Bhagavata Mela Natakam Masks
Masks of papier mache accompanied with makeup, used for Bhagavata Mela performances in Tamil Nadu. These masks are believed to have been introduced to the Thanjavur region in the sixteenth century, when Brahmin performers from what is now coastal Andhra Pradesh migrated there and received the patronage of the ruler Achyutappa Nayaka. Bhagavatas are male servants of Hindu deities, and their dances are considered a form of temple service. Unlike many other forms of folk performance, Bhagavata Mela Natakam has historically been the preserve of Brahmins.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a playwright and composer known as Venkata Rama Shastri wrote a series of dramas based on Puranic sources that have since become part of this form’s repertoire. These include Usha Parinayam, Rukmangada, Golla Bhama, Harishchandra and Prahlada Charitram among others. The masks, costumes and makeup for these performances are dependent on the characters and mythical figures being represented, and are usually made locally with papier mache.
A mask depicting the visage of Narasimha is used in some Bhagavata Mela Natakam performances. Makeup in bright, contrasting colours is generally used to convey the terrifying nature of the deity. Some performances may highlight his benign aspects instead, using a mask painted with yellow and pinkish hues and decorated with intricate patterns. The lion’s face is surmounted by a crown with tassels hanging from its edges, and mirrors are embedded in the jowls. The forehead is marked, whiskers are drawn on the face and the teeth are revealed in a grimace.
Deities’ masks are considered to have magical properties, are stored in temples, and are worshipped through the year. Before the performance begins, a boy wearing a Ganesha mask dances to provide a benediction. Masks are also used to portray demonic characters.
Actors usually undertake a fast on the day of the performance and offer prayers in order to become worthy of wearing the mask. Towards the end of the dance, performers sometimes enter a trance and are believed to have been possessed by the deity.
From the sixteenth century onwards, the performance was conducted in and around the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, including places like Melattur and Saliyamangala. Though the popularity of the form has declined in recent years, performances are still sporadically held in the region.
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