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Melattur, a seat of Bhagavata Mela - an overview (Part I)
by Melattur S Natarajan, Dubai

March 31, 2004
Melattur, a little village 18 Km from Thanjavur, may not be on the tourist-map of Tamil Nadu but it is certainly on the dance map of India as a village dedicated, over the centuries, to the performing arts in general and Bhagavata Mela in particular. The Cholas, one of the dynasties that ruled over the South and parts of rest of India, played a very significant role in the Tamil country for four and a quarter centuries in promoting Tamil culture, especially Tamil literature, Saivaite religion and temple architecture. It is evidenced from the stone inscriptions that during the reign of "Vikrama Chola" (1125-1150 A.D) a Shiva temple was built over an alluvium that carried a "Linga", naming the thorpe as "Unnathapuri" and the deity in Linga form, "Unnathapureeswarar". It is thus the Unnathapuram, known earlier as nritta-vinoda-valanadu, came into existence since the early part of the 12th century.

By the end of the 14th century, the Vijayanagar Empire annexed Chola mandalam to its kingdom and founded the Nayaks dynasty in Thanjavur. When the Vijayanagar Empire was defeated at the hands of Muslims in 1565 AD, several families of composers, poets, Vedic scholars and performing artistes from the empire migrated to Thanjavur.

The second Nayak king, Achutappa (1560-1600 A.D) offered refuge to these families and settled them down in Thanjavur and nearby places. Under the directions of Govinda Dikshitar, an able minister in Achutappa Nayak's court and hailed as a great scholar himself in Sanskrit and Telugu, one such migrant group of 510 Brahmin families was given shelter at Unnathapuram. Each family was offered a house with a well, one and a half acres of cultivable land and a cow. A small group of artisans class was also attached to the village. Govinda Dikshitar, under the patronage of king Achutappa, got the Unnathapureeswarar temple renovated with necessary extensions, accommodated the Telugu Brahmin families around the outer precincts of the temple, and also got a tank hollowed out in front of the temple and another at the south-western end of the village. While the tank in front of the temple is called "Shiva Ganga Theertam," the latter is named after Govinda Dikshitar as "Ayyan Kulam".

Thus protected and encouraged by king Achutappa Nayak, the maestros of Unnathapuram and of such other places continued their pursuit in contributing greatly to religion, especially Vaishnavism, music and dance; the result of which was that the rich Telugu culture took roots in Tamil country as at Unnathapuram. Through compositions of various classes of works, the composers settled at Unnathapuram made the village renowned as "Achutapuram, Achutapuri and Achutabthi" in reverence to Achutappa Nayak's endowment of Unnathapuram. Thus Unnathapuram became known as Achutapuri since the reign of Achutappa.

It was here that the great maestros, "Bharatam" Kasinathayya and his disciple, Veerabadrayya were born. Bharatam Kasinathayya (1676-1740 A.D), a great natyacharya and composer, composed the early alarippu-s, sabdam-s and salaam jati-s. It is said that he composed nine alarippu-s in various tala-s. Kasinathayya was famous for his sabdam-s. They still retain their freshness and are used in Kuchipudi dances. He also composed a number of solo-dance numbers for the Court dancers of Thanjavur and devadasis of Melattur. Most of his works were dedicated to his patrons, Shahaji (1684-1711), Serfoji (1711-1729), Tulaja (1729-1735) and Pratapa Simha (1739-1764 AD)

Kasinathayya had many disciples; prominent among them, other than Veerabadrayya, were the Ramanathapuram Brothers, "Bharatam" Panchanadayya and Vaidyanathayya. The Brothers were competent dance composers and one of their sabdams is dedicated to Unnathapureeswara.

Veerabadrayya (1700-1769 A. D), a composer par excellence, was a pioneer of all music and dance forms and contributed immensely to the growth of carnatic music and sadir. He was a contemporary of the Bhosala Kings- Serfoji, Tulaja and Pratapa Simha. Pratapa Simha patronised Veerabadrayya and showed greater respect to his principles. Veerabadrayya did not sing on mortals but dedicated his works to Achuta-Varada, Unnathapureeswara and Prataparama, the last one being the family deity of the patron. He was proficient in Telugu, Sanskrit, Marathi and Tamil and composed padhas and keertanas in them. His output in Telugu and Sanskrit was naturally more.

