Melattur Bhagavata Mela - The Dance Dramas of Thanjavur

Kalamamani Kumar is very clear. He wants to live up to the family commitment. His paternal grandfather V.Ganesa Iyer was keen to ensure the conduct of the Melattur Bhagavata Mela. His son Kalaimamani G.Swaminathan and grandsons Kalaimamani S.Natarajan , Kalaimamani S.Kumar had fulfilled the word given to him. Music and theater enthusiasts feel that the ' Kalaimamani ' award should have been followed by a ' Padmashri ' at least. The Melattur Bhagavata Mela Festival has been kept alive by the family of G.Swaminathan. The passing away of S.Natarajan was a big loss and the rest of the family are trying their best to ensure that the festival retains its grandeur during the forthcoming season.

The Thanjavur dance tradition has survived but the dance dramas are struggling to survive. European rule and the end of the Royal court saw to the destruction of this fabulous tradition. The villages of the region had their part in the promotion of dance dramas. Villagers were free from work during the summer months and this helped them to indulge in dance and theater year on year. The dance dramas began at the time when the climate began to cool ( evening ) and it continued until the early hours of the morning. Male villagers performed the roles and these roles were passed down as family heirlooms from one generation to the other.

These dance dramas known as ' Bhagavata Melas ' were enacted by Telugu or Tamil speaking Brahmins. They were performed in Saliamangalam, Soolamangalam, Oothukadu , Teperumanallur and Melattur. Of course Melattur is perhaps the only place to host this tradition even today. The scholars living in the villages wrote the play and it was based on stories which were similar. However, the dance and music varied from one village to the other. Lack of patronage and urban migration has done incalculable harm to these systems. The criticism of Indian tradition by the westerners and the ones aping them added to the misery. Political movements played a one sided role on culture. They chose to attack and destroy the finer aspects of culture instead of properly addressing the social evils of the times.

Today, the Melattur Bhagavata Mela is conducted under the auspices of the ' Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam '. The tradition was kept alive by ' Bharatam ' Natesa Iyer and it fell into oblivion on his passing away. V.Ganesa Iyer of Melattur revived this art form in 1938. Thereafter his son G.Swaminathan and grandson S.Natarajan upheld the tradition. The grandson S.Natarajan had given his life to the Melattur Bhagavata Mela and its current status is purely because of him. The family had sacrificed 40 acres of land in order to conduct the Bhagavata Mela. They did so at a time when they were struggling to survive on a day to day basis. G.Swaminathan sold his grocery shop for ensuring the continuance of the Mela. The family had never spoken about the sacrifices made by them or about the pains that were endured in order to keep the Mela going.

V.Ganesa Iyer had asked his grandsons to swear in the name of Sri Narasimha that they would continue this tradition during their lifetime. The noble S.Natarajan inherited the tradition , stream lined it and worked hard to find support and patronage from many institutions. Corporates and individuals alike came forward to help willingly. The work and times of S.Natarajan can be called pure Bhakti and love for both Art and God. The 82nd Bhagavata Mela is set to take place this year at the Varadaraja Sannidhi at Melattur on the occasion of Sri Narasimha Jayanthi. It is scheduled to start from 19.05.2022 to 27.05.2022.

Thanjavur is considered to be the cradle of ancient Tamil culture and Melattur , located at about 18 kilometers from this historical city has been an upholder of tradition. The Bhagavata Mela is believed to be present from the 11th century onwards. The sentiments of the dance dramas are expressed in classical music and the dance is as per the Bharata Natya tradition. Poetic speeches, dialogues and dramatic action are part of the efforts. The aesthetic appeal is very high. This affair is serious and not some pastime. It is done with devotion and not done as ' art for art's sake '. The performers ensure that religious devotion does not come in the way of presenting art in its best form.

