Melattur is not only the birth place of the Bhagavata Mela dance-drama tradition but also the native place of great composers of music and dance works. It was here the early varna-s, swarajati-s. alarippu-s, tillana-s and sabdam-s were composed. A serious study of Melattur" s contribution to Carnatic music and classical solo dances forChadur' (Sadir) is long overdue. While systematic research is yet to begin, some information is available already on the maestroes of Melattur.
This composer par excellence was both versatile and prolific. He was a pioneer of many musical and dance forms and contributed immensely to the growth of Carnatic music and Chaduru dance. He was a contemporary of the Bhosala king Pratapa Simha (1739-1764) who patronised him and showed great respect to his principles. Veerabhadrayya did not sing on mortals but dedicated his works to Achyuta-Varada Unnatapureeswara and Prataparama the last one being the family deity of the patron. Historians of South Indian music credit to Veerabhadrayya the first swarajati. the initial ragamalika the earliest varnam and the tillana. He was proficient in Telugu. Sanskrit, Marathi and Tamil and composed pada-s and keertana-s in them. His output in Telugu and Sanskrit was naturally more. Veerabhadrayya was the preceptor of Ramaswami Dikshitar (1735-1817), the father of Muthuswami Dikshitar of the Tiruvarur Trinity. Like his guru. Ra-maswami Dikshitar also composed varna-s and ragamalika-s. Subbarama Dikshitar, in his Sangiia Sampradaya Pradarsini. declared that it was because Veerabhadrayya cleared and paved the way that Carnatic music could later shine gloriously. In the same book, he stated that Veerabhadrayya composed some daru-s and pada-s on the Bhosala king. If this was a fact, the works are yet to surface from the depths of the time. Due to the efforts of Dr. V. 22 Raghavan, the buried treasure of Veerabhadrayyas swarajati in Husseini Adi. the first of its kind, saw the light of day at least in print. The Journal of the Music Academy. Madras. 1946). It is a very lengthy piece, with a pallavi. anupallavi. a jati passage, 12 longish charana-s, charana swara-s and a concluding jati appendage. It would take five or six hours for any dancer to do justice to this composition in which its author has revealed the viswaroopa of his favourite raga. Dancers of his times had the whole night at their disposal and apparently the needed stamina too, to perform it in its entirety. After one or two generations, the length and the strain were both felt perhaps and shorter version in praise of Mallarji and Madhyarjunam Pratapa Simha were cast by others from Veerabhadrayyas mould. These shorter pieces are still in vogue but even experienced dancers are quickening the tempo, forgetting that Veerabhadrayya composed all his pieces in vilamba kala only. That was the reason he was called "Chaukam' Veerabhadrayya. Veerabhadrayya is still remembered amd respected in Melattur. G. Krishnamurthi Sarma the Bhagavatar who is the chief conductor of Bhagavata Mela programmes in that village, told me: "I would say that only because the villagers here have by and large followed the sampradaya of Veerabhadrayya the sangita the kriti-s. the varnamettu-s. The tala-s and the bha a-s of Bhagavata Mela have stood the test of time."
It is worthwhile to revive some of Veerabhadrayyas compositions that are gathering dust I figuratively speaking) at the Saraswati Mahal Library in Tanjavur.
If Veerabhadrayya was the pioneer of swarajati-s, varna-s and ragamalika-s, Kasinadhayya was renowned as the originator of alarippu-s, sabdam-s and salaam jati-s. He was known as Bharatam Kasinadhayya since he was a great natyacharya and dance composer. He dedicated his works to his patrons Shahaji 11684-1711), Serfojil 1711-1728), Tulaja(1728- 1735) and Pratapa Simha (1739-1764). Because he sang the praises of three generations of kings, Kasinadhayya" s time may be inferred as 1690-1764. This composer-cum-dance master wrote some works on different deities also. Kasinadhayya composed nine alarippu-s in various tala-s that had names like Dwirajasekhara Sasanka and Madanakunjara and also in Ata Triputa Jampa and Adi tala-s. He dedicated his alarippu-s to Varadaraja Gopalakrishna Narasimha and Kasturiranga A Triputa tala alarippu composed in Tamil was on Vinayaka All his works in this form were in three tempos and included teermanam-s. Kasinadhayya was famous for his sabdam-s. They still retain their freshness and are used in Kuchipudi dances. He dedicated his Gajeiidramoksha Sabdam more popularly known as Monduka Sabdam in Sri raga and Ata tala to Sri Rama; and his Dasavatara Sabdam to Kasturiranga. (Could the famous padam Indendu vachitivira which has the Kasturiranga mudra also be Kasinadhayya's composition?) This natyacharya composed sabdam-s on the themes of Parijatha-apaharanam and Rukmini Kalyanam probably as introductory pieces for the natakam-s of those names to be sung after the thodaya-mangalam. Strangely, Kasinadhayya dedicated a bhakti marga sabdam to Pratapa Simha This suggests that both the composer and the king were far advanced in their age at the time of its writing. It can be surmised that Kasinadhayya composed his solo dance pieces for the court dancers of Tanjavur and the devadasis of Melattur. The Unnatapureeswara temple in Melattur had devadasis offering divine services. Even after the Devadasi Act came into force some forty years ago, there used to be a dancer called Kamalam attached to the temple. Offering khumba-arati was her daily duty in return for which the temple sent the mandatory plate of prasada to her house every day. The tradition was that, when the deity went in procession, the dancer should stand in the north-east corner and do nritya-aradhana In Kasinadhayya's time there would have been the requisite number of temple servants, including devadasis. Kasinadhayya had many disciples. The Ramanathapuram brothers, Bharatam Panchanadayya and Bharatam Vaidyanadhayya were competent dance composers.