Veerabadrayya was the preceptor of Ramaswamy Dikshitar (1735-1817 A. D), father of Muthuswamy Dikshitar of the Thiruvarur Trinity, and Lakshmanayya. Like his Guru, Ramaswamy Dikshitar also composed varnams and ragamalika kritis. Subbarama Dikshitar, in his Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini, declared that it was because Veerabadrayya cleared and paved the way that Carnatic music could later shine gloriously. In the same book, he stated that Veerabadrayya composed some daru-s and pada-s on the Bhosala king. If this was a fact, the works are yet to surface from the depths of the time.

Unnathapuram or Achutapuri or Achutabdi is also popularly known as "Melattur" i.e. Mela + Oor. There are no evidences to confirm the period when Unnathapuram came to be known as Melattur. It appears, however, that the name Melattur was in existence even during the early part of the 18th century as evidenced from one of the "Sabdams" composed by Panchanadhi Vaidyanathayya (1694-1758 A.D), disciple of "Bharatam" Kasinathayya. In his sabdam, Vaidyanathayya salutes Unnathapureeswara as "...minnaina melatturi Unnatapureesa Swami paraku-ninnu nammithi salaamu."

With the passage of time, Melattur was producing great composers of music and dance works. The glory of the village reaching far and wide, more and more groups of migrants from Piswati and Kumandur, both in Andhra, Paravakarai, nearby Manankorai and Palliagraharam took shelter at Melattur; the village developed further in area, population and culture.

During the reign of Tulaja-I (1728-1735 AD), the fourth king of the Marathas, a clan from "Atthigiri" (Kancheepuram) came down to and settled at Melattur. The Atthigiri clan, under the patronage from King Tulaja, built a temple at the north-western end of the agraharam and installed the idol of Lord Varadaraja brought along with them. According to H.H. Pujya Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswati, the Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, the Varadaraja idol consecrated and worshipped at Atthigiri was brought to Melattur by the Atthigirians to save their Lord from the attacks of Muslim cavalry.

In keeping with the continued development of the village, two more tanks were hollowed-out, one at the western end and the other at the north-western end of the village; the former was named "Narayana Theertam" and the latter, "Garuda Theertam". During the reign of Pratapa Simha (1739-1764 A.D), an idol of Narasimha in yogic posture was installed over a small plinth near Narayana Theertam. Surprisingly, the idol was left with no means for regular worship. Riparian, "Vriddha Kaveri" or Vettar, north of the village, a "Mandapam" (bathing ghat) was built and a "Nandavanam" (pansy) formed during this period.

Melattur not only produced great composers like "Bharatam" Kasinadayya and Veerabadrayya but also composers of nrtyanatakas following the dance-drama traditions set by Vijayaraghava Nayak and Shahaji of the Nayak and Bhosala dynasties respectively. One such composer was Gopalakrishna Sastry. Gopalakrishna Sastry is said to have lived in this village during the reign of Serfoji-I, Tulaja-I and Pratapa Simha of Bhosala dynasty.

According to experts, Gopalakrishna Sastry was a very young disciple of Narayana Theerta Yogi and received initiation into the Narasimha cult and operas from the Saint himself. Gopalakrishna Sastry authored four works such as Druva Charitam, Gowri Kalyanam, Rukmani Kalyanam, Sita Kalyanam and Kuchela Charitam, all following Harikatha formats.

By virtue of his deep reverence to his Guru, Gopalakrishna Sastry put in his best efforts to success in moulding his son, Venkatarama Sastry (1743-1809 A.D), as an excellent composer of Bhagavata Mela Natakas.

Bhagavata Mela - as conceived by Venkatarama Sastry
and the excellence of his compositions

Venkatarama Sastry inherited many traditions. His father made him scholarly in Vedas, Sastras, Puranams and Upanishads. His Guru, Melattur Lakshmanayya, a disciple of Veerabadrayya, made him an expert in kavya, nataka and alankaras.

With his masterly knowledge of Telugu, Sanskrit, music, dance and drama, Venkatarama Sastry brought a new era of dance-dramas to Melattur. He composed many nrtyanatakas and there are at least twelve natakas to his credit even though only eleven are authentically confirmed.

