Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam (Regd. 8/64 and 56/87) was formed in 1964 to preserve, nurture, develop and spread the unique artform of Bhagavata Mela, particularly the dance dramas of Melattur Venkatarama Sastri. Since then the Sangam and its members have dedicated all efforts towards this cause and have contributed significantly towards this noble cause.
Chief among the accomplishments of the sangam is the regular conduct of the Annual Bhagavata Mela Natya Natak Utsav from 1966 to date with the Divine Grace of Lord Lakshmi Narasimha. Even in the year 2000 when the entire stage and most of the costumes and sets prepared for the Utsav were destroyed due to a fire accident, the Utsav was staged within a month's time.
Bhagavata Mela tradition was preserved by the Bhagavatas who performed the dance dramas, mostly the ones authored by Melattur Sri Venkatarama Sastri, every year at their temples at villages such as Melattur, Oothukkadu, Thepperumanallur, Saliyamangalam, Soolamangalam and Mannargudi. Particularly during Narasimha Jayanti, Prahlada Charitram was performed. However, it is safe to say that in early 20th century, this tradition was heading towards decline due to
In many of these villages, the performances stopped, sputtered and eventually the tradition vanished. In villages such as Melattur, Thepparumanallur and Saliyamangalam, they endured albeit with changes forced by necessities. Bharatam Natesa Iyer (1855 - 1931), who is now known as the Father of Bhagavata Mela, valiantly fought often insurmountable odds to continue the tradition in Melattur. Sri Natesa Iyer was a trained Bhagavata Mela artiste and was instrumental in conducting the annual festival with diligence. It is believed that all the ten plays of Venkatarama Sastri were in currency during his time. However, to the best of our knowledge, only four plays seem to have been staged during his time - namely, Prahlada Charitram, Harichandra, Usha Parinayam, and Markandeya. Natesa Iyer also worked towards preserving the tradition of Bhagavata Mela by notating some of the plays of Venkatarama Sastri, which were handwritten by his daughter Kalyaniammal. He conducted the annual festival despite severe dearth of resources from 1928-1931.
The unexpected death of Natesa Iyer in 1931 unfortunately led to another disruption in the performances. The art form was then take up by the Telugu Brahmins of Melattur under the leadership of the village Munsif Melattur Sri. T. K. Subramania Iyer and the guidance of Nallur Narayanaswami Iyer, Nallur Pichu Bhagavatar, Kanakangi Josiyar, and Kinchin Kotandarama Iyer. They performed Prahlada Charitram from 1932 to 1941 in front of Lord Varadaraja Perumal temple at Melattur. This was the time when Sri. P. K. Subbaier, the disciple of Sangeetha Kalanidhi Ariyakudi Sri. Ramanuja Iyengar, started singing for Bhagavata Mela. In 1938, a second troupe led by Smartha Brahmins of Melattur also initiated Bhagavata Mela performances at the Lord Dhakshinamurthy Vinayagar temple at Melattur. On the occasion of Shivaratri, they staged Markandeya. They were led by Melattur Sri. V. Ganesa Iyer and the performances were conducted under the guidance of Sri. Balu Bhagavatar. In 1938, dialogues alone were rendered in Tamil whereas from 1939-1941, the entire performance was in Telugu.
