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Affirming a History Lost in the Conjunction between Social Respectability and Historiography of Arts

The Legacy of Balamani Ammal in Tamil Theatre

Tracing the life and works of Balamani Ammal, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century, flags off the aspects of gendered history of theatre. It is a rich history of someone who ventured into many forms—Sadhir, stage dramas, “novels,” Sanskrit plays, and Harikatha. It also reveals her exceptional interest in introducing new technical devices like petromax lighting and creating silhouette through the use of lights. She, along with her sister Rajambal, formed the first ever all-female theatre company in Tamil Nadu. Using Balamani Ammal’s sketchy life available through scant resources, the paper would like to raise issues with the historiographic practices existing in theatre history from a gendered point of view.

A Mangai (V Padma) ( is a feminist theatre practitioner and academician, retired professor of English from Stella Maris College, Chennai. She has been actively engaged in Tamil theatre, specifically community theatre as an actor, director, and playwright for more than three decades. She has researched in the areas of theatre, gender, and translation studies. She has directed over 35 plays. Her book Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India 1979 Onwards has been published by Leftword, New Delhi.

The history of cultural practices—patronage, skills, resources, and fame—are appendages of default patriarchal systems. In a society that is constructed purely on the basis of caste hierarchy, it becomes all the more pronounced and assumed for any history to largely address upper caste, middle class, urban, educated, and male members. It is ever more frustrating to notice that in a society like Tamil Nadu, which has an almost continuous tradition of a bardic community from at least the 2nd century BCE with its own ebb and flow, one has to sift the pages of history to find names of women as practitioners of art and culture. It is even more appalling when the histories we cannot find are only two centuries old. How and why are the traces of women’s lives and works in art erased? Why do the best of minds with reformist zeal and progressive ideology turn a blind eye to women’s monumental struggles for survival and success? These questions will remain.

Exploring popular genres has never been taken seriously. That attitude stems from the middle-class aspirations to take “high” culture to heart and assume that anything popular is “low.” Hence, the continuing debates about Bharatanatyam—the Indian dance—as it is constructed in less than a century.1 Theodore Baskaran’s The Message Bearers (1981) pioneered the study of how the popular culture in Tamil Nadu—the stage, the songs sung on stage, silent cinema, records, and early Talkies—was quick in responding to the times at hand. Even when he did his research almost 40 years ago, he says, he had to depend on personal interviews, anecdotes, and memories of people involved in these forms after almost 30 years. In an earlier attempt by V Arasu and I, we tried to construct and rewrite the history of Tamil theatre based on drama notices (2009). Many significant studies have followed (Stephen Hughes, Hari Krishnan others). Except Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar,2 no other practitioner had documented their personal experiences meticulously. The memoirs published later are anecdotal and do not provide exact dates.3 The studies on the history of Tamil theatre written in Tamil language focus on published scripts primarily and anecdotes that are repeated so often without any corroboration.4 Even though the history of theatre and dance overlaps—especially in the case of early actresses—a complementary study of the two forms has not been done. The allied forms of dance, music—specifically the Javalis and Padams sung, while dancing or performing Harikathas5—are also scant. While almost all the historical narratives refer to Marathi and Telugu influence on Tamil theatre and music, exploration of the connections of the artists and genres to neighbouring states of Kerala or Karnataka are lacking. We also have the South Asian and South East Asian connections that need to be explored.

Tracing Balamani Ammal

Bearing in my mind the lacuna in this area of study, I trace, as much as I can, the life of Kumbakonam Balamani Ammal. Unlike in Bengali and Marathi, women have not written their own experiences of working in theatre. Reading Binodini Dasi’s autobiography (1998) reveals the dilemmas of the woman artist as a woman and an artist. Almost all regions have fantastic stories of early actresses. However, they largely do not get written into the history of theatre.6 The Western academia with its parameters have established performance as cultural labour and actresses as working women who have defied moralistic taboos and struggled to keep their passion for art alive (Davis 1991). As I have explained elsewhere the dictates of the academia cater to the ever-expanding fields of studies and it becomes rather loaded with theories that are used as yardsticks to fit the practices, very often losing sight of the ground realities (Mangai 2015). My concern is primarily to focus on Balamani’s life, scholarship, and shared memory in the Tamil theatre world and understand her strategies of survival within the context of Tamil Nadu. Even now, we have no information on Balamani’s birth and death. I am attempting to put the available pieces of information together here.

