Bhagavata Mela; the Dance of Storytellers



The Bhagavata Mela, from it’s inception in the 15th century is a male exclusive art form with bhagavatars donning various roles and enacting stories from the Puranas.

Bhagavata-Mela-3These Bhagavatars or storytellers portray stories in a beautiful blend of dance, music and dialogue, one not compromising the other.

Present-day contemporaries maintain the purity of the Bhagavata Mela even today, transporting the audience to a completely different era.

The Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangham, under Bharatham Mahalingam’s direction revived the old rendition of “Prahlada Charitramu”, as it was performed traditionally right in front of the Naraismha deity.

Bhagavata-Mela-2This play is staged at Melattur in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district every year on Narasimha Jayanthi, the day Lord Narasimha emerged from the pillar to kill demon-king Hiranyakashipu.

Melattur is a modest village, well connected to towns Kumbakonam (25 kms) and Thanjavur (30 kms) and is in a region known for the ancient arts.

May is the hottest season in the state but a drive down to the Thanjavur zone is a picnic by itself, if you like to take in the countryside which has just seen a state election.

Bhagavata-Mela-1A group of us travelled to Swamimalai by road and stayed at a resort there. But you can also lodge at hostel in Thanjavur (and treat this like a heritage tour!).

The Mela is usually an overnight event that ends in the early hours of dawn. The festival has been enlarged to include other recitals.

Upon our arrival at Melattur, we were given a scrumptious meal at Mahalingam’s house. Traditionally the Melattur village is known for feeding guests who arrive at the village to be part of the event. After satisfying our taste and hunger, we left for the temple.

The artistes who were part of the production greeted us at the venue and the audience gets to see the artistes dress up for the show, backstage at request.

Traditional costumes and make-up are specifically used for this play.

This year’s play commenced at 10 p.m. and went on till the early hours of dawn. We all sat on the street in front of the temple. The make-shift stage was lit aesthetically by oil lamps on banana stems and the play was set against a red curtain with a simple yet elegant floral motto of the Shanku, Chakram and Namam.

The show culminated in an impactful, hair-raising Samvadha between Hiranyakashipu and Narasimha. The proximity of the audience to the actors made one believe that one wasn’t just a mere spectator but a character in the story.

The actors who portrayed Hiranyakashipu (Dr. Aravind Subramanian), Leelavati (Nagarajan Samsabasivam) and child Prahlada (Hariharan Nagarajan) were exceptional!

We got to experience the fierce bhakthi that transforms every actor into the character they are portraying thereby losing their personal identity.

The five-hour long play seemed to have gotten over too soon, leaving the audience wanting more! The Bhagavata Mela is a must-watch, so do not miss out on next year’s show!

Manasvini is a Chennai-based Bharatanatyam dancer. She also works with children in the Thanjavur zone, TN.