Even after 400 years, the Narasimha Jayanthi fete and the Bhagavatha Mela Nataka are synonymous in Melattur.

As dance enthusiasts, we know that most classical styles in India originated in temples or temple courtyards, which were the social and cultural hubs of the time. The dance styles evolved over the years to, say, include women, accommodate solo performances, etc., often losing its ‘original’ form. There is, however, one untouched, living tradition, the Melattur Bhagavata Mela Nataka, that is more than 400 years old, with the earliest written record reportedly made in 1888.

The Bhagavata Mela nritya-natakas or dance-drama are presented as all-night performances in the Sanskrit-theatre tradition of yore, by bhagavatulu or descendants of the 510 Telugu Brahmin families who were relocated after the fall of the Vijayanagara kingdom by King Achutappa Nayaka to Unnathapuri, as it was then known, in the 1500s. The village nurtured great composers such as ‘Bharatam’ Kasinathayya, his disciples Veerabhadrayya and Ramanathapuram Brothers. Their contemporary was Gopalakrishna Sastry, who composed ‘Druva Charitam,’ in the Harikatha format. His son Venkatarama Sastry composed Bhagavata Mela Natakas, which form the core of the repertoire today.

S. Natarajan, chairman and artistic director, Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam, says that of Venkatarama Sastry’s 12 known works, only five texts were available when the Sangam was established in 1938, but he was able to trace six more in 1989, all of which were subsequently added to the repertoire. Interestingly, he reveals that it is only ‘Prahlada Charitamu’ that was handed down as an oral tradition; others such as ‘Úsha Parinayamu,’ ‘Rukmangadha’ and ‘Harischandra Natakamu’ were visualised and presented by stalwarts such as Balu Bhagavathar.

Natarajan’s contribution is to choreograph the latter six, which he did painstakingly keeping Bharata’s Natyasastra as the guideline. As natyacharya of the sangam, he has also been streamlining presentation, adding visual representations for the purvaranga and varnane that were formerly only sung and deleting unnecessary scenes.

Is the Melattur Bhagavata Mela an offshoot of the Kuchipudi Bhagavata Mela? Natarajan says there are no written records to substantiate it, but this is presumably true. “The style can be described as one which has absorbed the local influences of Bharatanatyam. It is slower than the Kuchipudi tradition and lays stress on bhava and bhakti.”

There are some typical features in this dance-drama. The songs have talli eduppu or delayed starts, not in sama, and the rendering is usually from the Anu Pallavi for added effect. The language is chaste Sanskritised Telugu, the same as Venkatarama Sastry’s younger contemporary, Tyagaraja, who is supposed to have been inspired by ‘Prahlada Charitamu’ to create the ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam’ opera.

While the glorious music and good acting form the basis of presentation, brisk footwork accompanies the acting. The ragas are mood-enhancing rakti ragas while talas are mostly two- kalai adi and misra chapu with few khanda chapu. Beats are generally in usi, offbeat. Costumes are grand and period.

Every summer, the Bhagavata Mela Nataka Mahotsav takes place in Melattur, 18 km from Thanjavur, to coincide with Narasimha Jayanthi. Performances take place on a narrow 12ft by 18ft makeshift structure erected on a street facing the Varadaraja Swamy Temple sannidhi, with most basic lighting and amplification. The audience consisting of villagers and guests from out of town is approximately 350-500.

There is no doubt that the Melattur Bhagavata Mela is a temple art form. The performers maintain some sanctity, with Lord Narasimha presiding over the goings-on. Talk to the artists and you will hear about miracles, how the lead artist suffered from high temperature at 5 p.m. and performed at 10 p.m. fully made up in stree vesham, about a rheumatic heart and a leg problem that disappears while on stage et al. You will hear that Narasimha decides the lead roles, speaking through someone in a trance. And you may also hear warnings of untoward incidents taking place if you do not go on stage with the spirit of absolute surrender.

For ‘Prahlada Charitamu’, the most sacred of the nritya-natakas, Narasimha’s mask is kept in the temple; it is brought back-stage with due rituals at a certain pre-determined point during the nataka. The actor donning the role of Narasimha fasts all day, has three baths and performs certain rituals. It is said that from the moment the mask is put on, the actor goes into a trance. He has to be restrained; there are stories of how in the past, unwittingly Narasimha has injured and killed Hiranyakasipu, both brothers. If seeing is believing, then I was witness to Narasimha being restrained by seven men and Hiranyakasipu by two during the final showdown.

After 1850s, dwindling patronage led to the neglect of the art form. ‘Bharatham’ Natesa Iyer, a celebrated artist, brought back ‘Prahlada Charitamu’ and gave fresh impetus to the art in spite of monetary troubles. His illness and subsequent death in 1935 affected the morale of the artists and the nataka became a perfunctory ritual. In 1938, V. Ganesa Iyer (grandfather of Natarajan) got the disciples of Natesa Iyer together and formed the Sangam that is in existence today.

Natarajan speaks of the artistic highs and the financial lows in Ganesa Iyer’s illustrious career. Having had to sell off about 40 acres of land to fund this annual festival, on his deathbed he made his grandsons promise to uphold the Bhagavata Mela tradition as long as they are alive and feed every guest who comes for it. His son G. Swaminathan, who was famous for his histrionics as the anti-hero Hiranyakasipu and the truthful King Harishchandra, kept his word and has passed on the baton to Natarajan and his brothers.

Bhagavata Mela is currently in the 74th year of an unbroken tradition.

In the true spirit of dedicating the effort to Narasimha, there are no introductions, no credits, either for the musicians or the dancer-actors. That spirit also enjoins the artists to give their best with divine music, powerful acting, aesthetic make-up and costume. Whether there are a few or many watching, Narasimha is.

Melattur Bhagavata Mela is a must-see for culture historians, music aficionados, dance rasikas, theatre enthusiasts and the devout.

(The writer was in Melattur to watch the Narasimha Jayanthi celebrations. Her reports on ‘Prahlada Charithamu’ and ‘Harishchandra’ will appear in the coming weeks.)