BHAGAVATA MELA - AS CONCEIVED BY VENKATARAMA SASTRY & THE EXCELLENCE OF HIS COMPOSITIONS Venkatarama Sastry inherited many traditions. His father made him scholarly in Vedas, Sastras, Puranams and Upanishads. His Guru, Melattur Lakshmanayya, a disciple of Veerabadrayya, made him an expert in kavya, nataka and alankaras. With his masterly knowledge of Telugu, Sanskrit, music, dance and drama, Venkatarama Sastry brought a new era of dance-dramas to Melattur.

He composed many nrtyanatakas and there are at least twelve natakas to his credit even though only eleven are authentically confirmed.

The theme of his natakas is chosen from the popular puranic tales found in Srimad Bhagavatam. The natakas to his credit, as of today, are Prahlada Charitamu, Markandeya Natakamu, Harichandra Natakamu, Usha Parinayamu, Rukmangadha, Hari Hara Leela Vilasamu, Kamsa Vadham, Seeta Parinayamu, Rukmini Kalyanam, Druva Charitamu and Sati Savitri Natakamu. Bhakti being the main target, Sastry's compositions connote the theme beautifully. All his works are dedicated to Lord Varadaraja, the presiding deity of Melattur village.

In the prologues to his Telugu plays, Venkatarama Sastry describes himself as belonging to the Srivatsa Gotra, son of Gopalakrishna Sastry and pupil of Lakshmanarya.

The natakas of Venkatarama Sastry are a fine blend of the concept of Sanskrit drama as envisaged by Bharata in his Natya Sastra, the rich Telugu culture and the developments that have taken place to nataka format during the reign of Nayak and Maratha Kings. His genius as a gifted composer and a master of Natya Sastra is reflected in full in his scholarly songs and verses and the presentation of the plays. His compositions include "churnikas, champakamalas, darus, dwipadas, kandams, kandarthas, padhas, padha-varnas, padyams, sandhivachanas, sardoolams, sisams, vachanas and thillanas".

In his composition of darus, he has employed all the kinds like Pravesa daru, Samvadha daru, uttara-pratyutra daru, varnana daru, pralabha daru swagatha daru and Yela padamsas found in Bharata's stage. A beautiful "cindu" also finds a place in one of the pravesa darus.

Whereas the poetic genius of Sastry is revealed in his exquisite sahityas, his musical genius is unfolded in the choice and handling of the "apurva" or rare ragas. He possessed the natural talent for choosing the appropriate ragas, which are in perfect consonance with the meaning of the songs, and different shades of moods of the characters under various situations dictated by the play. He also adopted the time-theory in selection of ragas.

Sastry has, in general, used only "rakti" ragas as they are very expressive of the sentiments of heart and afford richer scope for descriptive and exhaustive treatment of music and dance. In addition to rakti ragas, rare and uncommon ragas like "ghanta, ahiri, neelambari, mallaru, suddha danyasi, etc. also figure in his plays.

Appropriately enough, most of the darus are set in chapu and adhi-talas, a few in rupaka and jampa. Chapu tala being a syncopated time measure, is ideally suited to dance and music, all resulting in a beautiful confluence of free flow of melody and rhythm throughout the play. The darus composed by Venkatarama Sastry are no less in quality or flavour of those by the Musical Trinity.

Not only by virtue of the theme but also because of the excellence of the composition, the "Prahlada Charitamu" shines the foremost work of Venkatarama Sastry.

The "poorva ranga" format adopted by Sastry for the play, Prahlada Charitamu, in particular, is a "chef-d oeuvre". All Bhagavata Mela plays begin with the entry of Konangi or buffoon dancing his way. According to a legend, Vinayaka once swallowed the chakra of Vishnu, and to get back the essential missile, Vishnu transformed himself into a konangi and performed a comic dance before Vinayaka. As the story goes, the latter shrieks with laughter till the chakra comes out of his mouth.

"Thodayam" or "Jaya" from the Bhajana Sampradaya of the South is introduced as invocation song followed by "Naandi Dwipadha" and a "sabdam" - narration of the story in a nutshell. The sabdam, called "Prahlada Pattabisheka Sabdam", unfolds into excellent sollukattus in different gatis followed by a "kavutuvam" and a "jaggini daru" in obeisance to Lord Vigneswara. This concept of "Katha Sangraha" is absent in Sanskrit drama.

Following the poorva ranga, Lord Vigneswara character enters the stage dancing beautifully to a pravesa daru, blesses the audience, the Bhagavatas on the stage, the day's play and finally waddles His exit.

Introduction of Vigneswara character at the commencement of a nataka follows the development to the theatre-art brought by King Shahaji-I (1683 - 1712 A.D) of the Bhosala dynasty.

After this, the main play begins with the introduction of the chief characters by themselves one by one through pravesa darus and the introduction is called "patra pravesam". The "varnana" in dwipadha form prior to the pravesa daru and the pravesa darus themselves give, generally, the description of the character (prosopography). The darus are similar to any "Kritis" among classical compositions in carnatic music, offering wider scope for exhaustive treatment. After the introduction of the chief characters, the main story of the play is unfolded scene by scene.

No event on the stage takes place without a "sandhivachana" by the sutradar; this sandhivachana concept is found in Sanskrit play. Each daru is embellished with "Mukha" and "Anthya" (the beginning and end) jatis to appropriate rhythm to which the daru is set.

