Larger than Rajini: The 19th-century stage actress who drove to her performances in a silver chariot

Veejay Sai’s ‘Drama Queens’ explores the lives of ten theatre divas.

The earliest accounts of Kumbakonam Balamani, often mentioned as ‘Balamoni’ and ‘Balamony’ by various colonial writers, are found in a brief sketch of the French travelogue L’Inde Sans Le Anglais (India without the English) by Julien Viaud. A French novelist and an adventurous naval officer, he extensively toured remote parts of south India in late 1890s. Under his pen-name ‘Pierre Loti’, he was a voracious writer and chronicler of his travels to several parts of the world. The book that was out in 1903 gives a fairly animated account of the life and times in various parts of India that he travelled to. Popular as the ‘legendary romantic traveller’, Loti’s writing is filled with flowery language and a visually arresting commentary. In the fourth chapter of his book titled In the Land of the Great Palms, Loti dedicates a couple of pages in praise of ‘Balamoni – The good Bayadere’ and goes on to mention his experience of meeting her in Madurai. Bayadere was a common Anglo phrase used for women who hailed from traditional performance practitioner communities who were later popularly referred to as ‘Devadasis’.

While everyone was well-aware of the Tamil dramas of that era, the most popular ones penned by Shankaradas Swamigal, Loti observes Balamani presenting a Sanskrit play. In his travelogue, he notes:

‘Balamoni sings in a tongue that has long since vanished – in Sanskrit, which is the mother of our Indo-European languages, and the entire play will be played in this language just as it was written formerly in the first dawn of time; but all the listeners, excepting myself, are sufficiently educated to understand it…

‘...during one of the entr’actes I went to the box of Balamoni (who had been told of my intended visit) in order to thank her for being so beautiful, and for having played the young girl’s part with gestures so pure and simple. I found her in a plain little room captured with matting, in which the diamonds and ornaments that were strewn about seemed as much out of place as the fantastic presents that some genii might have left in the hut of a shepherdess. As I reached the door the waiting-men, in accordance with the usual custom, placed a thick collar of natural flowers, interwoven with gold thread, round my neck, and the hostess offered me her hand with an easy and assured grace. Her proposal, she informed me, was to revive the whole of the ancient Sanskrit plays, and she professed herself much flattered when I mentioned that I would speak to my friends in France.’

Shankaradas Swamigal’s Tamil Drama group on a visit to Ceylon in 1890. Courtesy: Roli Books
Shankaradas Swamigal’s Tamil Drama group on a visit to Ceylon in 1890. Courtesy: Roli Books

He mentions her striking beauty and charm and his experience of having watched her sing, play the mandolin and perform the Sanskrit play. He speaks of all the gold, diamonds and rubies adorning her body, supposedly bequeathed to her in the will of a smitten Nawab who was madly in love with her. Writing about his brief interaction with her at the railway station the next day, he recollects:

‘The bayadere comported herself with so much reserve and dignity, indeed, that I saluted her, just as I would have done any lady of position. She answered my greeting in the Indian manner, touching her forehead with two ruby-covered hands; then, accompanied by her maids, took her seat in the carriage “For ladies only”. I follow the good Balamoni with my eyes as I leave the horrible neighbourhood of the station and make my way to the temple of the goddess. During the course of the day some of her kindly deeds were related to me. This one amongst others: last month some European ladies who were collecting money for a Hindoo orphanage came to her, upon which Balamoni, with her beautiful smile, handed them a note for a thousand rupees (about eighty pounds). She is charitable to all, and the poor know the road to her house well enough.’

This brief account in many ways summarizes the kind of grand impression Balamani made on those who met and interacted with her. By the time Loti met her, she was a highly celebrated star.

Balamani lived life queen size, literally. A palatial bungalow with a swimming pool, marble fountains, a garden adorned with a swing and peacocks and deer, a domestic staff of over fifty women and much more surrounded her at all times. When she ventured out to make an appearance in public, she did so in style, in a silver chariot drawn by four horses. Her fame grew so much at some point in the early 1900s that the State began arranging special trains to ferry scores of her fans who wanted to watch her plays. The Great South Indian Railway Company that was headquartered in London, with its regional head-office in Trichy, decided to run two special trains to ferry crowds that came to watch her plays. ‘Balamani Special Express’ would set off in the evening at several stations like Mayavaram and Trichy and reach Kumbakonam by nine in the night. After a night-long play, the train would again start at six in the morning and return with her fans, fed amply on her acting and art. Balamani sarees, bangles, anklets and cosmetics became a rage among the audiences. This was probably the first time such merchandise was created in the honour of any woman drama artiste in Indian theatre. It was her charity that reached her to high fame as Pierre Loti noted in his travelogue.

