Bhagavata Mela

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Narasimha kills Hiranyakashipu on his knees. In the lower left, reverently, young Prahlada. South Indian oil painting, 18th century

Bhagavata Mela , Bhāgavata Mēḷa , is a religious ritual theater performed in the area around the city of Thanjavur in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu in the Telugu language . The dance drama, shown only by male brahmins , tells the mythical story of Narasimha , the fourth avatar of Vishnu. The name of Bhagavata Mela can be traced back to the 17th century. Until the end of the 19th century the style was cultivated in six villages, today the tradition is still upheld at annual festivals in three villages. The performance practice is similar to the classical dance style Kuchipudi , the dance steps of the female roles are taken from the Bharatanatyam . In contrast to other forms of dance theater, which democratized in the second half of the 20th century, opened up to other groups of participants and adapted to contemporary entertainment tastes, Bhagavata Mela has largely remained true to its tradition, which is one of the reasons for the decline in this style. The best known are the annual events in Mellatur at the beginning of May.


Bhagavata is a derivative of the Sanskrit word bhagavan , which is used as a designation for God or as an honorific name for a religious teacher. In religious drama, bhagavata stands for a male actor of predominantly Brahmin origin. Only he is allowed to perform certain religious ceremonies in a temple for the benefit of the community. For this he enjoys the respect of the community of believers. Mela , Sanskrit "assembly", "a group of people (gathered for a religious festival)", as a combination of words Bhagavata Mela , is limited to "a group of Brahmin ritual performers". Old regional dance styles in Andhra Pradesh that are rarely performed today are Chindu Bhagavatam and Toorpu Bhagavatam .

The tradition of performing worship rituals for a deity in the temple in the form of a dance drama goes back, according to myth, to ancient Indian times. The Vedic gods were not only taken with dance dramas, they are said to have been the first dancers themselves. The Vedic texts were sung or staged as dialogues, which was the basis for the popular ritual theater. The religious meaning and the aesthetic form of the performances always formed a culturally anchored unit, whereby one was not viewed separately from the other. Since the introduction of the Western idea of ​​an autonomous art production that is only bound by its own formal requirements during the British colonial period , religious events and bhagavatas have been judged according to their position between pure entertainment and the religious worship of a god ( bhakti ). The believers and spectators in India judge the numerous different temple performances according to the extent to which they adapt to social change and open up to other strata of the population. While Kuchipudi is now open to all castes and women, Bhagavata Melas are, according to tradition, only performed by Brahmins in Telugu and in a Tamil-speaking environment. This is one of the reasons that led to its decline.


Another reason for the decline in the Bhagavata Melas is related to historical and political developments. Bhagavata Mela is rooted in the culture of the Telugu-speaking Brahmins. After the collapse of the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar , whose army was defeated by the Muslim troops of the Deccan sultanate in the Battle of Talikota in 1565 , the members of the upper social class fled south, where they found themselves in Thanjavur under the protection and support of the regional Nayak dynasty settled. The rulers gave the newcomers fertile land and assigned them villages in the vicinity of Thanjavur, where they were allowed to build their own Brahmanic quarters ( agraharam ). The agraharams were laid out so that the main road leads to a Vishnu temple at its western end. Vishnuit cults, Telugu and Sanskrit poetry and classical music began to flourish in these villages or districts. With the Brahmins, the Yakshagana dance theater , which originated from the Bhuta spirit cult on the Carnatic west coast of India, and the classical music style kirtana came to Thanjavur. The composers from Karnataka called themselves haridasa ("slaves of Hari", an epithet of Vishnu). Telugu literature and the devotional music of the Haridasas were cultivated at the court of Thanjavur. Kings in the 17th century took part in the performances themselves. The songs also enriched the repertoire of religious devotional songs ( bhajans ) sung at the pilgrimage centers . The composer and scholar Govinda Dikshitar held a ministerial office under three nayak rulers in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Raghunatha (1600–1634) was known as a vina player. A preliminary form of today's Saraswati vina (also Thanjavur vina ) is said to go back to him.

