Author: Rohini A, R., Bengaluru.
Published as a part of Śāstra Raṅga-2023 Internship ; offered by NoopuraBhramari- IKS Centre. Article series No – 23
Bhāgavatamelā Natakam of Melattur is a dance drama which found patronage under the Nayaka King Achyutappa Nayaka in the 16th Century. The present day Melattur formely known as Achyutapuram after the patron was donated to 510 Brahmin families to propogate the art.
Sri Narayana Teetha Yati who was an ascetic and scholar composed Shri Krishna Leela Tarangini an opera suitable for dance drama. He enriched the bhajana sampradāya where his followers sang, danced and presented the play. Further it was flourished by Gopālakriṣṇa Shastri, father of Venkataramaṇaśāstri. Venkataramaṇaśāstri who was a great scholar formed a natya melam with only men and female roles were also portrayed by men. He adhered to the principals of drama traditions of those days and composed many dance dramas which had themes from Srimad Bhāgavata Puranam (hence the name Bhāgavatamelā Natakam). The most popular one amongst these was Prahlāda Caritam performed on Narasimha Jayanti in the precincts of Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple. The technique of Bhāgavatamelā Natakam incorporates all the three aspects of drama as expounded in Bharata’s Natyashastra treatises i.e., Nṛtta (pure dance), Nṛtya (expressional dance) and Nāṭya (drama).
Bhāgavatamelā Natakam is one such theatrical tradition with regional variation / desi, the structure of which can be seen stemming from Bharata’s Natyashastra. Apparently, this can be seen in its form, preliminaries (purvarangavidhi), overture (upavahana), darus (dhruva songs), the pattern of staging, the narratives (praveshikas) and the theme.
One of the finest examples of Bhāgavatamelā Natakam – Prahlāda Caritam is the most frequently produced play. This play demonstrates the triumph of faith and devotion over evil. One can observe that amongst the 10 kinds of play (daśarūpa – Nāṭaka, Prakaraṇa, Anka, Vyāyoga, Bhāṇa, Samavakāra, Vīthī, Prahasana, Ḍima and Īhāmṛga) mentioned in Natyashastra this play has a few aspects which are very close to the Nāṭaka type as mentioned in chapter 20 Daśarūpalakṣanam.
Though the Nataka format as expounded by Bharata in Natyashastra has undergone changes over the centuries, comparison with every aspect of Lakshana with the existing tradition cannot do justice to the form.
Bharata Muni, in Natyashastra, has explicitly said that the Shastra should be expanded upon to include theatrical experimentation (proyoga) and conceptions of time. As a result, rather than being a set of predetermined concepts and instructions, it is an organic, living and traditional book in aesthetics and performing arts.
In the traditional format of Prahlāda Caritam as is performed to this day, it presents the story as mentioned in Srīmad Bhāgavatam. Canto Seven(7) which begins with how Jaya and Vijaya, the dwarapalas (door keepers of Vaikunta) were cursed by the four Sanathkumaras and ends with Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira, who was wonderstruck on hearing that Kṛṣṇa, his cousin, is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Hence Prahlāda Caritam which is just a small part of the main plot, it can be assumed as an elaboration of anka (act) of the Naṭaka where Lord Vishṇu is the Nayaka (Dhīrodātta – hero who is self-controlled and exalted Natyashastra Chapter 34), of the main plot. As a result, this theory can be established through the following reasoning:
Natyashastra (chapter 20, Verse 7) says that the Nāṭaka and Prakaraṇa are known to be made up of all the styles or vrittis and they include varieties of situation.
ज्ञेयं प्रकरणं चैव तथा नाटकमेव च ।
सर्ववृत्तिविनिष्पन्नं नानाबन्धसमाश्रयम् ॥ Verse 7
The dramatic styles or vrittis referred to by Bharata are bhāratī (verbal), sātvatī (grand), ārabhaṭi (energetic) and Kaiśiki (graceful). Most part of the drama carries on through verbal medium. The dialogues between the characters interspersed with song in the form of Kritis, couplets, verses and other forms of musical compositions forms bharati vritti. For instance: conversations between Hiranyakashipu and Śukracharya, Lilāvati, Prahlāda and finally Lord Narasimha. With graceful rhythmic cadences of feet and hand gestures Lilāvati and Bhūdevi’s dance (daru song), the Kaiśiki Vritti comes to the forefront. Arabhaṭi is seen during confrontation scene between Hiranyakashipu and Lord Narasimha. The Sāttvati Vritti is established in Hiranyakashipu’s agitated emotions with excessive body movement.
Bharata further states that Nāṭaka should have a well – known story for its subject matter, a celebrated person of exalted nature for its Hero. It should describe the character of a person born in the line of royal seer and protected by the Divine. It should have suitable number of acts (anka) and narratives which cannot be presented on stage (prāveśaka).
प्रख्यातवस्तुविषयं प्रख्यातोदात्तनायकं चैव ।
राजर्षिवंश्यचरितं तथैव दिव्याश्रयोपेतम् ॥ Verse 10
Prahlāda Caritam is a very popular story of Prahlāda’s unshakeable faith in the omnipresence of the Lord which resulted in the Lord appearing to him from within the pillar as Narasimha to protect him from his father’s fury.
अङ्कप्रवेशकाढ्यं भवति हि तन्नाटकं नाम ॥ verse 11
The theme is organised in acts called ankas which are about 10 in this Play.
