Bangalore Nagaratnamma: A Life Dedicated to Tyagaraja

This is an abridged English translation of D.V. Gundappa's brilliant and moving profile of Bangalore Nagaratnamma, a musician par excellence who built a memorial for Tyagaraja in Tiruvayur.
Bangalore Nagaratnamma: A Life Dedicated to Tyagaraja


This is an abridged translation of the original Kannada essay authored by D.V. Gundappa. It is part of his Jnapaka Chitrashale volumes. When DVG wrote this profile, Bangalore Nagaratnamma  was still alive.

Translated by Sandeep Balakrishna



She is different from Kolar Nagarathnamma. The latter’s mother was Nanjundasani, a renowned scholar and artist both in classical music and Bharatanatyam. She had won numerous accolades from both the laymen and pundits alike. She was more renowned as a classical singer, famed for her melodious voice. Her brother Puttaswamayya was an acclaimed violinist who unfortunately passed away at a young age.

Bangalore Nagaratnamma  originally hailed from Nanjanagud, some 15 kms from Mysore. Her mother was given shelter by the town's famous lawyer, Subba Rao. After Nagaratnamma grew up, her mother shifted base to Mysore for her daughter's higher education.

Nagaratnamma learnt classical music and literature under the tutelage of Tamayya who was closely associated with Asthana Vidvan (Court Scholar or Artist), Giri Bhatta who was himself a poet. She took advanced lessons in Sanskrit poetry. She was able to discern the correct and incorrect usage of Sanskrit words and was well-versed in the grammatical concepts of sandhi (a generic term to denote a wide assortment of phonological processes that occur at morpheme or word boundaries), samāsa (nominal compounds), alankāra (literally, "ornamentation." In Sanskrit poetics, it is a generic term for figure of speech) and other technical concepts. This is why she is unparalleled when she sings Sanskrit sloka-gamakas (gamaka is a variation in the pitch of a note using heavy and purposeful oscillations between adjacent and distant notes in a specific raga).

She also had intensive training in Kannada literature. She would recite verses from classics such as the Jaimini-BharataRajashekharavilasa, and Kumaravyasa Bharata, and give learned commentaries on them. She was also a learned scholar.

My acquaintance with her dates back to 1908-09. I have attended several of her concerts in Chickpet, in the mansion of Sahuji, in the hall upstairs. One of the regular attendees of her concerts was the late Chief Judge K.S. Chandrashekhara Iyer.  He had tremendous admiration for her prowess in singing Sanskrit verses, and used to remark, "this is the trademark style of Nagaratnamma."

While she was still a student in Mysore, it appears that her fame reached the ears of the durbar of Maharaja Chamaraja Wodeyar. The munificence of His Highness favoured her.

After some time, her mother decided that Bangalore was a more suitable place for Nagaratnamma 's talent to fully blossom. She arranged to send her to stay with her elder brother, the violinist Venkataswamappa. "Violin" Venkataswamappa in those days was an accomplished and a much sought after violinist. His house was in Nagarthapet near the Kalamma temple. Nagaratnamma continued her music and dance training in that house.

The Shelter of Narahari Rao

The fame of Nagaratnamma’s beauty soon reached the ears of the High Court judge Narahari Rao.

When he decided to give her shelter, he thought of taking his wife’s permission. This is how their conversation went.

Narahari Rao (N): I wish to say something to you. I need your permission.

Wife (W): You are asking for my permission? Is that even acceptable? Just tell me what you need from me.

N: It’s not that. This is a special matter. From the past few days, I have come to greatly admire the music of Nagaratnamma. She sings extraordinarily. I want to regularly visit her home to savour her music. Let me know if you are against the idea. If you are, I will abandon it right away.

W: My wish is to fulfil your wish.

N: I shall see to it that you are not troubled by it in any manner.

