Biography as History--Review of Books

padmum / 6 yrs ago /

A biography can be defined as a history, an account of the series of events that occur in a person’s life. 

Mr.S.Muthiah, historian, biographer, writer and chronicler gave a new slant to the genre when he said, “Biography is history. It opens a window into another aspect of the work. It is not only life history, the events that take place, the role of the person in the times she/he lives in. It could also refer to an institution, a city, country or club. The story of a city can be very interesting—how it grew, the economic issues that it faced and shaped it. So, there is a whole range of stories of people, places, things, objects waiting to be told”. 

History has been defined as ‘Itihaas’—it happened thus. History as it is taught today is not a subject that finds favour with students. It is restricted to kings, who fought whom, wars, takeovers, murders and establishment and destruction of dynasties and nations. Very little social history has been recorded, especially in India. The building of the Grand Anaikat is a fact and it bears the name of the King who ordered it to be built. There is absolutely no record about the men who built it, the Engineers, overseers and artisans who planned and constructed it or their daily lives, tribulations and experiences. 

Biographies are generally about upper class people. They also become hagiographies that idealize or idolize the person especially in the vernacular literature. Very little facts, especially the negative aspects find their way into the account of the life story. “History of communities”, says Mr Muthiah, “the legends, myths, accounts of settlements and migrations of people is biography”. The history of the Chettiar community that exists can only be traced to 250 years or so. There has been no documentation whatsoever and much information has been lost in the mists of time. 

Recently, in Chennai, there has been a flourish of books published that attempts to present a person, a community, a lifestyle by different writers. 

‘The Devadasi and the Saint—The life and times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma’ 
Sriram V is a passionate musicologist, historian and biographer of famous musicians in the Carnatic tradition. His first book, ‘Carnatic Summers’ introduced the public and private personas of leading musicians of the past century. His next book on Bangalore Nagarathnamma, is a wonderful biography of an icon, a woman who influenced and reinvented a whole new tradition whilst fighting against the strong male control of an art form. 

Nagarathnamma hailed from the Devadasi tradition. The tradition of Devadasi dance was performed as Bharatnatyam in Tamil Nadu, Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh, Odissi in Orissa and Mohiniyattam in Kerala. These dance forms grew and developed a classical status. Traditionally, the dancing and singing of Devadasis was an integral part of temple worship. In the 9th century AD, Raja Raja Chola built the Brahadesvara temple in Tanjore and he gifted four hundred Devadasis to the temple. 

Dance was an important factor in the worship of Siva. Most of the stone inscriptions in temples contain references to Devadasis. In Tamil Nadu, those who danced in Siva temples were called Devadasis, those who performed dance recitals in the Kings court were called Rajadasis, and dancers in festivals were called Svadasis. In Andhra dancers in the courts of Kings were called 'Rajanarttaki'. In Kerala, the Devadasis had a highly respected place in society In Kerala and the dance form was called 'Penkettu'. 

The term ‘Devadasi’ immediately brings to mind devotion and the dedication of nubile girls to deities. The preservation and transmission of the traditional performing arts was with the Devadasis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Starting her life as a singer, dancer, Nagarathnamma rose to become a powerful and influential personality in the world of music, dance and culture in the Madras of the 1920s and ‘30s. An icon of that age, her skills in the arts brought her respect and admiration from connoisseurs of music. She was a wonderful woman, much before her times. She assumed the leadership of a class of women and fought for their rights. She used her talents to educate and support herself and became proficient in Sanskrit with a working knowledge of Kannada, Telugu and English. She ingeniously designed a portable tambura to accompany her performances all over the South. 

Over the years she gradually became a huge—literally and figuratively—person in the music world. One of the earliest women of Madras to pay income tax, she published the ‘Radhika Santwanamu’, an 18th century erotic classic written by Muddu Palani, a courtesan. This led to the first obscenity trial in India in the year 1911. As a revolutionary, she played a pioneering role in the uplift of devadasis. Eighty years ago there was a serious attempt at seeking a ban on the devadasi system. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy (the daughter of a devadasi herself) placed a bill asking the Government to end the practice of dedicating women to temples. This was opposed by the devadasis themselves who formed an association under the leadership of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. 

Unfortunately, in spite of many efforts, the move failed as the pressure from powerful men proved too much. Again the matter was revived in ’28 and a demand was made to rehabilitate the devadasis with land or income that had been theirs through the tradition of their dedication to the temples. This was made into an Act in 1929. However, the implementation was one-sided. The devadasis were cast out of the temples, but were not compensated. Many died in penury while some were rehabilitated in the Avvai Home. Dance disappeared from the temples but was patronised by the rich as Saddir with negative connotations. 

