CHENNAI: The women theatre artistes, whose contribution was immense in its growth, became a mere phantom of the past. In an attempt to explore the lives of these women, who strode their way through several obstacles, and at many times, faced ostracisation, author Veejay Sai, has released a book Drama Queens: Women Who Created History On Stage.
Available on Amazon, the book is a unique compilation about 10 women artistes from the country. In a recent conversation with historian V Sriram at ARTery, Veejay revealed about several ‘deleted pages’ from the book. “During my research, I got information or pictures of about 35-40 artistes. But sadly, it wasn’t holistic. For some, there were only pictures and no information, and for the others, it was vice versa. Hence, I had to bring it down to 10 artistes,” he shares.
The artistes include Kumbakonam Balamani (Tamil), Tarasundari Devi (Bengali), Munni Bai (Parsi Theatre), Mukhtar Begum (Urdu), Hirabai Barodekar (Marathi), Malavalli Sundaramma (Kannada), Jahanara Kajjan (Hindi), Moti Bai (Gujarati), Rushyendramani (Telugu) and Thambalangoubi Debi (Manipuri). “It took me seven years to complete the book. But then, it didn’t start as a book! It was more of research material, which I then decided to make pan-India. It was a tedious process to collect information about these stage actors of the 19th and the mid-20th centuries,” he says.
Veejay’s favourite is Balamani, whom he refers to as being ‘larger than Rajinikanth’. “I spent the most time pulling material for her. There was very little traces of her and I had to put it all together. For a person who lived life king-size, and 100 years later, not have even five sheets of documented information is disappointing,” he avers.
The earliest accounts of Balamani, often by various colonial writers, are found in a brief sketch of the French travelogue L’Inde Sans Le Anglais (India without the English, 1903) by Julien Viaud, a French novelist and an adventurous naval officer, who extensively toured remote parts of south India in late 1890s. In its fourth chapter, titled In the Land of the Great Palms, a few pages are dedicated in praise of Balamani where he mentions his experience of meeting her in Madurai.
“She lived in a big bungalow that had a garden with peacocks and even rode in a silver chariot. The railways had just started and due to her immense popularity, special trains were started, which ferried the crowd to watch her plays from Mayavaram and Tiruchy. They were named, Balamani Express,” he shares.
From introducing petromax lamps to stage, taking in orphan girls, feeding them, teaching them theatre, marrying them off and even giving a part of her wealth as dowry, she did it all. “No one saw Balamani from close quarters. She was either in character/makeup, or rode off in her chariot. But there was a lot of music and Javalis dedicated to her,” he says.
Most material for his research wasn’t available in English and weren’t even a part of the national archives. “I had to travel, collect data, cross verify the facts and then compile it. Sometimes the information used to be fragments from the imagination of the people I met! So, it had to be carefully checked,” he explains.
The women in his book, earned, supported their family, supported orphans, were respected and also highly influential. “The information I collected were part of different establishments and private collections. Few anecdotes and data were from descendants of these artistes. But, even they didn’t have a lot to share. Theatre history has been documented to an extent. But, not from the eyes of women and that’s what the book looks at,” he adds.