In 1941, the Telugu Brahmins stopped their performances for reasons unknown. In 1942, Kunnam Srinivasa Iyer, Mirasdar, Melattur, advised and encouraged the Smartha Brahmin troupe to take up the performance of Prahlada Charitram in addition to their earlier repertoire. He also advised them to stage their natakams in front of Lord Varadaraja Swami temple, Melattur. He donated Rs. 100 to cover part of the expenses, and arranged for the pandal for the performances. Thus it came about that Bhagavata Mela natakams were conducted from 1942 by the Smartha Brahmins of Melattur in front of the Lord Varadaraja Swami temple. This troupe were under the guidance of Sri.Balu Bhagavatar, with Balu Bhagavatar and Sri. P. K. Subbaier performing at the vocals along with Melattur Krishnamurthy Sarma and Melattur Ramani Iyer. This was the time when Sri. E. Krishnaier, Supreme Court Justice Sri. A. S. P. Iyer, Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi and Sri. Sadasivam, and Vazhuvur Sri. Ramiah Pillai visited Melattur to see the Bhagavata Mela performances. Kanchi Maha Perivaya Jagadguru Shri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Swamigal honored Sri. Balu Bhagavatar with a gold thoda and all the other artistes with a gold coin each at Elayathankudi in 1962. At this time, Sri. T. K. S. Rajagopalan, famous for his female roles in Bhagavata Mela natakams, performed the patrapravesham of Leelavati and the mei in front of Mahaperiyaval. In all of these efforts, they were also supported by Smt. Kalyani Ammal, the daughter of Bharatam Natesa Iyer, whose notebooks formed the authentic sources of the natakams, and whose thorough knowledge of the traditions was relied upon.
In 1964, a few major changes came about. First, it was realized that there existed no organization or a banner under which these performances were being conducted. Sri. V. D. Swamy, the famous industrialist from Melattur, took the leadership of forming the first organization which would be dedicated to the fostering of this art form, in addition to organizing the annual Narasimha Jayanti performances. This organization was aptly named Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam, reflecting its broad goals of fostering the art form, teaching and spreading it to the youth, and becoming a knowledge and resource center for Bhagavata Mela and other temple theater, music, and dance forms.Sri.Swamy had the vision to take this art form out of Melattur and into the mainstream, and showcase it as one of the few remaining live links to our culture, a torchbearer of traditions laid down in Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra. He dreamt of Melattur becoming a seat of cultural heritage of India, where traditional art forms including Bhagavata Mela were practiced, taught, learned, and performed. He wanted these annual festivals to become the seeds for the fruits of continuous teaching, learning, practicing, and performing rather than the annual ritual of preservation of an art form. A person of no less stature than the renowned Justice Venkatarama Iyer headed the Sangam. All the major artistes of the time, including Sri. P. K. Subbaier, Sri. Balu Bhagavatar, andSri. G. Swaminathan and Sri. V. Ganesa Iyer and Sri. K. Ramalinga Iyer were founding members of the Sangam. Other founding members include Sri. V. Naganatha Iyer, Sri. R. Sethuraman, Sri. A. R. Sethuraman, and Sri. N. Venkataraman (Thambu).
Sri.Swamy bought a piece of land near the Narayana Theertham, the pond on the west end of Melattur village, on whose banks a temple stood for Lord Narasimha Swami of Melattur. This temple had been lost in the vagaries of time, and two moola vigrahas of the Lord Narasimha (made at different times in the distant past) are now installed and worshipped in the Lord Varadaraja Swami temple at Melattur. The spacious land was to be put to immediate and regular use for conducting the annual Bhagavata Mela utsavams. Three natakams were to be performed during the utsavam that year - Prahlada Charitram, Harichandra, and Usha Parinayam. The first two natakams were indeed performed. Unfortunately, due to the death of the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the utsavam was stopped and Usha Parinayam was not performed.
Unfortunately, in 1965, the lead dancers of the Sangam namely, Sri. G. Swaminathan, Sri. S. Natarajan, Piswati Sri. R. Sundaram, and Sri. R. Ganesan, under the leadership of Sri. V. Ganesa Iyer separated from the Sangam and started staging their performances in front of Lord Varadaraja Swami temple. The vocalists Melattur Sri. Krishnamurthy Sarma and Melattur Sri. Ramani Iyer joined them. Hoping for a reconciliation, the Sangam itself did not conduct any performances in 1965 on the occasion of Narasimha Jayanti. When the hopes of reconciliation appeared bleak, the Sangam started staging performances at its land on the banks of Narayana Theertham from 1966 during Narasimha Jayanti. It is to be noted that Sri. Balu Bhagavatar, Sri. P. K. Subbaier, and Smt. Kalyani Ammal stayed affiliated with the Sangam till the end of their lives. Sri. V. D. Swamy, the founding Trustee of the Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam, stayed on as the Trustee and President of the Sangam and fully supported the Sangam and its activities till the end of his life.
