Epitomising Andal, the Vyjayantimala way

The 90-year-old Bharatanatyam exponent showed how emotions and lyrics are central to her art

January 23, 2024 05:33 pm | Updated 05:33 pm IST

Veteran Bharatanatyam dancer Vyjayantimala Bali performs ‘Sri Andal’s Sanga Tamizh Malai’ at Natyadarshan on December 17, 2023.

Veteran Bharatanatyam dancer Vyjayantimala Bali performs ‘Sri Andal’s Sanga Tamizh Malai’ at Natyadarshan on December 17, 2023. | Photo Credit: Akhila Easwaran

Martha Graham, who introduced emotions in dance in the West, famously said in her memoir Blood Memory: “People have asked me why I chose to be a dancer. I did not choose. I was chosen to be a dancer, and with that, you live all your life.”

Watching Vyjayanthimala Bali at 90, dressed in her ‘Andal’ costume, one felt there must have been a similar calling in her case.

This is a lifetime devoted to dance, particularly to Andal. Reviving ‘Sri Andal’s Sanga Tamizh Malai’ of 30 Andal pasurams first presented in the 1950s, Vyjayanthimala and a few young dancers presented pasurams at Natya Darshan, 2023.

Once she adjusted to the blinding arc lights, nothing could stand between Vyjayanthimala and her art. She is a fitting example of a dancer with a straight back and an imposing presence. Having soaked in the Tiruppavai for decades, Vyjayanthimala’s manner was relaxed; the fast-changing gestures and expressions flowed easily with the lyrics. The only missing piece was the painstakingly-executed perfect nritta segments she would break into every now and then.

For Vyjayantimala portraying Andal is a spiritual experience

For Vyjayantimala portraying Andal is a spiritual experience | Photo Credit: Akhila Easwaran

Following the introductory thaniyan, ‘Soodik koduththa sudarkkodiye’, Vyjayanthimala entered from behind a screen (thirai) to a string of sollus in Nattai. The thirai was removed to reveal a vision in green and red with the distinctive Andal kondai. She presented ‘Margazhi thingal’ through detailed abhinaya, as a young girl happy to start her vrata (fast) on a good day and urging her like-minded friends to join her, to bathe in the river and worship Nandagopan’s son.

Vyjayantimala in the familiar Andal costume.

Vyjayantimala in the familiar Andal costume. | Photo Credit: Akhila Easwaran

The group of dancers presented short pieces, retold concisely. Andal describes the black birds chirping early in the morning and the churning of curds in ‘Keechu keechu’ in Sindhubharavi, Adi, and urges the girls to sing and get gifts in ‘Keezhvanam’ in Suddha Saveri, Adi, as the calves and buffaloes roam free. Little swara segments added life to the literal translations.

Andal goes from house to house waking up her friends in ‘Kanaithilam’ in Abhogi, Adi and ‘Elle ilam kiliye’, Kanada, Rupakam.

Andal finally wakes up Nappinai and her consort in ‘Kuthuvilakkeriya’, Hamsadhvani, Adi; ‘Muppathu moovar’, Jonpuri, Adi; and ‘Etrakalangal’ Nattaikurinji, Misra chapu, before concluding with his worship in ‘Oruthi maganai’, Neelambari, Adi.

Vyjayanthimala returned to perform the concluding ‘Vangakkadal kadainthu’ pasuram, a phala shruti set in Suruti. Andal says that just reciting the verses, without performing the vrata, is enough to attain god. The dancer stood under the prop of an ornate temple-like doorway, with a long garland, embodying divinity.

The melodies were composed by vidwan Madurai N. Krishnan and sung by Samanvitha G. Sasidaran along with expert musicians J.B. Sruthi Sagar on the flute and G.V. Guru Bharadwaaj on the mridangam. Gayathri Sasidaran conducted the programme smoothly.

The team presented 16 pasurams in about 60 minutes. The visualisation by Vyjayanthimala with the guidance of scholar M.A. Venkatesan was understandably brief. Neither the music or the dance had room for elaboration due to time constraint.

The lyrics took centre stage throughout, proof of Vyjayanthimala’s reverence for Andal.

And, the packed auditorium proved that her fame has not diminished, and that traditional Bharatanatyam remains a crowd-puller.

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