Driven by gruelling poverty in the early 1900s, a mother along with her three children was walking towards river Cauvery.

Realising where their journey would end, the eldest among the children, a girl, convinced her mother about the meaningless of ending their lives, arguing that they could overcome their ordeal one day. What would have drowned in river Cauvery was the rags-to-the riches story of Kodumudi Balambal Sundarambal, who went on to rule the world of music, theatre and cinema as K.B. Sundarambal.

Though she showed precocious talent for music, her mother Balambal, rejected the offers from various theatre groups. Sundarambal, who had immense faith in her talents as a singer, ran away from home and joined Govindarajulu, a harmonium player.

Possessed with a voice that could effortlessly reach the highest octaves, Sundarambal played both Rajapat and Sthreepat, and it was a difficult task to find a male actor to play her opposite.

“It was during a tour in Sri Lanka that she met S.G. Kittappa. He entered into the room she was sitting and without any hesitation sat next to her and started conversing,” said music historian Mr Sriram while delivering the South Indian heritage lectures at the TAG centre here.

The pair was a runaway success and Kittappa proposed to her even though he was already married. Together, they got actively involved in freedom movement and S. Satyamurti, an important Congress leader and a contemporary of C. Rajagopalachari, made use of their services for the Congress meetings. Kittappa, an alcoholic, used to teach her all songs for the play they were to perform and many a time she was left to fend for herself.

“He would beat her black and blue when she managed to perform without his help. A child was born, but it survived only a few weeks. Kittappa plunged further into alcohol and KBS left him,” said Mr Sriram.

However, when the news of his death reached her, KBS travelled all the way to Shencottah with Rs 18,000 to pay back all debts he had incurred and visited Varanasi to immerse his ashes. Since then, she always clad herself in white throughout her life.

A letter from Mahatma Gandhi that brought her back to public life but it was Kasturi Srinivasan of The Hindu who persuaded her to settle down in Madras and arranged a house for her in Teynampet. She attended Congress meetings along with T.K. Shanmugam.

She was the first heroine to get Rs one lakh as fee for acting in the film ‘Nandanar,’ which was a flop. But ‘Avvaiyar’ produced by S.S. Vasan became a box-office hit and for the Tamils, she was the incarnation of Avvaiyar.

She invested her money wisely and even constructed a theatre in Kodumudi. Her recordings of devotional songs earned her huge money.

“In her last days, she wrote and rewrote her will many times. After her death, it was found she had bequeathed all her assets to Lord Muruga of Palani,” said Mr Sriram.