The close to seven-hour drive from Chennai to Melattur (near Thanjavur) to watch the Bhagavata Mela could be exciting for a first-time traveller. Lush paddy fields, small streams flowing down rocks, children playing in the sun... the visuals provide a slice of life in villages.
Despite the sweltering heat, Melattur is all geared up to host the 83rd Bhagavata Mela utsavam (May 18-26). As you reach the venue, a flashy arch says, ‘Varuga varuga’ (welcome).
The agraharam that leads to the makeshift stage, facing the Varadaraja Perumal temple, is decked up in kolams.
Every year, Melattur turns into a performance arena as locals and people from nearby villages flock to watch the spectacularly colourful folk theatre.
The inaugural evening culminated into the night-long staging of the popular play, Prahlada Charitam, presented by the Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam as part of the Narasimha Jayanti Vasantotsav.
The art form owes much of its popularity to Melattur Ganesa Iyer, who worked hard to revive it. He began this annual utsavam as a way to promote Bhagavata Mela. The legacy was taken forward by his son G. Swaminathan and grandson S. Natarajan, who established the Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam. The Sangam is now helmed by Natarajan’s brother, S. Kumar.
A dedicated team of actors, musicians, and backstage technicians have kept the tradition going. Plays such as Harischandra, Sita Parinayam, and Prahlada Charitam from the Melattur Bhagavata mela repertory are presented every year.
As the night gets darker, Hiranyakasipu (played by Kumar) appears on the stage to thunderous applause.
Prahlada, played wonderfully by master Sudarson, tugs at the audience’s heartstrings with his emotion-packed performance. The singers, who also double up as sutradhars, are led by the Tiruvaiyaru Brothers – S. Narasimhan and S. Venkatesan.
The music team with Nagai P. Sriram on the mridangam, B. Gokul on the flute and Kannan Balakrishnan on the suddha maddalam build the mood with their perfect sound support. It is 5 a.m., and the audience is still sitting glued to their seats.
When the play finally draws to a close, you realise Bhagavata Mela is not merely an art form, it’s an experience.