The Music Academy revived the art form and gave it the cachet of legitimacy in 1931/32. The dance was renamed “Bharata Natyam” and a series of performances were held in 1933. This encouraged more and more women from outside the traditional community to take to dance. 

Bangalore Nagarathnamma moved on to another aspect of her life. Her devotion to Saint Tyagaraja motivated her to revitalise the Aradhanai ceremony at Thiruvayyaru. She was the architect and spent all her life’s savings as the benefactor who built the shrine over his Samadhi in Tiruvayyaru. She achieved this in the face of tremendous opposition from various factions with vested interests. Again, her gender did not hold her back from fighting the male bastion to establish a wonderful tradition that is alive today in the yearly Aradhanai at Thiruvayyaru. 

Sriram traces the rise and fall of the movement through the life and times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. Biography in his hands also becomes history of a movement, a community a tradition and a record of events. 

‘The TamBrahm Bride’ 
A first novel by Kausalya Saptharishi, it is a social history and accurately reports an important aspect of family life of the Brahmin community. It is a valuable record about the marriage negotiations that take place between families, the problems, attitudes, demands and situations that are light heartedly, but tellingly described. 

‘Reflections—Experiences of a Bureaucrats Wife’ 
Gita Vittal is the woman behind a very prominent bureaucrat. In her book of reminescences, she gives vignettes of her four decade sojourn amidst Babudom and the personal life behind the official existence. She records her journey and transformation from a schoolgirl to a Memsaab. Witty, absurd, absorbing writing gives a realistic and whimsical look at a different world. The book is a Don Quixote adventure of changing places, jobs, assignments and experiences. The pieces are from Gita’s contributions about people, places and situations that she wrote about in various newspapers, journals etc as a freelance journalist. The middles especially are amusing very reminiscent of RK Narayan’s and Sudha Murthy’s writing.

Tea & Me

 EJS Davidar has written an interesting book about plantation life in Kerala and the Nilgiris. Written in a straightforward manner, it describes a transition period when the British Tea business had seen the writing on the wall and their exit from the Indian scene was imminent. Davidar was the first Indian officer hired by his British company and rose to be its General Manager. 

This book, written at the age of 80, is a remarkable and interesting biography. There is drama, humour, adventure, political manoeuvrings and racism. The claustrophobic world of plantations, the problems of day to day affairs and the larger landscape of terrain and weather have been described in a straightforward but absorbing manner. It also teems with wildlife from tigers to jungle sheep, shikar to cobras. The other side of human relationships with stories about White men, plantation women, Union leaders and light-fingered house boys is well described. It also gives a quick history of tea. Davidar’s relations with the white managers and the Board in London, and the politics within the company are a lesson in Colonial history. 

Sacred Heart Church Park 
A hundred years has passed since the foundation stone of Sacred Heart School was laid at Church Park, Madras, in 1909. In commemoration of the centennial of this pioneering and renowned educational institution, the Alumni Association is undertaking the long desired and much anticipated task of compiling the history of Sacred Heart School. The text will be integrated and edited by Mr. S.Muthiah. 

So, Biography can be history. It is vital to rummage among old diaries, photos, papers regarding property, law suits and to dust out a whole lot of family and institutional memorabilia, stored in trunks, in attics and in storage spaces. Who knows what interesting facts and accounts can be found that will bring alive a time past, a moment frozen in the aspic of life and civilization. 

Published in EVES TOUCH, Chennai

RamanaRajgopaul / / 6 yrs ago

great review.  some new insights into the devadasi parampara.  nice little touch that bit about the income tax!

LakshmiMukundan / / 6 yrs ago


you could be right..........there is some tale about s thirunal having patronised a dancer who must have started as a devadasi coz i don't know who else danced in public in those days........nothing unusual for a king i suppose


padmum / / 6 yrs ago


thanks. the court dance itself was an extension of the temple dancers craft i think.

maybe we can get expert comments on that.

padmini natarajan

LakshmiMukundan / / 6 yrs ago


i found the book reviews interesting especially the brave exploits of nagarathnamma......

i am not sure if mohiniattam falls into the devadasi range.......i was told that it was more of a court dance established during the time of king swathy thirunal.........

written in a very simple and straight forward manner


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