The theme of his natakas is chosen from the popular puranic tales found in Srimad Bhagavatam. The natakas to his credit, as of today, are Prahlada Charitamu, Markandeya Natakamu, Harichandra Natakamu, Usha Parinayamu, Rukmangadha, Hari Hara Leela Vilasamu, Kamsa Vadham, Seeta Parinayamu, Rukmini Kalyanam, Druva Charitamu and Sati Savitri Natakamu. Bhakti being the main target, Sastry's compositions connote the theme beautifully. All his works are dedicated to Lord Varadaraja, the presiding deity of Melattur village.

In the prologues to his Telugu plays, Venkatarama Sastry describes himself as belonging to the Srivatsa Gotra, son of Gopalakrishna Sastry and pupil of Lakshmanarya.

The natakas of Venkatarama Sastry are a fine blend of the concept of Sanskrit drama as envisaged by Bharata in his Natya Sastra, the rich Telugu culture and the developments that have taken place to nataka format during the reign of Nayak and Maratha Kings. His genius as a gifted composer and a master of Natya Sastra is reflected in full in his scholarly songs and verses and the presentation of the plays. His compositions include "churnikas, champakamalas, darus, dwipadas, kandams, kandarthas, padhas, padha-varnas, padyams, sandhivachanas, sardoolams, sisams, vachanas and thillanas".

In his composition of darus, he has employed all the kinds like Pravesa daru, Samvadha daru, uttara-pratyutra daru, varnana daru, pralabha daru swagatha daru and Yela padamsas found in Bharata's stage. A beautiful "cindu" also finds a place in one of the pravesa darus.

Whereas the poetic genius of Sastry is revealed in his exquisite sahityas, his musical genius is unfolded in the choice and handling of the "apurva" or rare ragas. He possessed the natural talent for choosing the appropriate ragas, which are in perfect consonance with the meaning of the songs, and different shades of moods of the characters under various situations dictated by the play. He also adopted the time-theory in selection of ragas.

Sastry has, in general, used only "rakti" ragas as they are very expressive of the sentiments of heart and afford richer scope for descriptive and exhaustive treatment of music and dance. In addition to rakti ragas, rare and uncommon ragas like "ghanta, ahiri, neelambari, mallaru, suddha danyasi, etc. also figure in his plays.

Appropriately enough, most of the darus are set in chapu and adhi-talas, a few in rupaka and jampa. Chapu tala being a syncopated time measure, is ideally suited to dance and music, all resulting in a beautiful confluence of free flow of melody and rhythm throughout the play. The darus composed by Venkatarama Sastry are no less in quality or flavour of those by the Musical Trinity.

Not only by virtue of the theme but also because of the excellence of the composition, the "Prahlada Charitamu" shines the foremost work of Venkatarama Sastry.

The "poorva ranga" format adopted by Sastry for the play, Prahlada Charitamu, in particular, is a "chef-d oeuvre". All Bhagavata Mela plays begin with the entry of Konangi or buffoon dancing his way. According to a legend, Vinayaka once swallowed the chakra of Vishnu, and to get back the essential missile, Vishnu transformed himself into a konangi and performed a comic dance before Vinayaka. As the story goes, the latter shrieks with laughter till the chakra comes out of his mouth.

"Thodayam" or "Jaya" from the Bhajana Sampradaya of the South is introduced as invocation song followed by "Naandi Dwipadha" and a "sabdam" - narration of the story in a nutshell. The sabdam, called "Prahlada Pattabisheka Sabdam", unfolds into excellent sollukattus in different gatis followed by a "kavutuvam" and a "jaggini daru" in obeisance to Lord Vigneswara. This concept of "Katha Sangraha" is absent in Sanskrit drama.

Following the poorva ranga, Lord Vigneswara character enters the stage dancing beautifully to a pravesa daru, blesses the audience, the Bhagavatas on the stage, the day's play and finally waddles His exit.

Introduction of Vigneswara character at the commencement of a nataka follows the development to the theatre-art brought by King Shahaji-I (1683 - 1712 A.D) of the Bhosala dynasty.