The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre (2004) has a short entry on her written by me. Veejay Sai’s Drama Queens (2017) opens with a narrative on Balamani. That is probably the longest version we have on her in English. He retells the many anecdotes that are repeated in Tamil theatre circles, along with a reference to a French travelogue. He writes of Balamani’s explorations in Harikatha and Javali that is written on her. (I have discussed this in the later section.) Written as a table-top book, the text lacks academic rigour. Tamil sources are not part of the text. The title of “Indian Chaplin” is attributed to Jagannatha Iyer, instead of C S Samanna, who finally coordinated her last rites in Madurai taking help from fellow artists7 (Radha 1980: 151). This text is yet another reminder of the murky area that requires discussion, namely the ethics of bilingual scholars writing in the all-powerful academic tongue of English. Davesh Soneji’s Unfinished Gestures (2012) mentions Balamani’s company that was very famous in the first two decades of the 20th century.8

Tamil sources on Balamani are also scant. There are only two full length articles on her. Of the two, M K Radha—son of M Kandasami Mudaliar who was a teacher at Balamani’s company and a stalwart of creating a new genre of plays based on popular novels—has published an article in 1980. In that they have acknowledged Filimaalaya, a popular magazine on films in Tamil, without date or year. The article is reproduced once again and cited in many articles without due acknowledgement to the popular magazine.9 Mu Ambikapathy’s article on Balamani published in 2001 is also based primarily on that. But she interviews some of the older artists and acknowledges them as part of her research based on oral narratives.10 Unfortunately, she passed away two years ago and I could not check if she had the transcripts of those interviews. What I managed with the help of our student–friend’s family residing in Kumbakonam was to check if there are any traces of Balamani left in that town. An interview with the third-generation guard at the Kumbeswarar temple kindled the passionate narrative all over again.11 He too recounted her riches and her miserable end. The same narratives are repeated in almost all the memoirs, studies, and interviews of theatre people in Tamil. Chief among them is Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar’s (1964: 26–29) brief section on Balamani in his list of contemporary artists. His account does not mention “Balamani Special” trains or her technical experimentation. He refers to her tragic end as information he heard from others.

Drama Queen’ Balamani

M K Radha (1980) explains that his father shared stories about Balamani. He begins by saying that in the last two decades of the 19th century, she ruled the stage. Balamani was the first ever woman to receive the title “Drama Queen.” He does not however, tell us by whom or when that title was bestowed on her. She was the first to run an all-female drama company. Kandasami Mudaliar was invited to train them in Pammal’s famous play Manohara. The company had many artists who had made their mark, such as Rajambal, Krishnaveni, and Victorial. Balamani had a sweet voice, looked a lot younger than she was and was kind and compassionate to people. She was a talented actor who had a mastery over Bharatanatyam. She enjoyed the patronage of rich landlords. Her heart melted at the plight of orphaned girls. That was the primary reason for her starting an all-female company. There were close to 70 female artists in her company. She was keen on helping the young women “settle down.” She built a marriage hall adjacent to the Kumbakonam temple for this purpose. It was named after her.

Balamani’s penchant for excelling in the form and openness to incorporate new elements was legendary. She is credited with introducing the petromax lamps instead of the torches used at that time as source of light. She also had appropriate scenery painted for new plays. That was quite unusual and expensive during that period. Reference to the play Tara Sasangam where Lord Chandra asks Tara to become naked and apply oil on him circulates still. That single scene, which lasts for hardly few seconds, was managed by Balamani wearing a skin-hugging suit in dim light. There seems to have been a huge fanfare for this play.12

The significant contribution of the group was to perform Mudaliar’s adaptation of novels for stage. Rajambal is a play based on the novel by the same name written by J R Rangaraju, a popular writer. Rajambal, the sister and one of the lead actors in the group, performed the lead. “Novels” have evolved almost as a separate genre in Tamil Nadu.

Another story that stays in public memory is the running of “Balamani Special” trains from Mayavaram and Tiruchirappalli (also called Tiruchi or Trichy) respectively. They are said to have arrived exactly in time for her shows in Kumbakonam and return after the play was over around 3 am to their destinations. Veejay Sai (2017: 34) refers to it and mentions that the regional head office in Trichy got it approved from the head office of the Indian Railways in London.13

Radha describes how Balamani led a luxurious life. Her house in Kumbakonam was palatial. The house is now a textile store. Sai wrongly mentions that her house was made into a cinema hall later. She travelled in a four-horse drawn carriage covered by satin curtains. Apparently, people queued up to see her carriage pass. When she stood on the terrace drying her hair, fans would wait at the entrance to watch her. There are stories of how she handled over-enthusiastic fans with kindness. The oral narrative of Sangili Pandi too confirms this aspect of her behaviour. Radha mentions that she was 65 years old when she died, even though he does not provide the year or date.

Sai’s book refers to a French travelogue written by Pierre Loti titled L’Inde (sans les Anglais) (India [without the English]).14 Needless to reiterate the caution with which one has to read the colonial travelogue writer known also for his ornate style. Loti had met Balamani in Madurai during his travels in 1899–1900. She is referred to as the “good Bayodere”—a French term that is synonymous with communities of performers. Loti’s record narrates how Balamani performed a play in Sanskrit. Sai quotes Loti as follows: “I went to the box of Balamani (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.” Loti saw her amidst precious jewellery gifted to her strewn all around; she greeted him with a garland and had an easy and graceful manner. “Her proposal, she informed me, was to revive the whole of the ancient Sanskrit plays.” He mentions that a nawab had bequeathed her riches through his will. He also mentions how he met her the next day at the railway station where she boarded the “ladies only” carriage. Loti’s day is spent listening to Balamani’s stories. He mentions how she was kind-hearted and charitable. When the European ladies who were collecting money for an orphanage approached her, Balamani generously donated `1,000 for the cause.15

Loti travels through Sri Lanka and southern India in 1899–1900. In Trivandrum, he enjoys the hospitality of the Maharajah of Travancore. His record of events at Trivandrum is written as diary entries with the dates. Hence, we know that he visited Thanjavur after 3 January 1900. He reaches Madurai via Trichy. After visiting the Madurai Meenakshi temple, he attends Balamani’s show. We know now that he visited her in January 1900.

