The Devadasi, the Saint and the Author!

The Devadasi :Bangalore Nagarathnamma

In 1927 she and other devadasis formed the Association of the Devadasis of Madras to champion the rights of devadasis. In 1910 her bold attempt of publishing Radhika Santwanamu, an 18th century erotic classic written by Muddu Palani, a devadasi, led to the first obscenity trial in India. She was an icon of that age, highly skilled in the arts – dance as well as music. Highly regarded by connoisseurs of music, she was an exceptional woman, much ahead of her times. She was a champion of the rights of women and the devadasis. And most importantly the credit to open the ‘Tyagaraja Aradhana’ to women goes entirely to this art connoisseur and devadasi: Bangalore Nagarathnamma (1878-1952)

The Saint

Saint Tyagaraja (1767-1847) was one of the greatest composers of Carnatic music, one of the trinity of Carnatic music. He composed thousands of devotional compositions, mostly in praise of Lord Rama. Of special mention are five of his compositions called the Pancharatna Kirtis (five gems).

The Saint : Tyagaraja

Devadasi and the Saint

Nagarathnamma’s rendering of Tyagaraja kritis in its bhava and bhakti used to enthral huge audiences. Those fortunate to have listened to her rendition of Thyagaraja’s "Sri Rama Jayarama" in Yadukulakamboji claim it was an unforgettable experience.

Bangalore Nagarathnamma in a dream, had a vision about constructing a memorial to Saint Tyagaraja at Thiruvaiyaru. She came to Thiruvaiyaru in 1920 and purchased the derelict lands adjacent to the Samadhi of Saint Thyagaraja on the banks of river Kaveri. Using her resources she developed the area into a worthy pilgrimage centre for the Saint Composer. She built a permanent Temple around the Samadhi, where the mortal remains of the Composer were enshrined and installed a granite idol of Tyagaraja. The inner walls are covered with Italian marble slabs with inscriptions of the composer's kritis in various languages; done after her time by Sundaram Iyer.

On January 7, 1925, the kumbabhishekam (consecration) was performed. But ironically two main rival groups (Peria katchi and Chinna Katchi), refused to let her sing in front of the deity she herself had installed. They cited several instances from Tyagaraja's songs where he had complained about women in general. They simply said, “Women had no place in the Samadhi”. Undeterred, Nagarathnamma began a third front which conducted its own music programs at the rear of the shrine entirely with women artistes.

In 1941 all three groups buried the hatchet and women got the right to perform before the presiding deity. If music lovers got to hear yesteryear female trinity of Carnatic music- D K Pattammal, M L Vasanthakumari and M S Subbulakshmi at the Aradhana, it was because of the effort taken by Nagarathnamma. And thanks to her organised effort the festival has become an annual and national festival which sees a congregation of top notch music connoisseurs and music lovers.

When she breathed her last on May 19, 1952 her last rites were performed near the banks of Kaveri. Her Samadhi was built close to Tyagaraja's shrine and a statue was erected on the spot. Her statue gazing directly on Tyagaraja's memorial with folded hands.

Her biography is unfolded by the author Sriram.V in his book ‘The Devadasi and the Saint’. It reveals her trials, tribulations and triumphs.

The Author : Sriram V

The Author

Sriram Venkatakrishnan is a prolific writer with two important books on Carnatic Music to his credit – ‘Carnatic Summer’ (chronicling the lives of 20 great Carnatic musicians) and ‘The Devadasi and the Saint’.

An Engineering graduate with a Masters in Business Administration he is also a social historian. Carnatic music has been a passion for Sriram since the age of six when his grandmother unrolled a mat in the family puja room, made him sit on it and began teaching him the basics of music. This combined with a great interest in history has led him to study the art form in depth with special reference to the great personalities who embellished it.

Sriram is passionate about Chennai's history and has authored several books and is a pioneer of heritage walks in Chennai, he also writes two columns for The Hindu.

The Presentation

Sriram eloquently narrated and captured the attention of the audience as he delved into the noteworthy life of the great soul with pictures and music recordings of her renditions.

“Nagarathnamma was born on 3rd November 1878 to a ganika called Puttu Lakshmi and Vakil Subba Rao, who soon abandoned them. When Nagarathnamma was a year old, her mother found patronage under Shastri, a noted Sanskrit scholar in the court of the Maharaja of Mysore. He taught the child Sanskrit and music.

Puttu Lakshmi was soon abandoned by Shastri too but she was not a woman to be easily scorned. When a guru refused to take her daughter as his pupil she took a vow never to step into the state of Mysore until it recognized the talent of her daughter and covered her hands in gold. She took refuge in Bangalore with her uncle Venkitaswamy Appa, a violinist of some repute. Soon Nagarathnamma learnt English, Kannada and Telugu as well as to play the violin and dance; by the time she turned fifteen, she had made her debut in front of an august assembly of scholars and musicians. When His Highness Sri Chamarajendra Wodeyar (1868-94) heard of this performance, he invited Nagarathnamma to perform for his family. Delighted, she accepted and performed at the Palace in Mysore. And he gifted her in gold, fulfilling the vow taken by Puttu Lakshmi and story continued…

Interestingly she was among the earliest artistes to pay income tax. She designed a portable tambura when the existing tamburas proved too cumbersome to take on her trips to various towns to give performances. Her talent drew her patrons…….story goes on.

Later, catching up with Sriram.

I understand you are an Engineering graduate with an MBA, what made you interested in becoming a social historian?

I grew in an atmosphere where history was often discussed. My grandfather was a bibliophile who coupled a busy engineering career with an enormous appetite for books on history, philosophy and religion. His vast collection at home (now divided among his children) was an inspiration and I read several of the books to begin with. My becoming an engineer was a later process. I was always interested in history and that has continued ever since.

What got you interested in exploring Bangalore Nagarathnamma's life story?

I first read an article by T Sankaran in the Sruti magazine some time in 1984. That was when I got to know of her life and her battle to get women recognised as artistes. It remained in my mind and it was only in 2004 that I seriously began work on it.

How many years of research did it take to get a comprehensive idea about her life and the writing of the book?

It took me three years.

In your presentation you had mentioned that Saint Tyagaraja was himself anti-woman. Can you illustrate and explain this a bit more.

It was not Tyagaraja alone. The entire milieu was anti- woman, barring a few exceptions. In classic poetry, it was normal practice to combine the women, the blind and the dull together. Today it makes for startling reading but most composers indulged in anti-women statements. Tyagaraja was no exception, and we must not forget that there are several brilliant aspects to his poetry combined with this. There are several songs where he expresses a misogynic sentiment – Enta Nerchina, Menu Joochi, Dudugugala are but a few.

When doing her biography what aspect of her personality did you find most fascinating and what was most disheartening?

Her guts were obviously the most fascinating. What was disheartening was her inability to see the problems that her community was faced with – disease, poverty and exploitation. She similarly could never understand that married women too had problems of their own.

Has any movies, dramas, serials, documentaries been made on her?

Not that I know of.

What are the difficulties you faced when doing her life story?

Getting authentic material was a challenge but I was greatly helped by several friends and well-wishers. Sometimes I felt that Nagarathnamma herself was going out of her way to assist. Several pieces of information came serendipitously to me.

Who is the next personage on your anvil?

C Saraswathi Bai – the first non Devadasi woman to take to a performing career. It will be interesting to see her struggles.

The Presentation and Interactive session by Sriram V on the life of Bangalore Nagarathnamma was held on 7th September at Casuarina Suite, Raffles Hotel. The presentation was a part of Samarpana – The Asian Festival of Classical Dance 2014.