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Drama in divine ambience

Saliyamangalam, a sleepy village off Thanjavur, comes alive to celebrate Narasimha Jayanthi when Good triumphs over Evil. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN captures the spirit of the festival.

``Prahlada Charitram"... dedicated to the Leonine incarnation with absolute piety.

DRIVE 15 km from Thanjavur to the little village at 10 p.m. on May 25. Wind in through narrow lanes hemmed by thorny saplings, blanketed in dark silence. A shadow flickers ahead... An insomniac cow? A sudden turn and the stillness is pierced by clangs and beats tattooing rhythms on chanting voices. You are back in the corporeal buzz of humanity. The agraharam is bright with crowds. There is warmth in the welcome, and pride. For isn't it a momentous celebration of the triumph of good over evil in Saliyamangalam, with Gods, demons and human participants? An annual event with an unbroken history of 357 years? ``Rest of the year this street may be haunted by dogs and jackals but today it is Vaikuntham,'' a senior resident declares. ``At the hour before dawn Narasimha will manifest Himself in the actor who wears the lion mask in Prahlada Charitram.'' Village Saliyamangalam shares the heritage of the Bhagavatamela with Melattur, Tepperumanallur, Sulamangalam, Oothukadu and Nallur; a theatre genre introduced in the Thanjavur region during the Telugu Nayaka rule (hence Telugu scripts and Narasimha worship), and patronised by their Maratha successors. Today the performance rite survives only in the first three villages.

To attend the Narasimha Jayanti shows on successive days in Melattur and Saliyamangalam is to perceive differences not only in performance, but in approach. With a common kitchen during the festivities, the Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Bhagavatamela Bhakta Samajam of the well-knit Saliyamangalam community of 32 families, conducts the proceedings like a family function. Theirs is a lesser known, simpler show with a single, smaller troupe, its main performers and organisers based mostly in spots round the village, though a few migrants do come home from Belgaum, Bangalore or Botswana.

Not that Saliyamangalam escaped factionalism. In 1934, squabbles over rights of the year-round maintenance of the Narasimha mask, indispensable to the annual drama, resulted in an overnight ``abduction'' of the relics to Nagapattinam. Believing that appeals to police and court would be a sacrilege, the village decided to continue the festival with a newly-crafted mask and idols. The practice of safeguarding them in the home of a village resident, differs from the Melattur placement of the mask in the temple.

The day before the show, the busy Saliyamangalam veterans make time to talk about their tradition. ``Ours is the older libretto and our village is the Achyutapuri mentioned therein, even though Melattur (or Unnatapuri) uses the same sabdam,'' begins retired income tax officer S. Srinivasan, the frail but sprightly president of the Bhagavatamela association. A festival participant of over 70 years, starting as Vinayaka and specialising in women's roles in the all male tradition, he continues, ``The verse also refers to `Kodandapani jayanti,' because, in the past, we staged natakas for Ramanavami as well.'' He traces the hamlet's Telugu connection to Achyuta Devaraya of Vijayanagaram, though recorded links are with Achyutappa Nayaka, the Thanjavur ruler of the 16th century. Legend has it that his ``penance'' for accepting tambulam with his left hand was the gifting of lands and funds to migrant Telugu brahmins for perpetuating the mela tradition. ``After Independence the income from temple lands has decreased drastically,'' explains Srinivasan. ``We didn't know that we could apply to agencies like the Sangeet Natak Akademi for funds until Mohan Khokar visited us with cassette player and camera. That was after we wrote to refute his statement that the Bhagavatamela survived only in Melattur.'' The SNA grant (Rs.25,000) is hardly sufficient since annadanam is part of the Saliyamangalam mela with donations collected through the Annapurna Trust. Though only one Telugu family is active in play production (the committee's Treasurer S. V. Venkatakrishnan is a descendant of the Bhagavatar clan), the Telugu connection remains strong. Only two plays (Prahlada Charitram and Rukmini Parinayam) of Saliyamangalam's composer Bharatam Panchanata Bhagavatar survive in performance. They have obvious differences in structure and texture from the Melattur plays of Venkatrama Sastri. The treatment of the raga is ebullient, the resonant jatis range from lasya lilts to tandava fireworks. Their Sanskrit-laced dialogue is more dramatic than lyrical, admitting of greater variety in action and characterisation. Hiranyakasipu is not totally villainous, you empathise with the plight of the father torn by conflicting emotions as he sees his cherished son aligning himself with the arch-enemy. (With his massive stamina V. Sankaranarayanan made a spirited Hiranya). Wife Lilavati likewise has much scope for expressing sringara, vatsalya, adbhuta, bhayanaka and karuna in her interactions with spouse and son (as seen in the abhinaya of C. S. M. Subrahmanyam this year).