The traditions of Thanjavur are magical with an aura of antiquity. Modern technology somehow still seems to not have ultimately erased the strains of quaint past that suffuse the villages there. As one steps into a village like Melattur, it is immediately apparent that the ancient and the recent coexist in harmony. While the latter is louder and easily visible, the entire place is bathed in the former, which drives every activity from its core. Quaint as the past may be, it is filled with memories and whispers of a highly evolved tradition deep in wisdom. Remnants of the ancient tradition are to be seen everywhere from the way old houses are constructed to the temples to the roads and the fields to the ways and customs of the people that live in these villages. Yet, slowly but surely, the recent developments in technology that have no doubt reformed the very fabrics of society are also bringing with them the cultures and traditions of the west. A dying tradition like Bhagavata Mela faces huge challenges to coexist with these influences. The Sangam is dedicated to nurturing and spreading the tradition of Bhagavata Mela so that it is vibrant enough to make its impact felt in the cultural ethos of today.
In its efforts to developing the tradition of Bhagavata Mela, the Sangam and its members face many challenges. All the dancers and other artistes are performing today against tremendous odds. Dancers, in particular, are not professionals and have other careers. The artistes face the powerful challenges of a modern society that is redefining education, entertainment and even spirituality by western customs and technology. However, for the performing artistes, this is the living connection with their Ishta Devata Lord Narasimha. It is their form of worship. They do it as service and surrender to the Lord. In fact, some of the members of the Sangam have had to dig into their personal savings, when collections have gone short, to conduct the annual festival without a break.
Nobody performs under pressure. The atmosphere is relaxed and one of a family, with a strong undercurrent of devotion. This is particularly manifest on the eve of Narasimha Jayanti, when Prahlada Charitramu is enacted. The life and the psyche of the Melattur village are irrevocably entwined with this myth. There are such enlightened audiences who know the play backwards, know every song, every movement, every gesture are steeped in the traditions of Bhagavata Mela.
Even a week before Narasimha Jayanti, the entire Melattur village is charged with devotional fervor. Many Vedic rituals and homams are conducted.They take place now at the new temple of Lord Lakshmi Narasimha on the west banks of the Narayana Theertha, whre an ancient temple of Narasimha existed but was lost to the ravages of time. The morning of Narasimha Jayanti in Melattur begins with ceremonies at Sri Varadaraja temple where the participants gather. Following the morning pujas, the priest ties a yellow thread on the wrists of the actors, binding them to their sacred duty.
In the temple of Sri Varadaraja Swami, there is the sannidhi (altar) of Lord Lakshmi Narasimha (and also the idols of Lord Yoga Narasimha of the temple that once existed on the west banks of Narayana Theertha). In the sanctum sanctorum, a 500-year-old mask is kept in a cupboard. It is taken out at night to be worn by the actor performing the role of Lord Narasimha. In the late evening around nine ‘o clock, the villagers gather at the open-air marquee with the permanent auditorium adjacent to the Lord Lakshmi Narasimha temple on the west banks of the Narayana Theertha pond. The artistes move to the stage after worshipping at the Lakshmi Narasimha Swamitemple there. The mask is placed on a makeshift shrine at the far end, directly opposite the stage, where Lord Varadaraja is also seated as the divine guest.
