THE BIRTH OF BHAGAVATA MELA
In the history of Indian music three kinds of dramas are discernible. They are namely: nataka, nrtya nataka, and geya nataka. Nrtya natakas are earlier than geya natakas and adhere strictly to the Natya Sastra treatises.
Even during the rule of Cholas in Tamil Nadu, especially Thanjavur, geya natakams and sadir were a regular feature in the temples and Royal Court during festivities. It is believed that these performances were mostly of grand operas. Such performances and the performers were patronised by the kings.
From the 9th Century AD when marked development and growth of regional languages took place, the Sanskrit theatre tradition too was getting adopted to regional languages. An excellent example of one such work is Jayadeva's "Gita Govindam". Came into being as a result of Bhakti Movement to counter the milieu, it occupies a key position in the history of both music and dance that led to the flowering of a classical musical dance-dramas in the local languages, in different parts of the country. Yakshaganas of Karnataka, Kuchipudi Bhagavata Mela natakams of Andhra Pradesh, Koodiyattam of Kerala, Ariya Koothu, Bhagavata Mela and Kuravanji natakas of Tamil Nadu stand an axiom. Yakshaganas, Bhagavata Mela and Kuravanji natakams are nrtya natakas. The Yakshaganas and Kuravanji natakas happen to be popular varieties, while the Bhagavata Mela nataka is a refined classical dance drama.
The Yakshaganas form a priceless part of the legacies that the Nayak rulers of Thanjavur had bequeathed to their successors, the Marathas. If Raghunatha Nayak (1600-1634 A.D) inaugurated the golden era of Telugu learning and literature in Thanjavur, it was during the period of Vijayaraghava Nayak (1634-1673 A.D) that it received fresh impetus and developed new features of its own, which consequently led to the amazing growth of Yakshagana literature.
The Maratha Rajas not only took to the Telugu language but themselves acquired remarkable degree of proficiency in composing and became reputed authors of a large number of literatures in Telugu. Like Nayaks, Maratha Rajas too patronised poets and scholars in Telugu language by donating free gifts of land, property and founding colonies for establishing scholarly families.
According to Madurakavita of Telugu literature, the language, metre and sentiment are "Desi" and are characterised by music and dance elements, and are enacted before an audience from which developed, later on, the refined musical plays. And Bhagavata Mela falls in this form of plays.
The tradition of Bhagavata Mela natakams of Tamil Nadu employed the art of music and dance in rich flavour using themes from "Srimad Bhagavatam" and other "Puranams" to extol the principle of Bhakti. To maintain the purity of purpose, only men called "Bhagavatulu", Bhagavatar", participated in this art and thus the tradition came to be known as "Bhagavata Mela". Obviously, the Bhagavata Mela natakams are considered a cultus and therefore, are performed only in the propylaeum or within the precinct of temples, even today.
Thus the Bhagavata Mela tradition took roots in the Tamil country, especially in the then Chola mandalam, during the early part of the 16th Century AD. But no vestiges are found to establish that the tradition of Bhagavata Mela of Tamil country is of Andhra origin.