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The lady behind the revival of Thyagaraja Aradhana


Not just Thiruvayaru; the Thyagaraja Aradhana is celebrated with fanfare in cities in the USA, Canada, UK and France. It is a unique event that provides a forum for budding artistes even as it pays obeisances to the celebrated saint-composer, Sadhguru Thyagaraja. And there was a lady from Mysore who retrieved his grave and revived the annual memorial services that continue until now. Kalakendra is happy to present this write-up that vividly describes the difficulties she faced and the passion and perseverance she displayed in salvaging a tradition and a cultural monument that would have fallen a pray to neglect.

The lady behind the revival of Thyagaraja Aradhana

Come December, it’s ‘season’ in Chennai. NRI connoisseurs arrive in droves flaunting their best silks and diamonds and hop from ‘sabha’ to ‘sabha’ allowing their expensive perfumes to waft in the air. They vie with their brethren back home with sheaves of pamphlets on various concerts in the city and exchange notes on which musician excelled in which raga alapana in which venue.

Music descends on the city like the thick ‘Markazhi’ smog and lingers for almost a month. As it tapers around the first week of January, another town near Thanjavur takes the cue and gears up for paying its annual obeisances to the great sage who saw music as means to moksha or deliverance- Sadhguru Shri Thyagaraja.

The annual Aradhana at Thiruvayaru is an important and unique cultural event backed by a rich tradition spanning 155 years. Musicians of all hues, regardless of experience or stature, pay their soulful tributes to the sage through the very renditions with which he regaled Lord Rama and merged with him finally.

It was in the wee hours of a Pushya Bahula Panchami day in 1847 (corresponding to the Tamil year ‘Prabhava’) that Sadhguru attained eternity chanting the name of Rama. Since then Panchapakesiah, his only grandson was performing the aradhana. Later, as Panchapakesiah had no issues, some of his disciples like Narasimha Bhagavathar and Panchu Bhagavathar continued the event organizing music concerts in memory of the Sadhguru. Like all good things, these memorial services also came to an end as the duo parted company due to some misunderstanding. Petty egos, groupism and incessant politicking precluded revival of the aradhana.

What followed was a dark period of drift; decades of neglect and apathy. The samadhi of the saint was but reduced to a muddy mound surrounded by filth.

The sorry state of affairs continued until 1920 when Bangalore Nagarathnamma, an ardent devotee of Saint Thyagaraja arrived on the scene. Moved to tears by the awful condition of the sage’s Samadhi, she swung into action to retrieve the premises and restore it to its one-time glory. The place belonged to the Thanjavur royalty and using her own funds, she procured it and created a temple for the saint.

Nagarathnammal: a profile

Born in Mysore on November 3, 1878 out of wedlock between Subba Rao, an eminent lawyer and Puttulakshmi, a devadasi, Nagarathnam faced a lot of hurdles and humiliations. Notwithstanding traumatic childhood experiences, she mastered the nuances of classical music and dance under the tutelage of Giribhatta Thammayya, a highly revered musician in the maharaja’s court. Her virtuosity brought her wealth and fame but not social recognition. But that did not diminish her passion for the art nor deter her from pursuing it with zest.

She was presented a portrait of Sadhguru Thyagaraja by Vidwan Umayalpuram Panchapakesa Bhagavatar, an eminent musician of her times. Exactly 13 days after she got it, she received a letter from her Guru Pidaram Krishnappa wherein he had bemoaned the pitiable plight of Thyagaraja’s Samadhi at Thiruvayaru and exhorted her to take up its restoration forthwith. And that brought her to the haloed precincts in 1920. The rest, as they say, was history but it wasn’t as easy as saying it!

The task

There were too many impediments; too much of politics. If at all there was any unanimity among various groups, it was in scuttling the stupendous task that the lady from Mysore had embarked on. She saw it through with her patience and perseverance. Commenced by her on October 27, 1921, the refurbishing operations culminated in a glittering music festival in 1925. But for the solitary interregnum in 1948 when the aradhana had to be cancelled on January 30th on account of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the celebrations have continued till date.

Individual accomplishments

Nagarathnamma was the first lady singer to have performed a full-fledged concert on stage at a time when it was only a men’s prerogative. And that’s not all. Her enormous earnings through concerts made her the first IT assessee among artistes those days.

She proved her ingenuity by designing a tamboora that could be easily dismantled during long travels and reassembled later.

She belonged to an age in which parochial thoughts were unknown. People were unfettered by sectarian, regional and linguistic biases. Besides Kannada, her mother tongue, Nagarathnamma was proficient in Sanskrit and Tamil. She also had to her credit several treatises on music and dance. Nagarathnamma collected the palm scripts, scattered across the Thanjavur province, of ‘Radhika Santha Vanam’, a monumental work by the wife of Pratapa Rudran, the Maratha ruler of Thanjavur and recompiled it.

Nagarathnamma had the courage, vision and tenacity to accomplish an awesome task she had chosen for herself unmindful of all the indifference and skepticism. Had it not been for her, the Samadhi of a legendary saint who was in direct communion with Lord Rama would have been lost forever.

Having completed her life’s mission, Nagarathnamma attained the lotus feet of the Lord on 19th May, 1952 at her 77th year. Today, Thyagaraja Aradhanas are being celebrated not only in Thiruvayaru but also various cities across the world. The saint’s Pancharatna kriti, “entharo mahanubhavulu, anthariki vandanamu” rendered in unison by the musicians rents the air. And perhaps, it is the best tribute the devotees of classical music can pay to Nagarathnamma, that great lady who rediscovered and revived a tradition for us. : January 6, 2006, 3:32 pm