In contrast to Bhagavata Mela, Yakshagana was performed at the courts and, in addition to Telugu, also in the languages ​​Tamil, Marathi and Sanskrit. Similarly , the Brahmins who emigrated to Golkonda played the Kuchipudi dance style, named after a village, to the local rulers ( nawabs ). The dance drama there was called Kuchipudi Bhagavatam at the end of the 17th century . Opposite the Bhagavata Mela performed by male bhagavatas was the Nattuva Mela , a devotional dance of the dancing girls ( devadasis ) in the temple, from which the Bharatanatyam developed.

Originally, Bhagavata Mela was established in the six villages of Melattur (18 kilometers northeast of Thanjavur), Saliyamangalam (15 kilometers east of Thanjavur), Tepperumanallur (7 kilometers east of Kumbakonam ), Uttukadu (13 kilometers southwest of Kumbakonam), Sulamangalam (northeast of Thanjavur) and Nallur (east of Papanasam). The first three venues are still there today. Bhagavata Mela is mainly cultivated in Mellatur, which has undergone a similar cultural development as the village of Kuchipudi in today's Andhra Pradesh . The Kuchipudi style is first mentioned in 1502, when the Vijayanagar Empire was still flourishing. Since much of the content is similar, Kuchipudi could be a forerunner of the Bhagavata Mela .

The first-mentioned settlements Melattur and Saliyamangalam were called Achyutapuram in the 16th century after the nayak of Thanjavur, Achyutappa (r. 1580–1614), who provided the arriving Brahmins with land and houses. The name Achyutapuram is mentioned in a line of song by the composer Narayana Tirtha (around 1675-1745), who is known for his Kuchipudi compositions and who wrote a song text during his visit to Melattur in which the word appears. However, there were other villages that used "Achyuta" as part of the name at that time. Another name for Melattur was Unnathapuri, derived from Unnathapurisvara, the deity of the Shiva temple in the village. The details of the settled Brahmins sometimes differ from one another. According to a local chronicle, 500 Brahmin families received the village of Melattur in 1577. For each family, 0.6 hectares of land and a house with a well were available. Another ten such units were reserved for Komatis, also a Telugu-speaking caste. In Saliyamangalam, each family is said to have received around 2 hectares (40 veli ) of land.

The end of the Nayak dynasty of Thanjavur was reached in 1673 when the Nayak ruler of Madurai took Thanjavur. Two years later the Sultan of Bijapur dispatched a force led by the Marathic General Ekoji I, who conquered Thanjavur and declared himself independent in 1676 as the first king of the Marathic Empire of Thanjavur. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Bhagavata Mela continued to receive support from the Marathas, who also brought their own cultural traditions with them, such as the alternating chants lavani (performed in the Tamasha folk dance theater in Maharashtra ). The Marathas ruled Thanjavur until the British East India Company came to power with the Doctrine of Lapse in 1855. During the Marathan rule, Bhagvata Mela is mentioned in numerous administrative manuals , starting with the statement that Sujan Bai, a wife of Ekoji II (Tukojji, ruled 1728–1736), near the village of Dipambapuram, had an agraharam laid out in 1735 , to which she gave the name Ekamahajendrapuram. Such land donations are recorded until the first half of the 19th century. As Bhagavata Mela , a special dance theater style was called at that time, obviously continuing an existing in Nayak-time tradition.

The most important composer of Bhagavata Mela was Venkatarama Sastri (1743-1809 or 1800-1875) from Melattur. He was the son of Gopalakrsnarya, a student of the Sanskrit scholar Laksmanarya and probably an older contemporary of the famous carnatic composer Tyagaraja (1759-1867). All the pieces listed in Melattur come from him. In Saliyamangalam, on the other hand, pieces from the pen of Bharatam Pancanada Bhagavatalu, who worked in the first half of the 18th century, are used.