The performance starts with a long musical overture, after which a young actor wearing a Ganesha mask makes an appearance. Flowers, fruits and arati are offered to him. The performance follows the Sanskrit theatre tradition, wherein characters first appear in the introductory preludes, called Pravesha darus. Once the main characters are introduced, the first part of the play, namely the Purvarangam is complete. The story proper is part of the second act or the Uttararangam. The music is chaste Carnatic music and the lucid lyrics in Telugu are composed in varying literary structures – couplets, dialogue, darus and so on.
As the climax approaches, the actor who is to portray Lord Narasimha dons the mask. He goes into a trance. He has observed strict austerities all day long. Yet when he dons the mask, he goes into uncontrollable fury. The taunting of the demon king infuriates him and at the appropriate moment he appears, roaring with anger and frenzy. It requires four stageheads to hold him back with sashes around his waist. An actual confrontation is avoided after an unfortunate event once led to violence on the stage. The audience is enthralled by this awesome creature. They believe that Lord Vishnu blesses their village by entering the body of this actor in spirit. The play ends with a benediction. Jaggery water (paanagam) and arati are offered to appease Lord Narasimha. The actors are taken in a procession to the temple. The mask is ceremoniously replaced and sprinkling water revives the actor. Another significant ritual is the celebration of marriage natakams like Seetha Kalyanam and Rukmini Kalyanam with genuine joy and distribution of sweets and other auspicious objects like betel leaves etc. Sometimes the participants perform the traditional Kummi dance.
Bhagavata Mela is an ancient temple tradition of dance, music and drama in Thanjavur dating to earlier than five centuries. It has been preserved since the times of Thanjavur Nayak Kings and Thanjavur Marathi Kings and is being nurtured and developed today by a handful of organizations including Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam, Melattur.
The first and foremost tradition of Bhagavata Mela is that the dance dramas, particularly, Prahlada Charitramu of Melattur Venkatarama Sastri, are being performed during Narasimha Jayanthi of every year, with the exception of a few breaks in the 20th century. Bhagavata Mela imbibes and reflects the traditions, bhavas (emotions), styles and the literary patterns of the Thanjavur composers of the times of 16th to 19th century, including Melattur Sri Venkatarama Sastri and Sadguru Sri Thyagaraja Swami. Some of the unique aspects of Bhagavata Mela traditions include:
All roles on and off-stage – be they singing, dancing or dramatic or make-up and other supporting roles – are performed exclusively by men. While these men were earlier all from Melattur and all Brahmins, these days this is no longer strictly followed. However, the female roles are still performed only by men with exquisite grace, upholding the traditional feminine values inherent in the culture.
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 and musical pieces in different ragams. This sequence is in accordance with the Purvaranga, as detailed by the Natya Sastra.
Konangi Patra Pravesham: This is unique to the compositions of Melattur Venkatarama Sastri. 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. Patra Pravesham is sung in Kambodhi ragam and set to Chatusra Eka talam.
Sharanu Daru & Thodaya Mangalam: Melattur Bhagavata Mela features Sharanu Daru and Thodaya Mangalam. These forms appeared in Kumbakonam area of Tamil Nadu due to the saint Bhodendra Swami and are part of the Bhajanotsavam traditions of Thanjavur. They are also seen in Chinna Melam or Sangeetha Melam traditions of Thanjavur.
Shabdam: 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, and such compositions are called katha sangraha shabdams.
Ganapathy Patra Pravesham: This is a Thanjavur tradition seen only in plays in this region. Lord Ganapathy appears to bless the performance and the Utsavam to take place without any troubles. It is donned by a young boy and is usually the debut role for most actors.
Kattiakkaran and Sutradhar: 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 Sastri have long passages to speak for the sutradhar. After him, the hero and then the heroine enter the stage.
Patra Pravesha Darus: 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.
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 componentss used in the natakam are Dwipada (couplets), Seesa padyam (lyrics sung without rhythm), Gandhapadyams 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, music, Natya Shastra, theatre traditions and aesthetics. In his Prahlada Charitramu and Rukmini Kalyanam plays, Sastri 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 folk characters and are created for the rural audience.
