Friday Review

Sepia album of the ‘silent’ star

The queen of silent era: B. Jayamma  

Rasika Janananda Nataka Sabha, a prominent professional theatre group in the 1920s, was staging Seetha Kalyana in Bangalore. In the climax scene- the swayamvara of Sita, Lord Sri Ram broke the Shiva Dhanush while attempting to string the bow. A young girl essaying role of Seetha walked gracefully and garlanded Rama.

This young girl B. Jayamma, who made her debut as an actor through Seetha Kalyana dominated both Kannada theatre and cinema for long. Besides being a star of the silent celluloid era, Jayamma carved a niche for herself in pre-Independent India in the fields of theatre, cinema and music and a generation of artists.

Born on November 26, 1915, it was Jayamma’s centenary last year. She passed away in 1988, bringing her incredible journey to an end.

Seetha’s role in Seetha Kalyana made Jayamma a star and enacted the female protagonists in several historical and mythological films. She played Sadarame in Sadarame, Satyabhama in Sri Krishna Parijata, Badanda Devi of Shivajalandhara, Savithri of Sati Savithri and Seeta in Ramayana with her brilliant performance and mellifluous voice. Her celluloid journey which began with Harimaya in 1931, ended in Sakshatkara in 1971. She acted in 28 films in four decades.

Writing about Jayamma is akin to browsing the pages of a sepia album, every page of which is the story of a bygone era of Kannada theatre and cinema. It will be a nostalgic journey in to world totally forgotten and equally difficult for the present generation to imagine.

Jayamma was the first daughter of police officer T.N. Mallappa and B. Kamalamma who were residents of Balepet in Bangalore. Kamalamma and her sisters Sundaramma, Rudramma and Kittamma were also theatre artists. While her father wanted Jayamma to become a doctor, she leaned towards theatre. After the death of her father, the seven-year-old Jayamma grew under the influence of her aunts. A teacher in Balepet School nurtured Jayamma’s talent in acting and singing. Meanwhile after the death of Mallappa, Kamalamma also joined her sisters, who were part of professional theatre.

Surrounded by theatre activities, Jayamma slowly lost interest in academics. Observing her interest, Shamanna, a teacher close to Rasika Janananda Sabha, played an important role in Jayamma making her debut as an actor in Seetha Kalyana. Jayamma, who was following her aunt Sundaramma got chances to act in plays such as Kabir and Ramayana in Sri Channabasaveshwara Nataka Mandali of Shantarajappa. She got an opportunity to do female protagonist characters after joining Balabasavegowda Nataka Company. She became a star through her roles as Chanchalakumari of Sadarame, Chitratare of Gulebakavali and Rati of Manmatha Vijaya.

Jayamma joined the renowned Gubbi Company for a salary of Rs.30 a month. It was a huge amount at that point of time. Though a trained actor, Jayamma’s artistic talents were further honed to meet the demands of Gubbi Company for nearly three months. Her very first performance in Veera Narasimha Charitre brought Jayamma both name and fame. Senior artists in the troupe, G. Nageshasharayaru, Narasimhaianavaru and Ramachandrarayaru appreciated her performance. From then she became an important part of the company. Meanwhile, Jayamma, who had discontinued her studies when she was in the third standard, continued her studies until matriculation. Jayamma’s performance as Rani Mrinalini in Rajabhakti opened the doors of celluloid world.

Entry into celluloid

At a time when silent movies were making ‘sound’ in the northern part of India, Gubbi Veeranna along with Yaragudipati Varada Rao popularly known as Y.V. Rao, who was producer, director, thespian screenwriter, editor and actor known for his work in cinema, floated Karnataka Pictures. Harimaya was its first production. While Rajam was Satyabhama in the film, Jayamma justified her character as Jambavati.

In 1931, Jayamma emerged as the lead actress in His Love Affair produced by Karnataka Pictures. Interestingly, a Belgium technician Raphael Aloget helped Gubbi Veeranna and Jayamma in helming the movie. For this social film, which is about young lovers, who reject tradition to get united, Jayamma learnt swimming, cycle riding and car driving! The film fared well.

Her Love Affair

During the making of Harimaya and His Love Affair, Veeranna developed a liking for Jayamma and married her in 1931. Later Jayamma started helping Veeranna in strengthening the Gubbi Company. She took the troupe to various parts of north Karnataka and staged its landmark productions. Meanwhile, she also learnt Hindustani music, along with that she learnt playing the violin from Malavalli Subbanna. She also learnt music from Salem Doreswamy Iyengar and gave concerts in even events like Ramotsava.

Despite being active in cinema and music, Jayamma did not neglect theatre, which made her what she was. People still remember her performance in Kurukshetra, staged on December 31, 1934. Huge money was spent to erect gorgeous sets for the play and stalwarts of professional theatres and Diwan Mirza Ismail watched that performance and Jayamma essayed the role of Draupadi in the play, while Veeranna breathed life in to Duryodhana’s character.

On the celluloid front, Jayamma acted in Subhadra (1941) and Jeevana Nataka (1942), for which Aa. Na. Krishnaraya wrote the script. Meanwhile, Jayamma also acted in Tamil and Telugu films.

Similarly, Jayamma also made a name through her performance in Swarga Seema in 1945. The film is about a village girl becoming a top film star. Hemareddy Mallamma, produced by Veeranna and with Jayamma in the lead, released the same year in six theatres at that time. When this film completed 100 days in theatres, Nijalingappa, who later became the Chief Minister of Karnataka, participated in the function organised to mark the occasion and distributed mementos to all those who contributed for the success of the film. Jayamma was given a gold chained West End watch. Another film which created ripples in the South Indian film industry is Tyagayya by V. Nagayya. Jayamma essayed the role of Dharmambe, the wife of saint Tyagaraja. This film besides being screened in various parts of the country, went abroad and enthralled both cinema and music lovers. Gunasagari produced by Gubbi Veeranna is another landmark film in her career.

Apart from her contribution to the fields of theatre, cinema and music, Jayamma also engaged herself in social service after she stopped acting. She worked for the welfare of the economically weak artists under the leadership of T.S. Karibasavaiah, the founder of Kanteerava Studio.

In 1981, Jayamma was nominated to serve as member of the Karnataka State Legislative Council. She passed away in the year 1988, bringing her incredible journey to an end. Though a bit late, the government did not forget Jayamma’s contribution to cinema, theatre and music and released Rs.10-lakh to the Department of Kannada and Culture to celebrate the centenary year of the artiste in 2016.

Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce, has brought out a 40-page booklet by R.A. Pushpa Bharathi on Jayamma. This article is based on the facts recorded in the booklet.

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Printable version | Nov 21, 2020 10:57:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/sepia-album-of-the-silent-star/article8590309.ece

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