After the collapse of the Marathan rule, the bhagavatas lost their patrons and many Telugu-speaking brahmins left the villages. In 1882 they completely stopped performing Bhagavata Melas in Melattur for some unknown reason . In 1895, Bharatam Natesa Iyer (1865–1935) from Melattur succeeded in reviving the art form ( Bharatam is an addition to the name that means, for example, "connoisseur of Natyashastra ", ie the ancient Indian music theory that emerged around the turn of the century). He taught many actors and in 1917 performed the Bhagavata Mela composition Prahlada-caritamu . To finance this, he also gave dance lessons for devadasis . When he had to stop for health reasons in 1931, there were no more performances in the following years. The Sanskrit scholar Balu Bhagavatar (1897–1985) and V. Ganesa Iyer (1896–1989), a grandson of Natesa Iyer, began to revive the tradition in 1938 by setting up the organization Melattur Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam (MLBNS) founded in which 15 students were taught in the following two years. From 1938 to 1940 they held events with versions of two compositions translated into Tamil on the square in front of the Vigneshvara Temple ( Ganesha Temple ) in Melattur. In 1951 there were already five rehearsed compositions that were shown. In order to present Bhagavata Mela as a classical art form to a wider audience, E. Krishna Iyer (1897–1968), a student of Natesa Iyer, recommended modernizing the equipment, stage and music. He wrote articles promoting his ideas and obtained financial support from Sangeet Natak Akademi, who is responsible for music, dance and drama . The current head of the MLBNS is S. Natarajan, an engineer working in Dubai who travels to Melattur every year to organize the event.

A second organization for Bhagavata Mela , split off after a dispute, opened in 1964 VD Swami, an entrepreneur from Melattur who lived in Madras . The Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam (MBNVS) has been holding events since 1966 until today. The two rival groups occasionally perform one after the other on the same day.

The tradition in the village of Saliyamangalam is traced back to Bharatam Pancanada Bhagavatulu (1690–1764 or 1676–1740), a contemporary of the composer Virabhadrayya. His teacher was Bharatam Kasinatha, otherwise little is known about him. Pancanada, to which five compositions are ascribed, is said to have been older than Kasinatha according to another view. The performance practice of Bhagavata Mela is said to have existed since 1645. Until the early 1930s, a five-day spring festival ( Narasimha Jayanti , also Vasantotsavam ) was held in the village , where one of the pieces was performed every day. After a family moved away in 1934 and took the Narasimha mask kept in their house with them, the annual festival could not be celebrated again until the following year with a new mask and a different program. Only two of the compositions have been performed since the 1990s.

The performance tradition in Tepperumanallur has existed since 100 Brahmin families received land at the time of the Marath ruler Serfoji II (r. 1798–1832). When a Brahmin family immigrated from Chidambaram in 1941 , all ten compositions by Venkatarama Sastri could be performed again. The annual festival lasted several weeks until 1950, and 40 to 50 families took part. When in 1968 the government reclaimed large land ( inam ) that had been available to the temple administrations free of charge, many Brahmins gradually moved away. The Bhagavata Melas became less; from 1970 until today there was only one performance per year. None of the Brahmin families living in the village today speak Telugu.

The last performance of Bhagavata Mela took place in Uttukadu in 1946. In 1931 the group made a guest appearance in Madras. In Sulamangalam the decline began after the death of the festival director in 1943. One last large event, at which 2000 participants were fed, was financed in 1946. No one lives in the village of Nallur who has knowledge of Bhagavata Mela . The last performance probably took place at the end of the 19th century.