Loti (1928: 115) refers to Balamani as living in Madura. He opens the chapter as follows:

In accordance with the usual custom, she was at first the favourite of a Nabob, who at his death left her covered with as many precious stone as an idol. Rich and free now, she spends her fortune in works of art and deeds of charity.

In the section where he describes meeting her at the station, he gives an account of her off-stage appearance. After mentioning how she stands out from the rest of the crowd, he says

From afar she could be seen shining like a star for there were diamonds in her ears, diamonds on her neck and bosom, and her beautiful bare arms were covered with diamonds from the wrists to the shoulders. Others of a wondrous limpidity were attached to the septum of her little quivering nose, drooping over her mouth. Between her yellow waist band and the short corset of a lilac-coloured silk, a portion of her body, smooth as a fair column of metal and part of the breasts, whose outlines were modestly concealed by folds of muslin, were exposed to view. In evening dress our women expose the upper part of the bosom, and I cannot see that it is more improper to show the lower part, it lends itself less to artificial imposition, that is all. (Loti 1928: 117)

Throughout the narrative, Loti is aware that Balamani hails from a system that is not meant for domestic, married women. Loti’s account corroborates the narratives oft-quoted by many theatre practitioners in Tamil. This document is truly precious and the section on Balamani has been translated by Theodore Baskaran already. This has not become part of the scholarship on theatre history in Tamil yet.

Another account brought to light by Sai is the account of Balamani in Raja Ravi Varma’s works. Ravi Varma lived in Kumbakonam for a while during an earlier part of his life. He did a series of paintings on Kumbakonam street life. His portrait of the porter that is part of this series is very popular. He must have met Balamani when she was under the patronage of the royal family of Travancore. From Ravi Varma’s younger brother C Raja Raja Varma’s diary entries of the final decade of his brother’s life, we learn almost a day-to-day account of the painter (Neumayer et al 2005). Sai quotes from his entries on 18 and 19 April 1903 (2017: 159–60),

This evening, my two brothers, and my nephews K Kerala Varma and Rama Varma, went to the theatre to see the performance of a play by P Balamony’s troupe. This talented woman has acquired a wide reputation in southern India as an actress. Great credit is due to her as she is the first to appear on the boards as a professional actress and have a company of her own.

On 20 April 1903, he writes:

Balamony came to see my brother and requested him to paint her portrait for her. He made some remarks about her acting and pointed out to her in what aspects there was room for improvement. She received the advice with cheerfulness. We told her that we could not paint her portrait without the sanction of the Maharaja. She has promised to get it, for the Maharaja is pleased with her.

On 21 April, the entry says,

There is no talk in Trivandrum now except that of Balamony and her troupe. She attracts full houses.

Putting these two written documents together, we gather that at the turn of 20th century, Balamani was at the peak of her career and maturity in art as well as life.

Sai’s book contains a portrait of “Balamani”—“Famous Actress in Malayali Costume” (2017: 27). The social network entry of Picture Postcard Empire on 15 April 2020 juxtaposed two postcards of Balamani’s portrait by Ravi Varma. It points out

The first one is from the famous D A Ahuja photographer and postcard producer in Rangoon. Balamani’s drama company would have travelled to Burma, where there was a sizeable Tamil community. The second postcard (which we have previously posted) was produced by Higginbotham and Co, a bookseller from Madras and Bangalore without naming her. 16

The two written documents and the painting are by far the most solid factual details, we can get about Balamani. It also gives us an idea of how Balamani actually looked around the turn of the 20th century. There are also other details from the allied forms of Harikatha and Javali that Sai documents. Thirupazhanam Panchapakesa Sastri (1868–1924) moved to Kumbakonam. Balamani took lessons with him and together they performed recitals of Harikatha interspersed with abinaya—gestures. Sai mentions that Pudukkottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai (1857–1936) joined the Harikatha team and later joined Balamani’s theatre group as a tabla player. On the contrary, Sruti magazine records, “Starting his career in Balamani Ammal’s drama troupe and musical discourses, he rose to fame with the concert opportunities that started coming to him.”17

Javali/Padams are songs that accompany dance. Javalikarta Dharmapuri Subbaraya Ayyar (1864–1927) was a government servant turned composer. Popular in the southern states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, this form of composition is considered to be “lewd” poetry. They were extremely popular in the 19th century and many of them continue to enthral the connoisseurs of music and dance. Subbaraya Ayyar’s songs were popular on the Tamil stage and Veena Dhanammal popularised his Javalis in the repertoire of Carnatic music. He was an ardent fan of Balamani. He had dedicated a Javali to her. The first anthology of his Javalis published in 1896 did not contain this song (Sai 2017: 33). But M S Subbulakshmi recorded it on RPM record in 1932; recently we have Sanjay Subramanyam rendering that song.18 It goes like this, first given here in Telugu and then English:

Emandune muddu balamani cheli

Emani vinnavintune O chili

cheliya palkulu cheluvunaku delpitine

cheliya maimarachitine

munu nanu galasi marmamu lerigina

Sri dharmapurisu Dunnade o cheli

(How shall I tell you?

