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

April 30, 2004
Resurgence of Bhagavata Mela at Melattur

When Natesa Iyer took ill and left Melattur in 1932, lack of interest among younger generation, faction in the village and absence of an able leader not only kept the disciples of Natesa Iyer away but also left the performance a mere perfunctory ritual; two years later the tradition fell into oblivion and a year later Natesa Iyer passed away.

The chief participants in the play during the period were "Appilai" Narayanaswamy Iyer, G V Narayanaswamy Iyer, his brother Ramaswamy, and T K Rajagopalan.

It was at this crucial moment of time, "Melattur V Ganesa Iyer," an eminence grise, a disciplinarian and man of far-sight, formed a new group of artists, singers and conductors with assistance from Bharatam Nallur Narayanaswamy Iyer, Pichu Bhagavatar, K Gopala Iyer, C V Muthuswamy Iyer, K Ramani Iyer, 'Piswati' Ramamurthy Iyer (all direct disciples of Natesa Iyer) and Balu Bhagavatar. The new group founded in 1938 under the aegis of V Ganesa Iyer was named as Melattur Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam.

"Bharatam" Nallur Narayanaswamy Iyer and Pichu Bhagavatar trained R Nagarajan, K Ramani Iyer trained G Swaminathan (son of V Ganesa Iyer), K Gopala Iyer and C V Muthuswamy Iyer trained G Krishnamurthy Sarma (son of the former), Piswati Ramamurthy Iyer trained his son, R Sundaram, and Balu Bhagavatar trained all other supporting dance-actors. As much as 15 artistes were trained in a short duration of two years and, the new group of artists brought Prahlada Charitam, to the stage in 1941. Meanwhile, Markandeya, translated into Tamil, Usha Parinayam and Rukmangadha natakams of Venkatarama Sastry, choreographed and directed by Balu Bhagavatar were staged in the sannidhi of local Vigneswara temple between 1938 and 1940. Soon after this, Nallur Narayanaswamy Iyer and Pichu Bhagavatar passed away, and Balu Bhagavatar, a great scholar in Sanskrit and an autodidact, took charge as the Chief Natyacharya.

The Sangam recruited more artists and singers. Notably among them were N Venkataraman, a talented dancer and P K Subbier, a singer adept enough in singing sisams and padyams. Subbier was one of the young disciples of Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar.

In process of time, the Markandeya natakam following the original text in Telugu and Harichandra Natakamu of Venkatarama Sastry were also brought to stage.

The dancing and acting of G Swaminathan, a born dancer-actor with striking personality, considerably enhanced the quality of the performances.

The tradition was thus seeing a secular change at the pertinacious leadership and munificent patronage of V Ganesa Iyer in the company of Balu Bhagavatar, K Ramani Iyer and the leading dance-actors like G Swaminathan, G Krishnamoorthy Sarma, R Sundaram and R Nagarajan.

The year 1954 marked the introduction of S Natarajan, eldest son of Swaminathan and grandson of V Ganesa Iyer. Trained by Balu Bhagavatar, Natarajan impersonated all the challenging heroine roles. His ability to play dance at sight and incredible acting opposite his father undoubtedly fetched vast applauding crowds and furbished up the natakams as well. His involvement and dedication towards the tradition were propitious to the promotion of the art.

It was also at this time that R Ganesan, another versatile dancer-actor and a cousin of S. Natarajan, was introduced and nurtured.

Thanks to E Krishna Iyer, a disciple of Melattur Bharatam Natesa Iyer and the then Secretary of Madras State Sangeetha Nataka Sangam, and Mohan Khokar, a research scholar in Indian dances and counter-part of the former in the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, this Sangam started receiving subvention and publicity through their regular writing in media. The services of E. Krishna Iyer & Mohan Khokar for the cause of Bhagavata Mela are laudable.

As ordained by H.H. Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswati, the Sage of Kanchi, the Sangam performed in the Vidwat Sadas at Elayattankudi in 1962 organised and presided over by the Sage. H.H. Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswati Mahaswami blessed and specially honoured Balu Bhagavatar and Natarajan.

In 1964, V D Swami, a Melatturian, business magnate, connoisseur and generous patron of music and dance, founded the Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam and acquired a piece of 2-1/2 acres of land at the western end of the village with a view to have a spacious stage and auditorium for the conveniences of the audience. He also thought of the most important need of providing adequate livelihood to some of the prominent artistes near their own village.
The nataka festival took place in the new venue in 1964 under the auspices of the BMNV Sangam. The newly formed Sangam did not come forward to organise the Bhagavata Mela Utsav in the following year and the SLNJBMNN Sangam had to, therefore, conduct the utsav in the traditional venue with patronage from V.D. Swami.