Prahlada resists the elephants. Illustration from WD Monroe: Stories of India's gods and heroes , 1911

The mythological theme of the Bhagavata Mela belongs to a form of Vishnu cult in which Narasimha , the fourth avatara of Vishnu in the form of a lion man, takes center stage. Like each of its ten manifestations, Narasimha was sent to earth to restore the disordered cosmogonic order. The mythological narratives of Narasimha are recorded in different versions in the ancient Indian Bhagavatapurana and other Puranas (such as Agnipurana, Visnupurana, Vamanapurana, Matsyapurana, Devi Bhagavata and the Sthalapuranas ). Venkatarama Sastri is the author of about ten adaptations of this material, including the most frequently performed play Prahlada-caritamu , also Prahlada charitam ("The story of Prahlada"). It contains the narration, dialogues and 33 songs. A complete version with notation of the songs was published in 1965, the text of the Markandeya-caritamu was published in 1995. Narasimha is also at the center of dramatic performances outside the region; in Odisha , Prahlada Nataka is a separate genre dedicated to him. A structurally similar form of theater is Mutiyettu in Kerala . Here the fight between deity and demon is personified in the Shivaite goddess Bhadrakali and her opponent, the demon Darika.

Four kumaras

First, the reason for Narasimha's birth is described. The brothers Jaya and Vijaya were watchers ( dvarapalas ) at the last gate to Vishnu's heavenly residence Vaikuntha when the Rishi Sanandana came with his three brothers and asked for admission. The sons of Brahma , known as the four Kumaras, appear in pictures as naked children and with this sight the guards deny them entry. Out of anger, Sanandana curses the two guards that they might be born as demons ( asuras ) on earth, but with the promise that they should have been killed three times by Vishnu, they would be returned to their guardian posts. The demons are called Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha . The latter is killed by Vishnu in the form of the boar Varaha , whereupon Hiranyakashipu decides to acquire magical powers in order to avenge himself for his brother and to kill Vishnu. Brahma blesses Hiranyakashipu with the gift of immortality, whereupon the latter feels secure in his superiority, soars to the heavenly ruler and forbids the whole world to continue to worship Vishnu. Thereupon the gods attack the palace of the demon and the thunder god Indra kidnaps his wife Lilavati. The Rishi Narada accommodates Lilavati in his hermitage and instructs her in the worship of Vishnu ( bhakti ). Lilavati is pregnant and gives birth to the son Prahlada.

This is the story behind the drama that follows. The power struggle for world domination is personified in Prahlada and his father Hiranyakashipu. The son refuses to obey the father and instead becomes an exemplary devotee of Vishnu. At first, Hiranyakashipu expresses vatsalya (parental love) towards the son, then - despite Lilavati's soulful intercession in favor of the small child - he reacts increasingly negatively and tries to dissuade him from Vishnu. When this fails, he torments Prahlada by throwing him into a fire and under the feet of elephants and letting a poisonous snake bite him. Protected by Vishnu, Prahlada escapes every time. Hiranyakashipu demands from Prahlada proof of Vishnu's omnipresence. Prahlada replies that Vishnu is present everywhere, even in that pillar. The unsuspecting Hiranyakashipu smashes the pillar shown and out comes Vishnu in the form of the lion-headed Narasimha. The supposed immortality granted by Brahma was actually so cleverly worded that Narasimha can kill Hiranyakashipu without disregarding Brahma's promise. The Hiranyakashipu drama is performed in the Thanjavur region outside of the Bhagavata Mela context in a similar way as Hiranya Natakam in other villages .

In addition to Prahlada caritamu , four or five other dramas are staged in Melattur. This includes Hariscandra natacamu ( Sathya Harischandra ), the tearful story of the suffering of King Harishchandra, who through his true life lost all earthly goods until he finally found redemption. This play has been performed in the popular entertainment theaters of Nautanki and Khyal in northern India since the late 19th century . The pieces composed of these and other materials are not tragedies like in the Sanskrittheater, but close with a happy ending. At the end of the Prahlada caritamu, the heroic pair of gods Narasimha and Lakshmi walk to the wedding and - according to the message of faith - the love of God is rewarded in all pieces.

