The activist behind the music

Most connoisseurs know that Bangalore Nagarathnamma (1872-1952) was the revolutionary woman behind the mandapam built near Thyagaraja’s samadhi at Thiruvaiyaru. Nagarathnamma built it with her own money and by raising donations.

When the building was completed in 1941, she began to sing the Pancharatna Kritis that are now such an intrinsic part of the Thyagaraja Aradhana.

Initially disallowed by male singers to participate in the annual aradhana, Nagarathnamma launched a separate concert for women. Finally, the conservatives had to bow to her activism and the festival as we now know it was established. In his book Mysore Stalwarts, (Rajashree) K. Srinivasa Iyengar writes about how Nagarathnamma had the guts to convince women of her era to take part in the aradhana.

It is a sign of Nagarathnamma’s prescience that her idea of a structured presentation to celebrate Thyagaraja in a way that fought social and gender biases still endures. Earlier musical tributes did not package all the Pancharatna Kritis. In the book, Na Kanda Kalavidaru (The Artistes I Knew) the legendary Mysore Vasudevacharya in his essay on Nagarathnamma quotes her guru Bidaram Krishnappa, “The modalities of the Thyagaraja Aradhana at Thiruvaiyaru that Nagarathnamma designed with the five gems of the Saint sent strong signals of equality.”

The equality that Nagarathnamma propagated laid a beautiful precedent for future generations. Says senior vidushi R. Vedavalli, “MS, MLV and Pattammal always insisted that I sit with them and not in the back row during the Pancharatna Kritis. They rejected segregation of any kind and believed in egalitarianism. If such was the social transformation, it is a glory that traces Nagarathnamma’s efforts.” This year, Vedavalli is the secretary of the Tyagaraja Sangeetha Vidwat Samajam in Chennai. The seed sown by Nagarathnamma more than seven decades ago has resulted now in an aradhana “where five times more women than men sing,” says mridangist Srimushnam Raja Rao, secretary, Tyaga Brahma Mahotsava Sabha, Thiruvaiyaru.

As vocalist R.S. Ramakanth says, “An assembly of this stature with equal status offered to men and women has brought in the change that Nagarathnamma dreamed about.”  

Bangalore Nagarathnamma was a singer, dancer and Sanskrit scholar, and a woman who doggedly chased her dreams. Born into a Devadasi clan at Nanjangud, Nagarathnamma was brought to Mysore as a toddler by her mother Puttalakshamma. “It wasn’t too long before some of the best scholars in Mysore and later Bangalore began to teach this prodigy after seeing her talent. Nagarathnamma soon came under scholars such as Bangalore Kittanna in dance, Giribhattara Tammayya in literature, and violinist Muniswamappa, a direct student of Walajapet Krishnaswamy Bhagavatar of Thyagaraja lineage,” writes Vasudevacharya.

Mysore king Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, in whose court Vasudevacharya was a vidwan, wanted to promote her but Nagarathnamma decided to go to Madras to widen her knowledge and take advanced lessons from Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar. It was a journey that finally saw her reach her “intrinsic guru Thyagaraja’s birthplace Thiruvaiyaru”.

Nagarathnamma was among the earliest musicians to settle in Madras and become a cultural ambassador of sorts for Karnataka. By now, she had built a luxurious home for herself in Madras. “It was this house and her jewellery that she sold for Rs. 30,000 to build the Thyagaraja Samadhi,” notes Vasudevacharya. Vasudevacharya, who met Nagarathnamma many times, writes that Thyagaraja kritis were her favourite for their simplicity of sahitya and lucid flow. He particularly remembers her penchant for Yadukulakhambodi and the kriti ‘Srirama Jayarama’.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 12:26:02 PM |

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