It is a yearly affair that falls around the second week of May (corresponding to the 14th day of the lunar fortnight of Vaisakha) that wakes up Melattur, an obscure village from its serene slumber near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. The Bhagavata Mela of Melattur represents a 500-year old dance drama tradition that dates back to the Vijayanagar period. The theme is the same and so is the cast drawn from people of diverse professions and propensities. There is a Dubai based electrical engineer, a research assistant from the Kalpakkam Atomic Research Centre, an official from the telegraph department, a businessman from Bangalore- each one of them views the event as a religious duty mandated by divinity and not as just a song and dance event for entertainment. And perhaps that should explain the undiminished appeal of this festival and the magic spell it casts on viewers despite its pristine Telugu content. To understand the Telugu connection in a bastion of Tamil culture, we need to travel back in time to an era when minds, unfettered by parochialism and petty animosities, were conscious of and cared for our common heritage that cut across geographical divide.
The history behind the mela It all began in 1565 with the fall of Vijayanagar Kingdom, the last bulwark against Muslim invasion in the fateful battle of Talikottah, which triggered an exodus of a large intellectual community of Vedic scholars, performing artistes, artisans, dancers, poets, composers, litterateurs and musicians to Thanjavur then ruled by the benign Nayak dynasty.
This Diaspora comprising some 510 Brahmin families were accommodated by Shri.Govinda Dikshitar, an extraordinary minister who was known for his piety as much as he was for his administrative acumen under the orders from king Achutappa Nayak (1560-1600A.D) in Unnathapuram as Melattur was then referred to. After a long spell of persecution, these families discovered some peace and protection under the benevolence of the Nayak king. Each family was given a house with a well, a cow and a little plot of land which they could cultivate. Two tanks were dug for supplying water to the community. In the environs created for them by the Nayak king, the creative genius of these artisans sprang forth thus making signal contributions to fine arts and literature.
The migrants and their meaningful contributions These migrants-turned-maestros went about their artistic pursuits unhindered by the political changes that Thanjavur witnessed in the later period. From the Nayaks, the province passed into the hands of the Marathas who patronized all forms of art with the same fervor as the former. It is during this period cultural colossuses like ‘Bharatam’ Kasinathayya (1676-1740 A.D) reigned supreme enriching classical dance forms with a variety of sabdams, jathis and alarippus. This master composer and natyacharya is credited with some scintillating compositions performed by the Thanjavur court dancers. Interestingly a good number of his compositions were in praise of a long line-up of Maratha kings spanning Shahaji (1684-1711), Serfoji (1711-1729), Tulaja (1729-1735) and Pratapa Simha (1739-1764 AD).