However, in spite of all her fame, she remained much ostracized by the conservative elite and puritans of that time. Tara Shashankam, a romance about Tara, a celestial nymph who was cursed to take birth as a princess in the world of humans, created much controversy in the theatre circles. To redeem herself she had to appear nude before her lover Chandran and apply oil on his body. Balamani in the role of Tara dared to take on this role and the play was a huge hit among audiences. Various versions exist on how Balamani would enact the role. Some say a semi-transparent curtain would drop and Balamani would actually be bare-topped and enact the role and other versions mention her wearing a cloth that made her upper body look bare. Either ways this scene was all of one minute and had the audiences in hysteria. The commotion was enough to trigger off debates on morality and censorship among the conservative upper-caste elite.

Kumbakonam Balamani. Courtesy: Roli Books
Kumbakonam Balamani. Courtesy: Roli Books

A decade after Balamani’s death, at a conference held in Erode in 1944, a resolution was passed under the aegis of one Parthasarathy Iyengar, banning the play and condemning it as a nudist and immoral one. The resolution also endeavoured to ‘clean’ the art of theatre, ‘salvage’ it from the hands of devadasis and entrust it into the ‘safe sanitized hands’ of other upper-caste communities.

Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar (1873-1964), a lawyer who began with aggressively detesting theatre and saying it was a vulgar medium, turned into an ardent fan and playwright after seeing the great Telugu actor Ramakrishnacharyulu manage his own drama company while being a public servant. Taking a cue from the travelling Parsi theatrical companies, his attempt at modernizing the existing Tamil theatre using western techniques of stage and light design marked him as the renaissance man of the modern Tamil theatre movement. He began the Suguna Vilasa Sabha in 1892, as an amateur theatre company. Adapting many Shakespearean plays to the Tamil stage, he penned ninety-four plays in his lifetime, all of which were performed in his Sabha and in most of which he acted. His productions brought to the forefront the dignity of theatre as a profession and dealt with actors as responsible citizens. He earned patronage from eminent personalities from various walks of life. In his memoirs he mentions working with Balamani when he was writing his play Manohara.

KB Sundarambal and SG Kitappa, the celebrated couple of early Tamil drama who were inspired by Balamani. Courtesy: Roli Books
KB Sundarambal and SG Kitappa, the celebrated couple of early Tamil drama who were inspired by Balamani. Courtesy: Roli Books

History and fate turned cruel to Balamani. Her charity cost her much. Gradually her property eroded and she was forced to move to Madurai. The last days of her life were spent in utter penury. CS Shamanna, a comedian in Tamil cinema, popular as ‘Hundred-faced Samanna’, had worked in Balamani’s company earlier and he writes of the sad news of her demise he received while in Madurai. He gathered money from friends and conducted her funeral. Almost no records of the dates exist but historians have said she died around 1935. Her grand house in Kumbakonam was auctioned. It was torn down later for a commercial complex.

The movement Balamani started empowered many more actresses to start their own drama troupes in the following decades. Golden Saradambal, Gnanambal, MR Vasavambal and several others took their inspiration from the legacy Balamani left behind. Many women artistes became active between the ’30s and ’40s and used theatre as a form of protest against the Raj and to show their support to the formation of the new Indian nation. Vasavambal, a celebrated harmonist of her time, dared to raise her voice against the British regime and was arrested on stage and taken into police custody. KB Sundarambal became a legendary stage and screen actor in addition to being an accomplished Kutcheri singer. TP Rajalakshmi, another stage actress, became the first super-star heroine and the first woman director of Tamil cinema. Many more women dared to fight an oppressive system by the time India gained her independence from British rule.

As for Balamani, her memory continues to linger in the jingle of anklets, in the many silent gestures registered in the reflections of green room mirrors and in the side-wings and curtains on stage, where ever a play is performed. She was truly the first celebrated superstar of the Tamil stage.

Excerpted with permission from Drama Queens: Women Who Created History On Stage, Veejay Sai, Roli Books.

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