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Bhagavata Mela's Prahlada Charitam - A ritual art
- Ramaa Bharadvaj

May 30, 2018

The heat of the month of May, may herd everyone indoors towards air-conditioners, but in the village of Melattur in Tamizhnadu, a group of artists defy this heat of Nature with the heat of their own penance like dedication, as they prepare for their annual festival. They are the Bhagavata Mela artists of 'Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam'. The group is familiarly known as Melattur Natarajan's group, named after a soft spoken man, who has kept alive the Bhagavata Mela tradition revived by his grandfather Ganesa Iyer in 1938 in Melattur. Bhakti oriented Bhagavata Mela plays are regarded as Tamizhnadu's only surviving link to ancient Sanskrit Theater. Today, this hereditary tradition is continued by 75-year old Natarajan and his brother Kumar playing the main characters with participation from art enthusiasts from outside the traditional families.

The Festival, now in its 78th year, was held for 9 days (May 19 to 26, 2018), and presented performances on an outdoor stage erected in front of the Varadaraja Perumal temple. It featured Bhagavatamela natakams as well as classical dance and music performances by invited artists from different parts of India. The main attraction of the festival was the Prahlada Charitam drama written by Melattur Venkatrama Sastry and performed on the inaugural night. Rendered by an all-male cast, this 7-hour long play which began at 10pm and concluded at dawn, proved to be a test of the physical stamina and mental concentration of the dancers, actors and musicians.

Although the story is a familiar one of the fourth avatar of Lord Narasimha, it takes on a ritual significance on the Bhagavata Mela stage. Firstly, the length of the play is timed such that the final killing of Hiranyakasipu by Narasimha happens at dawn - that time of non-day and non-night - for after all, the rakshasa king had asked a boon of not dying either during day or night. Secondly, the actor playing the role of Narasimha goes through a cleansing fast for 24 hours in preparation of receiving the mask's Narasimha energy. Thirdly, the mask itself is worshipped throughout the year in the temple and is ceremoniously brought backstage only on the day of the event.

The preliminaries before the main story, begin with the appearance of konangi, a humorous character of Andhra Pradesh, with mythical significance. This amusing clown is said to have been created by the Gods to make Ganesa laugh, so that the discus of Vishnu which he had playfully swallowed would be ejected from his belly when it shook with laughter. Following this, purvaranga worship is performed through offering of aromatic smoke, lamps, holy water and flowers to the 8 directions. This aspect had gone out of the play a century ago, and was revived by Natarajan, in compliance with Natyasastra's prescriptions. The Todaya Mangalam that follows establishes the Bhajana Sampradaya connection.


Purvaranga puja

Srikanth as Vinayaka

Kumar as Hiranyakasipu

One of the aspects of Indian theater is that the synopsis of the entire story be spoken by the sutradhar in the beginning. In this presentation, that was accomplished splendidly by Aravind (a Chartered Accountant from Bengaluru) and the ever-popular Srikanth Natarajan, through their skillful dance rendition of the Prahlada Sabdam which narrated the full story in a nutshell. This was followed by the appearance of Ganesa. It is interesting to note that "Ganesa Patrapravesa" used to be an important but simple aspect of the play. But with a professional Bharatanatyam dancer like Srikanth donning the Ganesa mask, it has not only grown longer in duration and but also incorporates impressive rhythmic displays.

The appearance of Hiranyakasipu enacted by Kumar was as dramatic as a camera moment in a cinema in revealing the film's hero. Sitting on a throne with his head bent into his chest, he begins with striking his feet, and when he finally lifts his head to "reveal" himself, his arrogant head nods, forceful foot taps, haughty reclining postures, swaying body, and pompous eyebrow lifts, turn that narrow throne into his entire stage. Yes, for a full 6-minutes, he never leaves the chair and yet spectacularly terrorizes everyone with his demeanor. It must be mentioned that the family assigns this role only according to divine ordinance. Mr. Natarajan told me a few years back, that in 1977 their father, the legendary Swaminatha Iyer who played Hiranyakasipu, received a Divine Order to immediately train his younger son Kumar for the role. Although not happy at having to give up the role, the father obeyed the Order. The very next year, the reason became clear, when a surgery resulted in the removal of Swaminatha Iyer's vocal chords.

One might wonder why Divinity would take such special interest in the casting of this rakshasa character. The answer that comes to my mind is this - that Lord Vishnu, in his compassion, is keeping an eye out for one of his own staff members! After all, as the myth goes, this rakshasa was once Vishnu's doorkeeper in Vaikuntha, who had been cursed by the sons of Brahma to be separated from Vishnu and be born as a mortal on earth. The Lord is said to have offered him a quick return to Vaikuntha after just three births if he agreed to be born as Vishnu's foe and meet his end at the Lord's hand, versus seven births if he were to be born as a devotee. Hiranyakasipu of the Satya yuga, Ravana of Treta Yuga and Shisupala of Dvapara Yuga are said to be the three births of this doorkeeper.

