- Anantha Krishnan, Chennai
March 11, 2012
Nallur Somayaji Pichu (Bhagavatar) Iyer, my great-grandfather, lived in Mudukku theru in the agraharam. As per my father, his house felt like a hermitage, reflecting his simple and pious living. He lived a reclusive life toward his end and did assume aabhat-sanyasa in his final days. He attained samadhi in 1945 at the age of 77 and was buried on the banks of Kudamuruti in Nallur. Whenever we visit Nallur, we solemnly go around the tulasi platform and pray. One of Pichu Iyer's 5 sisters was married into the family of Umayalpuram Sundara Bhagavatar and Krishna Bhagavatar, the disciples of Saint Thyagaraja and the brothers responsible in identifying and renovating the saint's samadhi in Thiruvaiyaru in the year 1903. The brothers performed aradhana for the saint since the death of his grandson. Then in 1907, they began the practice of performing concerts at the samadhi during the aradhana.
Pichu Iyer's sister married Krishna Bhagavatar's son. Pichu Iyer and Tandava-Pandita 'Bharatam' Narayanaswamy Iyer, who lived just four houses away from the ancestral house that we still hold on to, were instrumental in bringing Melattur Bhagavatamela back on track prior to 1940s, by imparting training on young aspirants, when the tradition there was going through uncertain times. They were very much part of Bhagavatamela in Nallur and as well collaborated with Oothukadu. Pichu Iyer played Leelavathi in 'Prahlada Charitram.' The doyen Baratham Narayanaswamy Iyer commanded great respect in his time.
My father recalled visiting him in 1942 (father was 13 then) along with my grandfather who was employed in Thiruvanandapurum, when Narayanaswamy Iyer was a guest at Travancore court. It was simply a 'Nallurian-meet.' Narayanaswamy Iyer was honoured by the Music Academy during the 'Sadas' in 1953. As per my father's account - he was short in stature and used to hang out on his 'thinnai' most of the time; pretty much appeared living on his own as my father couldn't recall seeing any of his family members whenever he visited Nallur (I learnt his wife used to be away most days); and there was talk in the village that he taught Ranjan, a.k.a. Venkataramanan, the handsome villain of yesteryear cinema.
Whenever Narayanaswamy Iyer visited Madras, he used to stay at the veena vidwan Thyagaraman's house, the grandson of Umayalpuram duo and Ranjan used to send his car for Narayanaswamy Iyer to have him over at his house for dance lessons. On a couple of occasions, I saw Ranjan in Bombay in his later years but did not talk as I was not aware of these tidbits then. Oothukadu Ramanathan, who used to don the Narasimha mask during the Bhagavatamela in Oothukadu, was my paternal grandfather's uncle. My father recalled seeing that mask in his house. He lived right across what is believed to have been Oothukadu Venkatakavi's house in the agraharam. As I gathered in Melattur during my 2010 visit, the same mask from Oothukadu was brought to Melattur as a backup when factionalism surfaced in Melattur. It is interesting to note such 'inter-play' amongst the 'players' (no pun intended) of Bhagavatamela of these villages.
Paruthiyur Venkatasubramani Iyer's son, Rao Saheb Subramani Iyer, editor (post retirement, at the behest of Kanchi Maha Periyaval) of 'Kamakoti' magazine published out of Sankara Mattam in Kumbakonam, and father of my uncle Gopalakrishnan, was a great patron of Varadharaja temple in Melattur and has contributed much for the upkeep of the temple in his time. That noble work is being continued by my uncle's family members.
With such a luminous lineage as the backdrop, I headed to Melattur for the second time in 2010 (since my return to India 6 years earlier), more to watch the recreation of Narasimha avatar by Natarajan and troupe but, ended up digging a bit more beyond the roaring Narasimha on stage.
On a walk towards the river Vettaru, the first sign that struck me was a street named 'Somasi Street.' On enquiries, this agraharam used to be called Somayaji Street as it housed very many Somayajis of those times. I couldn't help thinking about how much time my great-grandfather would have spent there amongst his ilk. I walked in with a faint hope of linking anything at all on the street with its name, but all that I saw was samosa and tea shops - how aptly named, with changing times!
Further down, a temple for Kali and right across was one for Draupathi Amman. At the latter, a festival is conducted in the month of Chitirai and I could recall the all-night fervent drumming and singing during my first visit to Melattur 5 years earlier. Then, followed the agricultural fields and the dry bed of Vettaru. Making a detour, a peek into the newly built shrine of Sri Lakshmi Narasimhar and the adjacent stage, belonging to the other Bhagavatamela group headed by Mali. Yes, there are two groups in this teeny-tiny village that stage the plays a week apart. The art survives!
As the utsavam at the Siva temple is in full flow, the utsava-murthis take couple of rides, morning and evening, through the agraharams on a tractor drawn carriage. In Nallur, it is still the bullock cart that serves this need. A fairly large temple, Siva here is called 'Unathapureeswarar' and guess what, the Ambal has a name that is in line with the times, Sivapriya (wow, what a name!). The temple entrance tower is flanked by 2 Ganesha idols of antiquity. The lingam is swayambu and the temple Kurukal told me that Markandeya had performed puja there. The pond across is huge but dry. I was curious about this temple as I recalled reading an article in The Hindu back in 2004 on the inscription of Kulothunga Cholan (12th century) that talked about women empowerment in those times. There are inscriptions at the temple belonging to Vikrama Cholan period as well. As the temple was getting set for Kumbabishegam, I requested the management that the white washing done over the inscriptions be cleaned too to give readers an easier time.
Finally, an unassuming village Vedapatasala - As I walked in, the Srowthigal asked his 12 Yajur and 6 Sama Veda students to line up and chant the hymns. It was blissful. It is a 25 year old patasala run by S Thyagaraja Sarma who is a student of Rajagopala Ganabadigal of Mettur Sankara Gurukulam. He is certified by Veda Agama Vidwat Sadhas of Thirumala Thirupati Devasthanam. Also, he was awarded a gold medal at the age of 16 by Kanchi Maha Periyaval. He sounded very humble and said he was only trying to keep the tradition alive amid many difficulties. This patasala can certainly use some financial help. With the blessings of the great souls and the Almighty, I hope to give an international exposure to Bhagavatamela, the living tradition of Thanjavur, in the near future.
Good article. My grandmother Jayalakshmi is from Nallur. She was the sister of Sri Venkatesan and Rajaraman and d/o Pichu Iyer. She used to frequently mention about her father.
- Ravi Srinivasan (April 20, 2017)
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