[Above: bengaḷūru nāgaratnamma's picture at tyāgarajā's house, tiruvayyāru]
Bengaḷūr Nāgaratnamma actually hailed from the maisūr province
It is important to distinguish her from Kolār ṇāgaratnamma, whose mother Nanjundāsāni was an exponent of Karnātak Music and Bharatanāṭya during her times. Kolāra Nāgaratnamma was herself a gifted singer. Her sibling was the piṭīlu puṬaswāmayya, who was a violinist of fame, but short-lived.
Back on Bengaḷur ṇagaratnamma, I already mentioned that she hailed from maisūr, or rather nanjanagūḍu to be specific. A lawyer Subbarao of nanjanagūḍ was her mother's patron. In the course of time, her mother would move to maisūr for the sake of Nāgaratnamma's education.
In maisūr, Nāgaratnamma would come under the tutelage of the āsthāna vidwān Kavi Giribhaṭa, from whom she would receive formal training in music and literature. In being adept at Sanskrit poetry, she also had a sound command of vocabulary with thorough scholarship in saṃdhi, samāsa and alankāra. And this is why, she is today unmatched in Sanskrit ṣlokagamaka. A gramaphone recording of her singing the ṣlokas "bhaktapāyabhujaṃgagāruḍamaṇistrailokyara kṣhāmaṇiḥ", "shatruçhédaikamaṃtraṃ" and the "nityakalyāṇi" rāgamālika are standing testimonies to her mastery in sāhitya.
She was equally adept at Kannada literature in that she could sing from the jaimini bhārata, rājashékharavilāsa and the kumāravyāsa bhārata in suitable rāgas and provide explanations in summary. She was a scholar in the true spirit of the term.
I've known her since 1908-09. I had then heard her concerts in sāhuji's floor at çikkapéṭe. Amongst the attendees at her concerts was the retired chief judge (late) ṣri K S Chandrashekhar Iyer, who had ardent admiration for her musical renditions of Sanskrit ṣlokas. "Nāgaratnammana style-é style-ū", he used to fondly say.
It seems that Nāgaratnamma's fame reached the walls of the maisūr palace during her stint there. The Maharāja ṣri cāmarāja oḍeyar had then turned to her at this point.
In later days, Nāgaratnamma's mother thought that Bangalore might be a better place for her daughter's pursuits than maisūr and hence had her daughter promptly relocate to her brother piṭīlu vénkaṭaswāmappa's house. Vénkataswamappa was then a violinist of repute. His house was in Nagartharapéṭe, by the kāḷammana guḍi. Here, Nāgaratnamma would practise her dance and music.
Patronage from Sri Narahari Rao
Legends of Nāgaratnamma'ś beauty would fall on the ears of ṣri Narahari Rao, who was then a high court judge. He would subsequently become her patron, but only after obtaining permission from his wife.
"Mrs Rao, I need to tell you something. Your consent is essential"
"How could I ever disapproove of your wishes? Please tell me what it is".
"I've been enamored by Nāgaratnamma's music. She sings very well. I would like more of her company. I understand that this might not be acceptable to you and if it is so, do tell me for I'll drop my wishes"
"Your wishes are always acceptable to me".
"I'll make sure that you'll be at no inconvenience for this reason".
"Where's the question of inconvenience? You have done everything for the family. Our children are independent - the girls have been married and the boys well educated. Now it is our duty to ensure that you may live as you wish"..
And thus, this great lady consented. Only after this did Sri Narahari Rao's resolve manifest to reality.
I've heard about this incident from Sri Narahari Rao's closest quarters - somebody who lived in Sri Narahari Rao's house and under his support during his student years in the Central college, later earning acclaim and eminence in public life himself.
On his way back from the court, Rao would stop his coach by Nāgaratnamma's house in nagartarapéṭe and listen to her singing for some time. He was obviously a connoisseur of music as well as literature. His sons Lakshminarasimha Rao and Hanumanta Rao were close friends of Sri Maisūṛ Vāsudévāçārya, whom they would host for days at length. Lakshminarasimha Rao was also one of the founders of the Karnāṭaka Sāhitya Parishat. He was also deeply knowledgeable about English literature too. It's fair to see that all these traits were inherited from the father.
Sri Narahari Rao's generosity and duty-consciousness.
