Leaving aside the silent movies which could not accommodate songs, the talkies from the beginning took up the lives of saint singers as subjects. The biographies of Jayadeva, Meera, Tukaram, Tulsidas, Eknath, Gyaneshwar, Kanhopatra, Namdeo, Narsi Bhagat, Vidyapati, Surdas, etc., silvered to the screen in Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi and Bengali.
The South Indian languages were not found wanting. The song-filled stories of Tyagaraja, Avvaiyar, Ambikapathi, Pattinathar, Thirumazhisai and Tondaradippodi (Vipranarayana) Azhwars, Ramadas, Purandaradasa, Bilwamangal to mention only the most popular, held the audiences in thrall.
Bangalore Nagarathnamma is no less a saint than the above. Starting out as a dancer, she stabilised as a singer in great demand all over the South. She recorded for the 78rpm discs in the 1920s, many javalis and slokas of Mukundamala apart from compositions of Tyagaraja. However, her most important achievement — service to the world of Carnatic Music — was the Samadhi she built for Tyagaraja in Tiruvaiyaru. She was also instrumental in uniting the two factions bickering over the annual celebration at the Samadhi and saw to it that women and the nagaswaram players were also given respect by being allowed to sit on the dais.
What more is needed to make her biography an apt choice for a movie? In fact there are other events that can be considered. A reliable account of her life is The Devadasi and the Saint . Author V. Sriram meticulously documents each important leaf of the banyan that was her life. Kapile Haridalu Kadalige in Kannada by Malaiyur Guruswamy takes many cues from the above (admission in his preface) and adds local colour to his view of contemporary history.
Not all of the latter is gospel truth. Just two instances. It is said in his book that her adopted child, Banni Bai, who later became a Harikatha exponent supreme, was with Nagarathnamma as she lay dying in Tiruvaiyaru. In truth she was in Madras. Another story is that of a pregnant zamindar(ini) Saraswathi Devi, who went to Nagarathnamma’s house in Madras, and begged to be blessed that her next child should be a son as she already had two daughters.
In those days women of royalty never visited devadasi houses no matter how respected they were. Nagarathnamma visited the zamindarini’s house and blessed her giving her a lemon saying that she would have a son. She did. And that lemon still exists in that lady’s small silver puja box, much shrivelled after 80 years but still recognisable. I know. I am that son.
To fund the building of the Samadhi, she sold her jewellery accumulated over decades. When her rich patrons offered donations, she turned them down politely saying “I got this wealth by singing his songs. Let me spend it in his service.” V. Sriram laments that none of her writings are available but for her Ashtothara Satanamavali on Tyagaraja. Not quite. Samskruthi of Guntur, did exemplary service by unearthing a few bits and pieces. Her preface to the book of Muddu Palani she edited and published ( Radhika Santhwanamu in Telugu) is there of course. In addition, there are two verses extolling King George V written on the occasion of his coronation in 1911, a short farce ‘Vaikuntha Yatra’ and her account of getting to build the Samadhi for her God, Tyagaraja. A booklet, now out of print, Swadheena Prateeka Vidyasundari Bengulooru Nagarathnamma featuring all these was brought out by Samskruthi in 2014, which also helped stage her farce.
Of another four books in Telugu advertised and reviewed in the July 1929 issue of Grihalakshmi, the Telugu monthly for women run by K.N. Kesari, there is no trace. Was the famous javali in Kannada, ‘Mathada baradeno,’ Khamas, Misra Laghu, written by her? Malaiyur Guruswamy says that it was a composition of Sri Narahari Teertha of Vyasaraya Matham of Sosale. This is more likely as Nagaratnamma’s contemporary and friend, Coimbatore Thayi cut a 12” disc of this song, for the same company that issued Nagaratnamma’s records, the Gramophone Company of India. This two-part disc has a playing time of more than ten minutes. This wouldn’t have happened if Nagaratnamma was the author. Possibly Nagaratnamma did sing it to her patron Narahari Rao, may be changing a word or two to be more apt to their lovers’ tiff.
When a mother heard her year-old son being lulled in her lap by Nagaratnamma crooning a sloka into his ear, she was asked to identify it. “From Mukundamala. These — ‘Bhakthaapaya bhujanga,’ ‘Hemarthyaha,’ ‘Jihve keertaya’ and slokas from Sri Krishna Karnamritham (she recorded ‘Srimath gopavadhu’) — are our (devadasi) property,” she said. Proving this point, these slokas were rendered on disc, 1910-1930, by many women of this community but only by one solitary man of another community as per the records in my collection.
The film should offer music associated with her. Not just the usual Tyagaraja kirtanas but those ‘patented’ by her, javali ‘Nene jana’, padam ‘Vaddani nenantiniga’ and Purandara Dasa’s ‘Higguve yako’ much before M. Lalithangi brought them on to the dais of Madras. Many more are available with me in good condition but they can’t be used. They were mechanical recordings and hence a lot of surface noise is heard. Also available are her gurus’ recordings, Bidaram Krishnappa, Veena Seshanna and contemporaries, Kolar Nagarathnamma and Coimbatore Thayi.
Now, to the most important question. Who should play her on screen? I haven’t come across a single photograph of hers, dancing. All those available, show her as short and squat, stepping into middle age. Not beautiful but possessing a commanding presence, a gracious countenance. A new face is preferable as there will be no baggage of an established persona. The screenplay should be by a person sensitive to music, knowledgeable about the social conditions of her day and a flair for painting her fights in bold colours, with Veeresalingam about ‘Radhika Santhwanamu’ and the so-called do-gooders of society achieving the passing of the Devadasi Abolition Act.
The film, simply titled ‘Bangalore Nagaratnamma,’ should acquaint millions with the life and love of a great lady. For facts, there is V. Sriram’s book and for flights of fancy, flavour of her childhood environs, Guruswamy’s. She sang for royalty, for lovers of Carnatic Music and for her inspiration. May her god, Tyagaraja, bless this venture.