(My column in Mint Lounge, July 22 2017)
In 1903, one of Kerala’s earliest advocates of the freedom of the press, K. Ramakrishna Pillai, issued a lamentation that suggests he was not necessarily as convinced an advocate for feminist thought. “Oh…the predicament you have reached!” he cried, with reference to his coastal homeland. “You who were governed by noble ministers with high ideals…what sin have you done to be trapped under the misgovernment of a wicked minister taken in by female charms!” His intention was to sharpen his attack on the local maharaja’s controversial chief minister, but it was also an attack on an attractive woman—a public performer—who had evidently ensnared the old man with her treacherous charms. His proof? Her visit to Thiruvananthapuram drew in sensational crowds, and the delighted minister had presented her a gold chain—by publicly placing it around her neck.
Pillai ascribed to the lady in question, the scholar Udaya Kumar notes, a “destructive, seductive spell” that combined “the perilous allure of theatrical exposure…manipulative charms and sexual promiscuity” to “capture in her net the very authorities who (were) meant to protect the public” from everything she represented—female individuality, sexual autonomy, and the stage. As with all women performers of her time, scandal was firmly entangled with her appeal—an appeal that saw special trains organized to convey admirers to her shows. And it was not the first time she had provoked suspicion: The maharaja himself was “much pleased with her” (which was interpreted as nocturnal pleasure), and so, as Rupika Chawla records, when she sought to commission the court painter Ravi Varma for a portrait, his brother displayed “intense disapproval”, fearing it would affect the artist’s own reputation and dignity.
But such pronounced scandal surrounding Balamani of Kumbakonam eclipsed much of what she represented, and the rich, tragic accumulation of experience that is her story—a story that has found at last a masterly storyteller in Veejay Sai and his delightful Drama Queens. Scholarly in his scope, Sai presents Balamani at the forefront of his 10 profiles, as the first of many remarkable women who challenged “heteropatriarchy”—and who, for their pains, often received, in return, ignominy and obscurity. Even though Balamani was, as Sai writes, “fortressed amongst a thousand anecdotes”, it “is almost impossible to believe a character like her lived in the remote south”, where today she is largely forgotten. But this was a talented woman who could leave fans ecstatic across the peninsula, even as she pursued an intellectual mission to reinvent on the modern stage, as she remarked to a contemporary, “the whole of the ancient Sanskrit plays”.
Balamani was a woman of ambition and resolve, determined to transport the art she had inherited as a devadasi to wider audiences in imaginative forms. Breaking out of the temple, she became among the earliest to establish a formal enterprise: the Balamani Drama Company. She was the first, Sai says, to introduce Petromax lighting onstage, just as she was the earliest to allot ladies-only spaces at her ticketed performances. Her entire venture was a female-run organization, and while others like the Kannamani and Danivambal companies of the same late 19th century period also followed this pattern, what distinguished Balamani was her preference for destitute women, who had been disenfranchised by anti-devadasilegislation. Her company, it has been noted, was in fact “almost an asylum for women who needed shelter and security”. Of course, none of this alleviated the stigma that came with being “the dancing girl” of Kumbakonam, but Balamani flourished as a businesswoman, a patron of the arts, and an individual of singular personality.
As an artist too, she was inventive. She was, Sai points out, a pioneer in taking up “social themes in Tamil theatre” and moving beyond mythology into fresher genres—a detective play she performed was later adapted for film. Infatuated poets and musicians composed pieces extolling her beauty and one such javali was later sung by M.S. Subbulakshmi for the gramophone. Instead of seeking approval from the orthodox by shoring up pious “respectability”, Balamani was what is pejoratively termed “bold” and could cleverly execute a nude scene in a play—naturally, the play was later banned for this very reason by thin-skinned men of less “bold” persuasions. Success also brought in its wake much wealth—Balamani drove in silver carriages and presided over a mansion staffed by 50 servitors (again, rehabilitated women).
But it also wove through Balamani’s life debates on censorship, the social challenge from the Brahminization of the arts, and of course the anomaly of a successful working woman who had the capacity to claim that prized patriarchal prize: a legacy.
Patriarchy, however, wouldn’t be patriarchy if it allowed a challenge like that absolute success. “History and fate turned cruel to Balamani,” Sai says, though her solitude in a world designed for men did its own damage. The years passed, and she aged. Her sense of charity, which included getting young girls married and settling them with handsome dowries, led to financial calamity. She, who lived in gardens surrounded by peacocks and deer, moved impoverished to overcrowded Madurai—when Balamani died in 1935, it took an old, loyal associate to collect money from well-wishers to pay for her cremation.
But somewhere, the flame was kept alive. As the French novelist Pierre Loti recorded in her heyday, “The poor know the road to her house well enough.” And it was among those poor that Balamani’s name survived, awaiting its resurrection in a lovely book housing memories of nine more women, with nine more tales, all marked by many triumphs but also great tragedy.