Melatur Bharatam Narana
In my researches I came across a manuscript in the Tanjavur Saraswati Mahal Library (Serial No.906 of the Telugu catalogue) which contains, along with Kasinadhayya's works, many compositions for dance authored by one Bharatam Narana. The latter's compositions are larger in number than the former's. The relationship of these two natyacharyas is not known. I am told by the Library authorities that this manuscript is being published. When it comes out of the press and further researches are made. an estimate of Melattur Narana's contribution to the dance literature can be attempted.
Melattur Gopalakrishna Sastri
E. Krishna Iyer, the early reviver of solo Sadir dance, writing in Mars, (March 19661 stated that the father of Venkatarama Sastri authored four natakam-s and gave their names as Druva. Gowri. Sita Kalyanam and Rukmini Kalyanam Dr. S. Seetha, in her book Tanjore As A Seat Of Music, also credits four works to Gopalakrishna Sastri. But she omits Sita Kalyanam and replaces it with Kuchela Charitram. She declares that these were mostly used for Harikatha performances. A Telugu manuscript in the Saraswati Mahal Library (Serial No.799) cites Sita Kalyanam and Druva Charitram as Rama Pandithula natakalu' indicating that they are the works of Venkatarama Sastri. Further research can determine the mode and authorship of the works.
Patchimiriyam Adiyappa thecomposer of the unequalledBhairavi Ata tala varnam Viriboni,may not have been a resident ofMelattur but he was certainly aconstant visitor to the village. Hefollowed in Veerabhadrayya'sfootsteps. He collaborated withVenkatarama Sastri in composingthe shorter Husseini swarajatiE mandayanara on MadhyarjunamPratapa Simha UnlikeVeerabhadrayya who emphasisedthe slow tempo, Adiyappapopularised madhyamakalasinging.Tachur Singaracharyulu in hisGayaka Siddhanjanam has saidthat Adiyappa was the courtmusician of PudukottaiSamasthanam. Veena Krishnayyaand Veena Subbukutti, the sonand grandson of Adiyappa. Weremaster lutanists. Krishnayyacomposed many prabhandha-s onthe rulers of Mysore,Vizianagaram and Kotthakota.Subbukutti's time can be roughlyestimated by the indications givenby Subbarama Dikshitar as 1800-1870. If Adiyappa had a grandsonby 1800 A.D., his own life timecan be guessed as spanning 1750-1820. Since Adiyappa wasmentioned as a seniorcontemporary of VenkataramaSastri, the latter's time can also beinferred from this.
Melattur Natesa Iyer
After Venkataramanayya and Venkatarama Josyar, it was Natesa Iyer who kept the tradition of Bhagavata Mela alive in Melattur. He maintained the high standards of the form. He was well up in the theory and practice of Bharata's Natya Sastra. At first he used to portray the leading female characters. His dance and abhinaya used to be admired by the devadasis of his time. When he took to nattuvangam. he was considered a master conductor of not only the dance-dramas but solo Sadir dances also. His nattuvangam used to be the envy of conductors of contemporary nattuva melams or chinna melams.
It was Natesa Iyer, in the 1920s, that initiated E Krishna Iyer into solo Sadir dancing and encouraged him to revive the art when it was suffering seriously from social stigma. Natesa Iyer served the cause of Bhagav ata Mela during the major part of his life and trained many artists, conductors and singers. During the last phase of his eventful life, he had to leave Melattur and live in Madras where he died in 1931. When he was conducting, many memorized the texts of entire natakam-s merely by listening. Though the women of Melattur community were barred to go on the stage, many of them could sing the daruvu-s. pada-s and other pieces of the dancedramas. When the Music Academy of Madras published the Prahlada Charitra Kirtanas of Venkatarama Sastri in 1965, it was Kalyani Animal, daughter of Natesa Iyer, who helped to prepare the edition with swara notations. With Natesa Iyer's death, there was a short disruption of Bhagavata Mela performances at Melattur. The discontinuance distressed many a villager.
Balu Bhagavatar and Others
Kinchin Kothandarama Iyer, the disciple of Natesa Iyer took up the broken threads and tried to tie up the dance-drama tradition after his guru's departure. He could do this for three or four years but finally gave up. From 1936 onwards, a new group of artists, singers and conductors, under the direction of Balu Bhagavatar (1897-1985) continued the tradition. Prominent among them were Gopala Iyer, Musiri Iyer, Muthuswami Iyer and P.K. Subba Iyer. Gopala Iyer died in 1964 and his son Krishnamurthi Sarma has filled the gap. His uncle Subramania Iyer, also known as Ramani Iyer, a disciple of Natesa Iyer, was doing the nattuvangam. In Melattur everybody seems to be somebody's blood relation and that is why the show is going on there every year on Narasimha Jayanti. despite the personality clashes and petty politics of succeeding generations.