Reader Bhaskaran Sivaraman reminds me that Nov 3 is the birthday of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. He also pointed out that a link that I had put up earlier on her was broken. So I am republishing the old article, with some updates. To me, the topic of the way women musicians evolved continues to remain fascinating. Hopefully, my book on C Saraswati Bai will be out soon, as a companion volume to The Devadasi and the Saint which was on Bangalore Nagarathnamma.

January is the month when the Tyagaraja Aradhana is celebrated in Tiruvayyaru. A lot has been said for and against the festival. There are many who feel that the event is a mere tamasha and that the religious atmosphere has been vitiated by the TV coverage, the bright dresses and garish jewels and the domination by a select few.

However the Aradhana in its present format is just over a hundred years old. Tyagaraja died in 1847. A few days before his death, Tyagaraja had become a sanyasi and when he passed on, his mortal remains were buried on the banks of the river Kaveri and a small memorial was built at the spot. His disciples returned to their respective villages and observed his death anniversary at their own homes. The memorial was soon forgotten and it was not until 1903 or thereabouts that Tyagaraja’s last surviving disciples, Umayalpuram Krishna and Sundara Bhagavatars returned to Tiruvayyaru, identified the place and had it renovated. From the next year, efforts were made by Tillaisthanam Narasimha and Panju Bhagavatars with the help of other vidwans to observe the anniversary at Tiruvayyaru itself. In 1905 they conducted the ceremony in style complete with feeding of the poor and worship at the memorial as per vedic tenets.

By the next year, the Tillaisthanam brothers fell out and each began conducting a parallel aradhana. Musicians aligned themselves with one or the other brother and soon two rival factions came into being. Narasimha Bhagavatar, being the elder, his group came to be called the Periya Katchi and Panju Bhagavatar’s was called the Chinna Katchi. Traditionally, the Periya Katchi received the support of non Brahmin musicians while the Chinna Katchi was Brahmin dominated. There was thus a caste based divide as well. With the passing of the Tillaisthanam brothers, the Periya Katchi came under the control of the ace violinist Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai, while the Chinna Katchi had as its moving spirit, Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, noted Harikatha exponent. The Chinna Katchi’s celebrations began five days before the Aradhana and concluded on the Aradhana day. The Periya Katchi’s began on Aradhana day and continued for four days after that. Both groups organised music performances and feeding of the poor and so the public was the real beneficiary during the nine days. On one count, both groups were united. They did not allow women to perform during the Aradhana. They also did not permit nagaswaram performances.

In 1921, Bangalore Nagarathnammal, a rich devadasi, who was then residing in Madras, decided to dedicate her life’s earnings to perpetuating Tyagaraja’s memory. Seeing the rampant factionalism and discrimination against women, she decided to take action. She purchased the land on which the memorial stood in 1925 and soon began the construction of a temple over the memorial. She also had an idol of Tyagaraja sculpted and installed in front of the memorial. The consecration of the temple took place in early 1926. But the two rival groups while not interfering with all this, refused to let her perform her Harikatha in front of the deity she herself had installed. They cited several instances from Tyagaraja’s songs where he had complained about women in general. Undeterred, Nagarathnammal began a third front which conducted its own music programmes at the rear of the shrine. This series featured many women artistes and soon began eating into the popularity of the events hosted by the two Katchis. The doughty lady also filed suits in the local courts demanding the prevention of the Katchis from entering the temple as it belonged to her by right. She lost the case, but the hours of worship were laid down by the courts, dividing the Aradhana day equally between the two Katchis and her own group. Matters continued this way till 1940, when SY Krishnaswami, ICS convinced the groups to unite and it was in 1941 that the Aradhana as we know of it was first conducted. A common musical homage was envisaged and Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar selected the five pancharatnas as being best suited for group rendering. This idea was adopted and the choral rendition of the five songs was made an integral feature of the Aradhana.

Bangalore Nagarathnammal lived for the rest of her life in Tiruvayyaru and in her will bequeathed all her wealth to the Tyagaraja memorial, with the stipulation that women be allowed to pay their homage without any hindrance. When she died in 1952, she was buried close to Tyagaraja’s memorial and a statue was erected on the spot. Even today the statue directly gazes on Tyagaraja’s memorial. Except during the Aradhana when the stage hides her from view. Surely the benefactress of the event deserves better.