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K.B. Sundarambal — the first film artiste to get elected to a state legislative council

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On her 110th birth anniversary, ThePrint looks back at the extraordinary life of this Tamil singer and actress.

New Delhi: It is said there is no match for Kodumudi Balambal Sundarambal in the Tamil music industry. On her 110th birth anniversary, ThePrint looks back at the extraordinary life of this gifted singer, who was also called the ‘Queen of the Stage’.

Early life and theatre career

Singer-actor Sundarambal was born on 11 October 1908 in Tamil Nadu’s Erode district. Having lost her father at an early age, Sundarambal and her two siblings grew up under the guardianship of her uncle.

Sundarambal, who was gifted with a good voice, started working with a drama company in Kumbakonam from a young age. Initially, she was given male roles in the plays while boys would act as her female companions.

Pammal Sambandha Mudhaliar, the founding father of modern Tamil theatre, once said, “Sundarambal could reach out to people through her singing. She would deliver an excellent performance even if there is no musical instrument to accompany her singing.”

In no time, Sundarambal became a crowd-puller through her acting and singing skills. She was called the ‘Queen of the Stage’. In fact, some famous male artistes avoided acting with her because of her popularity.

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In 1927, on a visit to Sri Lanka, she met theatre actor and singer S.G. Kittappa. He was her co-actor in a play, Valli Thirumanam (marriage of Valli). They eventually got married and the intercaste couple went around Tamil Nadu staging their plays.

Celebrity singer and actor

Sundarambal’s katcheris (musical performances) used to last for six hours. She would sing those ragas that were usually avoided by her contemporaries. Many of her songs were later incorporated in her films such as Nandaner, Manimekalai, Avvaiyar, Tiruvilayadal, Kanthan Karunai, among others.

She was known for using unconventional methods in her performances. While other artistes would take time to reach the high notes in their songs, Sundarambal would start at a high note, a skill that is attributed to her experience in the theatre where one had to perform without a loudspeaker in those days.

Tamil actor K. Sarangapani once said, “I have heard Sundarambal sing in a play in Kumbakonam. It would be audible up to a mile.”

In Avvaiyar, Sundarambal portrayed the character of a Sangam-era Tamil woman poet, which received overwhelming appreciation from the audience.

Other films in which she acted included Mahakavi Kalidas, Poompuhar, Uyir Mel Aasai, Thunaivan and Karaikkal Ammaiyar.

Sundarambal also wrote her own songs. She had sung nearly 800 songs in total, but only 250 exist in recorded forms today. In fact, she never sang a duet in any of her films.

One of her most popular songs, ‘Vaazkhai enum odam’, was penned by former Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi.

One of the highest paid actresses

Sundarambal was among the first highest paid actresses in the Indian film industry. For instance, she was paid Rs 1 lakh for the movie Bhakta Nandanar in 1935, which was an enormous sum in those days.

She was also the first film artiste to be elected to the state legislative council. Gramophone discs of her songs had also witnessed a record sale.

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Political inclination

Sundarambal, who took part in the Independence movement, supported the Indian National Congress. She represented the party in the Madras Legislative Council in 1951. She, along with another theatre artiste Avvai T.K. Shanmugam, used to campaign for the Congress.

Congress stalwarts such as K. Kamaraj and S. Satyamurti made her sing in their public meetings, whenever possible. It is said that Mahatma Gandhi personally requested her to work for the people. She also took part in the civil disobedience movement.

Having acted and sung in numerous films, she was honoured with ‘Tamil Isai Periarignar’ by Tamil Isai Sangam and Padma Shri by the Central government in 1970. She also won the National Film Award in the category of ‘best female playback singer’.

Sundarambal died in 1980 at the age of 72.

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