The predominantly used musical form in Bhagavata Mela is the daru. Six kinds of daru are mentioned in the Natya Shastra, in the Dharuvadhyaya. The first is the Praveshika daru, which introduces each character. Other varieties employed in this tradition are the samvada daru (conversation), pralapa daru (exposition), thillana daru, charanu daru (song of worship or surrender) and mangala daru (song of glory and auspiciousness). Darus are also called dhruvas, as they link the central ideas of the story. A daru’s structure is similar to that of a kriti, the presently popular musical composition in Carnatic music. It is divided into Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanams. As in kritis, pallavis and charanams are usually in the madhya sthayi (medium octave) or mandra sthayi (lower octave) while anupallavi is primarily in the thara sthayi (higher octave). Some darus may not have anupallavi. In most instances, particularly in Praveshika darus, the anupallavi is sung first for dramatic effect.
Darus are usually composed in rakthi ragas, chosen for their emotive powers, bhava or sentiment. This makes the music sensitive and delectable. The ragas are chosen to illuminate the nature and the character of the artistes or the nature of the situation. Some of the ragas used for patra pravesha darus include Begada (Ganesha in Prahlada, Rukmini in Rukmini Kalyanam), Devagandhari (Hiranyakashipu in Prahlada, Dasharatha in Seetha Kalyanamu), Atana (Leelavati in Prahlada, Chandramathi in Harichandra), Bhairavi (Prahlada in Prahlada) and Kambodhi (Harichandra in Harichandra). Also rakthi ragas like Mukhari, Dhanyasi, Ghanta, Manji, Saranga, Abhogi and Ahiri are used in other darus. Ragas like Ghanta and Kumbha Kambodhi are specialties of the Bhagavata Mela tradition.
The lyrics of darus are replete with a remarkable array of musical devices such as yati, prasam, anuprasam and yamakam. They display the mastery of Melattur Venkatarama Sastri on the Telugu language and his intimate knowledge of how to employ these skills to the making of sublime and divine music. The time-hour theory of ragams is followed in the compositions. For instance, Bhoopalam is sung at the crack of dawn, towards the end of the play.
Compositions suitable for dance have always been a part of Bhagavata Mela. Alarippu, Swarajathis, Jathiswarams, Padavarnams and Thillana have been introduced mainly in the Pravesha darus. Melattur Shabdams are famous and have found their way into the Kuchipudi repertoire. Alarippus are set to the talam of the daru and are performed in any or all of the five gatis. One of the specialties of Bhagavata Mela dance today is to see the performance of alarippus in all five gatis, in many talas including adi (2 kalai), rupakam or adi (tisra gati) and misra chapu, and at various eduppus, as the daru demands.
Intricate rhythmic variations executed with footwork, particularly Meiyyadavus, are a specialty of the Melattur style. The dancers incorporate both Nritta (footwork) and Natya (expressional dance) while performing darus. There is restrained dignity and grace in the movement of the young boys who don female roles. Patrapravesha darus of the heroine sometimes include alarippu, padavarnam or a thillana. Even the abhinaya passages in other darus are executed with crisp footwork. Every actor displays at least a minimum understanding of rhythmic patterns. The most important aspect of the dances in Bhagavata Mela is that performance is a living ritual worship. Everyone involved in the natakam does it as worship irrespective of whether they are dancers, actors, singers or technicians. The whole tradition is nurtured by the underlying deep devotion to Lord Narasimha.
Ever since its inception, Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam has worked tirelessly to nurture and spread Bhagavata Mela and its traditions. The first and foremost contribution of the Sangam in its efforts to foster this unique art form is the performances of Bhagavata Mela:
In addition, the Sangam has contributed to the development of this art in the form of literary, artistic/dramatic, musical and dance-related contributions.
