The literal meaning of Bhagavata Mela means where worshippers ensemble. This is mainly Telugu dance-dramas presented in Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu. This is actually celebrated as part of the festival of Narasimha Jayanti i.e. the avatar Narasimha`s birth, celebrated around the first week of June. Although Melattur is the village commonly associated with Bhagavata Mela, the nearby villages of Sulamangalam, Uthukkadu, Nallur, and Saliyamangalam also have similar performances. However, only in Melattur is it staged regularly, outside the Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple. It is perhaps the only traditional form enacted by Brahmans in Tamil Nadu. The performers are devotees of Narasimha, the presiding deity of Melattur. Although many of their families have spread to different places across the world, they invariably arrive two days before the event, rehearse, and perform.
Narayana Tirtha, whose timings were 1650-1750 was a yogi. He was migrated from Andhra to Tamil Nadu and settled in Varagur in Thanjavur district. He composed kritis i.e. works and songs in Telugu and Sanskrit, set to dance. Parijatapaharanam i.e. `Stealing the parijata Tree` and Rukmangada are his two most popular texts, written to spread devotion for Krishna. Those committed to propagate Krishna worship were called Bhagavatas, thus the dance-dramas composed by them were named Bhagavata Mela. Gopalakrishna Sastri, a disciple of Narayana Tirtha, kept alive this tradition and his son Venkatarama Sastri in eighteenth century authored twelve dance-dramas in Telugu. Out of these twelve dance-dramas six of them discovered recently in Melattur. Venkatarama Sastri was the best-known Bhagavata Mela dramatist. The most commonly staged can be named as Prahlada charitram or Prahlada`s Story`. This tells the tale of Narasimha`s triumph over the demonic Hiranyakasipu.
In the 1930s, a group of pandits in Melattur sought to revive Prahlada charitram, as Bhagavata Mela had fallen into decline since the mid-nineteenth century. The village munshi, V. Ganesa Iyer, offered to supervise these efforts and became the chief preceptor. They wanted to save the relatively unknown form from extinction. Leading performers included Balu Bhagavatar and Iyer`s son, G. Swaminathan, etc. Later, scholars like E. Krishna Iyer who had revived Bharatanatyam and Mohan Khokar brought it to national recognition, while Rukmini Devi-Arundale staged modernized productions based on Bhagavata Mela between 1959 and 1971, all leading to its greater acceptance as part of classical performatory heritage. The shows, in front of the village temple, always begin with the entry of Konagi the clown, followed by Ganesha wearing an elephant mask, while all other characters enter from behind half-curtains. Men play the female roles. It is claimed that the performance is executed in keeping with the grammar explicated in the Natyasastra. One can find strong traces of classical Bharatanatyam in the way the performers express themselves. Explanations for the songs are given through dialogue, mudras, and bhavas. The music, based on Carnatic traditions, adds to the impact. Most often the dancers sing as well. The accompanying instruments are tambura, flute, violin, mridangam drum, and talam i.e. cymbals.