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Melattur mela comes to town

Melattur Bhagavatha Mela of rural Thanjavur was staged by Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanthi Natya Nataka Sangham recently.

Thanks to the A.P. Department of Culture and Lasya Priya (Dr Uma Rama Rao's academy of dance), the twin cities were rewarded with a cool treat in sultry summer evenings at Ravindra Bharathi recently.

The cherished Melattur Bhagavatha Mela, a very native classical dance-drama of rural Thanjavur was staged by Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanthi Natya Nataka Sangham.

Since these plays were originally not fashioned for a formal stage, least of all a closed auditorium, and an urban audience at that, they are bound to be lengthy, loud, witty out of context (a Konangi character is introduced at the very beginning as a comic relief), with an exaggerated ahaarya (costume and make up) that would allow long distance view on clarity of expression.

Editing the plays to suit urban spectators/ platform is not Melattur artistes' cup of tea. All the same, there is a purity of tradition in these dance dramas that has not been eroded with times.

And they should be viewed and judged keeping the rustic context in mind.

Notwithstanding certain technical naiveté, in dramatisation and climax, the Melattur Bhagavata melas are comparable to Shakespearean tragedies both in import and insight. The protagonists are invariably high-placed but are victims of fate whose fall catapults them to an exalted position less materialistic and more spiritual. In the catharsis there is a divine justification, an ethical code that gets transmitted to the viewers.

The Dhruva Charitra and the five-hour Harishchandra (staged on two consecutive days) gave a peek into the quintessential Melattur style: melodramatic on the surface, universal in import. Each of the characters displayed extensive footwork and gesticulation, of course in keeping with their respective characters.

The delineation of the characters was artistically done through dance than dialogue. For instance Suneedhi's entry (first wife of the King Uttalapala in Dhruva) was marked by beauty and brilliance in footwork as she (Srikanth a male artiste) danced her way in a solo. Her remarkable traits of refinement are mentioned in the background song while the dancer conveys these through extensive abhinaya.

In contrast, Suruchi entered the stage with snooty looks and a supercilious attitude. The actor, Vijay Madhavan was able to carry it with aplomb, thanks to his imposing structure. The two little stepbrothers' (in Dhruva) dance depicted young princes training in sword fight, bow-arrow wielding and sporting around.

Lucid characterisation

The superb lucidity in characterisation was not only well defined within the play but also in both the dramas.

In Harishchandra (the oldest in Melattur repertoire), it was a more sober Chandramathi (first half by Srikanth and second half played by Natarajan) who danced her way to the viewer's hearts while protracted emotional sequences dominated the second half of the play.

Natarajan, was par excellence in satvikabhinaya conveying minutiae of menial work to which falls to the dethroned queen's lot, maternal anxiety and affection (for Lohitaksha), inconsolable grief for the sudden demise of her son, parting and meeting with the estranged spouse.

These incidents acquired a third dimension that served to build up pathos, which was the arterial nerve of this dance drama.

Since the second half demanded more abhinaya than footwork, the senior guru took over the role from the relatively younger Srikanth. Kumar as Harishchandra had a swagger to his gait which somehow looked obvious yet unique.

The regal ahaarya was less period costume than fashioned out of the Shahaji-led Thanjavur royalty.

The orchestra (vocal by Narasimhan and Venkatesan) was an embellishment to the dance-dramas despite the Telugu script in Tamil intonation. It was a real festival in every sense of the term.

R.K.

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