The character of queen Leelavati, exquisitely enacted by the legendary Natarajan, was not only full of grace but also noteworthy in its mature choreographic thoughts, and spontaneous improvisation skills. Even while making his entrance in a patrapravesa daru behind a hand-held decorative curtain, his turmeric smeared feet bespoke the attention to details that I am about to encounter in this man, and I was not disappointed.

In depicting the line "inta kopamu emira saami" (why this anger, my husband) Natarajan showed numerous depictions of anger - from the look, to the gait, to the mannerisms that are evoked by this emotion. Similarly, when the mother speaks in favour of Prahlada to her husband, the phrase "chinni baaludu anusu" (he is just a young lad) saw an enactment of childhood activities, myriad boyhood games, and adolescent habits. Later, in depicting a mother's agony, Natarajan was engrossing with his elaboration of the multiple methods that queen Leelavati devises to end her life - from grinding her diamond nose ring to the classic noose-from-a-tree method and everything in-between. Watching Natarajan's imaginative lyrical interpretations made one point very clear - that the sanchari (interpretive elaboration) aspect of dance can create a much more expansive and vivid portrait of a character or situation, than verbal dialogues ever can.

S. Natarajan as Leelavati

Kesav as Prahlada

This year, the role of Prahlada was performed by 13-year old Kesav who, although seemed distracted in the beginning, soon showed his mettle not only with his sustained dancing strength and confident delivery of long dialogues, but also his pitch perfect singing, winning frequent applause from the audience. Much credit should go to Natarajan's daughter Priyamvada who has wonderfully trained him for the role. "He is the 4th Prahlada I have trained," she tells me. "I received divine orders to train that character." She explains the arrival of the order as a command from her father while in a state of trance after an abhishekam to Lord Narasimha. "During such trances Lord Narasimha lets us know through my father about changes in actors or teachers."

While watching the dialogue between mother Leelavati and son Prahlada, I found a striking relevancy of this ancient myth to current times, and it pertained to the subject of religious conversion. In the myth, the persecution is harsh and open, and happens within the family, as the demon king demands conversion from Vishnu bhakti to Hiranya bhakti. In today's world, the persecution is subtle and sly, and it happens in the society, with conversions from the Hindu faith. I was reminded of the wise analysis of Sri Chandrashekarendra Sarasvati, the 68th Shankaracharya of Kanchi, who had, in speaking against this practice, said that only two factors are used by those who resort to conversion - fear and financial gain. How right he was! Hiranyakasipu's weapon was fear and today's weapon is financial gain.

When Narasimha finally appears from the pillar, it is almost dawn, and the spectators are ready for the Divine vision. A long verbal duel happens between Hiranyakasipu and Narasimha, with the former standing among the audience, and the latter roaring on stage while being held back by stage helpers with a cloth tied around his waist. While the emotional fervor of devotion keeps the audience connected to the drama, the profoundness of the conversations in this and other scenes do get lost to a largely Tamizh audience, because of the language being Telugu.

Although the traditional story speaks of Lord Narasimha laying Hiranyakasipu across his thighs and tearing the demon's body with his claws, such a depiction is absent in the Bhagavata Mela portrayal. It is said that in the past, the fury of Narasimha-energy has led to onstage violence. So, such chances are no longer taken. Instead, Hiranyakasipu's end comes symbolically as he simply collapses to the floor and is carried away. The spectators burst into devotional clapping as bells peal, camphor flames are waved, and a large pot of cooling jaggery drink is offered to subdue the heat of Narasimha's rage. The stage takes on an aura of a temple sanctum, as audience members vie for their turn to offer their respects to their god who has on this day descended to the human realm.

Appeasement of Narasimha

Narasimha mask

The mask will now return to its glass case in the temple, to be worshipped until next year, when it would be animated once again through music and dance, myth and faith.

Special mention must be made of the exceptional orchestra - main vocals by Narasimhan and Venkatesan (Thiruvayyaru Brothers); supporting vocals by Prabhakaran, Manju and Gopi; mridangam by Nagai Sriram; flute by Gokul; violin by Andalkoil Durai; special effects by Sangoli Vendhan; and suddha maddalam by Kannan Balakrishnan. While the dancers at least got to take turns between scenes, the non-stop bhava laden rendition by the musicians for the full 7-hours was indeed a tour de force.

The concluding remark I have is not so much a criticism but an observation. While a seven-hour performance is no ordinary feat, the actors should avoid sipping water from plastic bottles while on stage. The magic created by their aharya (external embellishments), angika (physical characterization) and saatvika (emotional delineation) gets abruptly dismantled with the appearance of such unsightly things as plastic bottles. I hope the actors will consider substituting bottles with copper jugs and cups.

Ramaa Bharadvaj is an acclaimed performer, choreographer and author. Her writings have been published as cover stories for such publications as MARG, India Currents, and Congress on Research in Dance Journal. She lived in the US for 31 years and was the recipient of multiple Lester Horton Awards for her choreographies. She currently lives in Bengaluru. She travels, writes and speaks on the arts for diverse groups and also teaches and co-curates a national performing arts festival at Chinmaya Naada Bindu Gurukul, Pune.