My dearest Balamani

What can I ask for, my friend!

I passed on her words to the lover

She was entranced—O friend!

He, who knows my secrets from afore,

Lord of Dharmapuri is here, my friend!)19

The deceptively simple lyric allows for much dramatic expression of excitement and pleasure between lovers. It clearly suggests an ongoing affair of two passionate people. The rendering of the song conveys it to an extent, leaving the rest to the imagination of people who are aware of Bharatanatyam dance structures.

Balamani in the Historical Narratives of Theatre in Tamil

Having laid out the sketchy description of Balamani gleaned from the sources that Sai has put together, corroborated and corrected as much as possible, it is important to critically engage with Tamil sources. These narratives address how women fashioned and refashioned themselves in theatre; how the fellow artists received them; how the narration of history of theatre fulfilled the tenets of middle-class morality and thus omitted these women.

The major sources in Tamil on the history of Tamil theatre are memoirs by practitioners—chief among them being Pammal’s detailed record of his stage experiences, academic research and documentation that are primarily text-based and oral
interviews. They were written in the late 1970s and seminar presentations and articles in souvenirs. The major names that emerge in all of these sources are Sankaradas Swamigal (1867–1922), Parithimarkalainjar aka Vi Ko Suriyanarayana (Sastri) (1870–1903), C Kannaiah (Naidu) (1872–1932) Pammal Sambandam (Mudaliar) (1873–1964), N Kandasami (Mudaliar) (1874–1939), and T P Krishnaswami Pavalar (1890–1934). All their histories were intertwined and overlapped in several instances, even though in Tamil writings there is much polarising. Swamigal and Pammal are polarised as catering to the southern and northern Tamil Nadu. The rural and the urban are polarised as are professional versus amateur groups and Puranic versus early modern plays.20 There were, however, no such watertight compartments and nor were those mentioned in these narratives, the only people in this field. Texts, training, new experiments in genres, innovation in technology and participation in political debates with a fine balance between all of this was the norm. Attempts were made in the 1940s for all the drama artists to gather, discuss, demand and make their presence known. Commemorations of the pioneers were held in the 1970s and 1980s. This realm was not restricted to Tamil Nadu alone. The exchanges and negotiations ranged from present-day regions of Maharashtra, Andhra, Karnataka, and other South and South East Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and Burma.

A list of about 69 theatre groups is mentioned during the last few decades of the 19th to early 20th centuries. Out of them, six companies were run by women. Balamani Ammal’s Balamani Nataka Kampeni, V P Janaki Ammal’s Kanchipuram Sri Vijaya Kandhrava Gana Sabha, P Irathinambal’s Sri Ganapathy Gana Sabha, Vedavalli Thayar’s Samarasa Gana Sabha, Vijayalakshmi–Kannamani’s Vijaya Gandharva Nataka Sabha, and P Iraajaththammal’s Sri Meenambikai Nataka Sabha (quoted in Ambikapathy 2001: 203). Of the six groups, Balamani is the only one to have run a company in her own name. It also seems like she was the only one to have run an all-women theatre company. A N Perumal, one of the first persons to work on this area for research, mentions a separate group run by Rajambal, Balamani’s sister. He mentions that she ran a company like Balamani and was proficient in English (1988: 111). All other accounts refer to Balamani–Rajambal as the sisters who ran the company. Perumal (1988) mentions a Balambal who ran her own company. In his short note on her, he says she performed his play Manohara “quite well for a woman.” He, of course, dedicates a slightly long paragraph for Balamani. Sai also mentions that it was Rajambal who took a fancy to theatre and joined the company of Manamohana Arangasami Naidu, who was a famous female impersonator. None of the Tamil sources refer to this detail and Sai does not provide his source.

Rajambal, the sister of Balamani, was a talented artist. Kanadasami Mudaliar, who was a teacher in their company, adapted J R Rangaraju’s novel by the namesake for stage with Rajambal in his mind on the lead. That play was a huge success and was also made into a talkie later. Radha, son of Kandasami Mudaliar, describes how his father decided on adapting a novel for stage.

One day when the Company was performing at Madurai, my father had gone to Pudhu Manadapam. He was looking at the books that were on sale in a shop. He came across the social novel Rajambal written by Rangaraju. He immediately thought of Rajambal in Balamani’s company.
Rajambal was beautiful; she was fair as rose and strong as ivory; she had a calm demeanour and sweet voice. On stage she will act wonderfully in her character and off stage, she remained graceful like a silver lamp (kuthu vilakku)21 that burns bright. It sparked in him an idea to make the novel into a play and make her perform the lead role. He wrote a three-hour long play in two days in one breath. This was the first time in Tamil that a novel was adapted for stage. It was my father who did this. Many famous musicians and actors have performed this play later. (1980: 151)

The genre of “novels” plays has become a new addition to
Tamil theatre and it is quite popular in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu.22

We find a description of Balamani by Suddhanantha Bharathiyar23 in an article, he had contributed for the souvenir of Tamil Nadu Dramatic Arts Development Conference (1944). In his list of stalwarts of drama in the 20th century, he mentions two women—Balamani and Kokilambal. He goes on to describe that, “Balamani was a gifted artist. She made women take to stage. Her musical prowess is amazing; her acting moving, her diction crystal clear. She earned a lot; and was magnanimous in her charity.” This account is probably the earliest written account on Balamani that we have in Tamil.