Apart from his taste for music and literature, Sri Narahari Rao was also a great philanthropist of his times, commanding great respect for his generosity. Innumerable students used to be fed at his house, ranging from school students to ones graduating out of college. Sri Narahari Rao wouldn't often be aware of their names or addresses at the least, but would talk to them with great respect, enquiring about their studies and things they were possibly in need of. He would never address somebody in the singulars.
One day, there was a special incident. Divān K Shéshādri Iyer happened to hear about Sri Narahari Rao's visits to Nāgaratnamma's house. The former then called upon Sri Narahari Rao at his home in koṭe, opposite to the vénkaṭaramaṇaswāmy temple, just east of where the Bangalore Medical College is situated today.
That the divān was visiting him was both a matter of great pleasure and surprise to Sri Narahari Rao. Shéshādri Iyer was a little hesitant at first to come to the purpose of his visit, but would do so later after the customary exchanges of good wishes.
"Mr Rao, what I've come to talk to you today is related to your personal life, which I've no right to talk of. I know it is but audacious of me to say this, but as considerate, enlightened and aware of right and wrong as you are, I beg you to give this some thought: It is my duty to respect the thoughts of the subjects, for the government must earn their respect. Hence, I have a request to make. If I've offended you, I hope you will forgive me as a friend".
"Sir, do not hesitate. Your duty is my duty too. Please convey your intentions"
"In your course to return home from the high court by the evening, you must instruct the jawān who sits by the driver to place the silver-handled baton down as soon as you near Nāgaratnamma's house. This baton is a symbol of power and office. The subjects must not be prompted to think that your actions or your host are favored beneficiaries of your position in the government"
Upon hearing this, Sri Narahari Rao rose up and said,
"You are indeed right, Sir. I have been in the wrong thus far for not paying attention, which I will correct hereinafter. You have done me a great favour this moment by waking me up to this fact. I beg your pardon for the failures in my part".
Subsequently, Sri Narahari Rao decided to move the place for his musical muses out of town and from public attention. He hunted for places in the outskirts and found what is today known as "Naraharirāyara guḍḍa". In those days, this region was completely forested. It was he who named the hill as "Mount Joy" (ānandaṣaila) as well as built the manṭapas that stand on it today. Only the ṣiva temple was existent before, which too was renovated by Narahari Rao.
Twice a month or so, Sri Narahari Rao would visit this place with limited family and enjoy Nāgaratnamma's music. As his retirement from service neared, Sri Narahari Rao would be far sighted enough to find patronage for Nāgaratnamma in Madras. In later times, Nāgaratnamma achieved enough on her own to be independent of any need for patronage.
Nāgaratnamma's last days
The last I saw her was during the times when Sri Arcot Rāmaswāmy Mudaliyār was the diwān. She had then come down to Bangalore for a noble cause. Her personal life in her last days weren't the happiest. Two of her children had died, as had one she had adopted. As has been said in the Bhāgavata, god puts through tests them he would like to bless.
She realized to herself that she wouldn't find peace and happiness anywhere but in the lotus feet of Srirāma. She had decided that all the material wealth and fame she had amassed, had come from the blessings of Tyāgaraja, her soul-guru, and that it was only apt to "give it back" to Srirāma, the favorite deity of Tyāgarāja.
One night, after she made this resolve, she had a dream referring to Tyāgarāja's place of samādhi. On the very next day, she visited Tiruvayyāru and found the place of his burial by the kāvéri. She would then find the relevant officers, gather support from the people to erect a ṣitārāma temple at this spot, for which she would invest all her belongings, jewllery, inclusive of the house she had built in the sāhukārpéṭe, Madras. If I recall right, it amounted to Rs 30,000 during those times.
When she had built the aforementioned house, she had invited Sri Bidāraṃ Kriṣhṇappa for a concert during the gṛhapravéṣha, then attended by the Madras elite. Amongst them was Sri Kastūrirangayyangār of The Hindu. After the concert concluded, Sri Iyengar said:
"Would this artiste sing elsewhere? perhaps, at my place?".
"He certainly could".
Upon hearing this reply, Sri Iyengar said:
"We need a concert specifically with Kannada dévaranāmas. We have a lot of artistes here who can sing Tyagaraja's krtis. It's our wish to listen to the dévaranāmas".
Biḍāraṃ Krishnappa happily agreed to, and there was a concert of Kannada dévaranāmas in Madras. This was the stepping stone to the great fame that he would achieve in Tamizh nadu in later years.
