It was not a full fledged Bharatanatyam recital; nor was it a regular Carnatic music kutcheri. Vyjayanthimala Bali's presentation at the Narada Gana Sabha Mini Hall on 28th July was a novel treat. Billed as one of the Golden Jubilee special programs of the Narada Gana Sabha, it crystallized as an evening of 'Bharata Sangeetam' - vocal rendition of songs in the Bharatanatyam repertoire accompanied by hand gestures and abhinaya. The veteran dancer was elegantly dressed in a blue saree sporting her normal bob hairdo, and had no elaborate make-up or dance costume. Sitting on stage in front of the mike, surrounded by accompanists, making her announcements in Tamil and English, the program had the flavour and dynamics of a delightful chamber concert.
Hailing from a family steeped in music and dance (grandmother Yadugiri Devi and mother Vasundhara Devi) and having learnt vocal music from four formidable Sangita Kalanidhis - Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, DK Pattammal, KV Narayanaswamy and B Rajam Iyer, and Bharatanatyam from famous traditional natyacharyas like KP Kittappa Pillai and KN Dandayudhapani Pillai, it was small wonder that Vyjayanthimala who is famous for her dance and subtle abhinaya, mesmerized the audience with her singing.
Dance is described as visual music, but that evening the music was transformed into aural dance. Vyjayanthimala sang the compositions of the Bharatanatyam repertoire with sruti suddham, suswaram, and in the appropriate tempo and kalapramana as she performed abhinaya. Commencing with the very impressive rendition of Ghanam Krishna Iyer's 'Yellam arumaigalum' in Todi, she presented an array of nine compositions. 'Maname bhooshanamu' was followed by the Athana song 'Ariven ayya' in which the veteran dancer conveyed the anger and sarcasm of a khandita nayika without moving a step! A few lines and the teermanam from the pada varnam 'Mohamaagiren inda velayil' composed for her by her guru the late KN Dandayudhapani Pillai in Kharaharapriya, won her a round of applause. It was interesting to watch how the music and dance flowed in unison as the raga bhava and the variations in the sangatis were matched by the subtle progressive build up of sancharis and the intensity of abhinaya in the padams, javalis and kritis as Vyjayanthimala sang and did abhinaya for 'Modi jese,' 'Eppadi manam tunindado,' 'Sakhi prana' and 'Payyada' (her favourite padam which she learnt from Mylapore Gowri Amma). Some songs were preceded by crisp raga alapana. The program was rounded off with the lilting Dhanasri tillana composed by Swati Tirunal. Vyjayanthimala had learnt it from MS Subbulakshmi who sang when she danced to it for the first time.
The accompanists Vanathi Raghuraman (vocal support), SSR Krishnan (mridangam), Vijayaraghavan (violin) and Jayashri (nattuvanga talam) embellished Vyjayanthimala's singing and abhinaya. Krishnan's non-intrusive yet definitive accompaniment for the padams was a lesson in mridanga-playing for aspiring mridangists.
underscored the fact that one must have a sound knowledge of music in order
to become an excellent dancer. It was a "trip down memory lane" for
many oldtimers in the audience who went up to the artist after the performance
and congratulated her for reviving the music and memories of her mother
Vasundhara for them. One however wished that the veteran artist could
have included a vatsalya and a bhakti piece in her presentation.
Although the audience turnout was good, not many young dancers and dance
accompanists were present who could have learnt a lot about abhinaya, aesthetics
and music from this genre of presentation by this versatile artist.
S Janaki is the Executive Editor of Sruti, India's premier magazine for the performing arts.