Friday Review

From Natya to numbers

L. Vijayalakshmi

L. Vijayalakshmi  

After a short but successful stint in films, L. Vijayalakshmi became a Chartered Accountant. But dance remains her first love.

It all began with a bit of enthusiastic imitation. Six-year-old L. Vijayalakshmi (Viji) saw Vyjayanthimala, Lalitha and Padmini dance at the South Indian Association in Pune. She came home, made the backyard of the house her stage, and tried to dance what she had seen. Viji’s mother was a trained vocalist and vainika. Whatever song she heard her mother sing, Viji would adapt it to dance. Noticing her talent, her father put her under the guidance of Guru Sukumara Pillai.

Her first public performance came when Viji was nine. Invited to perform at a temple in Andhra Pradesh, Viji practised throughout the train journey! Since Viji needed advanced dance lessons, the family moved to Madras, where they rented a house in South Mada Street, Mylapore. But they had no idea about whom to approach for dance lessons. One night, when Viji and her father Lakshmanan were taking a stroll round the Kapali temple tank, they heard the jangle of a salangai from a house. Without hesitation, Lakshmanan knocked on the door, and found a young lady doing nattuvangam while a girl danced. The young lady was K. J. Sarasa! Sarasa suggested that Lakshmanan approach her guru Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai.

The next morning, Lakshmanan took Viji to Pillai, who accepted her as his disciple. “I remember I used to take bus route 21 C to his house. Often lessons went on for six hours. E.V. Saroja was learning from him too at that time. We were all like a family,” says Viji.

Viji’s arangetram at R.R. Sabha followed in just ten months. “My arangetram was on October 28, 1955. We were not a wealthy family. So I had just one dress for the entire three-hour performance. These days, I find that arangetrams are costly affairs with dinner thrown in. In our days, not even a cup of tea was offered to those who attended. And yet the hall was packed. I didn’t even have a printed invitation for my arangetram. Invitation was by word of mouth. E. Krishna Iyer spoke before my arangetram, and Hindi film director Shantaram presided. I also took Kamala Lakshman’s blessings.”

The day after her arangetram, Viji was offered slots by four sabhas, and was soon a busy dancer. Upon Ramaiah Pillai’s suggestion, she began to learn more intricacies from Swaminatha Pillai and padams from Mylapore Gowri Amma.

In 1959, Viji entered films through the Telugu film, ‘Sipayi Kuthuru’. Did she have to train separately for film dances? “No, because film dances then were ‘modified classical’ dances. There were more classical dances in Telugu films than in Tamil.”

Could it be because there were more mythologicals and historicals in Telugu? “I can understand ‘Narthanasala’ or ‘Mahamantri Thimmarasu’ having classical dances, because one was a mythological and the other a historical. But Telugu producers insisted that if I acted in a film, there had to be a dance. In ‘Gundamma Katha’, for example, a dance was included in the last minute at the producer’s insistence.”

Who were the choreographers in Telugu films? “I’ve worked with excellent choreographers such as Vempatti Pedda Satyam and Pasumarthi Krishnamurthi,” she says.

Viji’s first Tamil film was ‘Aalukkoru Veedu’. “‘Paadhai Theriyudhu Paar’ won National awards. But it didn’t have a good box-office run. The distributors complained to the director about the absence of a dance by me. The director said, ‘Vijalayalakshmi knows how to dance, but the character she plays in the film does not!’”

When her film career was at its peak, a marriage proposal came Viji’s way. Her brother, who was doing his doctoral studies in the Philippines, showed pictures of his family to his friend Suraj Kumar De Datta. Datta was charmed by the picture of doe-eyed, dimpling Vijayalakshmi. So he visited Madras, and went to AVM Studio, where Viji was shooting and introduced himself as her brother’s friend. The next day, he turned up at yet another studio where she was shooting. That day, the dance master was late and Viji waited in her costume and heavy jewellery until 3 a.m.! “What kind of gruelling schedule is this!” remarked Datta. Viji actually looks at such long waits as a blessing. “It taught me patience. Every time my husband compliments me on my patience, I tell him I owe it to the film industry,” she says.

Datta’s persistence paid off. Viji’s father felt it was a good match, and that it would be better if she quit films when the going was good rather than fade out slowly. “I’d learnt Bengali, because there was the possibility of a Bengali film. That came in handy when I married a Bengali!”

After her marriage, Viji took the Benares Hindu Matriculation exam as a private candidate. “I took Tamil as my second language. But I didn’t even know the alphabet. So I came down from the Philippines and took tuitions. One of the questions in the exam was about what Hanuman says when he sees Sita in Lanka. I recalled Arunachala Kavi’s kriti ‘Anda Rama Soundaryam.’ I wrote down the entire lyric as my answer! So dance came to the rescue in my Tamil exam!”

Viji did her Chartered Accountancy when she moved to the U.S., and now works as a financial analyst in the University of California, Davis. People still remember her films and call or email her. “An assistant professor of dance at the Wesleyan University told me he saw the 1964 film, ‘Poojaphalam’ 100 times, just for the javali ‘Siva Deeksha Paru’, which I have danced in the film. Another Telugu fan said he saw ‘Gundamma Katha’ 15 times just for my dance.”

“The Chief Information Officer at UC, Davis, is also called Viji. My friend asked her if she’d heard of an actor called L. Vijayalakshmi. And she replied, ‘Why do you think my father named me Viji? He was a fan of L. Vijayalakshmi!’”

Vijayalakshmi comes to Chennai every year for the Music and Dance Season. “Every time I watch a dance performance, I have an itch to dance. Maybe, next year, I will do something thematic,” she says.

Let’s look forward to that!

Her filmography

Among Viji’s most popular Tamil films are ‘Kudiyiruntha Kovil’, in which she danced a bhangra with MGR (‘Aadaludan Padalai Kettu Rasippathilethan Sugam ... Sugam’), ‘Vallavan Oruvan’, ‘Iru Vallavargal’, ‘Kaakkum Karangal’, ‘Sumai Thangi’, ‘Ayirathil Oruvan’, ‘Bommai’ and ‘Ooty Varai Uravu’. She has acted with some of the top heroes of the time including MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Prem Nazir, NTR and Nageswara Rao.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 11:44:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/interview-with-l-vijayalakshmi/article6860381.ece

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