The schism, milieu in the village and the attitude of some members of the BMNV Sangam being detrimental to the tradition and ideals of V D Swami, Ganesa Iyer preferred, rather pledged, to continue the tradition in the sannidhi of Sri Varadaraja Perumal. As the bad luck would have it, this marked the birth of a rival group in 1966 that chose to perform in the land acquired by V D Swami under the banner of BMNVS.

Compelled by an unpleasant turn of events in 1965, Natarajan under the able guidance from Ramani Iyer, Krishnamurthy Sarma and his father, assumed charge of regisseur of the troupe of SLNJBMNN Sangam. It was this year that highly talented singers S Veeraraghavan and "Tirukkarugavoor" G Srinivasaraghavan were recruited and inducted in to Bhagavata Mela.

In process of time, "Valli Thirumanam" - a popular natakam in Tamil composed by eminent scholars of yester-years, and in association with Thanjavur Saraswati Mahal Library "Kaveri Kalyanam", a Yakshaganam in Tamil composed by King Shahaji (1684-1711 AD), were adapted to Bhagavata Mela and staged.

Out of fraternity, the Bhagavata Mela natakams, "Vipranarayana" and "Rukmini Kalyanam", authored by Panchanadha Bhagavatar of Saliamangalam were choreographed and staged at Melattur.

A natakam, Parvati Parinayam, of unknown author and provenance following the format of Bhagavata Mela was also staged. The script of this natakam was emended and handed over by Balu Bhagavatar.

It was in 1978, Swaminathan introduced his son, S Kumar - younger brother of Natarajan, in the leading and challenging role of Hiranyakasipu in Prahlada Charitam natakam, to the surprise of every one, especially when Swaminathan was in the pink and at his best. Kumar, a born actor, performed beyond all praise in his maiden appearance and has this day proved to be his father's son. The following year Swaminathan lost his vocal cord and could not perform the lead role in Prahlada Charitam.

In the process of reviving the art, Ganesa Iyer not only went through fire and water but also had to sell away, a bit by bit, his properties to the tune 40 acres to meet with the expenses of the annual festival. He also installed and consecrated the processional idol of Lord Sri Nrusimha with His Consorts.
For the sacrifices he made and his yeomen services for the cause of Bhagavata Mela, he accepted from the villagers an agnomen - Father of Bhagavata Mela.

The mournful years in the history were 1979 that saw the demise of Kalaimamani K. Ramani Iyer, that of Padmasri Balu Bhagavatar in 1985 and that of V Ganesa Iyer in 1989.

Vowed to the service of Bhagavata Mela, the Sangam recruited two young and talented singers, S Narasimhan and S Venkatesan, popularly known as Thiruvayyaru Brothers, and nurtured highly talented and most promising young dancers like Srikanth, Aravind, Vijayamadhavan and Anirudhan. These young dancers were encouraged to undergo advanced training in natya under the tutelage of great gurus like Padma Subrahmanyam & Chitra Visweswaran. A talented and most promising singer, L Prabhakaran, cousin of Natarajan, was also nurtured.

When the Sangam took to the tradition in 1938, the book of words for only five natakams namely Prahlada Charitamu, Markandeya Charitamu, Harichandra Natakamu, Rukmangadha Natakamu and Usha Parinayamu were available at Melattur. In its quest for the missing libretti of the seven natakams of Venkatarama Sastry, Natarajan left no stone unturned and Dei gratia! at last traced and collected six of them in 1989. By 1994, five of this namely Hari Hara Leela Vilasamu, Seetha Parinayamu, Kamsa Charita Natakamu, Rukmini Kalyanam, and Druva Charitamu were operatized and staged. In 1997, the natakam Sati Savitri was also staged. With this, eleven natakams are sanctified.

The 50th year Golden Jubilee celebrated in 1990 at a national level marked the establishment of a school, Bhagavata Mela Vidyalaya, to impart systematic training to younger generation.

In recognition of their talents and service, the veterans of this divine art form namely, G Swaminathan, G Krishnamurthy Sarma, Natarajan and T G Srinivasaraghavan, the great musician, were very rightly honoured by the Central/State Govt., and private Cultural/Religious Institutions.

Coinciding with the 250th. Jayanti of Venkatarama Sastry, the Sangam has been taking valiant efforts to revive the tradition at the vicinal villages, Soolamangalam and Oothukadu.

Kalaimamani, Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, G Swaminathan, a pious, splendid performer and patron, passed away in 1995 just two hours after the conclusion of the 55th year Nataka Mahotsav.

