“I really hope you don’t enter the concert arena. We singers will have to look for a new profession if you do,” said senior Carnatic vocalist Neyveli Santhanagopalan to the veteran dancer. He was among a handful of music and dance practitioners, rasikas, and critics assembled at an after-dinner ‘thinnai’ session—the rough southern equivalent of an adda—at the sleepy temple town of Tennangur in Tamil Nadu.
The year was 2008 and the lady, already in her seventies, was a key resource person in an annual dance workshop convened by Chennai-based Natyarangam. After wowing her audiences during the day with her unflagging energy and exquisite aesthetics, she was now entertaining us to the unexpected delights of her deep-felt and nuanced singing of rare gems from the oeuvre of the Tanjore Quartet of 19th century fame. She rendered for us her first public song, one that she recorded for All India Radio when barely six, film songs she had enacted, a song she had learnt from the late Carnatic music doyenne DK Pattammal, and best of all, some brilliant samples of the Dhanammal school of music to which learning dance from Kittappa Pillai had exposed her. By the time she finished, it was past midnight, and Santhanagopalan revised his original request. “You must perform as a vocalist soon,” he said. The delighted star of the evening almost blushed. “What happens to my dance, then?” she asked, with the innocence of a schoolgirl.
Vyjayantimala Bali turned 76 yesterday, Friday, 13 August, but her passion for her art is undimmed. Just the other day, she firmly declined a request to sing or dance at the function to be held later this month to award her the prestigious E Krishna Iyer medal, “because I am already practising for two performances and I cannot do justice to one more.” This uncompromising attitude marked her distinguished career in films as well as bharata natyam. Even as a young actress still finding her way around the industry, she demonstrated the courage of her conviction by turning down a Filmfare award for best supporting actress in the Bimal Roy version of Devdas, in which she co-starred with Dilip Kumar and Suchitra Sen. “My part as Chandramukhi was a joint lead role along with that of Paro in the movie. It was no supporting role,” she recalls, bristling with principled outrage decades later.
One of the two men she recalls with great affection and respect is still with us—Dilip Kumar who not only inspired her with his perfect, almost effortless acting, but also put her completely at ease on the sets in the numerous films they did together. Of her other favourite film person, she says, “Bimal Da had total confidence in me and encouraged me to give of my best as Chandramukhi, a role that demanded great histrionic skills, when all around us doubted my acting ability. After all, I was known only for my dancing talent and light-hearted roles in films. The results were there for all to see when the film was released.”
It has always been fashionable for film stars with classical dance training to refer to that art as their first love, as though acting in cinema were somehow an inferior calling. In Vyjayantimala’s case, not only was she a top dancer before she entered films, she refused to dilute her art in the classical dance sequences in films, though she was not averse to performing folk or exotic numbers—as in “Dhayyare dhayyare” in Madhumati, or “Kya karun Ram mujhe budhdha mil gaya” in Sangam. Never could anyone expect her to inject anything light or film-based into her classical dance performances either.
Vyjayantimala’s life can be divided into three phases. In the first, she was a child prodigy—shaped into a fine dancing talent by her beloved grandmother Yadugiri and mother Vasundhara—and an all round athlete in the making. The second phase was her sensational film career during which she was paired with some of the biggest heroes of Tamil and Hindi cinema. Marriage to Dr. Chaman Lal Bali brought her true happiness and a fulfilling second innings as a bharata natyam artist away from the world of celluloid. This was also the period when she took to golf and won amateur titles at the national level, and took up causes she believed in as a parliamentarian.
Today, she is the perfect picture of a consummate artist who has aged gracefully, one who has so much to pass on from her rich artistic past, a role model for young aspirants in every aspect of her art. She is an outspoken champion of tradition at a time when it is under siege from several powerful forces. Her attitude to new-fangled ideas can be summed up by her comment on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas: “It is a distortion of Sarat Chandra’s classic.”