The Sangam is in possession of the original palm leaf manuscript of the dance drama Harichandra by Melattur Venkatarama Sastri, which it preserves carefully. It also has in its possession the handwritten notes of Kalyaniammal and her father Natesa Iyer, an authentic reference to the musical, dance and dramatic traditions of Bhagavata Mela. The Sangam has published the text of the dance drama Markandeya composed by Melattur Venkatarama Sastri in 1995 with meaning and commentary. Further, the artists of Sangam, Sri. N. Viswanathan and Sri. Bharatam N. Srinivasan have published through Saraswati Mahal Library, the dance drama Seetha Kalyanam composed by Melattur Venkatarama Sastri with meaning, ragas as mentioned in the script and essays on the traditions of Bhagavata Mela. These authors have also published the dance drama Nouka Charitramu by Sadguru Sri Thyagaraja through the Saraswati Mahal Library. The Sangam has released two journals exclusively on Bhagavata Mela, one in 1994 and another in 2002, both with essays analyzing various aspects of the tradition. It has also contributed to the exclusive issue on Bhagavata Mela by the magazine Sruthi in 1994.
Rukmini Kalyanam, the Telugu dance drama by Melattur Venkatarama Sastri, is preserved as written by Sastri and performed only by the Sangam as of now. In addition to performing Bhagavata Mela dance dramas of Melattur Venkatarama Sastri, the Sangam artistes have composed (music) and choreographed three other dance dramas – Sakuntalam, a Marathi dance drama in Bhagavata Mela tradition written by Maharaja Ekoji II (1696 – 1737), one of the Maratha kings of Thanjavur, Sri Andal Thirukkalyanam and Geetodayam,two Tamil dance dramas in the Bhagavata Mela tradition. A number of presentations have been given by the artistes of the Sangam on the dramatic aspects, costumes, make up and presentation of the tradition in venues of renown.
Bhagavata Mela dance dramas are renowned for their strong musical content. A number of major and rare ragas are employed in unique fashion, preserving the prayogas of the yore in the performance of the ragas. Ragas such as Ananda Bhairavi, Bhairavi, Devagandhari, Ahiri, Paras, Atana and Chenchurutti are presented with embellishments and occasional rare prayogas not heard in current renditions, yet capturing their grandeur. Rare ragas such as Ghanta, Manji and Kumba Kambodhi are handled in detail and have phrases that are currently not in vogue. Every effort is made by the musicians and the artistes of the Sangam to preserve this unique musical identity of the tradition. The artistes have given several lecture demonstrations on the musical aspects of Bhagavata Mela in august gatherings including the MadrasMusicAcademy.
Next to the regular performances being conducted to spread Bhagavata Mela, the greatest contribution of the Sangam is its training of a number of young artists who are poised to carry on the tradition. Towards this end, the Sangam has organized workshops on Bhagavata Mela, including one sponsored by the Akademi. A new generation of dancers is now donning key roles, especially the male and female lead roles in all the dance dramas performed by the Sangam. All the dancers are trained in traditional Bharatanatyam as well as the unique footwork employed in Bhagavata Mela. They are also taught aspects of choreography and nattuvangam. It is the goal of the Sangam that this rare art form not become merely a family heirloom but become a thriving art form performed by many experts across the globe.
In order to recognize the yeoman contributions of artistes to the preservation and development of Bhagavata Mela, Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam has instituted the award Bharatam. The award carries a citation and a ponnadai.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, many of the poets and artistes of the Thanjavur’s Marathi kings’ court lived in villages surrounding Thanjavur, including Melattur. Among them the most famous artiste is Melattur Venkatarama Sastri. His Bhagavata Mela dance dramas today stand testimony to the devotional fervor, musical depth, dramatic depictions and dance nuances of the tradition of Bhagavata Mela.