Even though the scripts of Sastry's natakas did not have a place for "prastavana", an introduction in the form of conversation between the sutradar and the "pariparsvaka" or the herald, this was in practice in Melattur natakas till 1949 but in regional language (possibly Sastry might have left it to the manodarma of the sutradar and pariparsvaka).

As the play progresses, a variety of darus, soliloquies in classical music of carnatic tradition and dialogues in poetic diction blend at every stage with dance and abhinaya to Natya Sastra treatises.

The interpretation of song and speech with significant hand gestures and facial expressions synchronises with rhythmic cadences of the feet while intermittent swara passages and scintillating jathis punctuate many of the songs in a delectable manner.

Such a remarkable synchronisation of music, speech, dance and abhinaya produces a high aesthetic appeal leading to rasa realisation according to the conception of natya in the ancient treatises. The natakas of Venkatarama Sastry approaches that ideal and hence creates a profound and classical atmosphere.

At the end of each natakam, the actors personating gods and demi-gods, and the protagonist climb down the stage, walk through the passage to the temple with the Bhagavatars chanting Hari Bhajans, offer worship and "deeparathana" to the deities inside. Later, the ensemble continues the procession towards another temple maintained by the patron. As it walks through the streets of the village, the villagers, offer "arathi" and pay obeisance in deification. At the temple of the patron, "arathi" is offered to the actors and the actors offer prayers followed by recitation of benedictory verses, only when the natakam of the day is said to be complete.

This is one of the most fascinating spectacles of our living theatre.

It is believed that Venkatarama Sastry recruited his players from each Brahmin families in the village and regularly enacted the plays in the Varadaraja Perumal sannidhi (propylneum) before the decorated processional deities and that the erstwhile Royal court officials, zamindars and erudite scholars were regular visitors to Melattur to witness the natakas including Saint Thiagaraja once, and Ramaswamy Dikshitar.

The natakas of Sastry were of very high order and received wider appreciation. The tradition, at the pinnacle of glory and fame, spread to neighbouring villages, Oothukadu, Soolamangalam and Tepperumanallur. While the former two villages mainly adopted the works of Venkatarama Sastry, the latter followed the composition authored by a local composer.

However the Bhagavata Mela tradition practised at Saliamangalam, also called as Achutapuram, a small village about 15 Kms. south-east of Melattur is at least two decades elder to that of Melattur. The Saliamangalam maestro is said to be "Panchanata Bhagavatar", a junior most disciple of Melattur "Bharatam" Kasinathayya. The records at Thanjavur Saraswati Mahal Library establish that the Bhagavata Mela tradition was in practice at Mannargudi and Tiruchirappalli, and the natakams were a regular feature at the Court of the Bhosala kings as a command-performance. A serious study is in need to have more information of the author-s, the compositions of such Bhagavata Mela natakams performed at these places.

Apart from the Bhagavata Mela Natakas, Sastry is said to have composed a number of songs. According to Subbarama Dikshitar, the well-known "Swarajati" in Useni with the version, "Emandayanara" is the combined work of "Adiappa", the master-composer of Viriboni varnam and Venkatarama Sastry. In addition to these, Sastry had composed some Advaita kirtanas too; in one of them he worked out elaborately a vedantic metaphor between the body and a garden. He had also taught music and composed a number of padams and pada-varnams for one Kamalambal, a devadasi, of Thiruvarur.

He seems to have been held in high esteem as pious people tell some miracles about him.

The "vox populi" is that Saint Thiagaraja was so inspired with the play, Prahlada, of Venkatarama Sastry when he happened to witness it at Melattur that the former was prompted to create "Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam".

Even though no authentic life sketch of Venkatarama Sastry is available, the Melattur Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam more accurately establishes the period of Venkatarama Sastry, thus:
Life history of Syama Sastry (1763-1827 AD) indicates that Pachimirium Adiappa (1731-1788 AD) was 32 years elder to the former. According to Subbarama Dikshitar, the popular swarajati in Useni, "Emandayanara", was the combined work of Adiappa and Melattur Venkatarama Sastry, and that the former was a senior contemporary of the latter.

It is also said that Sastry was an elder contemporary of Thiagaraja (1767-1847 AD) and contemporary of Ramaswamy Dikshitar (1735-1817 AD), a disciple of Veerabadrayya, and that both Thiagaraja and Ramaswamy Dikshitar had witnessed the natakas presented by Sastry in Melattur.

It is, therefore, obvious that Venkatarama Sastry's birth could have been any time between 1731 and 1767 AD.

Late "Kanakangi" Srinivasa Josyar (1887-1966 AD), son of Melattur Venkatarama Josyar and one of a regular participants in the Bhagavata Mela Natak as organised by Melattur Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam, mentioned that he had heard his grand-father saying that Melattur Venkataramanayya, under a vow to Venkatarama Sastry at his death-bed, took possession of the scripts of natakas and continued the tradition in Melattur and that when Venkataramanayya took to the tradition in 1809 AD, Sastry was 66 years old. Sastry lived in a small house at the East Car street of Unnathapureeswara temple and was a widower, he added.

From the chronological indications, it is very clear that Venkatarama Sastry was born in 1743 AD and reached the Lotus Feet of Lord Sri Varadaraja in the year 1809 AD


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