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Vijay Madhavan’s one-man natakam


Vijay Madhavan performing at Kapaleeswarar temple, Mylapore, in Chennai.
| Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

The Bhagavata Mela theatre form is a tradition rooted in Puranas or Hindu epics. The Bhagavata Mela Utsavam that takes place in Melattur today uses the dance dramas composed by Melattur Venkatrama Shastri for the last 200 years. Vijay Madhavan who formally learnt Bharatanatyam from Chitra Visweswaran trained to become a Bhagavata Mela artiste from a very young age and has been a part of this hallowed tradition for the last 34 years. Vijay took over a set of roles like Bhumi Devi in Prahlada Charitam and Mathanga Kanya in Harishchandra Natakam from the renowned Melattur Natarajan’s cousin Ganesan. Mainly mastering the nuances through observation and advice from the elders who portrayed such roles, Vijay also studied several texts to grasp the intricacies behind the tradition as well as the profiles of the characters to be portrayed.

As Hiranyakashipu

As Hiranyakashipu
| Photo Credit:
N.C. Srinivasaraghavan

Bhagavata Mela dramas in Melattur are usually performed overnight and stretch for at least eight hours, integrating several small segments that need to be contextualised to understand the plot. Hence, shortening them for performances outside the village proves to be a formidable task. Vijay Madhavan instead aimed to represent the theatre tradition by working on compositions that are not a part of the dramas but are more of a reflection or a shadow of some popular pieces from the Bhagavata Mela repertoire. Naming his solo production ‘Chaya’, Vijay explored the paatra praveshas or self-introductory entrances of four main characters in the Prahlada Charitam drama by employing allied compositions composed by Mysore Sadashiva Rao. One of the main pupils of Walajapet Venkataramana Bhagavatar, Sadashiva Rao was a famed musician at the court of Mysore.

‘Prahlada Charitam’, a popular dance drama of the Bhagavata Mela Natakam being performed at the annual utsavam in Melattur, near Thanjavur in 2007.

‘Prahlada Charitam’, a popular dance drama of the Bhagavata Mela Natakam being performed at the annual utsavam in Melattur, near Thanjavur in 2007.
| Photo Credit:
M. SRINATH

The first composition that Vijay took up was ‘Dorakenu nedu’ in Devagandhari, which was performed to mirror Hiranyakashipu’s pravesham in the same raga. This kriti was sung by Sadashiva Rao on Krishna, describing how the king of Mysore does all sorts of upacharas or sevas to the deity which is seated on a throne in the raja durbar. Hiranyakashipu is welcomed in the same way in the Bhagavata Mela natakam. Vijay demonstrated the arrival of the fearsome character through a distinctive style of footwork that is characteristic of prominent male characters in Bhagavata Mela dramas. Hiranyakashipu’s distinct walk where he brandishes various weapons like the sword and mace was also incorporated by Vijay from the natakam. He also made use of a traditional Bhagavata Mela sorkattu, musically rendered in the dance drama. It was included in the form of a jathi with kuraippu.

History tells us that Sadashiva Rao is credited with commencing the Ramotsava celebrations in Mysore. He also worshipped Rama and has composed kritis on the lord. The second piece ‘Endu daachukonnavu’ in Atana was an allegorical depiction of Leelavati’s pravesham in Bhagavata Mela which is also in the same raga. The dancer who plays Leelavati, the wife of Hiranyakashipu, walks across the stage behind a curtain that is held aloft by two other dancers. Since the character is invisible to the eyes of the audience despite being onstage, this composition of Sadashiva Rao where he wonders where Rama is was chosen by Vijay. Sadashiva Rao wonders why Rama is missing and pleads the deity to grant him darshan, despite the murti being visible to him in his Pooja chamber.

Vijay Madhavan

Vijay Madhavan
| Photo Credit:
R. Ravindran

Sadashiva Rao was in the habit of going on pilgrimages across South India. On one such tour, he composed a song in raga Bhairavi on Parthasarathy of Tiruvallikeni. ‘Shri Parthasarathe karuna jalanidhe’ is unique for many reasons. Parthasarathy in this temple is depicted as the aged charioteer, who taught the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna on the battlefield. Even though Krishna is old in this temple, Sadashiva Rao prefers to address him as a child using words like ‘Vasueva bala’ and ‘Gopala’! Thus, this composition is comparable to Prahlada’s Patra Pravesha in Bhairavi. Vijay depicted Parthasarathy in many ways — taking on the role of Arjuna’s charioteer, reassuring a nervous Arjuna at the battlefield and playing an important role in the Mahabharata war. Prahlada describes the various methods of persuasion used by Hiranyakashipu to make him forget his devotion to Vishnu which were demonstrated by Vijay admirably. Using this composition as a base, Vijay inserted appropriate sancharis from the Puranic narration to portray Prahlada being tied up and thrown into the sea and creatures like snakes and elephants helping Prahlada instead of harming him. The second half of this composition uses swara sahityas and hence is suited for dance because of the varnam-like structure. Another unique feature of this kriti is that it has numerous avarohana krama swaras (in swara patterns like NNDPMGRS) instead of aarohana krama swaras that are used in standard Bhairavi compositions like Syama Sastri’s swarajati. Surprisingly, the patra pravesha daruvu for Prahlada in Bhagavata Mela also uses avarohana krama swaras. Hence, this kriti was an ideal substitute for the original song. Utilising this composition to showcase his creativity, Vijay succeeded in capturing the audience’s attention and interest.

Vijay Madhavan with a full bench orchestra performing in Kapaleeswarar at Mylapore in Chennai

Vijay Madhavan with a full bench orchestra performing in Kapaleeswarar at Mylapore in Chennai
| Photo Credit:
N.C. Srinivasaraghavan

The finale both in the Natakam as well as the production relates to Narasimha emerging from the sthambam or pillar to kill Hiranyakashipu and embracing Prahlada. Vijay aptly chose Sadashiva Rao’s ‘Narasimhudu dayinchenu’, a kriti in Kamala Manohari with this theme. His depiction of Narasimha and this dramatic episode was done tastefully, especially the facial expressions.

Vijay Madhavan must be commended for the research he undertook to identify these compositions, all composed by the same vaageyakara, which were in a way a reflection of the original Bhagavata Mela pieces. He was accompanied by Murali Parthasarathy on the vocal, Sairam on the nattuvangam, Mudicondan Ramesh on the veena and Nagai Sriram on the mridangam. Vijay succeeded in ensuring that he stayed true to his artistic vision, at the same time giving a wholesome flavour of the Natakam. To completely grasp the subtleties and nuances of the Bhagavata Mela tradition, one must make their way to Melattur for the annual utsavam that is happening at the end of this month.



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