Whatever we know about Melattur Venkatarama Sastri is primarily from references in his own compositions. In the katha sangraha (story’s summary) dvipadi (couplets) of his Markandeya Charitramu, Sastri describes the land he lived in as “Dhirudou Sri Shivaji Kshithipathi Thanayu Rajyambuna”. From this, it becomes evident that he lived during the reign of King Shivaji (1833 – 1855 AD). Further, in the palm leaf manuscript of Sastri’s dance drama Harichandra available with and preserved by Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam’s Sri. Mahalingam (Mali), the date of its composition is indicated as Darala varusham, Avani Matham, 17th, Monday, which works out to 30th August 1824. Assuming he must have been at least 25 years old by then to have composed such a dance drama, one is able to assign a life span of 1800 to 1875 AD to Melattur Venkatarama Sastri. Further, in his work Sangeetha Sampradaya Pradarshini, Sri. Subbarama Dikshitar mentions that Melattur Venkatarama Sastri lived during the days of the kings Sarafoji and Shivaji. Yakshagana researcher Sri Joga Rao mentions that the old age of Sri Venkatarama Sastri was the youth of Sadguru Sri Thyagaraja Swami.
Melattur Venkatarama Sastri was born to Gopalakrishna Iyer and was tutored by Guru Lakshmana Iyer. He was a contemporary of the chief artiste of Bhagavata Mela in the Thanjavur palace Sri. Varahappaiya Dikshitar, Panchanatha Bhagavatar, and Sadguru Sri Thyagaraja Swami. Melattur Venkatarama Sastri was an upasaka of Lord Sri Lakshmi Narasimha.
Sri Venkatarama Sastri is known to have composed the following plays:
There are also claims that he is the author of Rukmangada Charitramu, though there is no evidence in the dance drama’s katha sangraham (story summary, where the author declares himself and when, where and how the drama is being performed). Further, in the handwritten notes of the renowned Bhagavata Mela Guru Padma Shri Balu Bhagavatar, this dance drama is mentioned as “Sri Varahapuri vasastha Sri Narayana Theertha virakithamithi kechith vadanthi”, which is further support to the statement that Sri Sastri did not author Rukmangada Charitramu.
Sri. Joga Rao also claims that Sri Sastri authored the drama Shivarathri Vratha Charitramu. The script of this drama was found in Melattur. However, the script has many portions missing, including in the Katha Sangraham section. Therefore, it is as yet impossible to ascertain the veracity of this claim. Sri. Joga Rao also claims hearsay evidence of the authorship of Sri Sastri of the dramas Satsangaraja Charitramu, Asatsangaraja Charitramu and Jaganleela, though there is no hard evidence as yet to establish this.Thus, one may conclude that today we have ten Bhagavata Mela dance dramas authored by Melattur Sri Venkatarama Sastri.
Earliest Known Record of Bhagavata Mela Performance (1432: Vipranarayana Charitram)
Many Bhagavata Mela natakams are composed and performed in many places in and around Thanjavur, under the patronage of Nayak Cholas and Marathi Cholas.
18th-19th Century: Bhagavata Mela Compositions of Melattur Venkatarama Sastri
Melattur Venkatarama Sastri composes ten Natya Natakams, which form the basis of today’s Bhagavata Mela performances.
1928-1931: Revival of Bhagavata Mela by Bharatam Natesa Iyer
Bharatam Natesa Iyer revives, in 1928,the performances of Sastri’s Bhagavata Mela Natakams that had been stopped due to hardship and lack of leadership.
1932-1941: Telugu Brahmins of Melattur
1938-1941: Brahmins of Melattur
From 1938, Bhagavata Mela performances were initiated by a second troupe at Melattur. In 1938, the performance was conducted with dialogues in Tamil and the darus in Telugu. From 1939 onwards, the entire performance was in Telugu.
1942-1963: Brahmins of Melattur
Since the Telugu Brahmins troupe stopped performances in 1941, those interested in continuing performances merged with the second troupe.
