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All the city is a stage

Vyjayanthimala Bali on the joy of learning Bharathanatyam and the performing arts scene in Madras

Photo:The Hindu Archives

Best foot forward Vyjayanthimala, foremost exponent of the Thanjavur style of Bharathanatyam

I was born in Tiruvallikeni . My house faced the Parthasarathy swami temple and belonging to a religious, orthodox family, I grew up listening to the holy chants, devotional songs and the temple bells vibrate in my ears.

I went to the Church Park Convent and then my education sort of diverted to dance, and dance itself became an education for me. There was so much to learn , and as I grew up, I got deeper into it, training under the great masters right here in Madras. Earlier, I learnt from K.M. Dandayudhapani Pillai, and then from Kittappa Pillai, descendant of the Thanjavur quartet. So, I had a very strong foundation in Bharathanatyam, and managed to learn so many of the forgotten ancient temple dance forms from Kittappa Pillai. They’re so beautiful, and even today when I present one of them, they appear so new, because how many people would have seen them before?

I had my arangetram when I was 13 and then I started performing regularly. The December festival in Madras is something that’s unique… I don’t think there can be a cultural season like this anywhere in the world. To this day, there’s so much admiration and warmth from the rasikas. But, there was a difference in the old days. There were not that many dancers and only two or three sabhas — the Music Academy, Tamil Isai Sangam, the Indian Fine Arts Society, and the old Gokhale Hall. I have danced in Gokhale Hall so many times. I haven’t seen it in recent times, but I’ve heard that it’s so different now that I might not be able to recognise it..

The audience there used to be very nice. I remember, even when it was pouring outside, the audience stayed to the end, quietly appreciative. It was a very simple hall… just a dais, no frills, with the audience sitting on very ordinary chairs. People used to stand on the aisles, here and there, and you had to pass through the whole audience to go into your room after the performance. I used to just cover myself and go from one side. There was no such thing as a proper green room or a proper way to enter it as there is nowadays. It was all very natural, like in the olden times.

Since then, there has really been a mushrooming of sabhas, and dancers galore. There’s a sense of having so much more to see and listen to in all spheres of art. Of course, the population has also increased, and the rasikas are a more varied lot.

The result is more confusion. Programmes clash. You’d like to listen to some good singing in kutcheris, but at the same time there is someone who’s playing an instrument very well. Or there’s a dance performance going on which you would like to watch. It was very clear cut back then and everyone knew exactly what was happening where. Today, things are developing so fast, even in art there is so much speed.

The culture of listening to kutcheris or watching a dance performance at a leisurely pace (amaidiya) is not there.

Still, Madras as a city remains open to many things, a city that doesn’t shun. There is always an audience for everything — from sports to dance to religious discourses.

It’s a multi-faceted city with the sort of colour you don’t find everywhere. I’ve always been proud to belong to Madras — in fact, I would say that Madras has always been magnificent.

Vyjayanthimala Bali

Born in 1936, she is a classical dancer, actor and former MP who still choreographs and performs Bharathanatyam.

An award-winning leading lady of the 1950s and 1960s, she is famous for her roles in Tamil movies such as “Vazhkai” and “Vanjikottai Vaaliban” and in Hindi such as “Nagin” , “Devdas”,Madhumati”, and “Sangam”.


I was always very fond of tennis. So my grandmother had a grand tennis court was put up behind our house. For about 10 days, I took classes. But, someone told my grandmother: “Aiyyo, she’s playing tennis? She could get tennis elbow!” My grandmother got so scared. Anything that could interfere with my dance had to be stopped at any cost, so she immediately closed down the tennis court which had taken 40 days to set up! And that was the end of my tennis classes.

As told to DIVYA KUMAR

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