Bhagavata Mela: 76 and still going strong
- G Ulaganathan

June 29, 2016

It is May last week and despite the blistering heat, one canít help travelling to Melattur, the scenic village on the outskirts of Thanjavur, to be part of the colourful Bhagavata Mela organized by Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam. From its inception in the 15th century, this dance drama tradition has been kept alive by the Bhagavatars donning various roles and enacting stories from the Puranas.

Prahlada Charitram

Prahlada Charitram

This year marks the 76th year of the seven-day festival organised in the present form and it was a treat to sit through the whole night and witness Prahlada Charithram, Harischandra (part 1 & 2) and a medley of various other performances. The stories were narrated to an almost full house audience through a beautiful blend of dance, music and dialogue. The master of the show was undoubtedly Guru S. Natarajan who planned the event meticulously and also performed varied roles like Leelavathi in Prahlada Charitram and Chandramathi in Harischandra with aplomb. He was ably supported by all the dancers and musicians, and the people of the entire village.

Though not in a stylised form these dance dramas were very communicative and touched the hearts of those present. Though a little crude in form, one could witness the energy and bhakthi that came to the performers naturally. In fact, after the completion of Prahlada Charitram in the early hours - around 5am - some of those playing roles like Mahavishnu went into a complete trance. The play began the previous night and the performers were on stage continuously for more than 7 hours.

The week-long festival coincided with the Narasimha Jayanthi on May 20. It was quite obvious that the preparation and presentation of the natakams involved absolute dedication on the part of the performers, who are inheritors of this great legacy. They also perform multiple roles and often there is hardly time for any rehearsals.                                              

This year, the festival opened at Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple on May 23 at 9am.  Arayar Sevai by Sri Rama Sarma and a vocal concert by Chitra Bilvam and Namasankirtanam by Udayalur Kalyanaraman were the highlights of the first day. The formal inauguration was done next day at about 9.30pm by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam who paid glowing tributes to Melattur and to S. Natarajan for keeping the tradition alive.

There were two highlights this year. The first was the debut of young Dhruv, the grandson of Natarajan and son of dancer Priyamvada Murali, in Prahlada Charitram. The young chubby boy took to the stage like a fish in water and guided by his able grandfather on stage, performed his role impressively.
Harischandra (May 26 and 27) and Rukmini Kalyanam, both in Bhagavata Mela style and Valli Tirumanam, a Tamil opera, were the other major events. The festival concluded on May 31 with Hindu marriage songs presented by Marabu Foundation of Dr. Rama Kausalya and Anjaneya Aradana.

Also on the menu were impressive Bharatanatyam performances by member-artistes of ABHAI (Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India), Chennai and by Bangalore based Kavya Kasinathan (disciple of Mithun Shyam). On behalf of ABHAI, young Lalitha  Narasimhan, a brilliant  dancer who is a disciple of Padmalakshme Suresh and a ĎBí grade artist of Doordarshan, presented a traditional Bharatanatyam solo for nearly 2 hours.

Kavya Kasinathan

Lalitha  Narasimhan

Another major highlight of the event this year was the dance arangetram by nine young students of Natarajan. These students are from Melattur and surrounding villages and have been learning the dance only for about 4 to 5 months prior to the festival. Their rendering of a few select items with nattuvangam by Natarajan himself was a great revelation that talent lies even in small towns and villages and they need to be nurtured. Natarjan deserves full credit for discovering them and as one of the girls who spoke on the occasion said, they were all keen to make dance as their career - a heart warming message to the dance community and to the art lovers.
Priyamvadha Murali and her husband Dr. Murali supported Natarajan in organising and taking care of the logistics for this mega event in the small town of Melattur.

G. Ulaganathan is a senior writer and journalist based in Bangalore.