The photographer, in a tastefully done living room in Delhi’s Panchsheel Park, tells Kanjivaram-clad Vyjayanthimala Bali, 82, to look straight at the camera. Her kohl-rimmed eyes widen, she turns to the camera with a knowing smile dancing on her lips and delivers that steady gaze — the kind that could hold Devdas’s attention when Chandramukhi lifted her eyes, or captivate Devendra when the ghost of Madhumati beckoned him. “I was taught to be a dancer. We speak with our eyes,” says Vyjayanthimala.
On Wednesday, the actor and dancer will don her finest costume and jewellery for a Bharatanatyam performance at Delhi’s Kamani auditorium. “I don’t dance. It’s that goddess of mine who makes me dance. On stage, you will see Vyjayanthimala dancing, but it’s this other me who attempts the movements. I’m over 80. I get my strength from her,” she says, referring to Andal, the deity in the temple in her hometown Triplicane, Chennai. It was here that she first twirled to the bell chimes and the chants inside the thick walls of the Parthasarthy temple across the road from her house. Her performance in the Capital, which like all her performances, is a tribute to the goddess, has been organised by Pandit Chaturlal Memorial Society in celebration of the 90th birth anniversary of the tabla wizard.
To the millions who watched her in Hindi film industry’s golden era, Vyjayanthimala was not only one of the more beautiful women on screen, but also a dancer, who could delight with her graceful movements. At 21, when she walked down the hill in Naagin (1954) to composer Hemant Kumar’s famous piece on a snakecharmer’s been, it announced the arrival of the first South-Indian female actor in tinseltown. What followed was a series of hits such as Naya Daur (1957), Sadhana (1958), and Madhumati (1958). But she is most remembered for her role as Chandramukhi in Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1954). Based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel by the same name, the film explored the role of a nautch girl in love, one who could find light inside the darkness an alcoholic lover offered. “It was the role of a lifetime. And I gave it my all,” says Vyjayanthimala. The role got her a Filmfare Award for “Best Supporting Actor”, which she refused, a big deal at the time for a new actor, claiming that it wasn’t a supporting role. “The Filmfare magazine tore me to pieces after that. But I stood my ground. Bimal da had maintained there were two main actresses — Suchitra Sen and I,” says Vyjayanthimala.
The resolve to stand her ground came from her grandmother Yadugiri Devi, and mother and actor Vasundhara Devi. “They were conservative, and not educated, but they stood by what was right,” says Vyjayanthimala, who, at five, danced for the Pope Pius XII when her mother was at the Vatican. Growing up in a house full of music and dance, she saw iconic gurus teach her mother, whom she called akka (older sister), since she was only 16 years older.
Vyjayanthimala learnt dance under some of the finest gurus including KP Kittappa Pillai and Mylapore Gowri Amma. At 13, just after her aarangetram, she starred in Tamil film Vazhkai (1949), which was a hit and got her MV Raman’s Bahar (1951) and Bollywood’s attention. “I never went back to school after my first film,” says Vyjayanthimala, who hung up her acting boots in 1968, when she married Dr Chamanlal Bali. But her Bharatanatyam continued. It led her to her famous interpretation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Chandalika, the text of which was composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar. The dancer in Vyjayanthimala decided to not have Tagore’s text and interpret it through dance and music only, an idea that made Shankar a little uncomfortable. “First few performances of Chandalika were in West Bengal. They loved it there,” she says.
She also explored politics, joining the Congress in 1984, served two terms in the Lok Sabha and one in the Rajya Sabha, but parted ways with the party in 1999 to join the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Currently, she spends her day in libraries, researching old texts on Bharatanatyam, besides doing her riyaaz in her Chennai home. “I like to present Bharatanatyam in its purest form — the dance of the devdasis — without any frills and flounces. I cannot stand the concepts of fusion these young dancers do,” says Vyjayanthimala.
There is the elegant, self-mocking, the passionate and the guarded — one can take one’s pick. And these are the impressions we part with.