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Drama in Melattur

The Melattur Bhagavatha Mela which begins this year on May 25 is an annual event that marks the Narasimha avatar of Vishnu. R. VARADARAJAN on the festival.

Enacting the "Narasimha Prahalada Charitam".

MELATTUR, a small village 18 km from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, witnesses a spurt of activity every midsummer during the Bhagavatha Mela Natya Nataka Utsav inaugurated on the Narasimha Jayanthi day. The festival falls on the Swathi Nakshatram in the waxing fortnight of Chittirai masam, in May. It was on this day, some mythical aeons ago, that Vishnu assumed Narasimha avatar to save his devotee Prahalada from his father Hiranyakashyap.

Dramas, namely Kamsa Vadham, Sathya Harischandra, Hari Hara Leela Vilasam and Sita Kalyanam are enacted during the week-long festival. A week before the festival, Melatturians employed elsewhere in India and abroad start coming to their native village. Regular supporting staff comes from Tanjore and Needamangalam. A common kitchen is set up. They enact the roles they have imbibed from their forefathers acting successively over seven generations. A young novice playing the part of innocent Lohitaksha is as studious as the seasoned actor doing the cameo character of Nakshatrika in Harischandra Natakam. The Bhagavatha Mela version of the Prahalada Charitam is in a class by itself. The audience identify with the varying moods and emotions of the dramatis personae. Spectators and actors merge in the progression of the drama as devotees seeking Vishnu's grace. Nowhere else in Indian classical theatre do so many characters dance with such a harmonious unity of expression, foot work and body movement set to the beat of percussion, orchestra and melodious music. The interlacing of singing and dancing with rhythm and grace make the Mela a rare treat to watch.

Melattur is colloquial for the Tamil idiom Mela Oor. During the reign of Tulaja I, fourth king of the Marathas, a clan from Atthigiri near Kanchipuram settled in Melattur. According to the Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, the Varadaraja Perumal idol was brought to Melattur to save it from the plundering Muslim cavalry. The Bhagavatha Mela is celebrated in the Sannidhi street of this Varadaraja temple and the invocatory hymns of the natya natakas are dedicated to this deity. Besides Melattur, there are five more villages in Thanjavur district where Bhagavatha Mela flourished in bygone days. They are Soolamangalam, Saliyamangalam, Nallur, Oothukadu and Teperumanallur.

Even though visitors come to see the Melattur dramas, the patrons assiduously guard themselves against promoting tourism since the Mela is mainly a religious event. On Narasimha Jayanthi day, the artists go to the Varadaraja Perumal temple in a procession amidst vedic chanting to perform invocatory poojas to the Narasimha mask made almost 200 years ago. The mask is the living symbol of Narasimha and hallmark of the Bhagavatha Mela. The mask is brought to the green room with temple honours for the make-up of the person doing the role of Narasimha. Even as the mask is set on his head, the actor becomes possessed and ferocious like a lion. For the rest of the drama, the Narasimha actor is controlled by bodyguards to prevent any untoward encounter with his arch enemy, Hiranyakashyap.

A scene from "Rukmini Kalyanam".

As the curtain comes down, the actors with the protagonist climb down the stage, walk through the concourse of the drama tent to the temple. Later the ensemble goes in procession around the agraharam with the Bhagavatars chanting Hari Bhajans. The householders do aarathi to the actors personating Narasimha, Bhoodevi and Prahlada, followed by benedictory verses. Only then the celebration of Narasimha Jayanthi in Melattur is said to be over. This is one of the fascinating spectacles of the Bhagavatha Mela tradition.

Bharatham Nates Iyer (1865-1935) was mainly responsible for the renaissance of the Bhagavatha Mela. In 1938, Ganesh Iyer, hailed as the "Father of Bhagavatha Mela" formed the Melattur Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanthi Bhagavatha Mela Natya Nataka Sangam, which now organises the annual programme in a systematic manner.

Padma Sri Balu Bhagavathar was a live wire in the Sangam grooming many a promising youth; one among them is Mahalinga Iyer and Ganesha Iyer's grandson Natarajan who are now the custodians of this national heritage. With charisma, perseverance and hard work, they have revived this art. Since then this great traditional temple has never looked back. This year Bhagavatha Mela will be inaugurated at Melattur on May 25.

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