W: What trouble could I possibly have? You have done everything there is to do for raising a family. Our children are all grown up and independent. We have married off our daughters. Our sons are well-educated. And it is our duty to see to it that you are comfortable and happy.

This is how that great mother gave him her permission.

I learnt of this episode from someone who was in his inner circle. This person had received shelter in Narahari Rao’s house and studied in Central College after which he obtained a good job, went on to occupy a high post and was known as a scrupulous and competent professional. 

After finishing court in the evening, Narahari Rao used to park his coach outside Nagaratnamma ’s house and spend some time listening to her music. He was a huge connoisseur of literature and music. His children, Lakshmi Narasimha and T. Hanumatha Rao were close friends of Vidvan Vasudevachar. They would invite him to their homes and shower him with hospitality for weeks. Lakshmi Narasimha was one of the founders of the Karnataka Sahitya Parishad (later renamed as Kannada Sahitya Parishad). He had in-depth knowledge of English literature as well.

As he neared retirement, Narahari Rao, with great foresight arranged for Nagaratnamma’s livelihood in Madras (today’s Chennai). She was given shelter by a businessman named Sahukar Mudaliar. A short while after that, Nagaratnamma  scaled the heights of fame in music and was able to live independently.

Nagarathnamma’s Last Days

The last time I saw her was during the regime of Diwan Sir Arcot Ramaswamy Mudaliar. She had travelled to Bangalore to seek help and assistance for a charitable project she had undertaken.

Her personal life during her last days was joyless. Two of her children had died. Another adopted child too, passed away. As the Bhagavatam says, God gives immense suffering to those dear to him.

She realized that she would find no solace in anyone or anything except at the feet of Sri Ramachandra. The wealth and the fame that she had earned, she realized, came from the grace of Tyagaraja Swami. And so, she resolved to offer everything that she owned to him and to his chosen deity, Sri Rama.

After she set her mind on this, she said a vision of Thyagaraja’s Samadhi came to her in a dream one night. The very next day, she reached Tiruvayur, Thyagaraja’s final resting place. With the help of some friends, she scouted the whole place and finally managed to locate his Samadhi.

After this, she met the concerned Government officials, obtained the required manpower, and built a beautiful Sitarama temple at the spot of his Samadhi. In the process, she exhausted everything she had earned. She sold her house in Sahukarpet in Madras and used that money for the temple. If memory serves me right, she got thirty-thousand rupees for that house. It was a princely amount in those days. This apart, she sold all her jewellery—gold, silver, and all kinds of precious stones. 

When Bangalore Nagaratnamma built her Sahukarpet house in Madras, she invited the formidable musician Bidaram Krishnappa all the way from Mysore to deliver a concert on the occasion of her housewarming ceremony. All the important connoisseurs from Madras were present at the concert as well. One of them included Kasturirangan Iyengar, the proprietor and publisher of The Hindu newspaper. The concert was a delightful success. At the conclusion, Kasturirangan asked:

“Will this musician agree to sing at any other venue? How about my house?”

 “With pleasure.”

As soon as he heard this, Kasturirangan said, “What we are really interested in is a singer who can sing Kannada Devaranāmas (literally, “songs of God”). We have enough and more musicians here who can sing Tyagaraja compositions. We really wish to listen to devaranāmas.”

Bidaram Krishnappa happily agreed. In my view, this was the stepping stone for Krishnappa’s immense popularity in Tamil Nadu’s music circles.

Mysore Memorial Hall 

Nagaratnamma was innately magnanimous. Envy and jealousy were alien to her nature. However, she had one unfulfilled ambition. She wanted to build a memorial hall each in Mysore and Tiruvayur. She said, “I have spent everything that God has given me on temples and pujas. In the Tamil country, I have numerous people who will give me money if I ask them. Within the Nattukottai Chettiar community, I personally know several wealthy people. Just one person can give me the entire funding for the memorial. However, they will dedicate the memorial to the person of their choice. If that occurs, what will happen to the self-respect of Mysore? The glory of the Kannada people needs to shine in Tyagaraja’s memorial as well. People who visit Tiruvayur from Mysore must have a place where they can obtain easy accommodation. Also, the memorial must have a facility for those who are interested in learning Carnatic classical music. This is the reason I have come here to seek donations.”