Balamani’s philanthropy was far-reaching. The reason for starting an all-women company was to support poor, orphaned girls. She had close to 70 women in her company. They stayed at her bungalow and were given a royal treatment. She was keen on helping these women settle down in life. She conducted marriages irrespective of caste or religious differences. If they chose to lead a domestic life, she made sure they had support. For this very reason, she built a marriage hall at the Kumbeswarar temple in Kumbakonam. Even though the building is still there, the plaque with her name has been removed now. The watchman confirmed in his interview about how the hall was built with wood from Kerala and built with stone and not bricks. Balamani is supposed to have adopted Victorial as her daughter. We find Victorial’s name in early drama notices (Mangai and Arasu 2009: 121–22). She adopted a boy named Sampath as her grandson and trained him in music. Sampath released a record of Sampurna Ramayana. He also trained Vazhuvur Anjugam in music (quoted in Ambikapathy 2001: 206). She also refers to a stone inscription at the Kumbeswarar temple with Balamani’s name. Unfortunately, that could not be located now.

Apart from the riches she amassed, Balamani was also known for her compassionate handling of fans who crossed the limits. Ambikapathy in her article quotes an incident narrated by Sivathanu recalling his uncle K Sarangapani’s sharing. A fan who was madly passionate about Balamani, app­roached her with a request to “have company for just a day.” She maintained her composure and told him to come to her house. And when he came, she gifted him with a dhoti, shirt and towel and asked him: “Why do you all behave thus? Can’t you ever see actresses like us as women? Or as human beings who have our honour?” Her words of hurt and suffering shocked the man and he fell at her feet seeking apology.

Whether it actually occurred or not, the question is the crux of the whole issue. Were these early actresses—probably from marginalised background in terms of caste or class—respected as women? Were they given the dignity that is due to all human beings? Sadly, the answer is probably not. One can only take comfort that there were no aspersions cast on the women artists in Tamil history. This too, however, may only be because that burden was borne by the Bharatanatyam artists from the devadasi community. Nrithya Pillai’s subtle unpacking of how Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, recasting sadhir as bharatham had different effects on the male and female members of the community. The women had to give up their art and prove their “respectability” by living a domesticated life (Pillai 2022).

Creating Space

One of the major areas of concern in performance traditions in India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was female impersonation and the entry of women on stage. Unlike in Bengali, Marathi, and Kannada, Tamil dramatists and theatre people did not engage in heated discussions regarding this area. Nor do we have documented sources on this subject. Pammal Sambandam (1998: 720–22) dwells on this subject towards the end of his autobiography.24 In his brief sum-up of the role of women on Tamil stage, he says how women were part of the performance traditions in Tamil region almost 1,800 years ago. Silappathikaram, a text dating back to 6th century is a document that proves it. He quotes how the practice of dasi women performing in temples continue till his times. From the mid-19th century, we know that a few women performed in plays like Dambachari Vilasam.25 He also surmises that these women were probably dasis and therefore considered lowly for women to even attend the shows, leave alone perform. Pammal’s play Thasippen (1928) sums up the hypocrisies of the middle-class moralistic attitude and the plight of the women from the community.

Pammal mentions that Balamani’s company is perhaps the first ever all-female drama company. He compares the state of women’s participation on stage to that of the period of King Charles II. Most of these women hail from dasi tradition. He says in the past two years or so—by which he means early decades of 20th century—a few women from respectable families have appeared on stage along with their husbands or close relatives. He further adds, “I am sure as Western culture begins to spread here, educated family-women would also start acting on stage. Still, until our women too are educated and mingle with men casually as equals in our country, I don’t think it is advisable for our women to take to stage” (Sambandam 1998: 721). He refers to how some people think it is better for women to play women on stage, however beautiful and graceful the men who play women look or act. He disagrees with that view and says,

When you cast an elite upper-class actor to play the thief, audience watch him and enjoy! How will a thief playing that role make it any better? My friend P V Ramanuja Chettiar performs the dhobi role in Prathapa Rudriyam. He is much appreciated for that. What good will come, if we make an actual dhobi to play that role? Similarly, I hold the opinion that a man playing a woman’s role realistically is to be commended. Theatre is about playing characters; in it a man playing a woman is praise-worthy. (Sambandam 1998: 722)

I have discussed Pammal’s fond friendship with the female impersonator in his group C Rangavadivelu elsewhere (Mangai 2019). The way he has documented their friendship is a rare document of the bond that can go beyond the onstage roles. Still his views on women taking up theatre professionally are quite conservative, to say the least. But he refers to the female artists he had come across and often supported them too.

