MELATTUR, A SEAT OF BHAGAVATA MELA - AN OVERVIEW
Melattur, a little village 18 Km from Thanjavur, may not be on the tourist-map of Tamil Nadu but it is certainly on the dance map of India as a village dedicated, over the centuries, to the performing arts in general and Bhagavata Mela in particular. The Cholas, one of the dynasties that ruled over the South and parts of rest of India, played a very significant role in the Tamil country for four and a quarter centuries in promoting Tamil culture, especially Tamil literature, Saivaite religion and temple architecture. It is evidenced from the stone inscriptions that during the reign of "Vikrama Chola" (1125-1150 A.D) a Shiva temple was built over an alluvium that carried a "Linga", naming the thorpe as "Unnathapuri" and the deity in Linga form, "Unnathapureeswarar". It is thus the Unnathapuram, known earlier as nritta-vinoda-valanadu, came into existence since the early part of the 12th century.
By the end of the 14th century, the Vijayanagar empire annexed Chola mandalam to its kingdom and founded the Nayaks dynasty in Thanjavur. When the Vijayanagar empire was defeated at the hands of Muslims in 1565 AD, several families of composers, poets, Vedic scholars and performing artistes from the empire migrated to Thanjavur.
The second Nayak king, Achutappa (1560-1600 A.D) offered refuge to these families and settled them down in Thanjavur and nearby places. Under the directions of Govinda Dikshitar, an able minister in Achutappa Nayak's court and hailed as a great scholar himself in Sanskrit and Telugu, one such migrant group of 510 Brahmin families was given shelter at Unnathapuram. Each family was offered a house with a well, one and a half acres of cultivable land and a cow. A small group of artisans class was also attached to the village. Govinda Dikshitar, under the patronage of king Achutappa, got the Unnathapureeswarar temple renovated with necessary extensions, accommodated the Telugu Brahmin families around the outer precincts of the temple, and also got a tank hollowed out in front of the temple and another at the south-western end of the village. While the tank in front of the temple is called "Shiva Ganga Theertam," the latter is named after Govinda Dikshitar as "Ayyan Kulam".
Thus protected and encouraged by king Achutappa Nayak, the maestros of Unnathapuram and of such other places continued their pursuit in contributing greatly to religion, especially Vaishnavism, music and dance; the result of which was that the rich Telugu culture took roots in Tamil country as at Unnathapuram. Through compositions of various classes of works, the composers settled at Unnathapuram made the village renowned as "Achutapuram, Achutapuri and Achutabthi" in reverence to Achutappa Nayak's endowment of Unnathapuram. Thus Unnathapuram became known as Achutapuri since the reign of Achutappa.
It was here that the great maestros, "Bharatam" Kasinathayya and his disciple, Veerabadrayya were born. Bharatam Kasinathayya (1676-1740 A.D), a great natyacharya and composer, composed the early alarippu-s, sabdam-s and salaam jati-s. It is said that he composed nine alarippu-s in various tala-s. Kasinathayya was famous for his sabdam-s. They still retain their freshness and are used in Kuchipudi dances. He also composed a number of solo-dance numbers for the Court dancers of Thanjavur and devadasis of Melattur. Most of his works were dedicated to his patrons, Shahaji (1684-1711), Serfoji (1711-1729), Tulaja (1729-1735) and Pratapa Simha (1739-1764 AD)
Kasinathayya had many disciples; prominent among them, other than Veerabadrayya, were the Ramanathapuram Brothers, "Bharatam" Panchanadayya and Vaidyanathayya. The Brothers were competent dance composers and one of their sabdams is dedicated to Unnathapureeswara.
Veerabadrayya (1700-1769 A. D), a composer par excellence, was a pioneer of all music and dance forms and contributed immensely to the growth of carnatic music and sadir. He was a contemporary of the Bhosala Kings- Serfoji, Tulaja and Pratapa Simha. Pratapa Simha patronised Veerabadrayya and showed greater respect to his principles. Veerabadrayya did not sing on mortals but dedicated his works to Achuta-Varada, Unnathapureeswara and Prataparama, the last one being the family deity of the patron. He was proficient in Telugu, Sanskrit, Marathi and Tamil and composed padhas and keertanas in them. His output in Telugu and Sanskrit was naturally more.
Veerabadrayya was the preceptor of Ramaswamy Dikshitar (1735-1817 A. D), father of Muthuswamy Dikshitar of the Thiruvarur Trinity, and Lakshmanayya. Like his Guru, Ramaswamy Dikshitar also composed varnams and ragamalika kritis. Subbarama Dikshitar, in his Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini, declared that it was because Veerabadrayya cleared and paved the way that Carnatic music could later shine gloriously. In the same book, he stated that Veerabadrayya 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.
Unnathapuram or Achutapuri or Achutabdi is also popularly known as "Melattur" i.e. Mela + Oor. There are no evidences to confirm the period when Unnathapuram came to be known as Melattur. It appears, however, that the name Melattur was in existence even during the early part of the 18th century as evidenced from one of the "Sabdams" composed by Panchanadhi Vaidyanathayya (1694-1758 A.D), disciple of "Bharatam" Kasinathayya. In his sabdam, Vaidyanathayya salutes Unnathapureeswara as "...minnaina melatturi Unnatapureesa Swami paraku-ninnu nammithi salaamu."
With the passage of time, Melattur was producing great composers of music and dance works. The glory of the village reaching far and wide, more and more groups of migrants from Piswati and Kumandur, both in Andhra, Paravakarai, nearby Manankorai and Palliagraharam took shelter at Melattur; the village developed further in area, population and culture.
During the reign of Tulaja-I (1728-1735 AD), the fourth king of the Marathas, a clan from "Atthigiri" (Kancheepuram) came down to and settled at Melattur. The Atthigiri clan, under the patronage from King Tulaja, built a temple at the north-western end of the agraharam and installed the idol of Lord Varadaraja brought along with them. According to H.H. Pujya Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswati, the Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, the Varadaraja idol consecrated and worshipped at Atthigiri was brought to Melattur by the Atthigirians to save their Lord from the attacks of Muslim cavalry.
In keeping with the continued development of the village, two more tanks were hollowed-out, one at the western end and the other at the north-western end of the village; the former was named "Narayana Theertam" and the latter, "Garuda Theertam". During the reign of Pratapa Simha (1739-1764 A.D), an idol of Narasimha in yogic posture was installed over a small plinth near Narayana Theertam. Surprisingly, the idol was left with no means for regular worship. Riparian, "Vriddha Kaveri" or Vettar, north of the village, a "Mandapam" (bathing ghat) was built and a "Nandavanam" (pansy) formed during this period.
Melattur not only produced great composers like "Bharatam" Kasinadayya and Veerabadrayya but also composers of nrtyanatakas following the dance-drama traditions set by Vijayaraghava Nayak and Shahaji of the Nayak and Bhosala dynasties respectively. One such composer was Gopalakrishna Sastry. Gopalakrishna Sastry is said to have lived in this village during the reign of Serfoji-I, Tulaja-I and Pratapa Simha of Bhosala dynasty.
According to experts, Gopalakrishna Sastry was a very young disciple of Narayana Theerta Yogi and received initiation into the Narasimha cult and operas from the Saint himself. Gopalakrishna Sastry authored four works such as Druva Charitam, Gowri Kalyanam, Rukmani Kalyanam, Sita Kalyanam and Kuchela Charitam, all following Harikatha formats.
By virtue of his deep reverence to his Guru, Gopalakrishna Sastry put in his best efforts to success in moulding his son, Venkatarama Sastry (1743-1809 A.D), as an excellent composer of Bhagavata Mela Natakas.