There is a greater preponderance of rituals, starting with the patra pravesa of Ganesha surrounded by all the village boys who have taken vows to appear with him (many of them in shorts and T-shirts).

The horoscope-casting priest may be a minor figure to outsiders but a major one for the village as composer Panchanata is supposed to have played the role. Pre and post play rites are numerous, including those for the transference of the mask's divine power to a water pot the day before for repainting, and back again before the play. Narasimha does not appear on the stage but at the rear end of the street. A long strip is carpeted with jasmine and oleander for the God's progress in a state of enraged trance. The audience is re-arranged for the final combat.

Two preludes to this end are the stambha stotram and a song on raja yoga. ``The former bears the mudra of Venkatesa kavi, a maternal granduncle of Tyagaraja, resident of nearby Ekojipuram, honoured by a Maratha queen for service to Bhagavatamela.'' Adds D. S. Lakshmanan, association member, ``The song on raja yoga is unconnected to the play, but it was composed by Siddhendra Yogi in honour of Bodhendraswami after witnessing Prahlada Charitram here.'' Prahlada's stambha stotram demands long drawn out abhinaya (done with utter devotion by Bharadwaj) stretching time to the appointed asura sandhya hour. That is when the entire village disappears in batches to return after the purificatory bath, Hiranya smeared with sandal paste, the men with fresh vibhuti, women with damp hair ending in a knot.

The privilege of playing Narasimha is reserved for the oldest member of the family identified by gotra, now belonging to Srinivasan. ``After the ritual dip, clad in robes of royal design, just to look at the lion mask is to be dazzled by an unearthly fire. Once the mask is on, one loses all consciousness of the self.'' Identifying the actor with the divinity (seated on an ancient grinding stone) devotees garland Him for wish fulfilment. Stunning audio-visual effects tear pillar and curtain apart, and the leonine deity shimmers into viewer vision through the hail of crackers and sparklers. The predawn viewers reach swooning point, their individual self lost in communitarian ecstasy. The Lord calms down after ``tasting'' blood and flesh. As day breaks, flares circle the utsava images stationed on the street as spectators divine. Narasimha's krodha melts in karuna for devotees.

The Saliyamangalam experience remains unforgettable as a bhakti-bonding community ritual. But little remains of the high classicism that one can deduce from raga-laya-dialogue and dramatic structure, which accommodate the four kinds of abhinaya as in the best forms of theatre.

The orchestra did little justice to the libretto. The words were indistinct, the laya fumbling. Dancers were forced to keep looking at mridangam and cymbal to align jatis. With the exception of Srinivasan's initial ragamalika Prahlada sabdam, uncertainties testified to lack of practice and formal training.

The production lacked a sense of space; that was small in any case, as the orchestra (which included a keyboard) took up half the stage. Amplification was poor, with either unscheduled appearances of stage assistants onstage, or Hiranya and Prahlada in full puranic regalia shifting mikes at need. Group scenes were disorganised. Anachronistic melodies seem to have crept into the old text, including a tune from an old film song.

Though large-scale migrations and shifting of patronage to the cities leaves villages sadly handicapped, it seems a sacrilege to allow our cherished treasures to suffer attrition in quality. A dance and music training school in Saliyamangalam seems the only answer.

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