Prahlada Charitamu Each time the actors infuse energy into the roles they portray thus making it look fresh and appealing.

The Melattur Bhagavata Mela Nataka Mahotsav starts with ‘Prahlada Charitamu’ every year. This dusk to dawn nritya-nataka (10.30 p.m. - 6.30 a.m.) is a powerful dramatisation of the Srimad Bhagavata Purana about the pious asura prince Prahlada and his arrogant father Hiranyakasipu by Venkatarama Sastry.

It is the only nataka that has been handed down as an oral tradition from the mid 1800s. The actor-dancers are Brahmin Bhagavatulus, only males, as per convention, and some amongst them specialise in donning the ‘stree vesham’ (female roles).

Melattur S. Natarajan’s impersonation of Leelavathi, Prahlada’s mother, was a study in perfection, with his entire persona undergoing a ‘delicate’ transformation. In the daru ‘Chinni baalu,’ he layers desperation to convince Hiranyakasipu of Prahlada (Druva Murali)’s immaturity, to save him, with proof of that childishness in the ‘happy’ play sessions with her son, in a masterly presentation.

In contrast was his brother, Melattur S. Kumar's electric on-stage presence and dramatic style. As Hiranyakasipu, his arrogance and swagger were fascinating. He also had some impressive dialogues that were delivered with a punch.

Kumar has an unorthodox style of movement, all his own, and while the rawness adds to the appeal, it must be understood in the larger context that most of the actors are amateurs and not trained dancers. Even in the use of mudras, while the actor-dancers follow the Natyasastra, their usage can be distinct. As the chief natyacharya Natarajan says, there is no written code for Bhagavata Mela. It is a 400-year-old oral tradition.

Despite repeating the plays every year, the actors infuse energy into the roles each time. Kumar reveals, “Playing Hiranyakasipu for more than six hours is very tiring. If my concentration wavers, I look at the Narasimha Murthy in the temple, and my energy is back. What is real and what is acting gets blurred; even if Prahlada is my brother’s grandson, I don’t like him at that time.” On his part, 10-year-old Druva was a conscientious Prahlada – his Dasavatara portrayal was correct, while his plea to Hari in the last stages of the play was convincingly fervent.

Imagine the resounding effect of six musicians singing together: Thirukarugavur S. Srinivasaraghavan, Thiruvaiyaru Brothers – S. Narasimhan and S. Venkatesan, Melattur S. Prabhaharan, Thiruvaiyaru N. Venkatasubramanian and Thiruvaiyaru V. Venkatakrishnan, along with the melody of Andaankovil V. Durai (violin) and B. Gokul (flute) and the strong percussion of Nagai Sriram and enhanced by B. Kannan (suddha maddalam).

Cast a spell

The musicians cast a spell with slow-paced melody. The preliminaries took two hours- with the Thodayamangalam, Sabdam, Sollukattus, Kavuthuvam, Jhakkini Daru, Naandi Dwipada, varnane and Pravesha darus. As per tradition, a line of sollus (mukha jati, antara jati) are sung before and after every daru. The Anandabhairavi piece sung in two octaves in Sukracharya’s welcome and the sad Ghanta pieces, ‘Darapenu,’ a seesam with no rhythm and ‘Harimeedi Vairambu Maanade,’ a vilapa daru with rhythm, were a few of the stand-out pieces.

The dialogues were no less effective. In response to Leelavathi’s despair, Hiranyakasipu re-assures her, and shows his derision towards Hari in imaginative, rhyming dialogue, ‘... Mahinalla Pothulu Mathepa Mouna? Rahinalla Pakshulu Ra Hamsa Mouna? Meaning, ‘... Can a black buffalo become an elephant? Can any bird become a hamsa pakshi?'

The playwright had taken some liberties with the story- Prahlada’s mother Kayadu referred to as Leelavathi here, has a bigger presence. Another deviation is the ending – instead of Hiranyakasipu samharam there was a 45-minute samvada- dialogue- between Narasimha and the asura king.

The showdown was the grand finale and took place from 4.30 to 5.15 a.m. When the Hiranyakasipu-Prahlada showdown happened at 4 a.m., there was a buzz in the air and the tension started building up. Prahlada is steadfast in his devotion and Hiranyakasipu challenges him to produce Hari. In the ensuing silence, eerie, muffled laughter is heard even as Prahlada is praying for Hari to appear.

Suddenly the pillar ‘opens’ on stage and out emerges the fiery Narasimha (Venkatasubramaniam), the actor was growling, ‘possessed’ and restrained by seven men. Facing him offstage, on a path cleared by rasikas, was an angry, out-of-control Hiranyakasipu, who was restrained by two men.

Sastry creates a verbal duel between the two adversaries in the high-tension encounter. A shocked Hiranyakasipu first marvels at his son’s ability to bring Hari by the strength of his devotion, ‘Neeve Bhakta Siromani... Neeve Saadhu Shikhamani.. Bhaktiki Chikkinaadu Ra Ee Prabhu!’ In a monologue he continues that he did not realise his son’s greatness and bemoans that the three worlds will only remember him as one who tried to kill the bhakta - Prahlada.

He then mocks Narasimha, ‘Ravayya! Ninnu Mechidinni...’ ('Come! I will praise you..’) and again, ‘Yemmoi Vennuda Innallu Thanakkai Verasi Yevanga Dhahiundioye?’ (‘Hey, where did you hide, scared, all this time?’) He challenges Narasimha to escape, as a frog might escape a snake or a fly might escape fire, and charges at him angrily, when suddenly he faints.

Call it exhaustion, call it fainting in a trance, he is sprawled out on the floor for a while. At once the mood changes, and the whole exercise becomes religious. A Narasimha Stuthi is sung, arathi is performed and prasadam is distributed. Narasimha and Prahlada are taken in a procession (in a bullock cart) to the patron’s Muruga temple a few streets away. In time, the actor as Narasimha comes out of the trance, vibhuti is distributed and the mask is finally taken off. This marks the end of the all-night performance.