The terms Devadasi evokes a mystical past replete with devotion and dedication of girls to deities refrains of soaring music and sensuous dances that attracted the patronage of kings and commoners. The preservation and transmission of the arts largely rested with the Devadasis and they had a strong presence in South India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though the intellectual elite the wealthy and the famous encouraged and supported the Devadasi system it fell into disrepute causing public outcry and government reforms which led to its gradual decline.
Bangalore Nagarathnamma was an icon of that age highly skilled in the arts well regarded by connoisseurs of music. She was an exceptional woman much ahead of her times a champion of the rights of the Devadasis and of women in general. Her devotion to the poet composer tyagaraja is legendry and she is best known as the architect and benefactor of the shrine over his Samadhi in Tiruvayyaru.
In this book the rise and fall of the Devadasi tradition is intertwined with the life and times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. Form small beginnings Nagarathnamma rose to become a stellar figure in the cultural firmament of Madras of the 1920s and 30s. This work is a tribute to her indomitable spirit and her unrelenting efforts to perpetuate the memory of her patron saint Tyagaraja.
Born on 22nd June 1966 in England Sriram had his schooling in Madras and Calcutta. He completed his graduation with a Bachelor of Engineering degree from the college of engineering Delhi in 1987. In 1989 he completed his post graduation with a master of Business Administration degree in marketing and advertising from the faculty of managements studies Delhi University.
Sriram then had a varied career in advertising and Marketing before joining his family business in industrial Hydraulics and software. Carnatic music has been a passion for Sriram since the age of six. When his grandmother unrolled a mat in the family puja room made him sit on it and began teaching him the basics of music. This combined with a great interest in history led him to study the art form in depth with special reference to the great personalities who embellished it.
The lands near the rivers Krishna Godavari and the Kaver
Sriram V. has an established reputation as a social historian concentrating on carnatic music heritage in general and environmental issues. His book Carnatic summer has received great welcome as a volume of biographic of some towering figures of Carnic music biographies that bring the subject before us warts and all and not hagiographies he has now come out with the biography of an extraordinary lady Bangalore Nagarathnammal whose name will be remembered as long as tyagaraja’s name is remembered.
Nagarthnammal was a doughty feminist at a time when feminism was just beginning to make its way in the west and was almost unheard of in India. Her achievements are all the greater for the fact that she came from a community that was generally looked down upon. She grew up in neat poverty but competence and determination enabled her to establish herself in life as a musician and dancer and to command the respect of fellow artists including the most famous. The story of how she fought for the right of women to perform at the annual Tyagaraja aradhana in the teeth of opposition from prominent figures who were running it is told by Sriram in detail. So are the stories of her determination to get an authentic version of the book Radhika Sanwanamu Published and distributed resulting in the book being banned by the government that sent most of the Devadasi community into penury and threatened to destroy the legacy of Sadir padams and javalis.
But it is for her role in Building a Mandapam round the Samadhi of the great composer Tyagaraja that she will be remembered. She stepped in when two different groups were conducting the Aradhana without doing anything practical in the matter and spent the fortune she had earned in constructing the Mandapam and ensuring that the Samadhi was an attractive memorial to the saint composer. She spent the last part of her life in Tiruvayyaru looking after the proper upkeep of the memorial.
Nagarathnammal played an important part in bringing together the two rival factions celebrating the Aradhana, though ultimately she was no longer the prime mover of the Aradhana as Sriram puts it. But truly she was a Dasi in the temple of Tyagaraja. She is present today in Tiruvayyaru through a life size stone image in a sitting posture with folded hands facing the Samadhi. She would have wished for no more.
As this and more are brought out by Sriram in the book. The trouble he has taken to get his facts is obvious in the narrative. If one may be pardoned for using a hoary cliché he has left no stone unturned interestingly the archives of the government of Madras/ Tamilnadu have proved a rich source of material. Sriram has woven a skilful narrative in this volume which I commend to all lovers of carnatic music and devotees to Tyagaraja.
