Pure devotion. And dedication.
First things first. Melattur Bhagavatha Mela is a tradition carried out by families in their ancestral village of Melattur near Thanjavur in Tamilnadu. Around 500 Telugu families had migrated to Thanjavur area from Andhra Pradesh years ago. Melattur Venkatrama Sastry had composed many dance dramas and his descendants are dutifully carrying out a tradition started by him without diluting the content and form.
The Mela typically starts around 8 PM and goes on till 4AM next morning. Accompanied by musicians,it is a spectacle that is to be experienced to be believed.
Visitors are assured of fulfilling meals and endless supply of coffee and a place to rest, all thoughtfully provided by Mr Natarajan and his brothers.
I was surprised to see many of Gen Y and Gen Z actively taking part in the festival. I asked Bharadwaj, a chartered accountant based out of Delhi who dons the role of Kattiyakkaran about this and he said some miraculous power makes the family assemble every year and they do so with so much of passion. Many have jeopardised their career to be at Melattur for a week but have been gainfully employed the moment they return to their cities.
Here is a brief history both from Bharadwaj’s account and information gleaned from the net.
Melattur Bhagavathamela artistes are dedicated to Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple. As descendants and followers of Venkatrama Sastri, they are devotees of Lord Narasimha to whom all performances are offered.
On the morning of Narasimha Jayanthi, the family members gather at the temple. The mask of Narasimha, believed to have magical powers is kept in an alcove above the idol. It is taken out just once on this day. The mask is cleaned and decorated with flowers,sandal paste and kumkum. The professional idol and the mask are taken out ceremoniously around the village and placed in front of the stage at the venue just before the performance.
The actors perform because of their love for the art and religious fervour and do not accept any monetary reward. It is an all male troupe.
Here is my story.
I had called Mr Natarajan earlier ad he mailed me the invite and asked me not to miss Prahlada Charitram on May 23.
Melattur is a non-descript village,12 kms from Thanjavur. Easy to miss if you don’t watch out. Once you get off,helpful villagers guide you to the home of Mr Natarajan teeming with visitors,relatives and friends.
This is the stage set on a street right opposite Varadaraja Swamy temple. Withheavy duty sponsors and patrons with the state governments of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana being perpetual sponsors.
After a welcome cup of steaming hot coffee, I sauntered near the green room to capture the artistes as they were evolving into their roles.
Prahlada waiting for the final touch
Asura Guru Shukracharya
Renowned Carnatic musician Sri Neyveli Santhanagopalan, chief guest,inaugurating the festival said he was blessed to finally witness the Bhagavathamela about which he’d only read or watched on YouTube so far.
Konangi! – Sporting a conical cap and dressed like a Bhagavathar, Konangi is the first to appear and dance to the Konangi Pravesha song with slokas on Ganesha.
Two to make stage auspicious and perform Pooja.
Ganapathy Patrapravesha: A young boy with a mask of Ganesha enters and the two elders seen above escort him and perform arathi on centre stage. He is then escorted out by them.
Kattiyakkaran announcing the arrival of King Hiranyakashipu:
The play properly begins with the entry of Kattiyakkaran, the King’s courtier. He is of imposing build and animatedly describes his master’s virtues and exploits. He brandishes a stick to warn the audience to stay silent. He heralds the arrival of his royal master.
Hiranyakashipu makes a grand entry. I simply loved the vitality of this character. Exuding confidence and displaying several emotional with his expressive eyes, he makes an immediate impact.
“Hiranyakashipu’ entered with a fast gait. Asura courtiers accompanied him with demonic actions and gestures. The earth trembled with the firm footsteps of the valiant, unrivalled warrior. His face reflected his pride and self-importance. Ministers and generals stood by his side. The king rested his arms on their shoulders as he walked majestically. People in all directions extolled his virtues”. – Netsourced
Royal courtesans escorting Queen Leelavathi, Prahlad’s mother and Hiranyakahipu’s wife.
Leelavathi, played to perfection by Mr Natarajan himself
Asura Guru Shukracharya makes a brief but impactful presence
Prahlada’s entry and various scenes that depict the conflict between the son and the father with the helpless mother trying to placate both unsuccessfully. There is a long but effective monologue of Leelavathi wondering about the future of her son and how she is unable to be of any help.
The play concludes with the gory end of Hiranyakashipu at the hands the man-lion, Narasimha preceded by a lengthy dialogue between the two.
It is a goosebumps moment to watch this episode.
Next year is going to be grander as it is the 80th year. Do not miss this socio- cultural and divine experience.
Immensely thankful to Mr Natarajan and his family for their courtesy and hospitality.
A request to the organisers- Since I understand Telugu,I was able to follow most of the songs and dialogues. For the benefit of locals,would it be possible to bring out a booklet in Tamil giving a summary of important scenes,monologues and crucial dialogues?
Tips: Stay options. Thanjavur is a safe bet as you find many good lodges and excellent choice of food. Since Melattur programs begin only in the evening,you may want to indulge in sightseeing,the scope for which is plenty as this district is dotted with temples and heritage sites. Especially famous are the Navagraha sannidhis.
If you wish to stay closer,then Tirukkaragavur, 4 kms away would be a good choice.