Born in a small town of Kodumudi on the banks of the Cauvery in diligent circumstances, Sundarambal as a child was said to have sung on running trains to beg for coins. One of the greatest of talent scouts, Railway official Francis George Natesa Iyer (his name due to a conversion) discovered a giant inside that wisp of a beggar girl and decided to promote her.
Natesa Iyer introduced her to theatre and soon Sundarambal had a huge fan following. Though Sundarambal was untrained, her voice could touch high octaves and her stamina to sustain the notes in all night plays was remarkable. Critics used to remark, ‘KBS can be heard a mile away sans a mike’. In addition, Sundarambal played both Rajapat and Streepat (male and female roles).
Sundarambal, while travelling to Ceylon, would meet the reigning theatre star Kittappa. The promoters projected them as rivals and hoped for a showdown on stage and for some time it seemed likely, but then cupid interfered. The two fell in love, started a live-in relationship as well as collaborated on stage.
The then most popular theme on stage was Valli Thirumanam (the marriage of Valli) and different troupes performed it. But to make a difference, Kittappa and Sundarambal would actually crossdress and interchange the roles. In one show, Sundarambal would be Valli and the next night Muruga.
The couple were an ideal lead pair. Both could match the other’s type of singing. When they were not singing, they made up dialogues and jousted orally on stage. The audience just loved it.
While Kittappa hated being recorded (a casting coup had his voice on disc days before he died, thus preserving it for posterity), KBS was made for the gramophone record. Nationalism was on the rise and Sundarambal recorded gramophone discs in praise of the Indian Freedom Movement, and it made her famous in nook and corner of the presidency. As early as 1931, she recorded an elegy on Motilal Nehru’s death. Much later, she would follow it up for Kasturba and the Mahatma.
Satyamurthy (once an amateur actor himself), a Congress mayor of Madras identified a link between performing arts and politics. While others in his party either ignored theatre and cinema or cursed it as evil, he would cultivate a friendship with the artists.
He was right. Kittappa and Sundarambal were big crowd pullers and ensured record turnouts for Congress meetings. Much later, a property in T Nagar was gifted by KB Sundarambal to S Sathya Murthy (ironically on a road named after his Justice Party rival Thanikachalam Chettiar, and there were rumours that Sathyamurthy wanted to rename the road).
The silent movie was giving way to the talkies. One of the earliest talkies should have starred the couple, but the proposal fell through. Also, differences started cropping between them. The very aspect that he could be compared to another on stage, even if it was his beloved, hurt Kittappa. Squabbles grew, and soon insecure Kittappa moved away from his lover, drank to his limits and collapsed on stage, never to rise again.
Sundarambal could not even see him for the last time for he was cremated the same day. She offered to take the ashes to Varanasi and was permitted to. She would wear white the rest of her life, not have kumkum on her forehead and for all purposes treat herself like a widow. KBS just wanted to fade away from the material world in the sorrow of her bereavement.
But some people were not willing to forget her talents. In 1935, a member of a leading textile family decided to remake Nandanar (the story of the Dalit saint) but with Sundarambal taking on a male role (though it seems uncommon today, many actresses have done cross-gender roles including MS Subbalakshmi). Her reluctance was overcome with a recommendation from Satyamurthi and a record salary of Rs 1 lakh for the movie. This sort of became a legendary payment (much later when MR Radha was asked to act in the film version of his famous drama Ratha Kaneer, one of his primary conditions was to be paid Rs 25,000 more than KBS.) Ellis Dungan, the American, directed a few scenes in ML Tandon’s Nandanar. The movie was a flop. An actress could get away with cross-gender roles in a stage play, but in a movie with close shots it was not liked by the public.
Both Kalki and Pudhumaipithan reviewed the movie unfavourably.
KBS just did one movie in the next 18 years before SS Vasan roped her in for his classic Avvaiyar and that image rests in the mind of the cine going public.
KBS, who would initially sing in the public meetings of the Indian National Congress and campaign for the elections, later represented the party in the Madras Legislative Council in 1951.
As late as 1969, aged 61, she also won the National Film Award in the category of ‘best female playback singer’.
Unlike others in the cinema field, she didn’t fritter away her earnings. She even built a theatre in whose inauguration three chief ministers of Tamil Nadu — Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa — participated.