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Saraswathi Bai – First Woman Harikatha Exponent From Tamil Nadu

Saraswathi Bai (1874–1974) was an exponent of harikatha (kakshepa) – musical discourses on Puranic stories and hagiologies. She was born into a poor Madhwa Brahmin family in 1894 CE. Her mother tongue was Kannada. Being the first lady to enter in this field of discourse in Tamil Nadu, she had to face many obstacles before establishing herself.

She had a beautiful personality, a sweet and majestic voice, a good sense of shruti, raga and laya (cadence, melody and measure). She was an effective speaker. She was in the field of Katha for an uninterrupted period of 40 years and retired gracefully.

Teacher and mentor of Saraswathi Bai was Thiruvaiyaru Krishnamachar, a great scholar in Sanskrit and a close associate of Krishna Bhagavathar. He sought the help of Thanjavur Panchapekesha Bhagavathar, a disciple of Krishna Bhagavathar, to help Saraswathi Bai.

Saraswathi Bai followed katha paddhati of Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavathar. She was a competent exponent of both Carnatic and Hindustani systems of music, and thus her music was an attractive feature in her harikatha. The number of topics in her katha repertoire was about a dozen. But she gave them an exhaustive treatment. Her masterpieces were Nandanar Caritram and Bhadrachala Ramadasa. She had mastered several languages like Sanskrit, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Marathi.

She was patronized by several royal courts in the South and received recognition in the form of medals and titles like ‘Gayanapattu’, which was conferred on her in 1946 CE by Digambar Paluskar, Principal, Gandharva-Maha-Viyalaya, Pune. The title ‘Kirtanapattu’ was conferred on her by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Her popularization of harikatha was that of a pioneer.