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Bangalore Nagarathnamma – The Songster Activist

“I was Nagarathna (precious jewel on the snake’s head) by birth, then became bhogarathna (jewel of pleasure) and now I am rogarathna (jewel of disease)” – this was how Bangalore Nagarathnamma jovially described herself during her last days. She may also be called ragarathna (jewel of musical ragas) and tyagarathna (jewel of sacrifice). This is an excerpt from D. V. Gundappa’s Jnapakachitrashaale translated from the original Kannada text. Bangalore Nagarathnamma was alive when he wrote these words.

Bangalore Nagarathnamma

Hailing from Nanjangud, near Mysore, she was born to devadasi Puttulakshamma and Vakil Subba Rao in 1878. Nagarathnamma is a musician par excellence, cultural activist, patron of arts, scholar, courtesan, philanthrophist and a historian. She was trained in Carnatic Classical music and literature under Tamayya who was closely associated with the Asthana Vidwan Giri Bhatta. She was well versed in Sanskrit, Kannada and Telugu languages. She was also trained in dance. Nagarathnamma learnt Sanskrit to such an extent that she was able to perceive the correct application of grammatical concepts. She is said to be unparalled in her presentation of Sanskrit shloka-gamakas.

She was well versed in Kannada literature as well. With the usage of appropriate ragas, Nagarathnamma would recite verses from Jaimini Bharata, Kumaravyasa Bharata and provide skillful commentary as well. Her forte included Harikatha.

Nagarathnamma emerged as one of the finest Carnatic singers of her time. Impressed with her indigenous talent in dance, the then ruler of Mysore, Sri Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar made her the Ashthana Vidushi (court dancer) of Mysore. Sri Narahari Rao, a judge of High Court of Mysore was one of the regular attendees of her concerts and later went on to become an important patron who helped her shape her musical career. On his suggestion of Nagarathnamma moving to Madras to further develop her musical talent, she established herself as a popular “concert artist” in Madras. However the name “Bangalore Nagarathnamma” stuck with her, though she moved to Madras. Eventually, she became the first female artist to pay income tax in Madras.

Contributions to music fraternity

Most connoisseurs know Nagarathnamma as a revolutionary and fiery woman, who was responsible for the construction of the mantapam near Sri Thyagaraja’s Samadhi at Thiruvayyaru. She built a beautiful Sitarama temple near Thyagaraja’s Samadhi by exhausting all her savings. After the completion of the building, she began to render the Pancharatna kritis of Thyagaraja which now have become an intrinsic part of Thyagaraja Aradhana.

Her rendition of Nityakalyani:

As an activist towards social reform

Women were not allowed to participate in the annual aradhana by the male “vidwans”. It was at this time that Nagarathnamma launched a separate concert for the women performers. Finally the conservatives had to bow down to her active revolution and the aradhana event takes place as it is going on this day. Today the women performers do not take a backseat in the aradhana and this day five times more women than men sing there – says Srimushnam Raja Rao, Secretary of Thyaga Bramha Sabha, Thiruvayyaru.

It is because of Nagarathnamma’s vision of a structured presentation of Thyagaraja aradhana made her fight gender and social biases. In its earlier days, the aradhana did not feature all the Pancharatna kritis. In the book “Naa kanda kalavidaru”  by Mysore Vasudevacharya, his essay on Nagarathnamma quotes her guru Sri Bidaram Krishnappa,”The modalities of Thyagaraja Aradhana at Thiruvayyaru that Nagarathnamma designed with the five gems of the bard sent strong signs of equality”.

Sri Thyagaraja’s kritis were very close to Nagarathnamma’s heart, who can be termed as the cultural ambassador of Karnataka, because of their simplicity in sahitya and eloquent flow.

Nagarathnamma left for heavenly abode in 1952 at the age of 74. A memorial in her honor was erected next to the Samadhi of Thyagaraja.

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