube channel, demystifying the intricacies of the tradition by highlighting each member involved to showcase their individual contributions as well. Performance slots are also offered to emerging dancers and renowned dance schools who participate with dedication to be part of this grand tradition.
Music plays a vital role in this dance-theatre form. Perfecting the songs for the plays demands a specialized approach. And Melattur S. Kumar’s portrayal of Harischandra, with extensive use of footwork, aligns to the music and percussion.
| Photo Credit:
N.C. Srinivasaraghavan
Bhagavata Mela dramas invariably prove to be a musical delight and this aspect must be examined separately to fully grasp the appeal of these Natakams. The twelve Telugu dramas penned by Venkatarama Sastri are filled with traditional daruvus of various contexts – pravesha daruvus, uttara pratyuttara daruvus, samvada daruvus, svataata daruvus, pralaaba daruvus, etc. Each Daruvu is a gem in terms of the literary and musical techniques incorporated by Venkatarama Sastri. Employing the finest poetic expressions both in the dialogues as well as the lyrics of songs, Sastri has ensured that admirers of the Telugu language rejoice in every phrase. Each character has a unique personality and every Paatra Pravesha Daruvu (self-introductory entrance) attempts to depict the characteristics of the character, requiring musicians and dancers to be aware of both the musical and contextual aspects. The daruvus are set in challenging ragas such as Ahiri, Ghanta, and Maanji, in addition to ghana ragas such as Shankarabharanam and Arabhi. It is noteworthy that Venkatarama Sastri’s musical expertise is evident from how he completely disproves the notion of using a particular raga only for a specific rasa or a personality type. For instance, one can hear a Paatra Pravesha in Atana, a raga representing Veera rasa, for a graceful female character. A strong and intimidating male character surprisingly uses Kalyani, a raga typically associated with grace and beauty.From the play Harischandra Part 2.
From the play Harischandra Part 2.
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Photo Courtesy:
Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam
Continuing a great Guru Parampara that traces itself back to Saint Tyagaraja himself, Tiruvaiyaru Brothers (S Narasimhan and S Venkatesan) lead the musical orchestra that is an essential part of these dramas, along with L. Prabaharan. Perfecting songs that are part of a Nritya-Natakam demands a specialized approach as they require musicians to adhere to the composer’s artistic vision regarding ragas and overall bhava, in addition to working closely with the dancers onstage. It is heartening to note that the children of these vocalists, N. Venkatasubramanian and V. Venkatakrishnan, are now assisting them in preserving the family’s heritage. The other long-time instrumentalists who are part of the ensemble include Lalgudi K. Ramaprasad on the violin and B. Gokulakrishnan on the flute, who significantly contribute to the dramas through thoughtful musical interludes and artistic raga insertions, in addition to accompanying the vocalists. Mridangam holds paramount importance in the dramas and requires knowledge of the contents of the songs as well as anticipating the movements of the dancers onstage and coordinating with their footwork. Nagai P. Sriram independently provides percussion support, delivering much-needed rhythmic variety for every line that is musically repeated multiple times with different lyrics in a typical Bhagavata Mela Daruvu.From the play Harischandra Part 1.
From the play Harischandra Part 1.
| Photo Credit:
Photo Courtesy:
Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam
The play Harischandra narrates the life story of Raja Harischandra focusing on his challenges as he endeavors to fulfill his promises to sage Vishwamitra, who demands his entire wealth and even his kingdom. Playing the titular character, senior Bhagavata Mela performer Kumar maintains a distinct style of presentation associated with leading male characters. Similar to the Yakshagana tradition, Kumar’s unique portrayal of Harischandra with extensive use of footwork aligned to the music and percussion, along with syncing of the lips to the song being sung with appropriate expression is to be recognized as a rare skill. Kumar learned the basics of this style from his father, the late G. Swaminathan, making great efforts to inherit the finer aspects. Kumar’s performing skills especially stood out when his character is forced by circumstances to work in a cremation ground. His energy and enthusiasm onstage elevate the plays. Senior dancer Srikanth Natarajan, who has been part of Bhagavata Mela for the last 45 years, portrays Chandramathi, a rolethat previously belonged to the late veteran Melattur Natarajan. Srikanth, renowned for his mature Saatvikaabhinaya, excelled in this role. A specific Daruvu, designated for Chandramathi in raga Ghanta, is one of the play’s standout moments. The Daruvu reflects on Chandramathi reminiscing about the privileged life she once led before being compelled to work for an elderly gentleman. Srikanth’s lokadharmi, where he depicted Chandramathi performing daily tasks, was highly convincing. Nagai Sriram’s mridangam enhanced the musical quality of this Daruvu. Srikanth’s expressions, upon hearing the distressing news that Chandramathi’s son Lohitaksha has passed away, were poignant and deeply moving. It is noteworthy that Srikanth meticulously controlled his facial expressions even while standing on stage when other characters were speaking. Undoubtedly, the character of Chandramathi is a crucial part of the play, and no one could have portrayed it better.
From the play Harishchandra Part 2.

From the play Harishchandra Part 2.
| Photo Credit:
Photo Courtesy: Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam

Mathanga Kanya is a temptress sent by Vishwamitra to seduce Harischandra. The character is spirited, playful, and enticing. Veteran dancer Vijay Madhavan has a dedicated fan base solely for his portrayal of this character, and he has honed and shaped this role with a personal touch over the years. It would not be an overstatement to say that Vijay gradually delves into the multifaceted personality traits of Mathanga Kanya in a nuanced manner each year. This time, he chose to utilize the staircase leading up to the stage to position himself while playing the veena in the Nadanamakriya daruvu. The intense situation that arises between Mathanga Kanya and Chandramathi as they exchange barbs in a rivalry is a scene worth witnessing. Vijay deserves commendation for his expert handling of the overt shringara in these pieces in a manner fitting the nature of this captivating female character.
From the play Harishchandra staged at Melattur Bhagavata Mela mahostsavam.

From the play Harishchandra staged at Melattur Bhagavata Mela mahostsavam.
| Photo Credit:
Photo courtesy: N.C. Srinivasaraghavan

Bhagavata Mela unites individuals of various ages, which is a positive attribute of these dramas. Children like Rakshit A and Sudarsan S sincerely portrayed Lohitaksha. R. Varadarajan, an octogenarian, amazed the audience with his authentic depiction of the king of Kashi. Special acknowledgment must be given to Venkatasubramaniam, who played Nakshatriyan, a humorous character that left the spectators in stitches. Young dancer Sundaresan Pandurangan was a fitting choice for the role of Madanavathi. It is encouraging to observe that the children of the current actors and dancers are taking on roles in these dramas. It is important to gradually pass on the art to younger dancers to ensure its continuity, and this is something that Kumar has been consciously working on. A recommendation to make the dramas more accessible to the audience would be to make books containing the lyrics and Tamil/English translations of the Telugu Daruvus and dialogues available so that rasikas who do not understand Telugu can fully appreciate the finer aspects that underscore the literary genius of Venkatarama Sastri.

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