Every dance drama starts with an opening Melaprapthi, which acts as an overture to the drama, offers prayers to God, gives the summary of the story to the audience and serves as warm up to the singers, nattuvanars and even dancers, interspersed as it is with a number of solkattus in different talams (thisram, chatusram, khandam, misra chapu and misra jhampai) and musical pieces in different ragams. It sets the ambience and the stage for the drama to begin. This sequence is in accordance with the Purvaranga, as detailed by the Natya Sastra.
This is unique to the compositions of Melattur Venkatarama Sastry. There is a sculpture of the konangi in a pillar of the darbar (court) of Thanjavur palace. Konangi is the first character to appear on any Melattur Bhagavata Mela performance. He is dressed as a traditional Bhagavatar but sports a conical cap pointed to the back. He carries a scarf, held across and above his head. He capers about, beating to the rhythms of the Patra Pravesham sung in Kambodhi ragam and set to Chatusra Eka talam. This is part of Melaprapthi.
Melattur Bhagavata Mela features Sharanu Daru and Thodaya Mangalam. These forms appeared in Kumbakonam area of Tamil Nadu due to the saint Bhodendral and are part of the Bhajanotsavam traditions of Thanjavur. They are also seen in Chinna Melam or Sangeetha Melam, which are composed with the patron kings as the main characters, highlighting their virtue, valor, charm and wealth.
Melattur Shabdams have become popular in the dance tradition. They have simple lyrics and sollukattu. They are composed in Kambodhi ragam and set to Misra Chapu talam. In the Bhagavata Mela Natakams, Shabdams sometimes contain the summary of the story of the play.
This is a Thanjavur tradition seen only in plays in this region. Usually, a young boy is chosen for this character. He wears a mask and enters dancing while the musicians sing the daru. Sometimes an elder Bhagavatulu accompanies him on stage. At the end of the daru, Ganapathy is led to his seat. The Bhagavatar offers flowers and arathi and leads the masked boy off stage.
The play properly begins with the entry of this character who is usually the hero's courtier or announcer. Where a kattiakkaran cannot exist (as in when the hero is not a king), this character may also be the sutradhar (literal meaning: holder of strings) of the play. The pravesha daru describes his costume, actions and duties. The kattiakkaran wields a stick and warns the audience to be silent. He heralds the arrival of his royal master. Bhagavata Mela natakams of Venkatarama Sastry have long passages to speak for the sutradhar. After him, the hero and then the heroine enter the stage.
Patrapravesha darus are indicative of the personality traits of the character. They describe the costume, the gait, the expression on the face and the actions to be performed by the actor. The consequences of his arrival on the environment are graphically enlisted. The atmosphere that prevails is also mentioned. The ingenious use of the Patrapravesha lyrics as stage instructions and directror's notes is admirable. If we study the patrapravesham of Hinranyakashipu in Prahlada Charitamu, this becomes quite clear: "Hiranyakashipu entered with a fast gait. Asura courtiers accompanied him with demonic actions and gestures. The earth trembled with the firm footsteps of the valiant, unrivalled warrior. His face reflected the pride and self-importance. Ministers and generals stood by his side. The king rested his arms on their shoulders as he walked majestically. People in all directions extolled his virtues".
In the patrapravesha darus of heroines, there is the tradition of two other female characters holding a screen to cover the heroine and dancing a prelude called thiraippadu before the character is revealed slowly to the audience.
Other literary devices used in the natakam are Dwipada (couplets), Seesa padyam (lyrics sung without rhythm), Gandhapadyans and Churnikas. These are verses with couplets, quatrains and the like. The text of the natakam contains dialogues to be spoken by some of the characters. These dialogues are laden with wisdom and philosophical truth, even as they advance the story. The natakams reveal Venkatarama Sastri's deep knowledge of Sanskrit, Carnatic Music, Natya Shastra, theatre traditions and aesthetics. In his Prahlada Charitramu and Rukmini Kalyanam plays, Sastry also employs characters such as kurathi and kudukuduppandi (fortune tellers) in Rukmini Kalyanam, and pambatti (snake charmer) and mallars (wrestlers) in Prahlada. These characters are typically rural characters and are created for the rural audience.