In 1910, Bangalore Nagarathnamma, a young devadasi from Mysore, became a sensation all over south India.
That year, she translated into Tamil and published ‘Radhika Santwanam’, a Telugu literary work by Muddupalani, a 19th-century courtesan in the palace of Maharaja Pratapasimha of Thanjavur.
The book is about Radha, Krishna’s aunt, who raises Ila Devi and marries her to Krishna. The poem traces the coming of age of Ila Devi and goes on to describe the consummation of her marriage to Lord Krishna.
It was not easy to publish this work in a princely, post-Victorian era, when it was considered blasphemous to publish anything erotic.
Nagarathnamma protested against male double standards and asked why it was embarrassing to talk about a woman’s desire. The British banned the book. The ban was lifted after Independence, and the book reissued in 1952, the year she died.
Already known for her fine sensibility and accomplishments in classical music and dance, she was propelled to iconic status by her courage and outspokenness.
Her life is now being showcased in a play, the premiere of which took place in Bengaluru on December 27 at Chowdaiah Memorial Hall.
Pusthakam Ramaa, who plays the role of senior Nagarathnamma, describes Nagarathnamma as a woman way ahead of her time. “She did things no one would have dared to do,” says Ramaa.
Nagarathnamma was a Carnatic vocalist, and among the earliest recording artistes to work with the Gramophone Company under William Sinkler Darby in 1904.
Her mother, Puttulakshmi, had made it her life’s mission to groom her into the greatest musician of her time. By 15, Nagarathnamma was already performing on stage. In a short span, she had toured 146 towns and cities in south India and presented about 1,200 concerts.
Ramaa explains, “It was also Nagarathanmma’s dream to build a memorial in honour of saint-composer Thyagaraja. She sold everything she owned and donated all her earnings to make this happen.”
The memorial, in Thiruvaiyyaru in Tamil Nadu, is a huge draw to this day, with hundreds of musicians making an annual pilgrimage to perform thereon Thyaragaraja’s birth anniversary.
After she restored and converted this into a memorial, she installed an idol of Thyagara in 1921. Eventually, music festivals began to take place there, but it was male-dominated. “Being the feminist that she was, Nagarathnamma took this as a challenge and started organising a parallel music festival behind the temple. Her activism finally paid off in 1941, when it became a single entity,” says Ramaa.
This is the first time ever that Nagarathnamma’s story is being told to the world on stage. The play features three stages of her life.
T S Nagabharana, the award-winning theatre and film director, has turned her life into a musical, with music by Rama. Nagabharana is well-known for films such as ‘Mysooru Mallige’, ‘Santha Shishunala Sharifa’, and more recently, ‘Allama’.
The production is a stage adaptation of two books: The Devadasi and the Saint, The Life and Times of Bengaluru Nagarathnamma by V Sriram, and a Kannada novel by Maleyuru Guruswamy.
Hooli Shekhar and Prathibha Nandakumar have worked on the adaptation. Choreography is by Pulikeshi Kasturi.
For research, the production team spoke to V A K Ranga Rao, the legendary record collector and Telugu scholar living in Chennai. “He was a seven-year-old boy when Nagarathnamma was around. His mother was very close to her,” says Ramaa.
About 20 classical musicians are associated with this production, either performing or acting in it. “Many of us are performing a play with a professional director for the first time,” Ramaa told Showtime.
Shows coming up
The team plans to take the play all over Karnataka but hasn’t decided on a schedule yet. Two shows are coming up in Bengaluru: on January 25 at Ranga Shankara and Bangalore Gayana Samaja on February 19.
Bangalore Nagarathnamma (1878-1952)