From Komalavalli to Queen Bee: Looking back at the early years of Jayalalithaa

How Jayalalithaa braved through a tough childhood and the film industry to become one of the most talented actresses.
From Komalavalli to Queen Bee: Looking back at the early years of Jayalalithaa
From Komalavalli to Queen Bee: Looking back at the early years of Jayalalithaa
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No other state in independent India has managed to survive the deadly combination of politics and cinema like Tamil Nadu has. Andhra and Karnataka come close but not equal. In Tamil Nadu, cinema ran politics and vice versa for over half a century, and the journey of Tamil Nadu’s most powerful woman is an important part of the state’s history.

Once a classical dancer, later a popular actress, she became the face of the state’s politics in the 21st century.  Jayalalithaa Jayaraman (JJ for all future reference) as she is known today in politics and revered as ‘Amma’ by lakhs of her loyalists has had one of the most interesting expeditions any modern politicians have had.

JJ’s maternal grandfather, a staunch Shri Vaishnavite Rangasamy Iyengar hailed from the holy town of Sri Rangam in Trichy district of Tamil Nadu. After a brief stint as an engineer in several places, he finally settled down in the erstwhile Mysore State to work with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. He had three daughters Ambujavalli, Vedavalli and Padmavalli and a son. Vedavalli was the second daughter.

On her paternal side, JJ’s grandfather Narasimhan Rengachary was a doctor. He migrated to Mysore State to serve as the court physician of the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore. Narasimhan had a son named Jayaraman.

Vedavalli was given in marriage to Jayaraman and became his second wife at the mutual consent of both the families. The couple had two children, a son Jayakumar and a daughter Komalavalli.

Komalavalli was born on February 24, 1948 in the holy town of Melukote in the Pandavapura division of Mandya district. Since the girl grew up living between both her grandparents’ homes in Mysore that were called ‘Jaya Vilas’ and ‘Lalitha Vilas’, Komalavalli was given the name ‘Jayalalitha’.

JJ’s paternal grandfather Narasimhan, who established himself as a court physician and earned riches, died before she was born. His son Jayaraman who was a qualified Graduate in Arts never worked and squandered all his father’s money driving the family to poverty. JJ was only two when Jayaraman died. The remaining property went to the first wife’s family and Vedavalli was forced to leave Mysore in search of a decent livelihood. Vedavalli left JJ in her unmarried sister Padmavalli’s custody in Bangalore and migrated to Madras where the other sister Ambujavalli lived. Ambujavalli was working as an airhostess. Vedavalli took on a nom du plume ‘Vidyavathy’ and began acting in local drama companies. She got noticed by various directors and got a break in films. She took on the screen name of Sandhya. Meantime JJ was admitted into the Bishop Cottons Girls School in Bangalore. During her school holidays she would visit her mother in Madras.

Sandhya was not a superstar. Most of the roles she acted on screen were small time characters. Nevertheless, she acted in some significant films made during that time.  Sandhya had to struggle and make ends meet. Years later in an interview to Simi Grewal, Jayalalithaa spoke emotionally about how much she missed her mother in her growing years.

Jayalalitha with mother Sandhya and President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

You can watch her mother Sandhya in this video. She is playing the Veena in a song from the 1956 Telugu movie ‘Tenali Ramakrishna’ where she acted with some of the greatest starts of the Telugu screen. Jayalalitha must have been just eight years old during this film.

On one such visit to her mother, JJ was taken to the studios where a film ‘Sri Shaila Mahatmyam’ was being shot. The child actor playing the role of goddess Parvathi in a drama scene in the film didn’t show up. The directors saw JJ and requested Sandhya if she could act. JJ was dressed up and that is how she made her entry into the film industry. But the film sank without a trace. A bigger debut was in the making.

After her aunt Padmavalli’s marriage, JJ migrated to Madras to live with her mother. She joined the Sacred Heart School, which was popular as Church Park Presentation Convent. Alongside school she was also training in Carnatic music under one Guru Gopalakrishna Sarma, western classical piano, Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Mohiniyattam. Sandhya wanted her daughter to become a lawyer, just like her grandfather was. JJ too was convinced she would become a lawyer.

Jayalalitha with her Guru K J Sarasa and her mother Sandhya at her Bharatanatyam Arangetram

She began learning Bharatanatyam under the guidance and mentoring of Guru K J Sarasa. Sarasa was a distant relative of the famous Vuzahvoor Ramaiah Pillai, a great Nattuvanar, dance teacher who was making a name as a leading dance choreographer in Tamil cinema. She was trained in dance and became one of the finest female Nattuvanars of all time. She established her dance school Sarasalaya in 1960 and successfully trained many students and groomed them into strong Bharatanatyam soloists. Sandhya sent JJ to study under her. After a few years of training, JJ gave her debut performance or her ‘Arangetram’ at the Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore.

The chief guest for JJ’s Arangetram was none other than the famous superstar of that time, Sivaji Ganesan. In his speech at the function, Sivaji not only praised the child for her dance but also urged her to join films and take to acting.

This didn’t go down well, both with Sandhya and JJ. However, Sivaji’s speech was to turn prophetic, as JJ took to acting soon. Her first film was ‘Vennira Aadai’ in 1965, produced and directed by CV Sridhar. It was given ‘A’ certificate as an adults-only film. JJ who was only in her teens didn’t get to watch her own big debut on screen! After that many offers started pouring in. Watch JJ in a song sung by playback singer P Suseela in her debut film:

Though her first film was a commercial success, JJ was not keen on pursuing a career in the film industry. Her dream was to become a lawyer and study further. But several bad decisions had driven her family to poverty. JJ was forced to take to cinema and make a livelihood. And the rest, as they say, is history!

She acted in over three hundred films. At one time she was the most popular heroine in south India. So much so, prestigious film magazines and journals saw her as an equivalent to Sharmila Tagore. JJ was endorsing brands like Lux Soaps and hailed as the new cultural icon. She acted in 142 films between 1964 to 1978 in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi and English. Of these 77 films ran for over 100 days and 18 for more than 25 weeks! In addition to acting, she was a regular columnist, avid reader, orator, short story writer and a novelist!

Her co-actor and Tamil star M G Ramachandran became her ideal and she, the political hier to his party AIADMK.  After she entered politics, she put a full stop to her successful film career. 

Jayalalitha in a rare gathering with actors MGR Sivaji Ganesan and M Karunanidhi, her political opponent

Jayalalitha near the body of MGR

Her life in politics is well documented. Her steady growth from a party secretary to a member of Rajya Sabha to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, is a long saga of adventure, struggle and success. Whatever one might judge her and her politics, it is impossible to disassociate Jayalalithaa’s name from the politics of modern India.

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at

Images : Krishnamurty, Padmanabhan, Veejay Sai, Selvaraj, Kannan

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