REWIND Banni Bai, who was synonymous with Harikatha, would have turned 100 this year had she lived.
H ad she been around she would have turned 100, for she was born in 1912. C. Banni Bai may have been long gone, but to her countless admirers, she will remain an ever-fresh memory.
Banni Bai's family, traditionally devoted to the arts, came from Chittukkadu (hence the C), a village not far from Poonamallee, with imposing but greatly neglected shrines to Vishnu and Shiva. Her mother Doraisani, who lived near the Krishnappa Naicken Tank, George Town, was a singer.
Banni Bai was named Alamelumanga Thayar at birth. A Marwari neighbour felt the baby's complexion was more akin to those of his own community and she was dubbed a Baniya which in turn became Banni. A close friend of the family was the redoubtable Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who lived on nearby Srinivasa Iyer Street. Being childless, she practically adopted the baby Banni.
Reminiscing about her life to The Hindu (Versatile Practitioner of Harikatha, 23/12/1988), Banni Bai was to state that it was elder sister Janakavalli who first felt that she could take to a career in Harikatha. Women had already become Kathakars thanks to pioneers such as C. Saraswathi Bai. Even Nagarathnamma had performed occasionally.
And so Kuppaiah Bhagavatar was engaged to train young Banni. Her debut took place at Perambur during the Ramanavami celebrations, when the ‘Bai' was added to her name as an honorific. She was all of 12. Soon she was performing across South India at various events and celebrations. Handbills had her name in Tamil as Panni Pai and this led to her dropping the double ‘n'. She became Bani Bai, at least in Tamil.
The year 1927 was to be a turning point in her life. That was the year when Nagarathnamma organised an all-woman Aradhana for Tyagaraja at Tiruvayyaru in protest against the prevailing male chauvinism of the festival. On the last day of the celebration, Banni Bai performed Bhadrachala Ramadas Charitram. In the audience was T.A. Ramachandra Rao, a Marathi aristocrat from Thanjavur. A close associate of Nagarathnamma, he became Banni Bai's patron.
Rao decided that Banni Bai's talent as a performer needed honing. Several tutors, beginning with Chitrakavi Sivarama Bhagavatar, were engaged, with no expense being spared. At the end of it all, Banni Bai emerged proficient in several languages, with a good working knowledge of English thrown in.
With sisters Janakavalli and Jivaratnam providing vocal accompaniment, Banni Bai became a success. She was honoured in the courts of Cochin and Travancore. In 1939, she acted in a film, ‘Shanta Sakkubai', made by Sundararao Nadkarni. She played the shrewish mother-in-law to Ashwathamma's portrayal of the saintly Sakku.
In the 1940s, Banni Bai was to play an active role in the conduct of the Tyagaraja Aradhana at Tiruvayyaru. She was to oversee the funerary arrangements of Nagarathnamma in 1952, part fund the sculpting, installation and consecration of her statue in Tiruvayyaru and also composing a Harikatha on her life.
Banni Bai was to remain an artist much in demand right through her life, although Harikatha as an art form declined in popularity. Her abhinaya, learnt from Mylapore Gowri, was a treat to watch and she did this even when advancing age forced her to sit down and perform.
Known for her wit
In her interview to The Hindu, she said that she would still like to dance but given her ample proportions, she had better not! This kind of humour was another great attraction. There would be liberal usage of puns often at her own expense. An English sample was – “In my old age, I am often not engaged. That is for those of young age.” The usage of English expressions was impeccable. Thus, a description of Shakuni went – “A honeyed tongue and a heart full of gall.”
Some of her great hits were ‘Valli Tirumanam', ‘Nandan Charitram', ‘Ramadas Charitram' and ‘Kabirdas' – the last being replete with Hindi sentences and recitation of dohas. But she is best remembered for her ‘Rukmini Kalyanam.' In her last years, a documentary was made on her by filmmaker Soudhamini and this has Banni Bai singing and performing abhinaya for a song from ‘Rukmini Kalyanam.'
As age advanced, some awards and recognitions did come her way. But Banni Bai was never to lament their absence, being of a cheerful disposition. She taught her art to those who sought her – niece Jyothi Bai, Dr. Premeela Gurumoorthy of the Department of Music, Madras University, and Gowri Rajagopal being some of them. Leading a life of great devotion, Banni Bai passed away in 1999. The Hindu (12/3/1999) reported on a tribute organised in her memory shortly thereafter by her disciples. She would have been delighted to know that the Harikatha on Nagarathnamma was also performed on that occasion by Gowri Rajagopal.
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