Classical Indian music is today divided into two distinct streams the north Indian Hindustani and the south Indian Carnatic. This book deals with the second art form. However this is not a book on music appreciation nor is it on the rules that govern music. It is simply the chronicle of a woman’s life a woman who was a practicing Carnatic musician and more importantly a Devadasi a term that meant handmaiden of god at one time respectable and regarded as the custodian of the arts. It later came to be equated with prostitution.
The concept of dedicating women to temples or places of worship is as old as civilization. The custom existed in Greek, Roman, Egyptian and other ancient cultures. Indian cultures were no exception and the system was well developed in South India in particular from very early on. There was a rigid hierarchy among these women based on the duties they performed at the temple which varied from washing vessels and sweeping the floor to stinging garlands of flowers preparing sandal paste and at the highest level of sophistication singing and dancing before the deity. Such women were considered to be married to the deity and were recognized as respectable members of society. There was no particular caste form which women could be drawn for dedication and there are instances in the legends of princess and girls from priestly classes becoming handmaidens of god. The Devadasis thus formed an occupational group rather than a caste. Those who sand and danced were trained rigorously in the performing arts and were hence considered custodians of tradition and of the arts.
There were women dedicated to the arts outside the ambit of the temple too. Some were attached to kings and others to rich patrons while another group entertained the public through music and dance especially during celebrations and social occasions. While there was a clear distinction between the various categories over a period of time especially with the arrival of the British these boundaries faded and the term Devadasi came to encompass all such women. They were referred to in local parlance by various terms such as Kalavanth Sani Sule and Devar Adiyal.
Being married to a deity meant an escape from widowhood for Devadasis and when they passed away the deity of the temple underwent a ritual period of mourning. The Devadasis had certain other privileges as well. Most of them were literate some were very highly learned and all of them had absolute right to the properties bequeathed to them by the temple in return for their services. Chastity was not a parameter in their line of work and they could take on patrons. They were never considered to be prostitutes.
Given the rather unique status that Devadasi women enjoyed as compared to the lot of woman in other castes and strata of society girls were the preferred progeny. This too contrasted with the commonly held notion in Indian that boys meant social security and an assured future while girl children only meant lifelong expenditure and trouble. Property held by devadasis passed on from mother to daughter a unique matriarchal system in a predominantly male dominated society. Adoption of girls was therefore common among Devadasis and as late as the early years of the 20th century even poor Brahmin families gave away their daughters in adoption to well to do devadasis.
The history of the Devadasis and the history of the development of south Indian music and dance are intertwined. Both depended on patronage which in turn depended on peace and prosperity. The south Indian kingdoms were largely spared from frequent invasions and it is no wonder that music and dance flourished and so did the Devadasi system.
The lands near the rivers Krishna Godavari and the Kaveri owing to regular deposits of silt were fertile. Prosperity therefore reigned in these regions kings and the wealthy could indulge in pursuits such as patronizing and nurturing the arts. The Cholas whose ascendancy began in 850 AD with the capture of Tanjavur were active patrons of the arts. During the reign of Raja Raja Chola from 985 to 1013 AD the construction of the Brihadeeswarar temple was undertaken and he appointed musicians singers and dancers for service in various temples in Tanjavur and granted them lands and houses as remuneration. An inscription in the shrine states that as many as 400 dancing girls were appointed for temple service. Most importantly this inscription identifies the women as belonging to the lord. The inscription also decrees that the land given to these women be passed on after their death to those among descendants who were qualified and fit to carry on the same services. The relevant section is reproduced below :
The lord Sri Rajaraja Deva had transferred temple women from temple establishments of the Chola country as temple women of the lord of the Sri Rajarajeswara (temple). To shares were allotted as allowance. The of each share which consisted of the produce of (one) vell of land was to be one hundred kalam of paddy. Instead of those among these shareholders who would die or emigrate the nearest relations of such persons were to receive that allowance and do the work. If the nearest relations were not qualified themselves were to select qualified persons to let do the work and to receive (the allowance). If there were no other near relations the incumbents of such appointments were to select qualified persons from these fir for such appointments and the person selected was to receive the allowance.
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