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Sangam of talent

CHITRA SWAMINATHAN speaks to danseuse-actor-politician Vyjayantimala who was recently honoured with the `Legend of Indian Cinema' title at a function in the U.S.

AS YOU walk around the spacious but sparsely furnished rooms in her old world mansion on C. P. Ramasamy Road, the varied facets of Vyjayantimala captured in myriad photographs strike you — the passionate dancer, the attractive actress, the glamorous Congress candidate (she won two Lok Sabha elections) posing with Indira Gandhi, and the affectionate wife and mother.

Even as you are taken back in time, the real Vyjayantimala appears in a bright Kancheepuram sari with matching accessories and the long red tilakam in place. The yesteryear beauty seems to prefer looking colourful even in her grey years. "No beige or mauve for me, only vibrant shades to match my soaring spirit," she laughs.

She's past 70, yet her excitement and energy levels are surprisingly high. She started training in Bharatanatyam at the age of eight and has remained a constant in the world of classical art.

Purity of style

In fact, she spent the year 2004 researching for and choreographing "Ragam Tanam Pallavi" which she premiered at the recent Margazhi festival. And she now plans to stage the production across the country and abroad. Most rasikas are struck by her precision, purity of style (Thanjavur bani) and slim frame. It was not just a hectic season for her. She was also away to the U.S. to receive the `Legend of Indian Cinema' title at the Bollywood Awards function. That apart, she also presided over a vegetarian meet held in New York. Vyjayantimala swears by vegetarianism, grandma recipes and home-cooked food. No wonder, she is agile and active at this age. "Vegetarianism is the perfect prescription for a healthy mind, soul and body. People were impressed with its virtues when I listed them. In fact, it's nice to hear that many Westerners are now saying `No' to meat."

A traditional at heart

Be it dance, diet or dressing, she is a traditional Tamilian. "Surprisingly, my husband, though a Punjabi, preferred saris to salwar kameezes. And all my life, I have been a Kancheepuram loyalist. I do wear cottons but occasionally," says the dancer-politician. Known for her characteristic big, round bindis, Vyjayantimala switched to the spiritual Andal tilakam six years ago. "I used to wear tilakam only when attending discourses. One day I just decided no more of cosmetic bindis."

Even as a famous filmstar, she was unpretentious. "It is because of my upbringing that I never developed the been-there-done-that attitude. I was hardly the party type. Life was just about shootings and dance rehearsals. My grandmother saw to it that nothing came between me and my art. She would always say that I was born to dance. Films just happened. Luckily, I belonged to an era when songs offered enough scope for melody and classical dance movements, unlike the item numbers of today. In fact, my training in the art under revered gurus helped me to be a natural actress."

But the star of superhits such as "Naya Daur", "Suraj", "Jewel Thief" and "Sangam" bid adieu to the marquee soon after marriage. "It was not a difficult decision as I preferred family life to fame. Anyway, I was never sitting idle at home. My husband wanted me to pursue Bharatanatyam seriously. I was just waiting to get back to my first love - dance." It's hard to miss the joyous expressions when Vyjayantimala talks about her late husband. One can see his pictures adorned with garlands all around in her house.

"It was hardly love at first sight. I felt secure and happy with him around. The most beautiful aspect of our relationship was he never believed in a you-me equation. And he also took to most of the things I liked. He shared my love for the classical arts, south Indian attire (he was often clad in veshti and angavastram) and vegetarianism."

Political plunge

It was at his instance that Vyjayantimala took the political plunge. "When he first came up with the idea, I just laughed it off. But he persisted and took me to Indirama. Next, the most amazing thing happened, I won twice from the South Madras constituency." She was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha and remained an active Congresswoman for 18 years!

Once she donned the role of a Parliamentarian, Vyjayantimala pursued it as seriously as she followed art. She would prepare notes, attend training classes for new parliamentarians and kept in touch with issues and problems. "In my first speech in the Lok Sabha, I spoke about the linking of rivers, which continues to be a major issue even today. I had said we need to create a garland of rivers," she smiles.

Though the huge compound wall of her house cuts her off from the cacophony of traffic, she knows the pulse of the city. "Chennai is where my heart is. Wherever I go, I long to get back home. Recently, I went to Tiruvallikkeni and saw the house I was born in. It is right opposite the temple. I stood there for sometime and took some pictures. My mind was flooded with memories of my childhood. Even this house where I stayed with my grandmother and mother and later with my husband (she even got married here) helps me relive the past. Every wall here seems to resonate with melody because stalwart musicians such as Madurai Man Iyer, Maharajapuram Santhanam, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and K. V. Narayanaswami performed in the huge drawing room on the first floor. Every Saturday, a small group of art lovers would get together here and enjoy the chamber concerts. There were dance recitals too. I thoroughly enjoy such artistic exchanges. I am extremely fond of my guru and amma D. K. Pattamal and still seek solace in her company. I have known just art and artistes all my life."

Few would know Vyjayantimala, the sportsperson. Another passion that rejuvenates and relaxes her. She is a junior table tennis champion, a certificate holder in horse riding, a keen golfer and played badminton, and basketball.

Right now, she is keeping her fingers crossed about her son Suchindra's film career. Though a Masters in Law from Columbia, he is eager to step into his mother's acting shoes.

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