The dance actors and the musicians are amateurs who are engaged in different professions in different parts of the country. Some are located abroad. They have been trained systematically in this art and their performance can be compared to well established professionals. The dance actors and musicians come to Melattur at their own expense every time. The team had been blessed by the Paramacharya of Kanchi His Holiness Chandrashekharendra Saraswathi in the year 1962. The top notch artists Guru Bhagavatar, Ramani Iyer, G.Swaminathan , G.Krishnamurthy Sarma and S.Natarajan were honored by the Sage of Kanchi and a number of State /Central institutions. A number of local bodies have honored them too. The current leader S.Kumar was also honored similarly.

Melattur S.Kumar has begun to spend all the time at the village these days. He is filling up the vacuum caused by the passing away of his brother S.Natarajan. Let us try to look into the origin of these happenings. There are three kinds of dramas - Nataka, Nritya Nataka and Geya Ntaka. Nritya Natakas are earlier than Geya Natakas and they strictly adhere to Natya Nataka treatises. Eventually Sanskrit theater got adapted in the regional languages too. Ariya koothu, Bhagavata Mela and Kuravanji are from Tamilnadu. Yakshaganam is from Karnataka, Koodiyattam is from Kerala , Kuchipudi is from Andhra. Yakshaganam, Kuravanji and Bhagavata Mela belong to the genre - Natya Natakam.

The Naick rulers of Thanjavur had contributed much towards the dance dramas of the past. Raghunatha Naick ( 1600 - 1634 ) began the golden era of Telugu learning and literature those days. The progenitors of the Melattur Bhagavata Mela had been settled by Achutappa ( 1560 - 1600 ) Naick. He helped them to settle down in Melattur by offering identical houses with wells and cows. Each of them were given 2.5 acres of land ( 510 families in all ) . Many of the residents were big scholars and they had to quit their place in order to escape from the Muslims who had tormented them. This had particularly happened after the Battle of Talikota in 1565. The Maratha rulers followed the Naick tradition and they acquired proficiency in this classical cum musical language. They composed several Telugu pieces and also patronized Telugu scholars by giving them gifts of land.

Bhagavata Mela Natakam borrowed extensively from the epics and puranas. Themes from Srimad Bhagavatam extolled Bhakti. and the actors were men only. This was done so in order to maintain the purity of purpose. These men came to be known as ' Bhagavatulu ' or ' Bhagavatar '.

Melattur village had existed for a long period of time. This village is located on the dance map of India. One can discover stone inscriptions belonging to the period of Vikrama Chola ( 1120 - 1135 ) in this village. The village had been named as Unnathapuri after Unnathapuresswarar. It came to be known as Achutapuri later. Minister Govinda Dikshitar is also important here. He had interacted with the ruler to ensure a good settlement. The Telugu Brahmins became the vehicles for the rich Telugu culture. Finally the work of Venkatarama Sastry ( 1743 - 1809 ) became the standard. His compositions are being used by the dance actors at the Melattur Bhagavata Mela. All the plays are in Telugu and Valli Thirumanam is the only one in Tamil.

The Varadaraja Temple has a story too. It was during the reign of Tulaja I ( 1728 - 1735 ), a clan from Athigiri ( Kanchipuram ) settled down at Melattur. They installed the statue of Varadaraja in Melattur. This was after saving their deity from the Muslim cavalry. The Narasimha tradition is popular here.

The Bhagavata Mela owes itself to a number of people - Natesa Iyer, " Appilai " Narayanaswamy Iyer, G.V.Narayanaswamy Iyer, Ramaswamy, T.K.Rajagopalan, V.Ganesa Iyer, Bharatam Nallur Krishnaswamy Iyer, Pichu Bhagavatar, K.Gopala Iyer , C.V.Muthuswamy Iyer, K.Ramani Iyer, Piswati Ramamurthy Iyer, Balu Bhagavatar, R.Nagarajan, G.Swaminathan, G.Krishnamurthy Sarma, R.Sundaram, R.Ganesan , T.G.Srinivasaraghavan, and Kalyani Ammal the wife of G.Swaminathan. S.Natarajan was a class act. He did all the challenging roles. His abilities were fantastic. The services of E.Krishna Iyer and Mohan Khokar for the cause of the Bhagavata have to be etched in gold. Business magnate V.D.Swami had also played a role in the activities and sponsorship connected with the Bhagavata Mela.

