A child’s earliest influences stay the longest, they often shape his or her destiny. Certainly true in the case of Jayalalithaa, the former movie star and Tamil Nadu chief minister who died this week.

Jayalalithaa’s mother Sandhya was a trained classical musician, dancer and a film actor. Though not a superstar of her times, Sandhya had a culturally rich upbringing. In Mysore (now Mysuru), she got to listen to musical legends and watch Mysore palace dancers perform at the annual Dussehra celebrations. She witnessed how the Mysore royals patronized classical music, dance, yoga and literature. She later decided her daughter must master some of those art forms.

K. J. Sarasa was a student of the great dance conductor and teacher Vuzhavoor Ramaiah Pillai. Pillai had directed some of the most memorable dance sequences with screen stars like the Travancore sisters Lalita, Padmini and Ragini. Sarasa, who began learning Bharatnatyam from this maestro, became a dance conductor, or what they call in dance vocabulary, a nattuvanar. Sarasa became the first female nattuvanar of her times. She established her own dance school Sarasalaya in 1960 and trained several students to become strong Bharatanatyam soloists.

Sarasa was the obvious choice for Jayalalithaa. Alongside attending the Sacred Heart Matriculation School, Jayalalithaa trained in Bharatanatyam with Sarasa. It is almost impossible to be a Bharatanatyam dancer without any knowledge of Carnatic music. So Jayalalithaa trained in Carnatic vocal music from one Gopalakrishna Sarma. She also took basic training in other classical dance forms like Kuchipudi, Manipuri and Kathak. She trained in playing the piano.

After a few years of training in Bharatanatyam, Sarasa felt her talented student Jayalalithaa was ready for a debut performance. An official Bharatanatyam debut is called an arangetram or “ready for the stage". Jayalalithaa’s arangetram was at the famous Rasika Ranjani Sabha, one of the oldest establishments for classical music and dance festivals at Mylapore, Chennai.

At her arangetram, the chief guest was the Tamil screen superstar Sivaji Ganesan and director K. Subrahmanyam. Watching her perform, Subrahmanyam announced she was a star in the making, and advised her mother Sandhya to encourage the little girl to join cinema. This suggestion didn’t go down well with Sandhya. She wanted Jayalalithaa to become a lawyer. Jayalalithaa herself wanted to become a doctor, as she has said in many interviews.

The strong foundation in classical arts at an early stage was probably the most important phase of Jayalalithaa’s artistic career. The flexibility Bharatnatyam gave her helped her dance on screen with ease. Be it the club song Mokkajonna Thotalo in Adrushtavanthulu (1968) or in the only Hindi film she acted in, Izzat (1968), where Lata Mangeshkar sang Jaagi Badan Mein Jwala—Jayalalithaa didn’t need constant monitoring of a dance choreographer unlike her contemporaries on screen.

In her screen debut in the Tamil film Vennira Aadai (1965), an adaptation of Tennessee William’s short story Suddenly, Last Summer, Jayalalithaa played a woman who loses her sanity after witnessing the death of her husband. She was only 16. Her oratory skills, which impressed her political mentor M.G. Ramachandran, and Indira Gandhi later, came from her habit of reading.

She cherished her love for Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music all her life. When Bharatanatyam dancer Padma Subrahmanyam embarked on a project to document dance history, she promptly gave her a cash donation and 5 acres of land in Mahabalipuram for her Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture. She saw an ideal in Bharat Ratna M.S. Subbulakshmi and revered the Carnatic vocalist Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna who died last month.

Whatever the fortunes of her political career, Jayalalithaa always maintained that her first love was classical arts.

Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a critic based in Delhi.

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