The Tiruvayyuru Thyagaraja Aradhana Festival could very well owe its popularity to Bengaluru Nagaratnamma who fought hard to restore glory to the Saint’s Samadhi.
Benguluru Nagaratnamma’s efforts in enriching the Thyagaraya aradhana festivities were of great significance but unfortunately she never got due recognition. During her times, she was looked down upon and was declared unfit to sing on public stage and that she belonged to Devadasi family did not help. Many agree that classical arts, especially dance and music, would not have survived but for the contribution of these Devadasis. Yet, Nagaratnamma had to face resistance when she wanted to present the compositions of Thyagaraja on his Aradhana day. But Nagaratnamma fought her way through this male bastion thus becoming a champion for the cause of women. Credit should also go to her for getting the banned book Radhika Swantanam of another Savant, Muddupalani, see the light of the day.
Nagaratnamma basically hailed from Mysore province, but became a scholar in Telugu and Tamil literature too. She was born in 1878 at Nanjangud, Karnataka to a Devadasi named Lakshmamma. Lakshmamma moved her daughter to Mysore city to get her educated under Giribhatta, Asthana Vidwan of Mysore. Over a period she became a scholar in Sanskrit too. From there the family moved to Kanchi with the same ambition of gaining more musical knowledge. But she soon returned to Bangalore, where a cousin of her named Venkatasami, a violinist, wanted to teach Nagaratnamama. But tragedy struck her in the form of her mother’s death, leaving this 14 year old in the care of Munisamappa.
Nagaratnamma’s first concert was held in the house of Veena Seshanna. Popularity grew and she soon got drawn into the Royal Company after her name spread as a fine musician. But after the death of Jayachamaraja Wadayar in 1894, Nagaratnamma left for Bengaluru and went into protection of a court judge, her admirer and lover of music. At the age of 25 she moved to Chennai. She could get the support of Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar, purely for her talents. She gave many concerts in south including one at Rajahmundry, where she was presented with a golden anklet by one of the greatest of poets Sripada Krishnamurthy Sastry.
Nagaratnamma lost her daughter but she adopted another girl to overcome the loss. It was believed that one day she dreamt a person who looked like Thyagaraja alerting her of something bad that had happened. Soon there was letter from Bidaram Kistappa, a great musician, informing her of the dire state of condition of Thyagaraja’s samadhi in Tiruvaiyyaru. Instantly she left for Tiruvayyaaru and was shocked at the poor condition of the Samadhi. She contacted Tanjore Royalty and with their help she took hold of the area. She first got all the shrubs cleared. She sold her house in Chennai and spent that money to build walls around and a temple there for Thyagaraja. Foundation was laid on October1921 and work was completed by January 1925. Later she added all other amenities like a ‘Mantapam’ and kitchen. It is said Chittoor V. Nagaiah, who played Thyagayya on Telugu screen built a choultry there for pilgrims as wished by Nagaratnamma.
Till then Thyagaraja’s vardhanti was being performed by members of his family and also by some disciples like Umayalpuram Sundarakrishna Bhagavatar and Walajipeta Venkataramana Bhagavatar in their own houses. Later two brothers, Narasimha Bhagavatar and Panchu Bhagavatar started organising Vardhanti of Thyagaraja at their places with competitive spirit. They became known as ‘Periya Kakshi’ and ‘Chinna Kakshi’. Once Nagaratnamma completed the work, Aradhana festivities started happening at this venue of his Samadhi from 1940 onwards. Over the years, the Aradhana began drawing musicians and lovers of music in great numbers from different parts of the country. You find Nagaratnamma’s statue too in the precincts of Thyagaraja temple. Thanks to Nagaratnamma, Thyagaraja Aradhana world over has now become a big event. She left a will in 1948 stating that all her property should go to the Thyagaraja temple but with a condition that it should give space to women and Devadasi artistes. Today her stature grew to such a level plays are written to depict her life story, a woman who has become a significant chapter, post-Thyagaraja.