Nāgaratnamma was habitually generous. Jealousy had no place in her. Despite this, there was a void in her peace, and this desire was that there should be a çhhatra in the name of maisūr, her hometown at Tiruvayyāru.
"I've invested all my wealth into the temple and the pūjas. Now, I've not a single penny on me. In the Tamizh country, there're plenty of potential donors. Infact, in my circle there are many nāṭukoṭi çeṬiārs who can each finance such a çhhatra on their own. But they'd insist that their donations be dedicated to names or people of their choice. To what gain is that of Maisūr's reputation? The names of Kannada people too should adorn Tyāgarāja's sannidhi. There should be a place to stay as well as a Karṇātaka ṣangīta school in Tiruvayyāru for people coming from the maisūr province. I've come to raise funds for constructing such a çhhatra".
Personally, I passed on the word to a few ministers and wealthy people in my contact, but not to much avail. Finally, I put in a word to Diwān Rāmaswāmy Mudaliyār, who was then a political rival. He entertained the request, had Nāgaratnamma over to his house by car, where he would make a donation of Rs 500 through his wife. Subsequently, he would also raise a considerable amount by arranging for a concert in the Mudliyār Sangha, as well as another benefit concert at the PuṬannaçetty townhall. So, Nāgaratnamma's efforts didn't turn out to be a total failure.
The last time Nāgaratnamma visited Bangalore, she stayed in Basavanaguḍi, in the house of ṣmt Tārābāyamma. It was customary for Nāgaratnamma to have a bhajan every Saturday after her evening pūja. I happened to be present on this particular occasion. After the bhajan, I witnessed her teaching one of Sadāshivaṛao's kīrtanes to a student. Rāga harikāmbhoji, if my memory serves me right.
This was a particularly difficult piece in a rather difficult rāga. In the last 3 decades, I haven't heard of too many vidwāns who have sung a rāga-tāna-pallavi in this rāga, a very beautiful one on it's own merit, but somewhat neglected. As I already said, Sadāshivarao's kṛti in this rāga is hardly a cakewalk to sing. I was surprised that Nāgaratnamma had chosen to teach this composition.
It was both thrilling and soul-stirring to see her teach and correct each of the sangatis, word by word - with beautiful gamakas, spelling and pointing out each jāru, to the best ornamentation of the rāga with palukubaḍi. Nāgaratnamma would refine the swaravinyāsas just like how a véda teacher would pay attention to the accent in védic recitation.
I asked, "why did you choose such a difficult kṛti at this age?". She promptly replied, "there're lots of people to teach the easier ones. Vidwāns who taught difficult ones, existed in the ages gone by. My guru was one such; I'm merely continuing his legacy".
A few days later, I visited her again by the afternoon and she happened to be in bed. As I called out, she rose, welcomed me inside and announced that she wasn't keeping well. I offered to leave, but she egged me to stay back saying that it would help her from the lethargy to talk to me.
Soon, the conversation turned to the topic of dance. In context, I asked her about the olden tradition of dance. She said "what can an old woman like me show? I'll demonstrate a little, just sitting", and she put away her blanket to begin an ālāpana.
And thus you do the sabhāvandana. It is customary to begin in the nāṭa rāga. A vasanta can come next, with a pada maṬu and varṇa.
She demonstrated for another ten minutes. In dance, the introductory passage is called "alaripu", which means "to bloom", that is to bloom like a flower, in the minds of the audience.
Subsequently, I sought the aṣhṭapadi - "yāhi mādhava", which again she demonstrated for a few minutes. I hadn't realized the multitude of symbolisms and intricacies involved in interpreting the single word "yāhi" from that aṣhṭapadi. Just like how a great poet brings innovation to language, a great dance performer too is a creator of the novel in her own expression. Dance is a language of expression in it's own right.
Nāgaratnamma had a sense of humor. She summed up her entire life once - "nāgaratna at birth, then bhogaratna (by youth), and now rogaratna!".
"You forgot two other ratnas".
"What are those?"
"One is rāgaratna, and then tyāgaratna".
"The bhoga-rogas are but momentary. Whoever listened to your rāgas shall be enchanted by them for a lifetime. The temple of Tiruvayyāru will stand permanent testimony to your sacrifices".
Upon hearing this, Nāgaratnamma bowed her hands and said "You keep your praises to yourself!".
These memoirs are translated from DV Gundappa's "kelavu mahanīyaru". Language and style have been deliberately retained in the same flavor as the original work.