After this, the main play begins with the introduction of the chief characters by themselves one by one through pravesa darus and the introduction is called "patra pravesam". The "varnana" in dwipadha form prior to the pravesa daru and the pravesa darus themselves give, generally, the description of the character (prosopography). The darus are similar to any "Kritis" among classical compositions in carnatic music, offering wider scope for exhaustive treatment. After the introduction of the chief characters, the main story of the play is unfolded scene by scene.

No event on the stage takes place without a "sandhivachana" by the sutradar; this sandhivachana concept is found in Sanskrit play. Each daru is embellished with "Mukha" and "Anthya" (the beginning and end) jatis to appropriate rhythm to which the daru is set.

Even though the scripts of Sastry's natakas did not have a place for "prastavana", an introduction in the form of conversation between the sutradar and the "pariparsvaka" or the herald, this was in practice in Melattur natakas till 1949 but in regional language (possibly Sastry might have left it to the manodarma of the sutradar and pariparsvaka).

As the play progresses, a variety of darus, soliloquies in classical music of carnatic tradition and dialogues in poetic diction blend at every stage with dance and abhinaya to Natya Sastra treatises.

The interpretation of song and speech with significant hand gestures and facial expressions synchronises with rhythmic cadences of the feet while intermittent swara passages and scintillating jathis punctuate many of the songs in a delectable manner.

Such a remarkable synchronisation of music, speech, dance and abhinaya produces a high aesthetic appeal leading to rasa realisation according to the conception of natya in the ancient treatises. The natakas of Venkatarama Sastry approaches that ideal and hence creates a profound and classical atmosphere.

At the end of each natakam, the actors personating gods and demi-gods, and the protagonist climb down the stage, walk through the passage to the temple with the Bhagavatars chanting Hari Bhajans, offer worship and "deeparathana" to the deities inside. Later, the ensemble continues the procession towards another temple maintained by the patron. As it walks through the streets of the village, the villagers offer "arathi" and pay obeisance in deification. At the temple of the patron, "arathi" is offered to the actors and the actors offer prayers followed by recitation of benedictory verses, only when the natakam of the day is said to be complete. This is one of the most fascinating spectacles of our living theatre.

It is believed that Venkatarama Sastry recruited his players from each Brahmin family in the village and regularly enacted the plays in the Varadaraja Perumal sannidhi (propylneum) before the decorated processional deities and that the erstwhile Royal court officials, zamindars and erudite scholars were regular visitors to Melattur to witness the natakas including Saint Thiagaraja once, and Ramaswamy Dikshitar.

The natakas of Sastry were of very high order and received wider appreciation. The tradition, at the pinnacle of glory and fame, spread to neighbouring villages, Oothukadu, Soolamangalam and Tepperumanallur. While the former two villages mainly adopted the works of Venkatarama Sastry, the latter followed the composition authored by a local composer.

However the Bhagavata Mela tradition practised at Saliamangalam, also called as Achutapuram, a small village about 15 kms south-east of Melattur is at least two decades elder to that of Melattur. The Saliamangalam maestro is said to be "Panchanata Bhagavatar", a junior most disciple of Melattur "Bharatam" Kasinathayya. The records at Thanjavur Saraswati Mahal Library establish that the Bhagavata Mela tradition was in practice at Mannargudi and Tiruchirappalli, and the natakams were a regular feature at the Court of the Bhosala kings as a command-performance. A serious study is in need to have more information of the author-s, the compositions of such Bhagavata Mela natakams performed at these places.

Apart from the Bhagavata Mela Natakas, Sastry is said to have composed a number of songs. According to Subbarama Dikshitar, the well-known "Swarajati" in Useni with the version, "Emandayanara" is the combined work of "Adiappa", the master-composer of Viriboni varnam and Venkatarama Sastry. In addition to these, Sastry had composed some Advaita kirtanas too; in one of them he worked out elaborately a vedantic metaphor between the body and a garden. He had also taught music and composed a number of padams and pada-varnams for one Kamalambal, a devadasi, of Thiruvarur. He seems to have been held in high esteem as pious people tell some miracles about him.

The "vox populi" is that Saint Thiagaraja was so inspired with the play, Prahlada, of Venkatarama Sastry when he happened to witness it at Melattur that the former was prompted to create "Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam".

