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Our mela is not entertainment, but elevation of the soul – Interview with Kalai Mamani S.Natarajan & S.Kumar Bhagavata Mela Brothers

The duo that brings alive mythological characters

S Natarajan, an electrical engineer from Dubai is a paradigm of histrionic talent and dedication who has specialized in female roles that he dons with a natural ease and élan at the Melattur Bhagavata Mela. His delineation of Chandramathi in Harischandra or Leelavathi, the helpless wife of Hiranya caught in the crossfire between her husband and her child Prahalada in Prahalada Charithram has won him several accolades.

A winner of Sangeet Natak Academy Award and Tamil Nadu Government’s ‘Kalaimamani’ title, he travels every year from Dubai to his native village, Melattur just to participate in the Bhagavata Mela festival that falls around mid-May. Melattur Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Jayanti Bhagavata Mela Natya Nataka Sangam, founded in 1938 by his grandfather has been conducting this unique cultural event for over 66 years now.

He is ably supported by his brother, S.Kumar a businessman based in Bangalore who plays important roles in the plays staged by Natya Nataka Sangam. A suave and affable person, he plays the fiendish Hiranya Kasibu with a stunning flamboyance.

Kalakendra team met the siblings at their ancestral home in Melattur. The excerpts from the interview:

Q: “How or why do you think your plays hold appeal in this era of M TV and the Internet?”
A: “Life is in a state of constant flux. But that does not mean that we have to give up our tradition just because it is old and welcome things only because they are new. Certain things in life are timeless and are of immense and immeasurable value. They have always inspired people and will continue to do so. Our Indian classical art forms are of that genre.”

Q: “The dialogues and lyrics of the plays are in literary Telugu. Isn’t language a barrier? What relevance can it have in a predominantly Tamil environment?”
A: “Art has this intrinsic ability to cement all those things that divide people. True art, when performed in consonance with the set parameters, transcends all barriers and speaks a language that is felt more by the heart than by the ear. It builds bridges between people and never divides. All insular thoughts vanish from people’s mind and they realize the beauty of our common heritage comprising different streams. Bhagavata Mela is one such art form.”

Q: “You have been donning the role of Leelavathi, the Hiranya’s wife for over 50 years now. Isn’t it really tiring, even if performed once in a year?”
A: “Your question stems from your erroneous assumption that the mela is another form of entertainment. It is actually a kind of worship and you simply can not overlook the sacred element that goes much beyond its mythological content. We look at it as a religious ritual and not as a stage play per se!

Q: “Can you substantiate on the sacred element bit please?”
A: “There is no formal rehearsal before our performance. We invoke the blessings of Lord Narasimha and ascend the stage and that’s it. Incredible as it may sound, we go into a trance when we perform on stage. Our identities and consciousness melt away. We cease to be ourselves. My gait changes and woman-like mannerisms descend on me. The play begins and proceeds in a seamless continuity with a clockwork precision. Not a line is missed and remember, there are no prompts! The stage itself is created facing the sanctum of Lord Narasimha and all action taking place on the stage is under the divine gaze of the bedecked processional deity-utsava murthy-! You will be surprised that even the cast is decided by the God.”

Q: “Really? But how?”
A: “We conduct a formal Pooja during which Lord Narasimha descends on one of the troupe members and communicates his preferences. The Lord has suggested that a little boy from the family of a famous danseuse play the role of Prahalada at the next year’s mela. He comes from a Tamil speaking family in Chennai not familiar with Telugu at all. But we are confident he will deliver. The Lord will make him perform.”

Q: “You have won some prestigious awards and honors for your contribution towards this art form. What vision you have for the Bhagavata Mela?”
A: “More and more people should know about this unique art. When I say this, I am talking about those true and serious lovers of art and not the superficial ones who look at art as just entertainment. We don’t want to turn this event into a tourist attraction in our anxiety to popularize it. It is something very close to our heart. Our emotional bond with it dates back to several centuries.”

Q: “If you are so guarded and selective about the audience, how do you think it will reach people? Perhaps, you can consider staging these plays in a metro for wider reach??”
A: “We are essentially looking at quality not quantity. The glare of publicity will rob these operas of their divine sheen. It is better that this art is kept away from latest technology and stagecraft techniques that are likely to attenuate it. In any other milieu, they will not be the same and we are against staging it in any place other than Melattur.”

Q: “However good an art is, it needs to have patrons to nourish it.?”
A: “Our family has kept the tradition going. My grandfather Ganesa Iyer and later my father Swaminatha Iyer have gone through hell to keep this tradition going. They have disposed of family property so that the event continued without let-up. Even when extreme poverty threatened us, we have kept it going and the Lord gave us the strength to bear some painful and unpleasant situations. A substantial chunk of my earnings has been diverted to this annual event. It is Lord Narasimha’s festival. And he will, at an appropriate time, identify people who can take this tradition forward.”

Appropriate Links :
Vijayanagar Kingdom

Narayana Theerthar or Bhajanai Sampradhayam

Battle of Talikota

Maratha Kings

Nayak Kings of Thanjavur : June 29, 2006, 11:20 am