Caste and its manifestations are a default understanding in the Tamil context. The expressions of caste animosity coupled with gender and class discriminations took many forms. In the case of the theatre artists, the entry, presence, and contributions of the women were simultaneously admired and admonished in hushed tones. Very often, open admonitions are not found in the Tamil sources. Even though it does not diminish the caste question in any way, we have to bear this in mind.

C S Lakshmi (2003: xxi) says,

not all devadasis were artistes, nor were all those who were, of an equally high calibre. Some performed only the ritual duties at the temple, others in the south, like Moovalur Ramamirdathammaiyar, went into active politics. As royal patronage dwindled and the performing space shifted to the houses of aristocrats and art lovers, some devadasis changed their repertoire to make it more entertaining.

Muthulakshmi Reddy who was a major anti-nautch movement’s campaigner used the word “morality.” But, as Lakshmi argues, her concern was about minor girls being forcefully dedicated to temples and into relationships with men against their will. Her crusade for women’s education clearly proves that she envisioned an alternate, modern future for these girls once the system was banned. Balamani’s efforts to mentor young women in her drama company are no less an act of defiance to the system, much earlier than the efforts of Muthulakshmi Reddy or Moovalur Ramamirthammal. Unfortunately, in Tamil Nadu’s intellectual realm, the different strands of arguments cannot be placed on the table with compassionate criticality. The only attempt we as feminists made was to let the views of Reddy and Ramamirthammal converse with one anoother in the historian V Geetha’s play Kala Kanavu (2007). We have seen in our times a riotous, hyperbolic situation arise during any discussion on this issue. It is always treated as abolition of the devadasi system versus saving the tradition of dance. All other negotiations of the women from within the community to sustain themselves—in art or otherwise, or move on to other genres of performance considered respect­able—gramophone records, talkies, radio and many such fall in between the two extremes.

T K Shanmugam in his memoir devotes three pages to how Balamani Ammal saved the original Boys’ Company from extinction after the demise of Swamigal in 1922. Literally like a boat that has lost its moorings the company was suffering a great financial crisis. They invited Balamani’s company to give them a hand. Shanmugam (1972: 120–21) says,

Balamani Ammal was quite aged by then. She was the proprietor of the company. C S Samanna Iyer—who applied make up on me for the first time—was the manager of the company. This company consisted of women primarily. They were famous for their performance of Dambachari Vilasam. Balamani excelled as an artist in her youth. … Balamani donned the role of Dambachari. Vadivambal performed as Madhanasundari, the dasi. Samanna appeared in eleven different roles in one night. … The play earned good sales. With that contribution, our group could reach Thiruppaadhiripuliyur.

This is perhaps the only eye-witness account of Balamani as a relatively older artist.

The next we learn is that she fell into penury and lived in a hut in Madurai. And when she passed away, Samanna collected funds from fellow artists to conduct her funeral rites. There is no mention of why she went to live in Madurai and could not stay in Kumbakonam. How and why, she lost her riches, property and social standing is shrouded in mystery. It is not coincidental however that this story is the usual one we hear of many women artists across the country.

The legacy of Balamani makes the journey of contemporary women in theatre less lonely. It is a pity that we have scant sources to glean her life from, but not surprising either. Erasure of women from history is neither new nor shocking. But Balamani’s history is not just about her being a woman; it is about the history of theatre itself—its genres, technology, innovation, process, and patronage. From my brief entry in The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre in 2004 to the writing of this paper has been a long, discontinuous journey of frustrations and misgivings.26 Still, we need to resurrect Balamani. For without artists like her, we could not have found our stage.


1 E Krishna Iyer and Rukmani Devi Arundale attempted to institutionalise the learning of Bharatanatyam. In fact, they renamed “Sadhir” as Bharatanatyam. The debate between Rukmani Devi and Balasaraswathi about “Bhakti” or “Srngara” rasas that form the crux of Bharatanatyam rocked the culture-vultures in the mid-19th century. These efforts led to sanitising the form and presenting it as palatable to middle-class sense of morality in a colonial context. Sociologically, there was anti-nautch movement, Self-Respect movement that placed this issue as part of the caste-hierarchy and forced sexual and cultural labour, reformist efforts to help young girls get access to education with the hope that they can carve their own desired future like those of Muthulakshmi Reddy. Echoes of all these perspectives in different permutations and combinations have entered academic research, both Indian and foreign.

2 I am using the spelling Pammal Sambandam used in his title pages in English for his given name. The surname “Mudaliar” refers to the caste he was born into. It is interesting to observe that he uses the surname in Tamil and omits it in English. I am introducing the surname to make a point about the participants of art practice whose contributions have been unmistakably established. Pammal wrote a memoir of his experiences in drama and theatre titled “Nataka Medai Ninaivukal (Over Forty Years before the Footlights”)—(English title published by him) (1938) and his biography Enathu Suyasarithai (My Autobiography) (translation by me) (1963). It is significant that he wrote his memoir on drama much earlier than his autobiography.

3 Memoirs of Sivaji Ganesan, M G Ramachandran, V K Ramasami, S V Sahasranamam, K R Ramasami, T K Shanmugam, S S Rajendran and many others are available in Tamil.

