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Bangalore Nagarathnamma, the singer who took to Sanskrit and feminism in 19th Century India

European record companies participated with artists like Nagarathnamma, a devadasi, at a time Indian society hounded them in name of morality.

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By 1910, a young devadasi from Mysore, Bangalore Nagarathnamma, had created quite a stir in the orthodox society of Madras. She had come across a literary work titled Radhika Santawanam, or ‘Appeasement of Radha’, by Muddupalani, an 18th century courtesan of Maharaja Pratapasimha of Thanjavur. The book, chronicling the life of a married woman (Radha) who is in love with a minor boy (Krishna), inspired Bangalore Nagarathnamma so much that she decided to have it translated and republished.

This was a brave act for its time, because Muddupalani’s Radha wasn’t an ordinary character. She was passionate in her love for Krishna, outspoken in demanding that her sexual needs were met, and unapologetic in abusing and kicking him when he refused. Nagarathnamma, who loved the lyrical poetry of the book, wrote in the prologue of one of its editions that she had read it over and over again.

The consequences of Nagarathnamma’s deep interest in the bold, feminist tale of a fellow devadasi set the Madras literary and cultural scene ablaze. It was considered blasphemous to be publishing something as erotic as this. Several noted literary critics led a virulent campaign against the book and Nagarathnamma. Editorials started appearing in newspapers that this was a defiled and crude work of a prostitute now being glorified by another prostitute, and that this would have a terribly harmful effect on the moral values of the society.

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Not one to take this lying down, Nagarathnamma hit back with strongly worded rejoinders in newspapers and magazines, mocking the hypocritical self-righteous stand of the purists and self-appointed custodians of high culture.

The issue snowballed into a huge law and order situation in Madras, with the police raiding the offices and depots of the publisher, and seizing 388 copies of Radhika Santawanam on 22 May 1911. A government translator was coerced into certifying that the content was indeed grossly obscene and needed to be banned. The book was declared illegal after being allegedly held to be an unhealthy influence on the morality of its readers. When its publication was declared a criminal offence, Nagarathnamma moved the court. The publisher, meanwhile, continued to distribute copies without waiting for the government’s response until 1927, when a complete ban was imposed. It was only after India’s Independence 20 years later that the book saw the light of day.

This episode underscores the popular public sentiment that raged in India around the time the gramophone made its entry into the country’s cultural scene. Hence, despite these social inhibitions and campaigns, the fact that The Gramophone Company and other recording companies from Europe sought the participation of devadasis like Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who were looked down upon by the society and hounded in the name of morality, was in itself noteworthy.

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One of the more popular women musicians of South India, Bangalore Nagarathnamma (1878-1952) was among the earliest recording artists of The Gramophone Company’s expedition under William Sinkler Darby. She was born in Nanjanagud on 3 November 1878 to Puttulakshmi, an unwed mother who was a devadasi. Nagarathnamma’s biological father had deserted the year-old child, leaving her in the care of Puttulakshmi.

The mother and daughter were given shelter by a Sanskrit scholar, Giribhatta Thimmayya Shastri, who worked in the royal court of the Maharaja of Mysore. Under his tutelage, the young girl nurtured her interests in Sanskrit and music. But Shastri soon turned hostile and threw them out of the house with an invective that the young Nagarathnamma was destined to only collect cow dung from the streets. Deeply insulted by this, Puttulakshmi made it her life’s mission to make her daughter a great musician and vowed never to return to Mysore until that dream was fulfilled. The two moved to Bangalore where young Nagarathnamma’s vigorous musical training progressed. She also found her patron, a middle-aged judge of the Mysore Law Court — Justice Narahari Rao.

By the time she was 15, Nagarathnamma had become ready for public performances. Soon, the Maharaja of Mysore, Chamarajendra Wadiyar X, invited her to sing at the palace. This was Puttulakshmi’s ultimate revenge for all the insults heaped on her and her daughter. Nagarathnamma soon started receiving concert invitations from all over South India — the royal courts of Mysore, Travancore and the aristocracies of Bobbili, Vizianagaram. She had the rare distinction of touring 146 towns and cities in South India and held more than 1,200 concert shows. Nagarathnamma eventually moved to the mecca of Carnatic music — Madras. It was here that The Gramophone Company decided to record her during their maiden South India expedition in 1904‐05.

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Nagarathnamma, however, did not record prolifically and it appears that the censorship campaign had impacted her deeply. While her initial recording foray did include the erotic and sensuous genres of Padams and Javalis that devadasis sang, she slowly began to eschew them and stuck to devotional pieces, almost in a Harikatha style of rendition. Her strong training in Sanskrit is reflected in her chaste pronunciation as in the following recordings:

Vyamoha Prashamaushadham

Gacchaami Achyutha

There are, interestingly, recordings of just Aalaapanas in Ragas such as Thodi and Bhairavi that also show her deep-rooted classical training:


Bhairavi Alapana

From a little-known devadasi, Nagarathnamma refashioned herself into a popular figure, contributing her entire life and wealth to the construction of the samadhi of the revered saint-composer Thyagaraja in Thiruvaiyaru. Her statue in a reverential pose stands to this day at the samadhi, even though very few people know about the woman who spent her life’s earnings to keep the memory of Thyagaraja alive.

The author is a historian, political analyst and a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, with an upcoming biography of Savarkar. The music clips are from the ‘Archive of Indian Music’ that he has established to digitise and preserve vintage recordings of India. Views are personal.

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