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NAGARATNAMMA (1878-1952)

Nagaratnamma, known as Bangalore Nagaratnamma, was a scholar and courtesan (devadasi). She is best known for having republished in 1910 Radhika Santwanam (Appeasing Radhika) a long poem by Muddupalani (q.v.) an eighteenth-century courtesan of the Tanjore court. This poem contained frank descriptions of sex from a woman’s point of view, including a description of a maiden’s first sexual experience. The book was banned by the colonial government, all copies were seized and destroyed and both Nagaratnamma and Muddupalani were reviled as prostitutes and loose women. In 1947 the ban was lifted, but copies of the entire poem are still very difficult to get. An extract was published in Women Writing in India, edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha, (New Delhi: OUP, 1997) along with Nagaratnamma’s insightful and scholarly preface.

Nagaratnamma was born to Putta Lakshamma, a devadasi, classical musician and scholar, and her patron Subbarao, a lawyer of Nanjangud. She was educated at Nanjangud and Mysore in the traditional skills of the devadasi, dancing, singing, music and scholarship in Sanskrit and Tamil. Her uncle Venkataswamaiah was a distinguished violinist in Bangalore, and she moved there to study classical music under him and Bidaram Krishnappa. Later she learned music from Munuswami Appa of Bangalore. She became a well known dancer and influenced other artistes. She drew the attention of Narahari Rao, a High Court judge, who became her patron. She built a memorial around the tomb of the Saint Tyagaraja (1767-1847) and established a Trust at Tiruvayaru that organizes performances each year on his birthday, defying cultural norms that prevented women from performing. In her will, where she recounts the reasons for setting up this trust, she states that in 1921 she dreamed that Tyagaraja appeared to her and asked her to devote herself to him and to music. She composed many songs dedicated to Tyagaraja.
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