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Bhagavatamela: the Marathi connection

Why Bhagavatamela in Mumbai and why revive a forgotten Marathi play? GOWRI RAMNARAYAN talks about the ties.

"Sakuntala"... a flashback to old theatre.

WATCHING A Bhagavata mela play in Mumbai is strange enough, as this specialised 500-year old art form is hardly ever performed outside the Thanjavur villages to which it belongs. But to see a Marathi libretto sung in chaste Carnatic music for Bharatanatyam cannot but be an uncommon experience. For what the Natya Vidya Sangam from Melattur staged in Mumbai was not from the usual Telugu repertoire, but ``Sakuntala'' by Babasaheb Ekoji II, a Maratha royal in Thanjavur (regnal years: 1930-36). Records show that this play was staged exactly 147 years ago, not in the village square, but at the court by Bhagavatars of the mela clan.

Ekoji's play follows the conventions, metres, ragas and talas of Thanjavur Bhagavatamela. But what a surprise for the audience of hardcore Maharashtrian connoisseurs at the Marathi Sahitya Sangh, Girgaum, to hear ``Ganapati aala, santosha jhaala'' in Carnatic Hamsadhvani sung by Tamil vocalists! To many of them the text was a reminder of a purer diction of older times; also of the fact that the people from the south targeted as ``aliens'' and ``foreigners'' by political propaganda in their State, were those with whom the Marathas had built strong cultural ties in the past. (In fact, when the Pune University's Lalitakala Kendra wanted to revive the first Marathi play, ``Sita Swayamvar,'' research led to the Saraswati Mahal library in Thanjavur).

The Bhagavatamela male Brahmin dance drama tradition began in Thanjavur during the rule of the Telugu Nayaka chieftains. The story of Achyutappa Nayaka's gifting an entire village (Melattur) in 1577 for the maintenance of the form is well known. The Maratha rulers of the region continued their discerning patronage. Shahaji was the first composer of dance dramas in Marathi, while Ekoji authored two. His ``Kamalamba Tyagesa Parinayam'' pays homage to the Tiruvarur deities. Wife Sujanbai offered a village to the Bhagavatamela artistes.

Although the nearby hamlets of Saliyamangalam, Oothukadu and Tepperumanallur had their own scripts and troupes, Melattur had the genius of Venkatrama Sastri (circa 1800-55) who wrote ten plays of remarkable depth in music and devotion, inspiring his younger contemporary Tyagaraja in neighbouring Tiruvaiyaru to attempt Nauka Charitram and Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam in the same format.

But why Bhagavatamela in Mumbai, and why revive a forgotten Marathi play? Indu Raman, chairperson of the Natya Vidya Sangam, whose Mumbai-based Rangshree Trust organised this unusual festival last month said in her introductory speech, that, with Andhra Pradesh dismissing the genre as belonging to Bharatanatyam and not Kuchipudi, and Tamil Nadu equally indifferent to it as the plays are in Telugu, the artistes had to try other sources of support to keep the form alive. Why not Maharashtra which had supplied such munificent connoisseur patrons as Shahaji, Tulajaji and Serfoji? Besides, survival also required greater exposure to the outside world. The Marathi experiment was a step in that direction.

For the Maharashtrian viewers, the play was also a flashback to their old musical theatre with cult stars like Balgandharva, though the music was totally different. Sakuntala's score had to be recreated by Bombay P. S. Krishnamurthy, preserving the authenticity in ragas (including the Melattur favourites Ahiri and Ghanta) and rhythmic settings. Research inputs came from Pandit N. Viswanathan of the Saraswati Mahal Library, while Raman trained two actors from contemporary Marathi stage as sutradhar (Bhuvanesh Shetty) and vidushaka (Tanuj Mahashabde) along with the Melattur cast headed by Kailasam and Mahalingam.

Convinced that only a national awareness of its artistic wealth could save the genre from extinction, Raman began to take steps towards greater exposure. Seminar participation during the Chennai music festival was followed by invitations to scholars and artistes from Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Chennai to attend the summer festival in Melattur. She also managed to bring a fullfledged troupe to perform at the Mylapore Kapaliswarar temple in the heart of Chennai. A Sangeet Natak Akademi sponsored festival in Mumbai brought support from the city's artistic community and the media.

The Marathi Bhagavatamela idea was born in 1995 but took years of research, recreation and planning to be realised in performance. It had to be a ``secular'' rather than a ritualistic play for the proscenium in a modern theatre. But the conventions were to be adhered to, including the donning of women's roles by the men in this all male art form. ``So many lyrical works hidden and forgotten in dusty manuscripts!'' Raman exclaims. Her organisation has published some closely guarded scripts with Tamil notes and translations. Their musical notation could not be attempted due to problems of funding.

The Natya Vidya Sangam's 15 artistes are not professional performers. They depend on other careers for their livelihood. But, as descendants of the traditional Bhagavatars, they continue to perform in the annual Narasimha utsavam of their native village. There have been instances of the actors giving up lucrative professions in Mumbai or Dubai because their employers refused to sanction leave for festival participation in summer. Devotion to God, clan and their inheritance keeps them going despite the odds.

Not that they are unaware of the shortcomings in their amateur performances. The dream therefore, is to construct a training institute for the art, with a school, dance hall, theatre, and a bureau for research and documentation in Melattur; in the trilingual Thanjavur region which developed not merely tolerance for multiple forms of art and culture, but a veritable passion for all expressions of refined beauty.

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