Performance practice

The performers are all amateurs, many of whom work in other cities and only come to their home town for the performances. The performance is based on the theoretical fundamentals ( natya ) with regard to preparation, sequence, stage structure, narrative form and music as formulated in Bharata Munis Natyashastra . Accordingly, a Bhagavata Mela begins with a prelude ( purvaranga ), which represents a homage to the gods, albeit in a reduced form compared to the ancient Indian guidelines. The performer of Narasimha takes a bath before the performance in order to ritually purify himself. He is the only one masked. The mask he wears on stage has a magical, potentially dangerous power. It represents a whole person, even when not being worn, and is brought in from its place in the temple with due care. The Narasimha performer begins with a comic role and at the height of his action gets into a state of obsession with the God he embodies. As a result, according to tradition, dramatic productions of Narasimha killing Hiranyakashipu actually lead to fatal incidents on the stage, which is why the widespread story is only performed in very few places. The play Prahlada-caritamu may not be shown outside of Melattur. When the actors from Melattur give guest appearances in other cities, then with other plays. This taboo goes back to an incident at the beginning of the 19th century when the marath ruler Serfoji II asked a troupe from Tepperumanallur to perform Prahlada-caritamu in Thanjavur. When the actors arrived at the court opened the transport box to take out the Narasimha mask, they found countless scorpions in it.

A stage ( pantal ) is set up on the place in front of the Vishnu temple at the western end of the Brahmin quarter ( agraharam ) . Worship rituals ( pujas ) and religious chants ( bhajana- sampradaya ) take place in the temple . The music group takes a seat at the edge of the stage. It consists of some choir singers ( pinpattu ), a violin or flute player, the player of the double drum mridangam and the nattuvanar (conductor) who sets the pace with cymbals . The music is based on the South Indian classical music tradition. As in the Sanskrit theater, the sutradhara, the master of ceremonies who holds the threads ( sutra ) in his hand, plays an important role. He sings the introduction from the right edge of the stage and tells the story in between. The singers perform the (dance) songs ( daru ) and the actors speak their dialogues. Male actors also impersonate the female roles. In addition to Lilavati and the earth goddess Bhudevi in Prahlada-caritamu, these include Queen Chandramati in Hariscandra natacamu and Usha in Usha parinayamu ("wedding of Usha"). Most of the pieces last three to four hours, only the Natiscandra-natacamu takes the whole night.

After the long prologue of sutradhara , the fool ( vidushaka ) Konangi , who has been handed down from the Sanskrittheater, comes onto the stage with a pointed hat. He's dancing around with a scarf in hand to get the audience in the mood. In Yakshagana and Kuchipudi this role does not happen, but in other religious dance theater styles such Kutiyattam or Chhau . In many entertaining dance theaters ( Nautanki , Tamasha or Mahakali pyakhan ) a clown acts almost constantly alongside the main actors. After Konangi, the elephant-headed god of fortune Ganapati appears, a song mentions him as a god riding a mouse. Ganapati is a god who removes obstacles and is therefore part of the prelude to many theater styles. The episode of Vishnu, whose snail horn ( sankha ), one of his four attributes, has been lost, provides amusing entertainment . Suddenly, a piercing sound resounds from the Kailash , the Indian seat of gods and world mountain , because Ganapati has swallowed the horn. Vishnu disguises himself as Konangi and dances in such a weird way in front of Ganapati that the elephant god breaks out in laughter and spits the snail horn out of his mouth. Konangi thereby becomes a manifestation of Vishnu.