4 Sakthi Perumal (1979), and A N Perumal (1988) to name just a few early academic works on the subject.

5 Javali and Padam are songs that accompany Bharatanatyam dance. Harikathas are also known as Katha Kalatchepam. It is a storytelling form, usually performed within the temple premises. Gowri Ammal, a stalwart and guru who hailed from the devadasi community and imparted the knowledge and skills of Bharatanatyam to many women from dominant communities mentions in a radio interview given to Tha. Sankaran of Trichy AIR, just a few months before her demise that earlier the dancers had to be proficient in singing as well. They sang and danced simultaneously. She also refers to how Harikatha practitioners approached them to learn abhinaya. This interview is included in the Silver Jubilee Souvenir of State Academy for Music Dance, Drama and Folk Arts (Radha 1980: 121–22).

6 Dutt and Munsi’s book Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity (2010) is an important study that is situated in the history of Bengal from mid-18th century onwards. It also distinguishes the distinct trajectories of dance and theatre artists. Similar documentation is needed for other regions as well.

7 T K Shanmugam (1972: 120) refers to Samanna performing 11 roles on a single night in 1922 in his memoir. Samanna earned the title “Indian Chaplin” for his perfect cues, satire and comedy, as recalled by almost all the memoirs and studies on Tamil Theatre and film. Aranthai Narayanan in his book on Tamil Cinema (1981) mentions that he was given the title of “Indian Charlie Chaplin” by the then Governor Lord Wellington. Sai’s book mentions an earlier artist with the Chaplin title. I could not come across any other text that ascribes him that title.

8 Soneji also mentions that Balamani belonged to the “Kavarai” merchant community. The footnote does not give us the source of this information or the more general observations of Dhanuvambal and Kannamani companies as contemporaries. Balamani must have been popular before the turn of the century, almost pre-dating Swamigal and Pammal. By 1922, we know she was quite old as mentioned by T K Shanmugam.

9 M K Radha’s article has been reproduced in Tamizh Nataka Malar, a souvenir published during the culmination of a theatre workshop conducted in association with National School of Drama in 1995 by the International Institute of Tamil Studies, Chennai (pp 122–24). There is no acknowledgement of the Silver Jubilee Souvenir of 1980 or “Filimaalaya.”

10 She had interviewed T N Sivathanu, M G Nataraja Pillai, and K V Rajam.

11 Neelavathi and her husband Pattabiraman met Sangili Pandian whose father, himself and his son have worked as guards at the Kumbakonam Kumbeswarar temple on 18 March 2022. A 96-year-old man, he was in service till a decade ago. He remembered seeing Balamani dance when he was just a kid; how beautiful she looked and the efforts she took to construct the marriage hall adjacent to the temple. He referred to her getting wood from Kerala. He also mentioned her fans calling her “Jill Balamani.” “Jill,” literally meaning “cool” as a title for theatre artist doing acrobatic and dance roles was immortalised in Tamil cinema when the film Thillana Mohanambal—a popular film based on a serial published in a popular magazine, by the same name about the life of a dancer from the devadasi community and a nadaswaram vidwan was released. Manorama, who was a senior artist from Tamil stage to make it big in movies performed that role. Much earlier there was an attempt to make a film in mid-1937 titled Balamani–pakka thirudan (Balamani—the Expert Thief). T K Shanmugam (1972) recalls the experience of making that film, the songs written by Bharathidasan, the famous poet of the Dravidian movement and its failure (pp 321–25). That film was based on a novel by Vaduvur Duraisami Aiyangar, a popular novelist in Tamil. The role of a “Kallapart” (thief) is a stock figure on Tamil stage. Even though there is no clue as to whether this work is related to Balamani Ammal, it clearly proves that the name “Balamani” evoked a stage life in the 1930s. The role was demanding. In our earlier article based on drama notices, Arasu and I have reproduced a notice from 1933 that advertises for a play solely based on a female artist.

12 Veejay Sai refers to a condemnation of this scene in the 1944 Drama Conference held in Erode. The souvenir released on the proceedings of the conference does not contain any such record.

13 In personal conversation, he said he saw the copy of the order in London Museum Library, but the reference is not provided in the book.

14 Sai does not provide the reference of the book with page numbers; he mentions it in the fourth chapter titled “In the Land of the Great Palms” (p 25), (­29/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.276598/2015.276598.India-By.pdf). The section devoted to her is the sixth chapter of Part IV called “Balamoni, the Good Bayodere” (115–118). The French text is published in 1903; the bibliography in Sai’s text also gives that year. The translation in English is done by George A F Inman (of Bowdon), edited by Robert Harborough Sherard. It is published by the same publisher T W Laurie who brought out the French text. The first in English edition came out in 1906 and by 1928, there were five editions. I am grateful to my friend and colleague Gayatri for locating the French edition and writer Charu Nivedita for sharing the English translation generously.

15 Loti provides the conversion of `1,000 as 2,000 francs in brackets. Sai however gives 80 pounds as in the English translation.

16 Facebook page of Picture Postcard Empire, viewed on 21 March 2022,­65596688/posts/balamani-ammal-was-born-into-the-kavarai community.