Today, all the dance-actors and musicians of this troupe are amateurs engaged in different professions in different parts of India including one abroad who federate at Melattur at their own expense in votary; they rise the level of their performance to that comparable with any professional troupe by dint of the training they had from the direct disciples of the great "Bharatam" Natesa Iyer, and "Padmasri" Balu Bhagavatar.

When the artists of this Sangam perform on the stage, the layman and the connoisseur alike are transported to a spiritual world where there is no distinction between the lover of art for its mere entertainment value and the devout one yearning for spiritual solace. The viewers and the actors lose their identity and all are converted as devotees surcharged with emotion praying for the blessings of Lord Narasimha.

The purity of purpose of this tradition as maintained this day in a unique blend of Bhakti, music, dance and drama is to be witnessed at Melattur to believe.

According to scholars, connoisseurs of music and dance, this day and age is acclaimed as the "Golden Era" of Bhagavata Mela.

Thus, the SLNJBMNN Sangam takes pride in keeping ablaze the torch lit by Venkatarama Sastry two centuries ago in the sannidhi of Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple at Melattur, "for the sake of posterity".

Is the future of Bhagavata Mela in a Gordian Knot?
The great temple/theatre art of Bhagavata Mela, flourished under the patronage of Nayak and Bhosala kings during the 16th and 17th Centuries is at its pinnacle of glory and fame this day and age, thanks to Melattur V Ganesa Iyer and his family. Yet the conduct of the annual nataka festival itself is a Gordian knot due to lack of adequate financial support.

In the process of reviving the tradition against pernicious odds, Melattur V Ganesa Iyer not only went through fire and water since 1938 but also had to sell away, a bit by bit, his properties to the tune of 40 acres. For the sacrifices made and his yeomen service for the cause of Bhagavata Mela, he had the honour of an agnomen, "Father of Bhagavata Mela" by the villagers.

When Ganesa Iyer had no further means, his eldest son, G. Swaminathan, the great dancer-actor, diverted the income from his grocery shop to support the cause, which resulted in putting up the shutters of the shop in 1970. This had forced his family to straitened circumstances.

At this crucial moment of time, Natarajan, the eldest son of Swaminathan and an Engineer by profession, took over the financial burden also on his shoulders. With his administrative skill, ably supported by a dedicated band of members of the Sangam, Natarajan is striving hard to keep the flag flying. It is not an exaggeration to mark in records that Natarajan, ploughing a lonely furrow, opened an epoch for Bhagavata Mela.

Annuity from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, skimpy sponsorship offered by a few Banks, Commercial Institutions and the contributions from art-lovers and devotees are barely sufficient. Even today, major part of the expenses is met with the salaried earnings of Natarajan out of an "ex voto".

While the list of clientele and thereby the receipt of financial assistance dwindle on one hand, the expenses of the annual festival is steadily increasing on the other hand. The accursed financial status and its alarming burden on Natarajan superannuating from his professional service in the year 2004, is bemoaned over. A charitable institution established in the name of Bhagavata Mela Foundation to promote the art is perfunctory for want of funds.

Besides, the schema contrived to perpetuate the divine-art could not be pursued. To name a few

1. The dilapidated costume-jewellery, costume-pieces and stagecraft could not be furbished up.

2. The school, Bhagavata Mela Vidyala, established in the year 1990 to offer regular and systematic training to younger generation could not be made functional.

3. The corps de ballet composed of pro-am could not be remunerated its worth. Nor the services of worth the artists are recognised and encouraged by the Government through honours and awards.

4. Efforts to own a required diesel generator set, sound and lighting equipment so as to avoid the heavy and recurring hire charges on them are yet to bear fruit.

5. Proposals to provide livelihood to the needy artists have not taken any shape yet.

6. Although a vacant land is available, construction of a building for safe storage of stagecraft, costume, conduct of rehearsals, archive, and also accommodating the artists and guests during the festival still remains a cloud-castle.

As such the national importance of the Bhagavata Mela tradition is to be adequately recognised and realised by the Government and art circles in India. It needs hardly be said that it should be given the needy encouragement and help from all sources. Failing which it is afraid that the supreme art form is sure to fall in oblivion soon.

The Bhagavata Mela Foundation is set about to build a corpus of funds. Donations to the BMF are allowed deduction under 80 G of IT Act.

The Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam, therefore, earnestly appeals to the Dept. of Culture/Govt. of India, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Mandram, Govt. and private cultural bodies, private Endowments, leading Businessmen, Banks, ardent devotees and the public to encourage and help the Sangam by grant of liberal financial assistance to preserve, protect and promote one of the greatest art-forms handed over to it for the sake of posterity and thus be a recipient of bountiful blessings of Lord Sri Narasimha.

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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