The Sangam had recruited two young talented singers ,Narasimhan and Venkatesan ( Thiruvayyaru Brothers ) and nurtured young dancers like Srikanth, Aravind and Vijay Madhavan. A talented and promising singer L.Prabhakaran was also nurtured. The young dancers underwent training in Natya under the great Gurus Dr.Padma Subramaniam and Dr.Chitra Visweswaran. The Natakams included Prahlada Charitamu, Markandeya Charitamu, Harishchandra Natakamu, Rukmangadha Natakamu, Usha Parinayamu, Hari Hara Leela Vilasamu, Seetha Parinayamu, Kamsa Charita Natakamu, Rukmini Kalyanam and Dhruva Charitamu. Of the above it was only possible to get the first five of them. Thanks to S.Natarajan, all the works of Venkatarama Sastry were discovered and operationalised.

Several columnists and critics have written about the Melattur Bhagavata Mela. In short , one can see the lay man and the connoisseur alike getting transported to a spiritual world where there is no distinction between anyone. The viewers and actors lose their identity and get converted into devotees of Lord Narasimha. They pray for his blessings. The unique blend of Bhakti , music and dance coupled with drama transport one to the realm of Lord Narasimha himself. The scene depicting the emergence of Narasimha from the pillar would be fantastic. The actor would fast on the previous day. People have believed in the power of prophecies connected with the Melattur Bhagavata Mela.

It is important to speak about the worship and grace of Lord Narasimha. The worship has been popular even during the times of the Pallavas and it continued well into the Naick period too. The story of Prahlada has been a part of many songs and plays. His devotion to Lord Narasimha has been celebrated by Venkatarama Sastry in the lovely play ' Prahlada Charitamu '. One would be enthralled to see this all night play. The energy of the actors actually represents the grace of Lord Narasimha. Absolute devotion backed by the urge to maintain tradition in the most patriotic manner has been part of this ancient tradition.

The wonderful mask of Lord Narasimha has been preserved in the temple. It is used during the dance drama. The Prahlada Charitamu is a miraculous play. " We can only enact this powerful play at the Varadaraja Temple or in Ahobilam. Once I performed a lecture demonstration and was injured. The power of the divine settles upon us and we are only carriers of tradition. I am now looking after this affair after the passing away of my brother Natarajan. The blessings of Lord Narasimha and your support is required to continue this tradition. Venkatarama Sastry was a great scholar. His story and contribution cannot find a parallel. I must thank my grandfather Ganesa Iyer, father G.Swaminathan and brother Natarajan for giving me the opportunity. The blessings of Lord Narasimha are paramount., " stated Kalaimamani S.Kumar while talking about the Melattur Bhagavata Mela. The Inauguration and the famed Prahlada Charitam is scheduled on 20.05.2022.

Let us use this opportunity to support the Melattur Bhagavata Mela. The contact details and bank account details are given below.

Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam

" Kalaimamani " S.Kumar

Managing Trustee

' Sree Gananatha '

67, South Street


Thanjavur District 614 301.


Mobile - 99943 67113

Email - [email protected]

Bank Details :

Name of Account : Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam

SB Account Number : 100029222730

Bank : Equitas Small Finance Bank

Thanjavur Branch

IFSC Code : ESFB0001019

Donations are allowed deduction under 80 % of IT Act.

P.S : Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam is the only body authorized to collect donations for the Melattur Bhagavata Mela.

Dear friends... let us enjoy the tradition by visiting Melattur this year and let us do our bit by financially supporting the great tradition.

Mr. Rajesh Govindarajulu is one of the founding members of the Verandah Club Pvt. Ltd. He is a leading columnist, historian, jeweler, entrepreneur, and a heritage enthusiast who is earnestly working to revive the past in the light of the present. Experiential learning about the history of Coimbatore is his main course of interest and he is also a panel member of many colleges in the city.

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