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The bold and the beautiful


Malavalli Sundaramma donned the greasepaint when it was taboo for women to step on stage. This is her birth centenary year, a good time to look back at the lives of pioneers like her

HONOURED Malavalli Sundaramma being conferred the Mysore Sangeeta Nataka Academy Award for the year 1961-62 by the then chief minister, the late Nijalingappa

She was among the first women who dared don greasepaint when men playing women's roles was the norm. She was one of the few women to take charge and run a professional theatre company through thick and thin. In her own time she was regarded a "perfect" actor — a combination of good looks, acting skills, stage presence and matchless singing abilities.

Why then isn't Malavalli Sundaramma's name ever mentioned when we talk of pioneering women of Karnataka? And we are not talking of a woman from a bygone era, but one who was born just a hundred years ago (in September, 1905) and died in her seventies.

This amnesia has been so severe that when Bharata Yatra Kendra, in association with Karnataka Nataka Academy, decided to celebrate the birth centenary of Sundaramma, they couldn't trace anyone from her family. It was finally an article on her in the Kannada daily Prajavani that had Sundaramma's great grandson calling up organiser Nagaraja Murthy and asking: "Was my great grandmother such a great woman?"

A century later

At the modest centenary celebrations at Nayana auditorium earlier this week, members of the family had turned up and brought along some faded pictures of Sundaramma and yellowing newspaper clippings that had reviews and articles on her. There were also veteran company theatre artistes R. Nagaratnamma and R. Paramashivan to recall their association with the remarkable woman.

What we gather from narratives of people who had seen her on and off stage and from her autobiography Abhinaya Sharade (narrated by Ha.Vem. Seetaramiah in the weekly Sudha and later published in a book now out of print) is that she was born in Mysore in a musical family. Her father Malavalli Subbanna was a musician and an actor. She learnt music from her father, and later took to acting. She started her career in Sri Krishna Vilasa Nataka Sabha when she had barely turned 16.

In a career spanning well over 60 years, she was part of several professional theatre troupes and gained great fame for roles such as Draupadi, Subhadra, Kayadu, Tharamathi, Sadarame and so on. She had the distinction of being part of the famous Gubbi Company not for a salary but for a five per cent share in profit.

Nagaratnamma, a pioneer herself who started an all-women theatre company, talks of the perfectionist Sundaramma was. "She had a natural curl in her hair and people called her vakra kuntale. She never overdressed. Nothing more than a Dharmavaram sari, diamond earrings and a few chains in her neck. But she had such stage presence. Never a pleat out of place, never a gesture out of place!"

Sundaramma's best remembered role, perhaps, is that of Draupadi in Virata Parva. It was a play in which she acted with another theatre great, Nagendra Rao. The raga malike (which had Bhairavi, Sahana, Neelambari and Suruti) that is sung by the lead pair in the famous "puja scene" was the highlight of the play and sometimes lasted an entire hour. She had an admirer in even T.P. Kailasam — the father of modern Kannada theatre and a sceptic of company theatre tradition. The story goes that he managed to get on the nerves of the audience at the Town Hall in Mysore by shouting "once more" too loudly and too many times for this song sequence!

In her autobiography, Sundaramma talks of how she once performed at the Jaganmohan Palace before an august gathering of musicians at the invitation of Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV. The king was so impressed with her singing that he gave her Rs. 500 as a gift. "It was the music pf Sundaramma and Nagendra Rao that inspired me to learn music. Theatre led me to classical music," recalls 74-year-old Paramashivan with tears in his eyes, who can to this day sing with a gusto that only a professional theatre artiste is capable of.

Sundaramma's love of music was so intense that she constantly honed her skills by learning from stalwarts, including Vasudevacharya. During a hiatus in her acting career, she even took to singing as a full-time profession. It was then that she gave some independent concerts and recorded songs for Odeon Studios of Madras along with Nagendra Rao. She did some recordings for the All India Radio too. A review in The Hindu, dated September 14, 1926, says that V. Sundaramma excelled in her Kambodi alapana in her concert at the Sri Krishna Gana Samaja concert. She was known for her prowess in the complex art of pallavi singing and for her knowledge of rare compositions. In Abhinaya Sharade, Sundaramma says that Kannada literature D.V. Gundappa had once got her to sing the composition "Dina Mani Vamsha" several times.

Though Sunandamma could have made a career in music, she soon returned to her first love, theatre. When the Sri Chamundeshwari Karnataka Nataka Sabha was in doldrums and the man running it wanted to shut shop, Sunnandamma took over the responsibility and ran it for six years. In her autobiography, she gives graphic details of the travails of running a professional theatre group. The hazards ranged from bad weather and epidemics such as plague to unfavourable political weather and cutthroat competition from other companies. Add to this the capricious patrons, and life was never easy. She talks of times when artistes had to go without even food. At 71 (that was her age when the book was published), she had little to depend on except the Rs. 100 she got as honorarium from the Nataka Academy.

The silences

It's interesting that just as Abhinaya Sharade is meticulously detailed when it talks of Sundaramma's professional life, it remains completely silent on several aspects of her personal life. So we hardly know anything of her family except a glowing account of her father and a brief reference to her sister who was also an actor. We learn nothing at all about the hardship she had to face as a woman in a male-dominated field as an actor and the manager of a company. There are no references to her social background and what it meant to be in theatre when there was a great social stigma attached to it.

G. Kappanna, the President of Nataka Academy, announced at the function that the academy was planning to not only reprint Abhinaya Sharade, but also a compilation of writings on early women actors of company theatre during Sunandamma's centenary year. One hopes this much-needed documentation will go beyond re-narrating anecdotes and move towards reading silences, giving us clues on how the lives of women like Sundaramma played themselves out in specific social contexts.

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