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Bhagavata Mela is a regional temple theatre form presented through the medium of classical dance and classical music. This blend of theatre and dance has been performed for over five centuries.  Throughout this time, one of the most unique aspects of Bhagavata Mela has been that all the roles – dancing, acting, singing etc., - have been only performed by men.  In the earlier days, this was one of the very few avenues available for men to dance and has been a rich source of dance compositions, dance forms, musical compositions and unique rendering of ragas. Bhagavata Mela is also unique in that.  It is still performed not as a commercial enterprise but as devotional prayer of surrender to the Lord Sri Lakshmi Narasimha. 

For those who love classical dance, Bhagavata Mela is a feast for the eye.  For those who love music, Bhagavatha Mela has classical Carnatic music at its best. For those who love drama, Bhagavata Mela is a living link to our ancient heritage of theatre as laid down in Bharata’s Natya Sastra.  Thus Bhagavata Mela is a unique blend of spirituality, dance, drama and chaste classical music. 

In a Bhagavata Mela natakam, Bhagavatars sing, dance and enact mythological stories with devotion and dedication.  These stories are often culled from the Shaivite and Vaishnavite religious movements, which wield a powerful influence on Hindu culture.  Vaishnavite and Tamil and Telugu speaking Smartha Brahmin. dedicated to the Narasimha cult, have performed Bhagavata Mela in Thanjavur for centuries.  Thanjavur earned recognition as an ancient capital of arts in South India, owing to the continued royal patronage for arts from Chola, Nayak and Maratha rulers.  Thanjavur was a natural crucible where Tamil, Telugu and Marathi culture blended into one rich heritage.  Owing to its special geographical location in the Cauvery delta, the place attracted kings, peasants and artists alike. 

The Bhagavatas of Melattur were male Brahmin priests who had been performing the ancient art of  Bhagavata Mela as ritualistic worship of Lord Vishnu, the Protector of the Universe.  They were devotees of Lard Narasimha, whose temple existed at the banks of the Narayana Theertha, a pond on the west side of Melattur village.  Among the noted descendant of these Bhagavatas is the renowned Melattur Venkatarama Sastri, composer of at least 10 Bhagavata Mela dance dramas, whose works are the most prolifically performed today and stand testimony to the richness, grandeur and devotion inherent in this unique tradition. 

In addition to Melatur, Bhagavata Mela is being or has been performed traditionally in Oothukkadu, Thepperumanallur, Nallur, Soolamangalam, Saliyamangalam and Mannargudi.  All these villages are in the Thanjavur district.  Bhagavata Mela performances also took place in Thanjavur palaces.  From historical evidence archived in Saraswati Mahal Library of Thanjavur, one can find that many Bhagavata Mela artistes lived in a village called Deepambalpuram (named after a Thanjavur Marathi Chola queen), including Sri. Giriraja Kavi, the maternal grandfather of Sadguru Sri Thyagaraja Swami.  Swami himself therefore is one of the descendants of Bhagavatas, also as evidenced by his own composition in the Bhagavata Mela tradition, Nouka Charitramu. 

Some of the unique aspects of Bhagavatas and the tradition include:

  • Bhagavatas are devoted to Lord Lakshmi Narasimha Swami as their Ishta Devata

  • Bhagavatas are not an itinerant group, though there are records of their performances for the royal patrons.

  • Bhagavatas are not professional performers.  They were landowners or, these days, hold professional jobs.  The dancers of the Bhagavata Mela troupe do not accept monetary rewards for their participation.  

  • All the participants were male Brahmins

  • Certain roles are inherited by the actor and are a precious heirloom handed over by father to son. This tradition is followed even today.  

  • Melattur natakams focus on the divine sentiment (bhakti).  Even though there are dramas in the current repertoire of the Sangam which focus on romance (shringara: such as Sakuntalam of King Ekoji II).  Bhakti is the overarching emotional focus of all performances.

  • Melattur composers of the period of and before Sadguru Sri Thyagaraja Swami composed dance forms such as Swarajati, Shabdam and Thillana.  These, along with similar compositions in Sadir and Kuchipudi, have been incorporated into present-day Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi.


After the end of Maratha rule in Thanjavur, music, dance and Bhagavata Mela rapidly declined, resulting in great loss to our culture.  The loss of great manuscripts, links in oral tradition and discontinuation of the actal practice of the natakams may probably be attributed this dark period.  Though tremendous efforts have been and are being taken to revive this tradition, today, Bhagavata Mela continues to be classified under vanishing traditions of South India.

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