Even though no authentic life sketch of Venkatarama Sastry is available, the Melattur Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam more accurately establishes the period of Venkatarama Sastry, thus:
Life history of Syama Sastry (1763-1827 AD) indicates that Pachimirium Adiappa (1731-1788 AD) was 32 years elder to the former. According to Subbarama Dikshitar, the popular swarajati in Useni, "Emandayanara", was the combined work of Adiappa and Melattur Venkatarama Sastry, and that the former was a senior contemporary of the latter.

It is also said that Sastry was an elder contemporary of Thiagaraja (1767-1847 AD) and contemporary of Ramaswamy Dikshitar (1735-1817 AD), a disciple of Veerabadrayya, and that both Thiagaraja and Ramaswamy Dikshitar had witnessed the natakas presented by Sastry in Melattur.

It is, therefore, obvious that Venkatarama Sastry's birth could have been any time between 1731 and 1767 AD.

Late "Kanakangi" Srinivasa Josyar (1887-1966 AD), son of Melattur Venkatarama Josyar and one of a regular participants in the Bhagavata Mela Natak as organised by Melattur Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam, mentioned that he had heard his grand-father saying that Melattur Venkataramanayya, under a vow to Venkatarama Sastry at his death-bed, took possession of the scripts of natakas and continued the tradition in Melattur and that when Venkataramanayya took to the tradition in 1809 AD, Sastry was 66 years old. Sastry lived in a small house at the East Car Street of Unnathapureeswara temple and was a widower, he added.

From the chronological indications, it is very clear that Venkatarama Sastry was born in 1743 AD and reached the Lotus Feet of Lord Sri Varadaraja in the year 1809 AD.

Bhagavata Mela of Melattur at the Crossroads

After Venkatarama Sastry, the younger generation of the entire community carried on the tradition till 1855 AD. Among those who contributed most were Venkataramayya and Venkatarama Josyar. It is said that the natakam, Prahlada Charitam, alone was performed during this period. In spite of best efforts by the villagers, the tradition suffered frequent set backs and fell into disuse in 1882 AD owing mainly to the waning royal patronage and the effect of the British rule vis--vis the milieu.

At a stage when there was no hope of renaissance of this great tradition, "Bharatam Natesa Iyer" of Melattur (1865-1935 A.D) took greater interests in this divine art-form and brought the play, "Prahlada Charitamu", back to stage in 1917. With assistance from Varadayya, Nataka Duraiswamy and Muthukrishna Sastrigal, Natesa Iyer, an autodidact, kept the art at its glory until 1931. Even today, the villagers greatly admire his proficiency in the art of dance, music and direction, and his dancing-cum-acting in the role, Leelavati. For his proficiency in the art, his disciples conferred on him the title, "Bharatam".

When he could not manage the expenses of the annual Nataka Utsav, Natesa Iyer took to teaching dance to erstwhile devadasis that fetched him regular income to support his task. He trained artists namely "Bharatam" Nallur Narayanaswamy Iyer, Pichu Bhagavatar, "Kinjin" Kothandarama Iyer and K Ramani Iyer. Also trained E. Krishna Iyer, as a soloist in Sadir.

An ardent devotee of Lord Sri Varadaraja Perumal, Natesa Iyer completed the unfinished "Gopuram" of the Varadaraja temple in 1922 and installed the idols of Narasimha with his consorts and Anjaneya, now in worship. As a part of the renovation, the Narasimha idol near Narayana Theertam, already dilapidated due to abuse of weather, was also shifted to the temple.

Natesa Iyer took ill in 1932, left Melattur and passed away in 1935. This led to the decadence of the art again.

S Natarajan, an electrical engineer from Dubai in the Middle East, has been trained by his father Swaminathan Iyer, grandfather Ganesa Iyer, veteran Balu Bagavathar and K P Kittappa Pillai, who composed a set of jathis for Natarajan and named them the Melattur jathis. Natarajan excels in female roles, most notable being Leelavathi in Prahlada Charitamu, Chandramathi in Harischandra, Yasodha in Kamsavadham. Every year, Natarajan travels from Dubai to Melattur for the purpose of staging the Bhagavatamela festival in May - June. Melattur Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam was established in 1938. This group led now by Natarajan has completed 63 years of uninterrupted enactment of the Bhagavatamela natakams (dance dramas) in Melattur. Natarajan received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2003 for his diligent service for the cause of the rare temple/theatre art of Bhagavata Mela.

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