Vyjayantimala Bali, veteran dancer, says that her first and real love has always been dance, but she also learnt Carnatic music as she believed there was no dance without music. Her interest in sports is perhaps less known.

"Teach me to stitch," I would ask Aiyyelu, the last word on dance costumes. He grew up in our home as an errand boy, for my grandmother had everyone from the electrician to the carpenter on her payroll. I still sew rather well, I think.

Soon after my arangetram, A.V. Meiyappa Chettiyar (AVM productions) and M.V. Raman attended my dance performance at the beautiful Gokhale Hall in Town. The following day they visited our home asked my grandmother's permission to launch me as their new face in a Tamil film. My family agreed, albeit reluctantly, as I was expected to focus on my education. Thus, Vazhkai, the film, literally became the turning point in my life. This hit was remade in Telugu and Hindi and, Bahaar especially, with its dance sequences, took north by storm. The footwork and mudras fascinated everyone and I was nicknamed ‘Twinkle Toes’.

A list of Hindi films followed — Nagin, New Delhi, Naya Daur among others. Although I could not work here, my roots were firmly in Madras, because it all happened here. I owe my success in films to my strong foundation in Bharatanatyam which made me grasp any style quickly. My next foray into Tamil was Penn, later made in Telugu and then in Hindi as Ladki. Other beautiful offers — Madhumati, Sangam and others also came my way. My Hindi was chaste as it was my second language in school and I did my Hindi Prachar Sabha exams.

I was also very interested in sports. A junior table tennis champion, I used to play with a lot of senior women but had the advantage of being more agile! I remember a championship at Ripon Building, when I beat a tough senior lady opponent. The atmosphere was electric as her fans burst into tears when she lost!

I learned to ride a horse, played badminton and lots of board games. After marriage, my husband put me on to golf which I took to like a natural. I am planning to resume golf as there is nothing more restful than this sport.

My first and real love has always been dance, but I also learnt Carnatic as there is no dance without music. Guru Manakkal Shivaraja Iyer was my first teacher. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar would come over to teach my mother. I would sit on the swing and listen and have learned a few compositions from him too. I also loved to hear the records of Bade Ghulam Ali and Saigal. I have learned from Purushottam Das Jalota, Kishori Amonkar and my most revered teacher and mentor, D.K. Pattammal.

Although I have travelled the world over, when I land in Chennai, my heart literally pounds. I was born in Tiruvallikeni facing the Parthasarathy temple and woke to the sounds of the bells. Perhaps this has made me approach everything with spirituality and bhakti. Everything is a prayer. Madras, the place of all arts taught me that.

For a video by K.V. Srinivasan, go to http://thne.ws/madras-vyjayanti

As told to Lata Ganapathy

(Vyjayantimala Bali is a dancer and yesteryear actor)

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