The singers now start an auspicious song ( todayamangalam ) and a dance song ( sabdam ) in which the hero or god presents himself. Ganapati, who is now dancing, is often played by a masked boy. He is followed by a priest who honors Ganapati with a puja. It continues with another fun character called Kattiyakkaran or Katikamvadu. He is the hero's messenger, as he appears in a similar capacity in the Kattaikkuttu street theater in Tamil Nadu. This shows a Tamil influence on the Bhagavata Mela . The Kattiyakkaran heralds the appearance of the villain Hiranyakashipu, followed by his wife Lilavati and his son Pralahda , in a mixture of theater director ( sutradhara ) and joker ( vidushaka ). Before one of the actors enters into dialogue with another, he first performs an opening dance ( patra pravesa daru ) accompanied by singing . This art form, the music of which is based on a certain melodic structure ( raga ) and a basic rhythmic framework ( talam ), has a special meaning within the entire performance, because the characters are introduced here. The dance steps of Lilavati and the other female roles are stylistically adopted from the Bharatanatyam . Finally, the couple Narasimha and Lakshmi are worshiped by all the performers, musicians and the audience on stage. After the end of the program, the actors go to the temple for puja.

The most traditional performance time is Narasimha Jayanti , Narasimha's birthday on the 14th day of the lunar month Vaisakha according to the Indian calendar , which falls in the first half of May. In Melattur, the MLBNS is organizing the ten-day Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela on this occasion , during which, in addition to Bhagavata Mela , Bharatanatyam, Terukuttu , Kuchipudi and Harikatha , a religious narrative tradition with musical accompaniment, are performed. The last day ends with Anjaneya Utsavam , a procession for the monkey god Hanuman , led by a nadaswaram orchestra. Bhagavata Mela is to be given the status of a classical art form in the context of this demanding program.

The MBNVS organizes an annual festival of the same name, which lasts three or four days with a little less effort. During this time, five pieces from the Bhagavata Mela repertoire will be shown on another open-air stage. At the beginning of the performance, the Narasimha mask is brought from the temple in a litter accompanied by nadaswaram music.

In Saliyamangalam, about ten brahmin families living in agraharam organize the festival of Narasimha Jayanti . With one exception, the Bhagavata Mela there has never been performed outside the village.


  • Tatako Inoue: Between Art and Religion: Bhāgavata Mēḷa in Thanjavur. In: Yoshitaka Terada (Ed.): Music and Society in South Asia. Perspectives from Japan. (Senri Ethnological Studies 71) National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka 2008, pp. 103-134 ( Online ; PDF; 41.9 MB)
  • Clifford R. Jones: Bhāgavata Mēḷa Nāṭakam, a Traditional Dance-Drama Form . In: The Journal of Asian Studies , Vol. 22, No. 2, February 1963, pp. 193-200

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Chindu Bhagavatam comes of Age. The Hindu, August 30, 2012
  2. Toorpu Bhagavatam revisited. The Hindu, February 20, 2009
  3. Manohar Laxman Varadpande: History of Indian Theater . Abhinav Publications, New Delhi 1987, p. 19
  4. Emmie te Nijenhuis: Kīrtana: Traditional South Indian Devotional Songs. Compositions of Tyāgarāja, Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar and Śyāma Śāstri. Brill, Leiden / Boston 2011, p. 2
  5. Tatako Inoue, pp. 103-105
  6. ^ Clifford R. Jones, p. 194
  7. Tatako Inoue, pp. 109–111
  8. Interview. S. Natarajan and the Melattur Bhagavatamela Tradition., May 26, 2002
  9. ^ The Timeline. Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam (MBNVS)
  10. Tatako Inoue, p. 113f
  11. Tatako Inoue, pp. 120–127
  12. Tatako Inoue, p. 111f
  13. Sundar Kaali: Masquerading Death. Aspects of Ritual Masking in the Community Theaters of Thanjavur. In: David Shulman, Deborah Thiagarajan (eds.): Masked Ritual and Performance in South India. Dance, Healing, and Possession. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 2006, p. 103, ISBN 978-0891480884
  14. Tatako Inoue, pp. 106f, 111
  15. Tatako Inoue, pp. 107-109
  16. Tatako Inoue, pp. 115, 118, 121