अङ्कच्छेदं कृत्वा मासकृतं वर्षसञ्चितं वापि /kuryaat
तत्सर्वं कर्तव्यं वर्षादूर्ध्वं न तु कदाचित् ॥ verse 28
By closing the Act in which they begin, events of duration not more than a month or a year are to be presented similarly. (Meaning interval between two acts should include events requiring a month or a year only)The scene that is chosen for play elaborates only on the climax of the story where his extreme hatred towards the Lord results in his death.
नैकरसान्तरविहितो ह्यङ्क इति स वेदितव्यस्तु ॥ verse 18
It should be known that an act is to contain more sentiments than one arising from (words and deeds of) of the Hero, his queen and their superiors, priest, minister and leader of the caravan (sārthavāha).
Some of the Rasas that can be identified in this play are: Karuṇā (pathos) in the act where Lilāvathi sympathises with her son Prahlāda who had to face the wrath of his father’s fury. Raudra when Lord Narasimha emerges out of the pillar as a half man and half lion creature. Bhayānaka rasa when Prahlāda gets terrified seeing the Lord. Vira rasa when Hiranyakaṣipu boasts himself as the supreme lord of the universe. Bhībatsa (disgust) when Hiranyakaṣipu’s stomach is ripped open, though not depicted but narrated.
क्रोधप्रसादशोकाः शापोत्सर्गोऽथ विद्रवोद्वाहौ ।
अद्भुतसम्भवदर्शनमङ्के प्रत्यक्षजानि स्युः ॥ verse 19
According to verses 19, 20 and 21, the pacification of anger, grief, pronouncing curse, terrified fight, marriage ceremony, commencement of any miracle and its actual occurrence, a battle, loss of a kingdom, death and siege of a city should not be presented on stage.
In Prahlāda Caritam the demon King’s rage knew no bounds when his attempts to dissuade Prahlāda from worshipping Lord Viṣnu went futile. Various diabolical means to kill the boy like trampling him underfoot by an elephant, throwing him over a precipice, fire, snakes are shown symbolically.
Following the Nāṭyaśāstra tradition, scenes of death and war are narrated. The killing of Hiranyakaśipu, the ripping open of his stomach are not depicted. The king is vanquished symbolically in this play.
ज्ञात्वा दिवसावस्थां क्षणयाममुहूर्तलक्षणोपेताम् ।
विभजेत्सर्वमशेषं पृथक्पृथक्काव्यमङ्केषु ॥ (verse 26)
Bharata says “Knowing the length of the day which is divided into ksanas, Yamas and Muhurtas, one should distribute exhaustively the entire action in different acts”.
Accordingly, we find the scenes of Guru Śukracharya’s conversation with Hiranyakaśipu, the Gurukula scene, the attempts of the demon king in deflecting Prahlāda from the path of devotion towards Lord Vishnu, Lord Narasimha Killing Hiranyakaśipu – all these events happening on different days and time is shown in different acts.
अथवा पुस्तकृतानि तु गजवाजिविमानशैलयानानि।
कर्तव्यानि विधिज्ञैस्तथा चाद्रव्यप्रहरणानि । (verse 42)
But model works of an elephant, a horse, a palace, a hill, any conveyance as well as (imitation) weapons out of cheap materials are to be made for a presentation of these by those who know the rules (for their construction).
The weapons like sword and mace, the palace, pillar, snake are some of the props used here which are made of lighter materials like paper (hardboard), cloth, rubber (in the present context).
Dr. R. Mahalingam observes: “For those who love classical dance, Bhagavathamela is a feast for the eye. For those who love music, Bhagavathamela has classical carnatic as its best. For those who love drama, Bhagavathamela is a living link to our ancient heritage of theatre as laid down in Bharatha‘s Natya Sastra. Thus, Bhagavathamela is a unique blend of spiritualty, dance, drama and chaste classical music” .
While many elements from the Natya type as mentioned in Natyashastra has scarcely survived, its relevance can be seen even today in forms like Yakshagana, Terukoothu and Bhagavata Melanatakam.
Darus – Dhruva songs of Natyashastra- “The reason these songs are referred to as Dhruvas is because they anchor, or creates a framework of the production, and their themes have a set significance, as Abhinavagupta clearly explains” Microsoft Word – Prof. Ranjani S. ror Dec 2022 (lbp.world).
 This is closely related to the tradition of Yakshagana from Andhra and Karnataka. In the Karnataka tradition the Yakshagana has a similar Prasanga (act) known as ‘Trijanma moksha’ where the act starts with Sanathkumara’s curse to Jaya Vijaya and ends with Lord Krishna killing Mushtikaasura and Chanura – oral documentation from research writer Dr Manorama B N.
 Bharata discusses Aharya in Chapter 21 Nepathya of Natyashastra. Costumes and Make-up are of four kinds: model work (pusta), decoration (alaṃkāra), painting the limbs (aṅgaracanā) and [the use of] living creatures (sañjīva).
Mountain, vehicles, aerial chariots, shields, armours, flagstaffs, trees etc; which are made for the use of the performance of drama belong to the class of models” (Unni 2014, 1044). 9.-Aharya_of_the_two_Classical_Dance_forms_of_North.pdf (sangeetgalaxy.co.in)
10.Mahamuni Bharata, Dr Manorama B N, 2014, Shree Bharati Publications, Bangalore.
Acknowledgement: My deepest gratitude to Dr Manorama B N ma’am for her valuable inputs and guidance in many aspects.