Theatre

Watching Bhagavata Mela at Melattur

A scene from ‘Kamsa Charitham’  

It is 10 p.m. and the Mohiniyattom recital by Dr. Rekha Raju from Bengaluru has just ended. It is time for the Bhagavata Mela Nataka ‘Kamsa Charitham.’ It begins at 10.30 p.m., an hour behind schedule. No one is complaining in Melattur; in fact, the makeshift pandal erected on the narrow street in front of Sri Varadarajaswamy temple has been filling up with guests and neighbourhood families.

So late in the day, one might have had doubts about the energy level of the performers. But the full-bodied voices of the Thiruvaiyaru Brothers — S. Narasimhan and S. Venkatesan — their sons — Venkatasubramanian and Venkatakrishnan — and L. Prabhakaran (who additionally played Narada), the melodious accompaniment by Andaankovil V. Durai (violin) and Gokulakrishnan (flute) and the robust percussion from Nagai Sriram (mridangam), left no cause for such worries.

Past midnight

As the classical music rose to sublime heights filling the silence of the night, it inspired the involved dramatisation and kept the audience captivated for more than three hours, until about 1.40 a.m.

‘Kamsa Charitham’ is a lighter fare, than the powerful ‘Prahlada Charithamu’ or the heartrending ‘Harishchandra,’ both of which are compulsorily staged during every Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavathamela Nataka Mahotsav. The Telugu plays are by Melattur Venkatarama Sastry (1743-1809).

In 1982, when ‘Kamsa’ was added to the repertoire, veteran artiste and choreographer Melattur S. Natarajan took the liberty of adding a song, the ‘Kalinga Narthana Tillana’ (Gambhiranattai, Adi, Oothukkadu Venkatasubbaiyer). As for the music for ‘Kamsa,’ Natarajan says that the ragas were mentioned in the script, all rakti ragas full of emotion; but there was no indication to the manner of rendition.

The artistes decided to follow the Tyagaraja style as they felt, as contemporaries, Venkatarama Sastry had been influenced by the saint-poet as evidenced in the musical score of ‘Prahlada.’ Tyagaraja is supposed to have even witnessed a performance in Melattur, besides Ramaswamy Dikshitar and other luminaries including patrons from the royal family.

The dance-dramas have a prologue, like all classical theatre presentations, consisting of the appearance of a Konangi (clown) followed by the Melaprapti comprising Dhyana sloka, Todayamangalam, sabdam and tisram and chatusram solkattu and Naandi Dwipada presenting the story and the introduction of the author.

The play begins with the appearance of Ganesha, a young boy covered with a mask who presents lively footwork and blesses the performance. Thalin did justice to the role. The play continues with pravesha darus, introducing the main characters. The participants are male Brahmins from hereditary families, but because their numbers are ‘non-hereditary’ dancers are being initiated into the dance-drama troupe. The role play however remains sacrosanct, and any change in the main characters has to be ‘ordained’ by the presiding deity, Sri Lakshmi Narasimha.

The standards may be high but many of the performers are not professional actors or dancers; it is therefore an interesting mix of styles. Melattur S. Kumar (Kamsa), introduced in a Saveri piece, has an unorthodox style which suits his anti-hero roles — full of swagger, strong thumps, a booming voice and strong dialogue delivery. N. Srikanth as the tortured, long suffering Devaki presented Bharatanatyam at its classical best with his studied and subtle expressions in stree vesham. Aravind as the condemned brother-in-law Vasudeva, was gentle in expression and technically sound.

Poetic moments

The short yet filigreed presentation of Melattur Natarajan as Yashoda, playing with the child Krishna and putting him to sleep in soulful darus — ‘Paschavilthuni Kanna’ (Atana) and ‘Nandagopa kumara navaneetha chora’ (Neelambari) — was worth coming all the way to Melattur. The soft delicacy of his gestures, the maturity of expressions and the ever-flowing ideas — it was given to understand that what he did that day were all new sancharis — along with the most inspiring music of the evening created poetic moments to savour long after.

The comic timing of Varadarajan (midwife, Poothana) added some levity to the story, without overdoing the drama.

Vijay Madhavan as Krishna was the biggest surprise. Though a well-trained Bharatanatyam dancer, he let himself go physically. So when he gave Devaki and Vasudeva a glimpse of his Viswaroopa and then scrunched himself into a baby in the womb with the toes almost in his mouth, the transformation was most unexpected. The Kalinga Narthana piece dramatising every moment of the fight was performed with good energy and flexibility. Venkat Subramanian (Balarama), Dhruva and Bharadwaj (Chanura), Sanatkumar (Chatakasura) were the other supporting artistes.

The acting was nuanced throughout — Vasudeva and Devaki in their suffering showed strong bonding, looking at each other helplessly and sadly, as if they were in it together; Kamsa’s mocking at the sorry couple in the plaintive ‘Hari Hara Brahma’ (Neelambari) and his ingenuity when he meets Krishna and Balarama — he professes love for his nephew overtly, but when he turns his face away he shows his covert anger and murderous intentions.

Krishna mirroring these contrasting emotions was, however, not in line with the godhead who has no pretence. The killing scene was well-captured — Kamsa ‘lovingly’ invites Krishna onto his lap but tries to strangulate him from the back, while Krishna, looking calm and unconcerned, crushes his thighs and kills him. Kamsa falls to the ground with a loud thud.

For the artistes, except the anti-hero, the end of the show does not mean the end of the evening — they get off the stage singing bhajans as they make their way to the temple, accompanied by mangala vadyam. After the deepa aradana and pradakshina, they make their way to the family Rudralayam temple in the adjoining street, where the evening ends with bhajans, the customary breaking of the coconut to ward off the evil eye, and a mangalam.

It is well past 2 a.m. by the time they are finished. Bhagavata Mela Natakas maybe entertainment for the spectator, but it is a ritual for the artiste.


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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 6:53:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/watching-bhagavata-mela-at-melattur/article24046867.ece

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