Kumbakonam Balamani- Larger than Rajni

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Kumbakonam Balamani

The lost legacy of Kumbakonam Balamani is mostly forgotten today but is somehow alive ‘In the Land of the Great Palms’ written by a French novelist and traveler, Julien Viaud in 1903. Author Veejay Sai in his book ‘Drama Queens: Women Who Created History on Stage’, describes the life and fate of one of the wealthiest women in history once deemed the ‘Queen of Tamil Theatre’.

Her history is intentionally destroyed because of the wealthy male patrons who saw her feminity as an attack on their moral vision. Born into the status of Devadasi, Kumbakonam Balami is the most celebrated artist of Tamil theatre, who had fans across the country praising her raw and fresh talent. But more than this, she was a savior for distressed women who find their solace under her guidance. So why did her legacy fade away?

The Queen of Tamil Theatre, Kumbakonam Balamani one of the wealthiest single-earning women in history.

The exact date of birth of Kumbakonam Balamani is unknown but it is mentioned that she was born into the status of devadasi, a practice to dedicating young girls to God later sold as harlots, in the kavarai castes in Tamil Nadu’s Kumbakonam. She learned to sing and act in Sanskrit. Balami was different, unlike most of the women of her society, she had raw talent and inherited art that she wished to share. During her teenage years, Balami escaped the temple and established one of the first formal enterprises in India: The Balamani Drama Company.

As she herself was born as Devdasi, Balami was well aware of the fate these young girls awaits. Thus, her company only houses and employs distressed women who in some sense need asylum for security. The company was entirely run by women. Soon many competitors entered the market however, the Balamani Drama Company stood out as it remained exclusive “disenfranchised by anti-devadasi legislation”.

Kumbakonam Balamani

As the theatre evolved, it no longer portrayed Tamil mythological stories but started venturing into politics, bigotry, and feminism. Theatre became a political weapon. Balamani would often show portraying fierce male characters donning leather jackets, boots, and fencing swords. She would play detectives, warriors, and charismatic male leads. But her diversity was even broader than just acting, Balamani was famous for carrying out ‘bold’ roles and enacting nude scenes that were considered taboo during those days.

In the play called Tara Shashankam, where Tara, played by Balamani had to appear nude before her lover to express her loyalty to him. Balamani took the role seriously and appeared either completely nude behind the transculent screen or wore clad clothes that made her body look bare. The play was a huge hit and she gained thousands of fans from around the globe. However, her brave bold personality wasn’t appreciated by the upper-caste tier of male artists. It wasn’t just the fierce nature of her character that invited such a large audience it was also about how she enacted bold roles.

Her company rose up quickly and so did Balamani’s wealth. But she used this money to help women, build temples, and marry girls with extravagant dowries. Most of her money was used for charity. Her fame grew so big, that in the 1900s the government organized two special trains called ‘Balamani Special Express’, to carry her fans from different parts of the state to watch her play in Kumbakonam. She rode in a silver chariot and owned a huge mansion with 50 or more employees. Her garden was home to peacocks and deers with marble fountains. Even the attires she wore became a fashion statement among the women of the state.

Pierre Loti recorded, “The poor know the road to her house well enough”.

Kumbakonam Balamani

So what happened to this stage star?

Despite the love and fame she received, Balamani remained a topic of discussion among the elite society who often would call her acts immoral and against the social norms. They would leave no stones untouched to do anything to stop Balamani’s play. But eventually, the fame she had managed to remain intact.

However, years of charity soon backfired. As she grew old, her stardom declines, and years of using her money to help young girls left her penniless in the end. Once being the wealthiest woman in the country, Kumbakonam Balamani spend her last days in extreme poverty. Due to which she had to move from her palace to a small home in Madurai. Even for her funeral, her loyal associates had to collect money to afford her last rites. Her house was also demolished to build a shopping complex instead.

But even after the decade of her death, voices against her were never silenced and in 1944, a resolution was passed under the aegis of one Parthasarathy Iyengar, banning the play Tara Shashankam. The stigma of being fearless during those days managed to outshine Balamani’s talent and her tale remained lost in the pages of history.

“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 the stage, wherever a play is performed. She was truly the first celebrated superstar of the Tamil stage.”- Veejay Sai, Drama Queens: Women who Created History on Stage.

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