- Jyothi Raghuram
Photos: Kalian Ramanujadhasan
September 7, 2023
Exuberance and gaiety are many times the obvious personality traits of dancers. Add to this their fit and supple frames, colourful traditional attire, dignified carriage, all with distinctly individualistic styles; what you have is a vision and experience of vitality, brightness, bubbliness. Imagine such a vivid and spirited scenario, sprinkled with several such shining stars, cheered by an enthusiastic audience, the crowning glory being the presence of dance diva Vyjayantimala Bali. One would be compelled to call it a unique, lifetime event.
The credit for organizing such a sober yet sparkling programme aptly titled Vyjayanti Vaibhavam, goes to the Sri Yadugiri Yathiraja Mutt at Bengaluru; a celebratory event got up to felicitate the icon of classical dance, Vyjayantimala Bali, on her 90th birthday. Little surprise that it was drawn up by the Mutt—it has been at the forefront in promoting classical music and dance, with a focus on providing a much-needed platform for homegrown artistes, under the visionary outlook of Sri Sri Yadugiri Yathiraja Jeeyar Swami, who has always held that the classical arts, steeped in devotion, are in themselves a form of worship.
A dais adorned with six top notch dancers of international standing made it a classy, festive occasion; the brimming auditorium with its participatory audience lent it a rare energy, the luminous Vyjayantimala amid them making it literally a star-studded affair. The very mention of her name has a mystique to it, casting a spell on all. The twinkle-eyed dancer brings a divinity to her dance, making it a transcendental experience. Her exceptional anga shuddham, precise footwork and deeply-involved abhinaya have remained pristine till date.
A brief felicitation speech expressing gratitude to the Jeeyar, humbly accepting the citation, revealed a grace rarely associated with a superstar. The few but inspiring words of Jeeyar Swami pointed to the antiquity and divinity of classical arts, their practice in temple rituals and the enrichment of a culture through the arts. Natyarathnamala bestowed on Vyjayantimala, encapsulated her eight decades of worshipful dance.
Suganya Raghav and Supriya Ashwin
Curtains rose with a short Bharatanatyam outing by Suganya Raghav and Supriya Ashwin, wards of Guru Minal Prabhu, and by Rajini Kallur, a ward of Dr. Soundarya Srivathsa.
It was a rare treat to see the galaxy of dancers share a dais, with Vyjayantimala occupying centre stage. Guru M R Krishnamurthy, an alumnus of Kalakshetra Foundation, Chennai, is among the seniormost Bharatanatyam teachers whose Kalakshiti in Bengaluru has held aloft the banner of his alma mater, with no dilution of its demanding style. The sprightly octogenarian recalled his days at Kalakshetra, when Rukmini Devi Arundale would repeatedly dwell on Vyjayantimala as a role model for perfection in dance. Kalakshiti continues to uphold the ideals of the Kalakshetra founder, with pride and distinction.
Manju Barggavee, synonymous with the all-time classic film Sankarabaranam made over four decades ago, is a picture of quietude and poise. A true representative of the flamboyant Kuchipudi, her Bhama Kalaapam remains etched in memory. “My mother Adilakshmi, a permanent artiste of Gemini Studio, had seen Vyjayantimala practice for hours together. This was in the early 50s. The discipline and dedication of Vyjayanti even as a young teenager was admirable, my mother would repeatedly tell me over the years. Even before I saw Vyjayantimala, she had become my role model,” said Manju.
One calls Vani Ganapathy evergreen, and not without reason. A stickler for tradition, her youthful appearance belies a rigorous practitioner of Bharatanatyam that she is, whose experimentations have strictly been within the classical format. Dwaaram, a musical dance theatre, is a fine example of this, presented at major metros of the country. Vani recalled with pride the exclusive photographs of Vyjayantimala that her mother, Indubala Ganapathy, a Carnatic vocalist, had collected. “Vyjayantimala was the first to bring the Thodaya Mangalam, hitherto part of the bhajana goshti at temples, on to the stage, to which my mother’s cousin, Nirmala Seshadri lent her voice. Vyjayantimala has maintained the traditional pace of dancing which comes with its own beauty, her elegance and dignity enhancing it”.
Effervescent Padmini Ravi, an unapologetic explorer who is a model to the younger generation of dancers, has experimented successfully with allied art forms such as theatre, classical music, folk forms and even cinematography. She has groomed innumerable dancers to become teachers and choreographers in their own right. A landmark in her dance journey has been her receiving a grant of the Ford Foundation to produce a feature film Shringaram, the first of its kind in a classical arts-related genre. “I too grew up in Triplicane, Chennai, and had seen Vyjayantimala as a child-- at her recitals and at temples and functions. She has been a role model for over six decades, and we wanted to be accomplished like her”, said Padmini, adding succinctly, “From the religious and spiritual perspective, she is someone we look up to where we attempt to transcend our identity”.
Satyanarayana Raju, a sought-after dancer, has taken his Rama Katha to every corner of India and overseas too. The beauty of this solo, showcasing a few of the incidents in the life of Sri Rama, brings out the various facets of Sri Rama’s personality through the characterization of others, the emotion-filled portrayal of each episode by Satyanarayana Raju evoking similar sentiments in the audience. Premiered in 2014, Rama Katha is still running to packed houses even when ticketed—a rarity in classical dance shows. Satyanarayana Raju was an integral part of both Dwaaram and The Wodeyars, involved in the choreography and background work. “I am so much in awe, given her exalted status, and in the presence of the revered Jeeyar, I have nothing to say other than offering my obeisance to them”.
Award winning actress Lakshmi Gopalaswamy is a star on the dance scene too, her winning performances projecting a certain simplicity about her, aside of her dancing expertise. Rooted in classical traditions, she has successfully explored within the framework, her firm grounding in Carnatic music revealed in her grasp of both the arts. Eager to experiment, Lakshmi’s production The Wodeyars is a milestone in her dance career. Her work on rare compositions and thematic presentations such as Premoddaraka and Jagadhoddharaka have been well received, as has been her researched performances on the musical and ritualistic aspects of Utsava Prabhanda kritis of Swati Thirunal. “Her aesthetics and classicism coupled with her regality both off and on stage, her respect to her gurus by adhering to their dance compositions in totality, makes her an idol”, said Lakshmi, who attended a rare six-day workshop of Vyjayantimala that had “deeply impacted” her.
To have artistes of such stature as guests on the stage was in itself a salutation to dance. The sacred precincts of the Mutt with its Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy temple, lent the evening a blessed aura. The bestowing of Natyarathnamala was an occasion that pointed to some of the finest torch bearers of classical dance. There’s little doubt that the art is in safe hands.
Jyothi Raghuram is a senior journalist and art critic based in Bangalore.