The Bhagavatamela Natakams


BY: SUN STAFF - 13.7 2020

Lord Nrsimhadeva Mask

Bhagavata Mela Prahlada Charitam Natakam

Each year, on the occasion of Narasimha Jayanthi, a select number of Bhakti-oriented plays are performed by traditional families of certain villages around Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. The dramatic enactments, which have been going on since ancient times, last from dusk to dawn. The major villages participating in these annual performances, known as the Bhagavatamela Natakams, are Saliamangalam, Soolamangalam, Melattur, Tepperumanallur and Oothukkadu.

The Bhagavatamela Natakams are a unique ritualistic form of dance-theatre originating in South India. The performance art represents a fine synthesis of three salient features of the Sanskrit dramatic tradition. The plays contain beautiful Telugu lyrics of Melattur (Unnatapuri) Venkatarama Sastry, performed in the villages around Thanjavur, rendered solely by male actors of Tamil origin. For over several centuries these plays, an authentic continuation of the Sanskrit dramatic tradition of Bharata, are being preserved at Melattur and Saliamangalam by votaries of this art, both hereditary and enthusiasts from outside the traditional families.

Among all the plays, Prahlada Charitamu remains unparalleled, and is performed on Sri Narasimha Jayanthi in honor of the emergence of the Lord's Man-Lion incarnation, Lord Nrsimhadeva.

Lord Sri Varadraja Temple

Melattur Bhagavata Mela Prahlada Charitam Natakam

Melattur is one of the villages near Thanjavur that is famous for Nataka Mahostavam. Every year the great function is celebrated by the Bhagavathas in this traditional village. The great Bhagavatha Mela tradition, a rare temple/theatre art in a unique blend of Bhakti music, dance and drama, has been going on for over four centuries. The only surviving link today, however, is in Tamil Nadu, where devotee performers connect the public with this ancient form of Sanskrit theatre.

Among the Bhagavata Mela Natakams performed today are some composed by Melattur Venkatarama Sastry (1743-1809 A.D.). They are performed annually, in adherence to the Natya Veda, in the sannidhi of Lord Sri Varadaraja, the presiding deity of Melattur Village as part of Sri Narashimha Jayanthi Vasantotsav. At Melattur, there are two groups which perform the Natakas. Mahalingam heads the Bhagavatamela Natya Vidya Sangam and conducts annually The Prahlada Charitamu and a couple of other plays. Sri Lakshmi Nrisimha Bhagavata Mela Natya Sangam, led by S. Natarajan, is the other active group.

The Bhagavatas

Pracheena Sampradaya Natya Nataka Mandram - Thepperumanallur

Thepperumanalur, a small ancient village with a population of about 10,000 people, is situated near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district, near the famous Uppiliappan Temple and Raghusthalam Thirunageswaram. This village was once known as Dhevarajapuram and as Dhakshinakanchi.

This village is famous for its performance of Pracheena Sampradaya Natya Natakas, a set of Bhagavatha Mela dramas that have been conducted at Varadharaja Perumal Sannadhi for more than 300 years. Once Sarabhoji Maharaja of Thanjavur had summoned the artists of these drama troupes to perform the Praklatha Ccharitharam drama at his palace at Thanjavur. While the artists were performing the drama at the palace, they found a number of scorpions (thel, Tamil) in their costume baggage. Thus the artists refused to perform further, and the village was named for this episode, as Thelperumanallur (or Thepperumanallur). From that time on, the drama was conducted in the village itself.

Originally, the Bhagavatha Mela dance dramas comprised ten dramas, including: Praktha Charithram (two days), Rukmangatha Charithram, Ambarisha Charithram, Devaki Kalyanam, Krishnavathararam, Kamsa Vadham, Usha Bharaniyam, Seetha Kalyanam and Rukmini Kalyanam. But today, due to financial constraints and also due to the artisan families' migration out of the villages, only two of the traditional dramas continue to be performed, namely the Praklatha Charithram, and Rukmini Kalyanam. Both are performed on Narasimha Jayanthi day, as they have been for over 300 years.

Prahlad Charitam: Hiranyakasipu advising Prahlad to give up Hari Bhakti

The Praklatha Charithram dance drama is accompanied by songs in three languages, including songs (dhipathai) in Teluga, slokams in Srimad Bhagavatam slokas in Sanskrit, and dialogues in Tamil. The highlight of the drama is a conversation between Praklatha (Prahlada Maharaj) and Hiranyakasipu during the climax scene, just before Sri Narasimha-avatara emerges. The Lord is adored by devotees from all over India who gathered here to watch this beautiful dance drama.

The Saliamangalam technique employed by the dramatists is simple, dignified and believed to be the authentic version of performance. The artistes, mostly from traditional families, follow a chaste Telugu-Sanskrit lyrical and conversational meter set to a simple dance arrangement. The music is well-defined. Not much importance is given to costumes. The most striking feature of the performance is that the group focuses on a purely devotional approach rather than adding detailed aspects of entertainment. A sense of sadhana is strongly present in the individual performers' devotion towards the Supreme Personality of Godhead, palpable in the Saliamangalam offering.

Prahlad Charitam: Lord Nrsimhadeva

Sources:, Thanjuvur Heritage Town