Song of Surrender

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Kalanidhi

By V Ramnarayan

Vyjayantimala Bali is a sprightly septuagenarian whose superb footwork and emoting on stage can even today put young dancers to shame. One of the most versatile artistes in the history of the south Indian performing arts, Ms Bali was the heartthrob of millions as a film star of great beauty and acting ability for a couple of decades till her early retirement from movies in 1968. She fully realised her potential in numerous fields—as a sports champion in athletics, table tennis and (after her marriage) in golf, as an actress, as a bharata natyam dancer of the highest order, and a sensitive vocalist in the classical idiom.

Vyjayantimala’s passion for her art is undimmed. Her uncompromising attitude towards maintaining the purity and tradition of her dance marked her distinguished career in films as well. Even as a young actress still finding her way around the industry, she demonstrated the courage of her conviction by turning down a national level award for best supporting actress in the Bimal Roy version of Devdas, in which she co-starred with Dilip Kumar and Suchitra Sen. “My part as Chandramukhi was a joint lead role along with that of Paro in the movie. It was no supporting role,” she recalls, bristling with principled outrage decades later.

Vyjayantimala’s life can be divided into three phases. In the first, she was a child prodigy—shaped into a fine dancing talent by her beloved grandmother Yadugiri and mother Vasundhara—and an all round athlete in the making. The second phase was her sensational film career during which she was paired with some of the biggest heroes of Tamil and Hindi cinema. Marriage to Dr. Chaman Lal Bali brought her true happiness and a fulfilling second innings as a bharata natyam artist away from the world of celluloid. This was also the period when she took to golf and won amateur titles at the national level, and took up causes she believed in as a parliamentarian.

Today, she is the perfect picture of a consummate artist who has aged gracefully, one who has so much to pass on from her rich artistic past, a role model for young aspirants in every aspect of her art. She is an outspoken champion of tradition at a time when it us under siege from several powerful forces. That does not prevent her from encouraging young talent or genuine efforts at innovation rooted in tradition. She is a true blend of the past, present and future—as an artist, as a human being.

One of the two men she recalls with affection and respect is still with us—Dilip Kumar who not only inspired her with his perfect, almost effortless acting, but also put her completely at ease on the sets in the numerous films they did together. Of her other favourite film person, she says, “Bimal Da (Roy) had total confidence in me and encouraged me to give of my best as Chandramukhi, a role that demanded great histrionic skills, when all around us doubted my acting ability. After all, I was known only for my dancing talent and light-hearted roles in films. The results were there for all to see when the film was released.”

The Madras Music Academy broke with tradition when it anointed Balasaraswati Sangita Kalanidhi, the only time the award has gone to a dancer. Few will complain should the Academy decide to repeat that rare decision by honouring Vyjayantimala.

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