Kannada play on Bangalore Nagarathnamma


For the first time, the life of Bangalore Nagarathnamma, a cultural activist, classical singer, scholar and courtesan will be staged in the city, under TS Nagabharana’s direction

One of the greatest musicals that the theatre world can bring about is the biographical on Bangalore Nagarathnamma, a musician from a devadasi family in Mysore who had created quite a stir to become a legend in the orthodox music and literary world. Many in the industry have been looking forward to seeing her story re-told on stage or celluloid for long, including the renowned film and theatre director TS Nagabharana who has now taken up directing her story for a theatre show, ‘Vidya Sundari, Bengaluru Nagarathnamma’ in Kannada on December 27, at the Chowdiah Memorial Hall.

The director, an avid English and Kannada literature enthusiast who has award winning films to his credit in Kannada, has taken up several films based on popular books. “I was stirred into making a biopic on the outstanding Nagarathnamma that Karnataka is proud about, but I am flagging it off with a theatrical work, as musicals have also interested me after my productions as Hayavadana, Sattavara Neralu, Jokumaraswamy and Gokula Nirghamana have had nearly 600 shows each,” says Nagabharana taking time off amidst the rehearsals.

Speaking about why he chose to direct the story of Nagarathnamma, he says, “It was about a year ago that I was going through the book ‘The Devadasi and the Saint - life and times of Nagarathnamma’ by V Sriram, and I was fascinated by her steely nerve to stand tall amidst hypocritical purists and self-appointed custodians of high culture,” says Nagabharana.

Nagarathnamma, from a devadasi family in Mysore, not just mastered music, dance and languages, but as a scholar she nurtured them for its intrinsic musical, literary and poetic values. She propagated them for people to relish the aesthetic principles it merited. “She stood up for women’s rights at a time when it was considered a blasphemy, she moved courts to prove her point, and had retrieved many women’s literary works that were ignored due to gender bias, and re-published them for their lyrical value. The linguist’s scholarly works in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit are on record,” says Nagabharana.

About the same time, the A-grade artist of Akashavani, Pustakam Ramaa, was also contemplating on doing a musical production on Nagarathnamma and had met Nagabharana. “It was well-timed when Ramaa expressed her interest to score music, and landed up enacting the senior Nagarathnamma too that requires some serious singing on stage. The production has had one year of research in many fields that Nagarathnamma was adept with,” says Nagabharana, who adds that he has had to go through many other Kannada works on the musician including the one written by Maleyuru Guruswamy. “Our production has Hooli Shekhar and Prathibha Nandakumar providing the script that is free-flowing and easy on theatre-goers for a lucid showcase of Nagarathnamma’s sensibilities,” he says.

The joint musical production with actors from Nagabharana’s ‘Benaka’ and P. Ramaa’s ‘Sangeetha Sambhrama Trust’ will have 40 people on stage to have the versatility of Nagarathnamma portrayed. The two-hour play will have 20 well-known classical musicians, including Akshavani’s former deputy director general and vocalist K Vageesh acting and singing for the role of Bidaram Krishnappa. “So we have musicians as actors who have been practising for nearly 10 weeks now with choreography by Pulikeshi Kasturi,” he adds.

Speaking of challenges in productions where a musical life is enacted, Nagabharana says there are many aspects as Nagarathnamma’s burning passion for music gradually lapping up a socially conscious role. She even witnessed a vanishing devadasi system emerge into becoming custodians of art. “This is where the direction had to embrace all subtleties to focus on the clarity of Nagarathnamma’s standpoint.”

Melodies galore

For P Ramaa, the melodies were selected in less than a week, but to guide other musician-actors to adapt them on stage was another long-drawn exercise. “We have had to balance it out with both the classical numbers and lighter compositions to have the mood suitable for our theatre lovers. Some of the compositions that Nagarathnamma specialised in, her favourite ragas as Bhairavi, apart from some of the Ashtapadis, Javalis and slokas she often sang have all been included to have nearly 25 songs for a live orchestration on stage,” says Ramaa.

The other aspects that could be an emotional draw are Nagarathnamma’s association with her own contemporaries as Saraswati Bai, her adopted daughter Banni Bai, and her close friend Veena Dhanammal in Madras whom she revered. “Nagarathnamma was barely 30 when she built a mansion in Madras, but after Veena Dhanammal’s death she was emotionally overwhelmed to sell her mansion and jewels and build a shrine for Saint Tyagaraja at Tiruvaiyaru, and spends her last days there, penniless. She not only was responsible for conducting the annual Tyagaraja Aradhana on a grand scale, but within the male dominated festival, she was the feminist aggressive enough to ensure that women artists were given equal opportunity to perform,” says Ramaa adding that the play will bring three stages of her life.

Bangalore Nagarathnamma as a 32-year-old had read a Telugu literary work Radhika Santawanam by Muddupalani, an 18th Century courtesan of Maratha King Pratapasimha of Thanjavur. The book had boldly chronicled Radha pining for the love of a younger Krishna that inspired Nagarathnamma to decide on re-publishing the same amidst an enraged public response to what was termed “erotic prose.” “

We have had to meet people like Telugu scholar VAK Ranga Rao in Madras whose family had a close association with Nagarathnamma to take details of her musical life, and how she fought people for many a cause,” adds Ramaa touching on Nagarathnamma’s role in having her guru Mysore Bidaram Krishnappa popularised for the Madras audiences that set another beginning for Karnataka musicians to get a foothold in the ‘Mecca of Music.’

Early days of struggle

One amongst the more popular women musicians and doughty feminists of South India, Bangalore Nagarathnamma (1878-1952) was one of the earliest recording artists of The Gramophone Company. Born in Nanjanagud in 1878 to Puttulakshmi, an unwed devadasi, Nagarathnamma’s biological father had abandoned the family.

Sanskrit scholar, Giribhatta Thimmayya Shastri who worked in the royal court of Mysore extends shelter to the two even as his tutelage helps her nurture her interests in Sanskrit and music and dance. But Shastri too turns unsympathetic soon insulting the young Nagarathnamma that she is bound to be relegated to “collecting cow dung from streets.” The insult only ignites Puttulakshmi to become stronger and work tirelessly towards making her daughter a sensitive and sensible musician. She leaves determined to come back with a songster Nagarathnamma and moves to Bangalore where young Nagarathnamma’s musical training progresses, even as the judge of the Mysore Law Court Justice Narahari Rao extends help.

Teenager Nagarathnamma is assiduously trained for public performances, and just as fate would have it the Maharaja of Mysore, Chamarajendra Wadiyar X, invites her to sing at the Palace. This stepping stone helps her bag more concert invitations from the royal courts of South India. She gradually is on 146 classical platforms, and even manages 1,200 concerts in a few years. She later moves to the reigning Carnatic scene in Madras and it was here that The Gramophone Company decides to record her in 1904‐05.

(Vidya Sundari Bengaluru Nagarathnamma, Dec 27, Chowdiah Memorial Hall, 7pm,

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 11:30:03 AM |

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