17­archives/artist_details&artId=280, viewed on 22 March 2022, (The period given in Sruti varies from what Sai’s book gives (1875–1937).

18 M S Subbulakshmi at 38 min,, Sanjay Subramaniam

19 I thank Gowri Kirubanandan for translating the Telugu lyrics into Tamil. The English
translation is mine.

20 I wish to thank India Foundation for the arts research fellowship (2017–19) for my study on Pammal’s writings. Ref:

21 “Kuthu Vilakku” in this context suggests a respectable, domestic woman.

22 In 1999, as part of Voicing Silence, a project of M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, we organised Kulavai’ 99, a state-level workshop on women stage artistes for two days. Amaithi Arasu, a doctoral student of Tamil at the
Department of Tamil Literature, University of Madras and a member of Voicing Silence theatre group, undertook a study of 30 women artists in Tamil Nadu. That is when we came across the usage “novels” as part of the repertoire of theatre in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu as distinct from “special drama.” Since we did not make the connection Radha refers to in his recollection of Kandasami Mudaliar’s adaptation of novels to stage, my introduction to that book defines “novels” as social plays as distinct from mythological plays.

23 A scholar of arts (1897–1990).

24 Pammal Sambandam wrote a six-part memoir of his experiences in dramatic career in 1933. They were collated with the help of V Arasu and published as a single volume in 1998 by IITS. An edited volume of this text with cross-references and notes will be a great resource for the study of the history of Tamil theatre. So also, its translation into English.

25 Dambachari Vilasam by Kasi Viswanatha Mudaliar was one of the most popular social plays published in 1872. By 1930 there were six editions of the play. These editions saw modifications of acceptable usage of lewd language in different editions. Dealing with the evil influence of a dasi on a rich, pompous young man, this play has been mentioned as the first play to deal with social reformation. Viswanatha Mudaliar was a member of Brahma Gana Sabha and wrote four social plays (Sakthi 1979: 205–11).

26 I waited with bated breath to read Veejay Sai’s Drama Queens. It was disappointing to find it lacking academic rigour, even though it provided new openings hitherto unexplored. His chapter on Balamani has been summarised and reproduced in many English newspapers and journals, the latest being Scroll ( silver-chariot).


Amaithi Arasu, J (1999): “Thamizhaga Pen Medai Kalainjarkal,” Voicing Silence and International Institute of Tamil Studies, Chennai.

Ambikapathy, Mu (2001): “Balamani Ammaiyar,” Ku Bhagavathi, Tamizh Medai Nataka Varalaaru (ed), Chennai: International Institute of Tamil Studies, pp 201–09.

Baskaran, Theodore (1981): The Message Bearers: The Nationalist Politics and the Entertainment Media in South India1880–1945, Chennai: Cre-A.

Bhattacharya, Rimli (ed and Tr) (1998): Binodini Dasi: My Story and My Life as an Actress, New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Davis, Tracy (1991): Actresses as Working Women: Their Society Identity in Victorian Culture, Routledge, 27 June.

Geetha, V (2007): Kala Kanavu, Puthanatham: Adaiyalam.

Lakshmi, C S (2003): Mirrors and Gestures: Conversations with Women Dancers, New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Lal, Ananda (ed) (2004): The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Loti, Pierre (6th ed 1928) (I ed 1906): India, Tr George A F Inman, ed, Robert Harborough Sherard, London: T W Laurie.

Mangai, A and V Arasu (2009): “Ushering Changes: Constructing the History of Tamil Theatre during Colonial Times through Drama Notices,” The Play-House of Power, Lata Singh (ed), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 105–31.

Mangai, A (2015): Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India from 1979 Onwards, New Delhi: LeftWord.

— (2019):

Narayanan, Aranthai (1981): Tamizh Cinimavin Kathai, Chennai: New Century Book House.

Neumayer, Erwin and Christine Schelberger (2005): Raja Ravi Varma: Portrait of an Artist—The Diary of C Raja Raja Varma, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Perumal, A N (1988): Irupatham Nootrandil Tamizh Natakam, Chennai: Ainthinai Pathippakam.

Pillai, Nrithya (2022): “Re-casteing the Narrative of Bharatanatyam,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 57, No 9, 26 February.

Radha, M K (1980): “Nataka Arasi’ Balamani Ammaiyar,” Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram Silver Jubilee.

Soneji, Davesh (2012): Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India, Chicago: University of Chicago Press Souvenir, Madras: State Academy of Music, Dance, Drama & Folk Arts, pp 149–151.

Sai, Veejay (2017): Drama Queens: Women who Created History on Stage, New Delhi: Roli Books.

Sakthi, Perumal (1979): Tamizh Nataka Varalaru, Madurai: Vanjikko Pathippakam.

Sambandam, Pammal Mudaliar (1964): Nan Kanda Nadakak Kalainjarkal, Chennai (Published with assistance from the State Sangeet Nataka Manram).

— (1998) (I ed 1933): “Nataka Medai Ninaivukal (Over Forty Years before the Footlights),” Chennai: International Institute of Tamil Studies.

Shanmugam, T K Avvai (1972): Enathu Nataka Vazkkai, Chennai: Vanathi Pathippakam.


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Updated On : 31st May, 2022
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