History & Culture

Soaring high with bhakti

A Statue of Lord Krishna.  

The Kannada verses are simple, touching and musical. They were written by those whose worlds were limited to the domestic environment, and more specifically to the kitchen. But such was their ingenuity, that they drew their metaphors and similes from food and vegetables. Thus to Nidaguraki Jeevu Bai water became a metaphor for Lord Hari. Oravayi Lakshmi Devi puns on the word ‘kayo,’ which in Kannada means both ‘vegetable’ and ‘protect.’ Her verse seemingly talks of limes, mangoes, plantains and cucumbers, but it is in fact an appeal to Hari for salvation.

Nidaguraki Jeevu Bai and Oravayi Lakshmi Devi were mahila dasas, or Haridasis, Kalasada Sundaramma, Gandamma, Radha Bai, Nadigara Santhi Bai, Amba Bai, Saraswathi Bai, being some of the others. We are familiar with the names of male dasas like Purandara Dasa and Kanakadasa. Haridasa means one who is a servant of Hari. Haridasis were women who had surrendered to Hari. “One thing that most of the Haridasis of the 17{+t}{+h} to the early 20{+t}{+h} century had in common, was the fact that they were young widows, and hence faced many taboos,” says Dr. Sukanya Prabhakar, whose lectures on the works of the Haridasis were broadcast on FM radio in Bangalore, and who has set to tune many of the compositions of the Haridasis.

Describing the life and verses of the Haridasis, Dr. T.N. Nagarathna, retired professor of music, Mysore University, and an authority on Haridasis, says that Galagali Avva ( 1670- 1760 A.D.), was 12 when she was married off to a 95-year-old man. Her life after marriage lasted for eight days. Widowed on the ninth day, she had to tonsure her hair and observe widowhood. However, her five grown up step-sons, scholars all of them, taught her to read and write, and in course of time, she became a composer. “Two hundred and sixty one of her songs have now been published,” says Dr. Nagarathna.

Among her compositions, the most important are ‘Bheegara Haadu,’ which is about the bantering that follows a wedding; ‘Sringara Tara Tamya,’ after a description of various ornaments, ‘Galagali Avva’ concludes that the only two ornaments worth possessing are bhakti and gnana and ‘Muyyada Haadu,’ which is about the exchange of gifts during Gowri puja. The tragic irony of a young widow describing Gowri puja, in which she herself would never have been allowed to participate, is not lost on the reader.

Halavanakatte Giriyamma, who lived in the early 18{+t}{+h} century, was disenchanted with married life, and requested her husband to release her from marital obligations. Forty six of her songs have been published. “Giriyamma’s Udhalikana Kathe has 448 charanas and Chandrahasana Kathe has 355 charanas,” says Nagarathna.

While the songs of the Haridasis were based on Puranic stories, some of them give us an idea of the sartorial preferences of women of those days, and also about jewellery that was in vogue. Harapanahalli Bheemava (1823-1902) was 11 when she was married off to 45-year-old Muniappa, and widowed young, has written a song, which, while describing Krishna’s Rasa Leela, speaks of more than 70 types of saris. She speaks of Uppada, Kornad, Benares, Chanderi and many varieties of Paithani saris. Nagarathna has published 149 songs of Bheemava’s. Bheemava’s family has preserved the original tunes, and as part of a project in Hampi University, Nagarthana is now recording the original tunes.

“There were many Haridasis, of whose compositions only one or two survive,” says Sukanya. “They might have composed many more. We learn from manuscripts that Purandara Dasa’s wife and Raghavendra Swami’s mother were also composers, but their songs are all lost.”

“Traditionally, a Haridasi was one who adhered to Dwaita tradition. But later on, it was decided to include all devotees of Hari. Thus Yadugiriamma and Nanjangud Thirumalamba, who were Visishtadvaitins were also included among the Haridasis,” says Nagarathna.

“Yadugiriamma (1828-1908) knew Telugu, Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada, and visited many pilgrim centres. She is famous for her kritis about the temples at Melkote, Tirupati, Srirangam. She describes the various festivals of the Srirangam temple,” elaborates Sukanya. “She gave the gist of the Ramayana in 100 stanzas of two lines each. Her Ramayana mangala in 55 stanzas is one of her 52 dheerga kritis (lengthy songs).” Yadugiriamma wrote verses similar to the Neeraattam pasurams that we come across in the Divya Prabandham. Her verses also afford a glimpse into Andal’s bridal mysticism. Sukanya has set to tune Yadugiriamma’s songs in ragas such as Sankarabharanam, Malahari, Ghambeeranattai, Khamas, Abhogi and Sindhubhairavi.

Nanjangud Thirumalamba, married at the age of 10 and widowed at the age of 14, learnt to read and write Kannada, Telugu and Tamil all by herself. She started a journal in 1916 and even published 28 books in a span of 20 years. In one of her stories, a woman reforms her philandering husband, who then apologises to her. The famous writer Masti Venkatesha Iyengar objected to the idea of a husband apologising to his wife! (His essay criticising Thriumalamba’s story finds a place in Volume IV of ‘Vimarse,’ a collection of Masti’s critical writings). As a result of Masti’s criticism, Thirumalamba was ostracised by the literary world until the late 1970s, when a woman researcher brought her books back into the limelight. Thirumalamba wrote dramas too. She died in 1982 at the age of 93, and a prize in her name is given every year to a woman writer.

The songs of the Haridasis are cheerful verses about Lord Krishna. Despite the stifling life of young widows like Galagali Avva, their songs are not elegiac, melancholic or even plaintive. Orthodox convention ensured that they led circumscribed lives. They had no one to share their thoughts with, and there seemed to be no way out, until they discovered that they could soar on the wings of Hari bhakti.

There are Haridasis even today. By definition a Haridasi should have had deeksha. But Sukanya says this is a mere formality. “Any lady composer who has Hari bhakti is a Haridasi,” she insists. “So the list of Haridasis is being added to. Nagarathna herself has composed more than 104 kirtanas in praise of Hari.”

Women today do not suffer the ills of iron clad tradition. Yet the modern woman is not without problems peculiar to this day and age. But the modern woman too can experience a sense of liberation, when she discovers that poetry, music and Krishna bhakti are all anodynes for her worries.

Sukanya Prabhakar can be contacted at 9480477299

The author would like to acknowledge the help rendered by Nagaveni Sundaram, Sivaprasad and Sandhya Sivaprasad with translations of some of the verses of the Haridasis.

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