Ageless Wonder – Vyjayanthimala on cinema and dance in Madras

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In the 1950s, dance was on its road to reclaiming its glory and pride of place among the masses. Rukmini Devi had started Kalakshetra and with Kumari Kamala dancing on screen, the middle class warmed up to the idea of dance. But a lion’s share of taking the art to the masses across the north goes to Vyjayanthimala. In the hit film New Delhi (1956), the Hindi cinegoers were treated to a pure classical rendition of Alarippu on-screen and the masses in the Hindi heartland discovered Bharatanatyam. “Everybody loved it and the reaction was wonderful. But it wasn’t much different for me as I did on screen what I did on stage and it was the first time that masses in the north were exposed to Bharatanatyam as such on screen. The art kept me in good stead through my film career and gave me a sound foundation. I took the industry by storm with my dance,” she says.

But with all the hype around the arrival of a new dancing star from Madras, she also ran an early risk of not being taken seriously as an actress. “Back in those days, I was called ‘Twinkle Toes’ for my dancing capabilities. And yes, in the early days, my identity as a dancer was dominant. But it all changed with Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955), where I played the role of the courtesan Chandramukhi. I was cast against Dilip Kumar, who was so perfect with his grammar in acting and I had to put my best foot forward. People loved the portrayal of Chandramukhi and my image had undergone a change.”

She ruled the silver screen for over two decades, a rare feat for an actress, whose shelf life is always deemed short. Despite having starred in several classics and blockbusters, there were a few wonderful opportunities she had to let go of. Not many know that Vyjayanthimala was the first choice for Guru Dutt’s Mr and Mrs 55. Bimal Roy approached her for Bandini, which she declined because she was busy with Sangam. She also turned down the role played by Nirupa Roy in Deewar.

But her film career could have affected her stage performances had her grandmother not made it clear to keep the two separate. “Initially, there was some baggage about my film background. But the cats meowed and I continued with my work. My grandmother ensured that my films and stage performances remained completely different. I did take classical dance moves to films but I never let filmy movements get into my performance on stage. It was sacred for me. But these days, you see a lot of filmy moves getting into Bharatanatyam performances because people feel that lends some newness to it. I don’t see it that way. For me, newness is about reviving old and forgotten dance numbers. I have spent a lot of time in my life researching about dance. I have done exhaustive study on the Thanjai Naalvar and I studied under Kitappa Pillai, who is a direct descendant of the Tanjore Quartret. That is my bani and I adhere to it.”

She fondly remembers all her gurus who shaped her over the years. “I learnt music first and then I learnt dance and my guru was DK Pattammal. I later learnt from KV Narayanaswamy and Kitappa Pillai. I also learnt some javalis from the legendary Mylapore Gowri Ammal.”

Madras became the place where Bharatanatyam found a new lease of life and Vyjayanthimala clearly remembers the early days. “Madras was always an important place for art. I had my education in this city. Back then, there weren’t so many sabhas in Madras. There were few performing artistes and I would say, the scene wasn’t so messy as it is now.” For her Krishna Bhakti is a vital part of her life and dance. “The presiding deity of the temple in Triplicane in Krishna and as a Bharatanatyam artiste, I share a deep bond with him. He is totally adorable. His life can be described differently when you take different aspects of his life, be it Krishna as a child, a beloved, guru or paramatma.”

At 81, Vyjayanthimala draws a full house and last December, she did a dance drama, where she danced on stage with her granddaughter. “I never think of my age and number. For me, I have to be good with my dance numbers. I have always told my students you need devotion, discipline and dedication in this art. Nothing is given to anyone on a platter. My husband and my son always encouraged me.”

When Vyjayanthimala enters the stage, it is a divine experience for her. “Before I take my first step on stage, I close my eyes in prayer and ask the lord to take over. He listens and I perform. It is bhakti that drives you there. Only through true bhakti, you can reach the audience as a performer. When I danced, I never thought of myself. I never brought my personality forward. The focus was foremost on the art. I danced not to entertain or to excite people. I wanted the viewers to be elevated with dance. Real natya is when that elevation brings tears in the eyes of the rasika.”

(This was published in the 10th anniversary edition of The Times of India, Chennai)

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