Jayalalithaa’s first dance performance at the age of 14 in Mysore was inaugurated by Tamil cinema legend Sivaji Ganesan.
Trained actresses in films have always brought more limelight to dance in general. Be it Sitara Devi, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini or the Golden Girl of Tamil cinema, J. Jayalalithaa, all made classical dance glamorous and poured in more class into dance and at the same time, inspired millions with their dancing skills.
Many don’t know that my mother Rani Naidu Soparkar is a trained bharatnatyam dancer born to a Telugu father and a Konkani mother. We as kids would often visit our grandparents, grand uncles and aunts and were made to see classical dance performances and of course, south Indian films. Our main attraction in visiting their homes had a lot to do with their neighbours. Jayalalithaa or Ammu (as she was called at home or by her close relatives) was first cousin of one of the neighbours. We often got the opportunity to see her at close quarters whenever she attended functions. As kids, we would wait to see the superbly gorgeous Jaya ma’am and wait for her to pat us or pull our cheeks.
I remember a few things about Amma that my grandparents, uncles, aunts and even cousins told me and through all the memories I would like to pay my tribute to the golden lady of Tamil cinema. She was not just a super hit actress and a much-loved politician but a dance par excellence who only believed in the penchant for perfection.
I remember my mother telling me that, hundreds of people at Naguvinahalli village in Karnataka were glued to their TV sets enthusiastically watching Jayalalithaa sworn in as chief minister of Tamil Nadu. This would seem extremely strange, as Tamil Nadu politicians are generally disliked in Karnataka because of the century-old dispute over Cauvery river water. The whole of Mandya district, to which Naguvinahalli belongs, depends on Cauvery water for everything, but the reason for the celebration goes back nearly 50 years, when Jayalalithaa was a popular star in Tamil cinema.
I am told that the villagers had approached the 19-year-old stunning heroine for help in building a school, and she readily agreed. On March 19, 1967, Jayalalithaa performed a dance for charity at the historic Crawford Hall in Mysore University. The tickets were priced at `10, `25 and `50 respectively. The show was a huge success and it raised enough money for a school building at the village.
Ramachandraiah, who organised the charity event, still remembers her generosity and the mesmerising dance performance. Now in his late 80s, Ramachandraiah in his comments to a private television channel had said, “How can I forget that incident? I still vividly remember her dance show. If we have a school in our village, it is only because of Jayalalithaa. Whenever I see the school, I remember Jayalalithaa with gratitude. We are eternally grateful to her.”
Karnataka Information Department director N. Vishukumar, who is from Naguvinahalli, said elders at the village still talk about the event. “When it happened I was too small. I don’t remember anything. But, everybody in my village including my father Ramakrishnaiah remembers that charity show for our village school,” he said.
Jayalalithaa was born in Mysore in 1948. Her mother Sandhya moved to Bengaluru after her father Jayaram died when she was only four years old. In the early 1960s, her aunt Ambuja alias Vidhya, an airhostess and part-time actor, took Jayalalithaa and her mother to Madras (now Chennai). Jayalalithaa’s first dance performance at the age of 14 in Mysore was inaugurated by Tamil cinema legend Sivaji Ganesan.
In Chennai, Jayalalithaa trained in classical music, western classical piano, and various forms of classical dance, including bharatanatyam, mohiniattam, manipuri and kathak. She learnt bharatnatyam and other dance forms under K.J. Sarasa. She became an accomplished dancer and gave her debut dance performance at the Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore in May 1960. After seeing Jayalalithaa dance at the arangetram, Shivaji had predicted that Jayalalithaa would become a film star in future.
As a child, Jayalalithaa acted in the Kannada-language Sri Shaila Mahathme (1961), which had Rajkumar and Krishna Kumari in lead roles. She had been taken to the studio by her mother as her mother was shooting in the same premises for a different film. While Jayalalithaa was watching the shooting, an unexpected problem arose: the child actor playing Goddess Parvathy in a school drama scene in the film had not turned up and the producer, Neerlahalli Thalikerappa and director, Aroor Pattabhi asked Sandhya if Jayalalithaa could be asked to act in the dance sequence. Sandhya agreed and Jayalalithaa was swiftly dressed up as Parvathy and the scene was shot.
In 1962, she played Krishna in a three-minute dance sequence held on stage in the Hindi film Manmauji and danced with Kumari Naaz, who played Radha. Y. G. Parthasarathy ran the drama troupe United Amateur Artistes (UAA), which staged English and Tamil plays. Soon Jayalalithaa, while still a schoolgirl, began acting in some plays of Parthasarathy along with her mother and aunt. She acted in small roles in plays such as The Teahouse of the August Moon and Undersecretary between 1960 and 1964. Shankar Giri, the son of the former Indian President V. V. Giri, saw her performance in a minor role in the English play The Teahouse of the August Moon and was impressed. Giri approached her mother Sandhya and told he wanted to cast her daughter in an English film called The Epistle. Sandhya reluctantly agreed with the condition that shooting should be held only during weekends or school holidays. Jalalalithaa also appeared in a dance sequence of a song named Malligeya Hoovinantha in the movie Amarashilpi Jakannachari (1964). Jayalalithaa’s debut in Tamil cinema was the leading role in Vennira Aadai (1965), directed by C. V. Sridhar. She made her debut in Telugu films as lead actress in Manushulu Mamathalu opposite Akkineni Nageshwara Rao. Her last Telugu release was also opposite Akkineni Nageswara Rao in the film Nayakudu Vinayakudu, which was released in 1980. She acted in one Hindi film called Izzat, with Dharmendra as her male co-star in 1968.
Jayalalithaa was a woman who took men and fashion head on. She was the first heroine to appear in skirts in Tamil films. She was a legendary dancer, actress and a politician who had a golden heart and was always ready to help the needy to the best of her abilities.
I recollect my aunt telling me that, Jayalalithaa was keen neither on acting nor in politics but she was pushed toward these high profile profession by her mother Sandhya and mentor M.G. Ramachandran respectively. “I don’t enjoy politics, I am doing my duty to the party and to the people of Tamil Nadu. I was pushed into two high profile profession which I never enjoyed,” she had once confessed. Though later when her political career took off on a high note dance and music took a back seat, an artiste is an artiste. Being a dancer and a musician, she loved art. As a political figure, she always supported and encouraged all art-related events and often made appearances to inaugurate many such festivals too.
When the news of Amma’s death broke my family and I were shocked and disheartened, as we could not believe what we had heard and wished a miracle could bring her back to life. Jayalalithaa, the uncrowned queen who ruled the roost in the south film industry during the mid 60s and 70s and was considered one of the most prolific and versatile actors, dancers and a style icon during her period, was gone. Today, the diva of dance is not with us anymore but her memories and her moves will remain with us forever.
Sandip Soparrkar is a well-known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with the National Achievement Award and National Excellence Award by the Govt of India. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org