1950: E. Krishnaier visits Melattur and watches the natakams. He is highly impressed with the performances and takes it upon himself to popularize the existence of Bhagavata Mela and bring it out of Melattur
1953: Harichandra natakam arangetram
1953: Hindu Raghunathan and E. Krishnaier visit Melattur and watch the natakams.
1954: Supreme Court Judge A. S. P. Iyer visits Melattur and watches the natakams.
1955: Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi, Sri. Sadasivam, and Vazhuvur Ramiah Pillai visit Melattur and watch Harichandra.
1962: The performance of Prahlada Charitram takes place in the divine sannidhanam of Kanchi Mahaperiyaval Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal at Elayathangudi.Balu Bhagavatar is honored with a gold thoda and all the artists are honored with a gold coin. At this time, Sri. T. K. S. Rajagopalan, the famed dancer of sthri parts in Bhagavata Mela, performs the patra pravesham of Leelavati and mei (alarippu) before Mahaperiyaval.
1964: Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam
1965: Split in Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam
The lead dance artists of Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam, namely, G. Swaminathan, S. Natarajan, Piswati R. Sundaram, and R. Ganesan, along with V. Ganesa Iyer separate from the Sangam and start staging their performances in front of Lord Varadaraja Swami temple.Melattur Krishnamurthy Sarma and Melattur Ramani Iyer join them, while Balu Bhagavatar, P. K. Subbaier, and Smt. Kalyani Ammal, daughter of Bharatam Natesa Iyer stay affiliated with the Sangam till the end of their lives. Sri. V. D. Swamy, the founding Trustee of the Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam, stays on as the Trustee and President of the Sangam and fully supports the Sangam and its activities till the end of his life. In hopes of reconciliation, Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam does not stage any performance during Narasimha Jayanti this year.
1965: Prahlada Charitram published by Madras Music Academy
The Natya Natakam Prahlada Charitramof Melattur Venkatarama Sastri is published by Madras Music Academy.
1966-Present: Performances of
Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam
1994: First Journal exclusively on Bhagavata Mela released by the Sangam
The Sangam publishes its first publication, a journal exclusively dedicated to Bhagavata Mela.
1995: Markandeya published by the Sangam
The Natya Natakam Markandeya of Melattur Venkatarama Sastri was published by Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam.
2000: Trial by fire
On 16th May 2000, due to an unfortunate fire accident, the entire set and almost the entire costumes of the Sangam are destroyed. By the Grace of Lord Lakshmi Narasimha and generous support of many patrons, the Utsavam is staged within a month.
Regular performances by Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam are conducted outside Melattur in many places, including in December Season in Chennai – more than 60 so far.
2002: Journal exclusively on Bhagavata Mela released by the Sangam
The Sangam publishes a second journal exclusively dedicated to Bhagavata Mela.
2010: Lakshmi Narasimha Swami Temple and Auditorium
The Sangam constructs and consecrates a new temple for Lord Lakshmi Narasimha on the place where the lost ancient temple stood. The Sangam also constructs a new permanent auditorium (Dr.ShriNalliAuditorium) for performance of temple theater arts.
2012: Utsava Murthy
The Sangam installs autsava vigraham of Lord Lakshmi Narasimha in the temple.
Release of Monologue titled “ Bhagavata Mela & Ancient Temple Theatre forms of South India ”
2014: Traditional Lighting
Sangam revived the tradition of performing “Prahaladha Charithramu” in oil lamp lighting as it was done centuries back
2016: Prahaladha Charithramu – Telugu & Devanagiri
Sangam released the entire work of Melattur Brahmashri Venkartama Sastry’s “ Prahaladha Charithramu” in Telugu & Devanagiri
2017: Markandeya Charithramu – Telugu & Devanagiri
Sangam released the entire work of Melattur Brahmashri Venkartama Sastry’s “ Markandeya Charithramu” in Telugu & Devanagiri