S.Rajam’s (Music Appreciation notes)

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

When Nagaratnammal came alive

By Charukesi

It was a one-woman show and dancer Lakshmi Viswanathan carried the entire burden of depicting the story of Bangalore Nagaratnammal, who is still remembered for building the samadhi for the saint-vaggeyakara Tyagaraja in Tiruvaiyaru, on the banks of the Kaveri. 

Nagaratnammal was  born in a devadasi family in Nanjangud, Karnataka. Her mother Puttulakshmi started dance lessons for the child when she was hardly five.  The amazing story of how Nagaratnammal rose to become one of the most sought after singer-dancers in that period unfolded through the abhinaya ability of Lakshmi Viswanathan.    

The biographic narration was in first person singular and Lakshmi spoke in short sentences with sufficient emphasis which made an enormous impression on the audience.  It was a monologue by Nagaratnammal, but the way she gave life to it was amazing.  She mentioned that her guru was Bidaram Krishnappa.  She not only learnt dance, but also Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and even English.  She was fond of literature and became a proficient scholar. She even performed Harikatha which too was a huge success.  Her moving to George Town in Madras and acquiring a big house showed how her career as a dancer and singer flourished in those days.

Bangalore Nagaratnammal was a well-to-do artist who even paid income tax! “The Mysore palace acknowledged my contribution.  Even the Maharaja of Travancore, Raja of  Vizianagaram and Raja of Bobbili invite me to their courts!” said Nagaratnammal with a tinge of pride. 

It was Nagaratnammal who brought to light, the work of Muddupalani titled  Radhika Santvanam.   She lamented that it was banned, but the ban was lifted later.

While building the samadhi for Tyagaraja, she narrated how she had to traverse the difficult terrain full of bushes and thorns and encounter difficulties. Did she perform in front of the samadhi after building it? “No. There were two groups—the  Chinna Katchi and the Peria Katchi—quarrelling to conduct the aradhana for the saint.  So I performed in the rear of the temple!” said Nagaratnammal.  Later on, however, the fighting parties got united and the regular conduct of the aradhana is history. 

“Those days, there was no television and not many women came forward to sing in front of the samadhi,” commented Lakshmi in the course of her narration.  (She  seemed to be referring tongue-in-cheek to the present-day clamour of the singers to be seen dressed in glittering saris and jewels!)  Lakshmi could have avoided this lament.

The presentation had live music accompaniment from Bhama Visveswaran and Chitrambari Krishnakumar and the songs they rendered were Raga sudharasa, Nidhi chala sukhama, Ennalu, Matada baradeno and Sobhane.  The singing, though not of a high quality, was adequate. Lakshmi used the talent of young dancers Aakshara and Ashrada for the dance sequences and left the stage gently.  B. Muthukumar (flute), Kalaiarasan (violin), and Shankar (mridangam), with nattuvangam by Sudharshini, gave the required support.

Lakshmi Viswanathan deserves praise for bringing to the stage one of the most distinguished personalities of a bygone era in a highly sophisticated narrative mode.

Photos: Santhosh Kumar

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