Friday Review

Tête-à-Tête with Vyjayanthimala

Vyjayanthimala Bali. Photo. M. Moorthy

Vyjayanthimala Bali. Photo. M. Moorthy

A book titled ‘Chithira Tiruppavai’ was published in 1965. It had beautiful illustrations for each Pasuram, by Chitralekha, who did the cover illustrations for Ananda Vikatan’s Deepavali Specials in the 1940s and 1950s.

It used to be my favourite Tiruppavai book when I was a child, because of the illustrations, because the gist of each Pasuram was summed up in just one line, and also because on the back cover was a picture of Vyjayanthimala Bali as Andal! The book had the inner meaning of the verses explained by vidwans of Ahobila Math and Parakala Math. When I mention the book, Vyjayanthimala says, “I’ve been trying to get a copy of that book for a long time.”

Tiruppavai has deep philosophical interpretations. For example, in the very first Pasuram, the Paramatma swarupa, Jivatma swarupa, Phala swarupa through the word ‘parai’ are all indicated. How much of the inner meaning of the verses can the dancer portray through dance?

“Obviously, not all the philosophical meanings of a Pasuram can be portrayed. Still the potential of Divya Prabandham from a dance point of view is immense. For the word ‘Iraivaa’ in ‘Karavaigal’ Pasuram, you can portray bhakti in many ways. ‘Siriya Thirumadal’, which has Tirumangai Azhwar as Parakala Nayaki, pining for the Lord, is pretty straightforward. But even for this, one should have academic help, and Visishtadvaita scholars Dr. M.A. Venkatakrishnan and his wife Bhooma helped,” says Vyjayanthimala.

When Vyjayanthimala was a child, N.K. Tirumalachari, founder of the N.K.T. School in Triplicane, would call her ‘Kodhai,’ another name for Andal, and by a strange coincidence, her first performance of Tiruppavai was at the N.K.T. school, which still has a Vyjayanthimala Vasantha Mandapam.

Her music guru in the early days was Manakkal Sivaraja Iyer, who was also her mother Vasundara’s guru. She would give excuses to dodge music lessons, but her watchful grandmother Yadugiri (Yaggamma) made sure she went back to her lessons. Sivaraja Iyer set to tune some verses from Tondaradippodi Azhwar’s Tirumaalai, and Vasundara cut a 78 rpm disc. “I learnt those verses by playing the record. M.S. amma used to be very fond of that record,” she recalls.

Vidwans who used to stay at Vyjayanthimala’s house, would also occasionally teach her some compositions. Mysore Vasudevacharya taught her his Suruti thillana. “I choreographed it, but he passed away before I could dance it. I later performed it at Kalakshetra, as a tribute to him.” Vyjayanthiamala was sent to D.K. Pattammal for music lessons sometime in the 1940s. “I remember I couldn’t get a sangati right in ‘Sivaganga’ (Punnagavarali), which she taught me. I came home and played the 78 rpm record of the song so many times, that the grooves on the disc disappeared!”

Although Vyjayanthimala was a reluctant singer, she was keen to be a dancer ever since, as a child, she attended a performance of Pandanallur Jayalakshmi at Gokhale Hall.

Although she first trained under Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, and had her arangetram too, she later began to learn from Dandayuthapani Pillai because she wanted to change her style. “I learnt the adavus from scratch. I learnt musical aspects needed for dance from K.P. Kittappa Pillai, and many varnams, padams and javalis from Mylapore Gowri amma.”

Vyjayanthimala recalls Gowri Amma’s sense of humour. “She would say, ‘The other day I saw someone do ‘Payyada’ in a way that wanted me to say, ‘Idhu Poyyada’ (This is a fake).”

Talking about how she went about Tagore’s ‘Chandalika’, Vyjayanthimala says, “I dropped all the songs, and used only mime and music. Pt. Ravi Sankar, who had set the music, was worried about how the audience would react to a presentation of Tagore’s work sans the poet’s words. But the audience loved it.”

Having lived and worked for so many years in Bombay, Vyjayanthimala wanted to show her gratitude by presenting a Marathi tale, and chose the story of Sant Sakku. Vani Jairam, who sang for the production says, “Vasant Desai was in charge of music. Malaji (Vyjayanthimala) was there throughout the rehearsals at Desai sir’s place near Shivaji Park, and also for the recordings.”

About her film dances, Vyjayanthimala says, “I don’t remember the details, but choreographers of film dances often allowed me to change movements. Gopikrishna would show me many movements and ask me, ‘Which of these do you like?’”

She points to a portrait of her in her living room, and says, “That was done by M.R. Acharekar, the art director for films ‘Amrapali’, ‘Suraj’ and ‘Sangam’.”

Why did she close down her dance school? “Because of parental interference. Parents were in a hurry to do arangetrams for their children. They also resented my separating slow learners from the ones who made quick progress.”

Vyjayanthimala plays a cassette for me, where she is signing together with violinist T. Rukmani. One of the pieces is a solo by her. “It’s a sloka my husband taught me. He knew ghazals and bhajans and was an Urdu scholar.”

Vani Jairam says Vyjayanthimala also sang at the Puri temple, and was honoured by the King of Puri. “Flautist Ramani made me sing at the inaugural function in Cleveland. I was totally unprepared, but I managed to pull it off. Recently, I’ve had requests, not from sabhas though, to sing whatever I’ve learned. It seems a good idea,” says Vyjayanthimala.

As if in anticipation of this new career, Vyjayanthimala has named her granddaughters Swara and Sahitya!

Accidental discovery

Vyjayanthimala is presenting a new piece this year, which she discovered quite literally by accident. A fire broke out in her house, and she managed to salvage a few of Yaggamma’s notebooks. And there she found a verse that was incomplete, but which spoke of Navavida Bhakti as portrayed in the Ramayana. She asked M.A. Venkatakrishnan about the verse, but he too had never come across it. Sometime later, while reading a book, he stumbled upon the verse, and was thus able to help Vyjayanthimala out.

She is presenting Navavida Bhakti in the Ramayana on December 21, 28, and January 5, 2015, at Bharat Kalachar, Kartik Fine Arts and Narada Gana Sabha, respectively.

Dearest grandmother

After reading Vyjayanthi’s autobiography, former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said the book had two heroines- Vyjayanthimala and Yaggamma! “He wasn’t exaggerating. Grandmother was everything to me,” says Vyjayanthimala.

Vyjayanthimala's Navavida Bhakti

December 21, 7 p.m., Bharat Kalachar at Sri YGP Auditorium, T. Nagar

December 28, 6 p.m., Kartik Fine Arts at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mylapore.

January 5, 2015, Narada Gana Sabha, 6.30 p.m.

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Printable version | May 21, 2022 3:55:02 pm |