In early 20th century Tamil Nadu, there was a woman who was so famous that the government had to arrange special trains to transport her adoring fans to her performances. The “Balamani Special Express” would regularly ferry passengers to theatrical productions of this actress, who, in her lifetime, amassed so much wealth that she lived in a palatial bungalow, with a swimming pool, marble fountains, lush gardens filled with peacocks and deer, and a service staff of fifty people.
Whenever Balamani would go out in public, she would travel in a silver chariot drawn by four horses. French traveller Pierre Loti described her as strikingly beautiful, charming and talented. She could sing and play the mandolin in addition to acting. When Loti encountered her, she was draped in gold, diamonds and rubies – rumoured to be gifts from a Nawab who had fallen in love with her.
But Balamani was far from just a pretty face. She was among the first women to establish a formal enterprise: the Balamani Drama Company. With her productions, Balamani chose to break tradition, taking Tamil theatre beyond mythology and exploring other genres (like contemporary mystery, for example). Naturally, this caused some friction with the orthodox conservatives, who even banned one of her plays due to a nude scene that she enacted in it. As Pillai puts it in his book, The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin,
“… she chose to be bold, cleverly executing even a nude scene in one play – naturally this play was banned for this very reason by thin-skinned men of less ‘bold’ persuasions”
Balamani did not let these negative opinions affect her. In addition to broadening the horizons of Tamil theatre unlike ever before, she took it upon herself to empower other women. Her production company comprised entirely of women, most of whom were destitute and needed shelter and security. Even her house staff mostly comprised of rehabilitated women. She was very active in her donations to charity, and consistently supported those in need.
Although Balamani was somewhat of a revolutionary during her time, her career was limited, thanks to a patriarchal system that ultimately could not look past her superficial value. During her time, Balamani was much more famous than even Rajinikanth is today. But unlike Rajinikanth, who continues to make films at the age of 69, Balamani was cast aside as soon as she was deemed too old to be beautiful.
But in spite of not being able to perform, Balamani continued to support charitable causes, and donated large sums of money to help others. Sadly, this led to complete financial ruin for her, and she was forced to move out of her luxurious home, to an ‘impoverished, overcrowded Madurai’, where she died in 1935.
Today, not many know her name, but Balamani deserves to be remembered as a self-made woman who pushed the limits of theatre, empowered others and did a considerable amount of good to those around her.
Pillai, Manu S. The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin. Chennai: Westland Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2019. Print.
Vijay Sai. “Larger than Rajini: The 19th-century stage actress who drove to her performances in a silver chariot”. Scroll. May 5th, 2017. Web. <https://scroll.in/magazine/836608/larger-than-rajini-the-19th-century-stage-actress-who-drove-to-her-performances-in-a-silver-chariot > as seen on July 19th, 2020.