Within a year, Nagarathnamma was to discover that she, and other women, would not be allowed to participate in the Tyagaraja Aradhana, then considered a male preserve. There began a battle for equality, with a separate women-only Aradhana being conducted at the rear of the Samadhi. As was to be expected, this festival conducted by the women outshone the rival events conducted by others. In 1940, everyone saw the light of day and the warring factions were united in their worship of Tyagaraja. The festival then took on its present dimensions.
What is interesting is however the role of women in ensuring a proper memorial to Tyagaraja. If Nagarathnamma showed the way and several Devadasis helped her in the women’s festival, the silver vessels used for worship came courtesy Padmasini Bai, a leading Harikatha artist. The electrification of the Samadhi was done in 1962 thanks to Kolar Rajam, consort of Palani Subramania Pillai. This was of course long after Nagarathnamma’s death, but she would have been pleased. For years, flowers for worship would come from Ammapettai Chellam Ammal, yet another hereditary artist. The inscribing of Tyagaraja kritis in marble slabs was envisioned and implemented by Srirangam Sundaram Iyer with donations and help from several people. But a survey of the slabs will show the contributions from M.S. Subbulakshmi.
Breaking the bastion
There remained the question of women’s participation in the unchavriti. This was a men- only-affair and that too performed by the most orthodox. Nagarathnamma had shown that women could participate in it indirectly, for she sponsored her own team of male bhagavatars who went around Tiruvaiyyaru and participated in the symbolic collection of alms. But still it was an event in which only men could participate.
Then during an Aradhana, many years after Nagarathnamma’s passing, three women came forward and broke the last bastion most musically. As the procession wound its way down Tiruvayyaru’s narrow lanes, Brinda, Muktha and M.S. Subbulakshmi joined the singing and walked with the group.
After so many years, it is impossible to fathom whether this was a premeditated move on the part of the trio or whether it was done on the spur of the moment. Presumably it had the backing of T. Sadasivam, MS’s husband who would have anyway loved challenging established taboos. And so they joined in and sang along. Not one voice of protest was heard. And so it became an accepted aspect of the Tyagaraja Aradhana. The spirit of Nagarathnamma lives on.
In a field where even now it is not uncommon to hear male singers refusing women accompanists and even worse, women singers refusing accompanists of their own gender, such stories are heart-warming and indicate that gender equality in Carnatic music, though not yet fully achieved, is definitely a success story.