I spoke to several of my friends about her noble proposal. These included high-ranking ministers in the Government and wealthy businessmen. It didn’t bear any fruit. Finally, I took it to Diwan Ramaswamy Mudaliar who was my political opponent. He sent his car, brought her to his home, introduced her to his wife and donated five hundred rupees. After this, he arranged for her concert in the Mudaliar Sangha (Mudaliar Community Association) and raised a considerable donation. He then arranged for yet another fundraising concert in the Puttanna Chetty Town Hall and attended it in person. This helped her to some extent.

Method of Teaching Music

During her last visit to Bangalore, Nagaratnamma stayed in Tarabai’s house in Basavanagudi. Nagarathnamma’s typical Saturday routine was to perform puja in the evening followed by bhajans. I was present on one such occasion. After the bhajan, she began to teach a composition of Mysore Sadashiva Rao to one of her students. If I recall correctly, it was Rāmakathāsudhāsāgara set in Raga Harikambhoji.

It is an extremely difficult composition. Indeed, the raga is itself quite difficult. In the last thirty years, I haven’t heard any great musician sing its alaap followed by an elaboration of the Pallavi. Thus, set in this raga, this composition was as tough as iron.

I asked her, “Why did you choose such a formidable composition at your age?” She said, “There are several teachers who teach easy compositions. In the old days, there were large numbers of teachers who would teach difficult compositions. Such teachers were my gurus. I am merely following the path they have laid down.”


About five or six days later, I visited her in the afternoon at around three. She was lying in bed, groaning in pain.

I said, “What happened Amma?”

She replied, “I’m unwell,” but sat up.

I offered to leave.

“No. If I talk to you for a while, it’ll help me forget this pain.”

Our conversation drifted to dance. I asked her a question about our traditional dance.

She said, “How can this old woman demonstrate now? But I’ll give it a try, sitting.”

She removed the cloth she had tied around her head. Then she threw aside the blanket she had covered herself with. Next, she folded her hands, sat back down and began an alaap:  

sabhākalpatarum vande
vedaśākhopajīvinaṃ ||

śāstrapuṣpa samāyuktam
vidvad bhramaraśobhitaṃ || 

She said, “This is how you must salute the audience. The tradition is to begin with the Nāta raga and then move on to the Vasanta raga. After this, you must sing the pada, mattu and varnam in this raga.”

Then she demonstrated her dancing prowess for about ten minutes. In traditional dance, the invocatory piece is known as Alaripu. It literally means “the blooming of a flower.” In other words, the dance performance should make the minds of the audience bloom like a flower. And when the artist sings and enacts (abhinaya) the pada, his or her mind should also bloom like a flower.

After this explanation, she performed the Yāhi ashtapadi. Just as how a great poet is also a new Creator, so is also a great performing artist. Performance too, is a kind of creative commentary.

Nagaratnamma was endowed with a great sense of humour. Talking about herself, she once remarked, “I was Nagaratna (literally, “precious stone or jewel on the head of a snake”) by birth, then became a Bhogaratna (jewel of pleasure), and I’m now a Rogaratna (jewel of disease).”

I said, “You forgot two more.”

She asked, “what?”

I replied, “One: Ragarathna (jewel of musical ragas); Two: Tyagarathna (jewel of sacrifice). Pleasure and disease are temporary. But your music impacts your listeners permanently. It becomes part of their joys and stays with them forever. It elevates their lives. And the living symbols of your sacrifice will remain permanently in Tiruvayur.”

The moment she heard this, she folded her hands and said, “You please keep these words to yourself.”

|| Satyam Sivam Sundaram ||

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