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What is the Melattur style?

Guru Dorairaj.  

What is the Melattur style of Bharatanatyam?

Eminent jurist and cultural revivalist, E. Krishna Iyer (1897-1968), has described Bharat Natya as a vast, comprehensive and a generic system of classical dance in India, the principles and technique of which are closely applied to three chief forms: the lyrical solo Sadir-nautch, the Bhagavata Mela dance-drama and the light Kuravanji ballet.

By this, we can assume that Melattur Bhagavata Mela was not a different form of Bharata Natya, but the same technique presented in a different format. S. Natarajan, a Bhagavata Mela artist and president, Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam, Melattur, echoes the same opinion, “As I know, I do not see any specific style related to Bhagavata Mela. If it was during Venkatarama Sastry’s time in the eighteenth century, there is no written code or sishya parampara to prove it.”

What is the Melattur style of Bharatanatyam then? Guru Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer (1900-1980), the architect of the Melattur style, was an mridangam artist and a scholar of music. According to one of his last students, senior dancer Revathi Ramachandran, Guru Dorairaja got interested in the art form after watching and accompanying Bharata Natya performances. He learnt dance and nattuvangam under Melattur Natesa Iyer and created a style of his own called the Melattur style of Bharatanatyam.  He was instrumental in resurrecting Shudda Nrittam (rhythmic sequences in pancha gati bheda, performed by a dancer who keeps the beat through foot taps in sama pada to the accompaniment of the mridangam), Perani Natyam (dancing on clay pots) and Bhattasa Natyam (supposedly like Kalaripayattu).

As he was an mridangam artist, classes were held to the accompaniment of the mridangam. A beginner’s Thattadavu ‘Thaiyya thai,’ reminisces Revathi, was taught with mridangam syllables ‘Ta di thom nam.’  Guru Dorairaja was spiritual as well. Revathi remembers ‘Master’ telling her that sollus have meaning: Thajam (creation), Thallam (dissolution), Thadanam (preservation) and Thajjalaan as the supreme Brahman (found in the Chandokya Upanishad as per Pujya Swami Dayanand Saraswati).

Shaped by influences of the all-male Melattur Bhagavata Mela dance-drama, his experiences at Gemini Studios, Chennai, his musical acumen, and the religious austerities he followed being a Sri Vidya Upasaka, Guru Dorairaja’s style focusses on bhakti rasa and rhythm. Love expressed towards human beings was taboo; sringara as bhakti-sringara was allowed. Rhythm was pre-dominant even in padams. Acrobatic poses were an extension of the balancing act in Perani Natyam.

Revathi highlights some stylistic differences: Thadinginathom adavus finish on the side not back; use of movement starting from a toe-balancing position (Agratalasanchara pada bheda) – this is the starting position for Shudda Nrittam and is found in the Kuchipudi style; Natta adavus have a leg going across at the back; Natta adavus use the Pataka hasta instead of the traditionally used Tripataka; use of all jatis in a varnam- trikala, tisra, misra, chatusra and khanda jatis.  Guru Dorairaja has written ‘Swabodha Bharatha Navaneetham,’ a researched book on Bharatanatyam and ancient texts such as ‘Abhinaya Darpanam’ and ‘Bharatha Shastra Moolam.’ His most well-known students were Kanchana-Gowri,  Gayathri Sundaram and Revathi, although eminent people such as E. Krishna Iyer and Yamini Krishnamoorthy have also benefitted from the guru’s vidwat.

Sheela Unnikrishnan (Sridevi Nrithyalaya) is a well-known teacher of the Melattur style, having learnt it from Guru (Railway) M. Sundaram. An enthusiastic choreographer herself, she has created an item ‘Taranga Nrittam’ that combines Shuddha nrittam and Perani Natyam. Though she declares that javalis and sringara padams were not in the Melattur repertoire, she introduced Kshtreyya padams for the sake of the students who were required to present them at competitions.

Revathi says that Guru Dorairaja would change lyrics when necessary -- love lyrics in the ‘Mohamana’ varnam were replaced with devotional ones and in another instance, a Kapi thillana in praise of a king, was taught without any sahitya. But when Revathi was older, she was taught padams such as ‘Netrandhi Nerathile’ and ‘Sonnathellam Marandaro’ but she is unsure whether the guru thought her mature enough or whether it was on her mother (Jaya Venkatraman)’s insistence. 

In every case, the paucity of documentation signals a dead end. 

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 10:16:37 AM |

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