Balasaraswati: Her art and life

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The background

I did not know what I was getting into when I decided to review Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life by Douglas M. Knight Jr. (Tranquebar Press, 2011). All I was aware of at that time was the fact that I would be reading about a person I “knew”. Let me elaborate here.

Amma (my mother) grew up on a diet of classical music and dance. A student of Carnatic classical music, she was fortunate to watch many musicians and dancers perform, one of whom was Balasaraswati herself. Amma worshipped and idolised her as only a true rasika can. I started attending kacheris (music performances) and dance performances with Amma when I was 5. After each performance there would be a discussion on what we liked or did not like, and we would try sing the pieces we liked. If it was a dance performance that we had attended, the discussion would begin with the dance, then move on to the music, and finally to the inevitable mention of how Balasaraswati would have performed a particular dance item. By the time I was 6 or 7, I knew who Balasaraswati was, what her dance was like, and how she danced—all this without ever having seen her dance. But thanks to Amma’s vivid descriptions, and whenever Amma herself sang, I could and would imagine Balasaraswati dancing to them ! Such was her impact on me.

In reading the book, Balasaraswati went from being an artist I “knew” in my imagination to a “flesh and blood” artist who emerged from book’s narrative. An artist, a dancer, a woman, a human being with a life story made Balasaraswati gain a form that was much more real than my imagination. Both the Balasaraswatis were very different when I began reading the book and by the time I finished, they had merged to become one person. It took me a little while to internalise all this and then attempt to write a book review, which I can only hope is reasonably objective.


The book review

Thanjavur Balasaraswati (1918–1984) is considered to be amongst the greatest performing artists of the twentieth century. And yet, many people of my generation (I’m a child of the 1970s) and after do not seem to know about her life, her dance or the wealth and intangible heritage her art represents 😦

So it is, perhaps, fortunate that a biography on Balasaraswati has just been published in India.  What makes this biography special is that the author is Balasaraswati’s son-in-law. Being a member of the family, Knight was able to draw upon his own interactions with Balasaraswati and other family members and include them in the book, along with his own exhaustive research on the topic. Also included in the book are many photographs of Balasaraswati, historical photographs of Chennai, as well as photographs of well-known musicians, dancers, and dance teachers. The hardcover book is divided into 7 chapters and has notes on translation, transliteration and dates; a preface; a select biography of people mentioned in the book; as well as extensive notes, a glossary, a bibliography, and an index—all this is packed in 326 pages, plus 22 preliminary pages.

Hailing from a matrilineal community devoted to music and dance as a profession, Balasaraswati was a 7th-generation performing artist from a family belonging to this community. She is, perhaps, the only dancer of her time who followed the traditional style of the dance form that was known as sadir till the early 1900s; a dance form that later came to be known as bharatanatyam. She was born at a time when proponents and reformers of this classical dance form were trying to give this a new identity and make it respectable, and attempting to dissociate from the devadasi community—the community that had nurtured this dance form for centuries and the community that Balasaraswati belonged to.

The book traces Balasaraswati’s lineage to set the context of the centuries-old heritage, tradition and legacy that she was a bearer of. This is done through a look at the development of bharatanatyam itself, the devadasi system, and the royal patronage received by the artists, particularly from the Thanjavur Kingdom. Around the time that Balasaraswati was born in 1918, the matrilineal system that had nurtured this art form and its artists for generations was under serious threat. Traditional artists from the community had stopped giving dance performances in public, and had switched over to music and solo performances. Many artists were living in penury.

Balasaraswati started learning dance at the age of 4 at the insistence of her mother Jayammal, and after much opposition from her grandmother, the legendary Veena Dhanammal. This marked the end of Balasaraswati’s childhood and the beginning of 16-hour practice days with dance lessons during the day and music lessons in the evenings. Thus began Balasaraswati’s initiation into an art form, a tradition and a life that her family and community members had protected and practised for generations. But she was not to receive the royal patronage that her ancestors had enjoyed or the societal appreciation and approval that they had received. Hers was a journey that gave recognition and pain in equal measures—perhaps more of the latter than the former. She was a dancer who sang and a singer who danced and probably remains the only one ever to sing as she danced. For her dance was an extension of music—indeed it was a visual representation of music.

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Balasaraswati danced at a time when her own community shunned dance in preference to music. She (and the traditional art form she represented) weathered years of neglect and slander by the larger society she was part of. Her simple, perhaps even austere, presentation of bharatanatyam was ridiculed in an increasingly stylised presentation of this dance form with respect to stage props and costumes. She lived through the stigma of being labelled a devadasi, of not being invited for public performances, and of being ignored and deliberately overlooked by the new patrons of art—the government. She danced through a heart condition, a thyroid problem, and complications arising from diabetes. She was an international celebrity and yet was shunned in her own country for a long time.

It took time for her art to be acknowledged by the Government of India, with the Padma Vibhushan being the highest honour that she received. She remains, till date, the only dancer to have received the title of Sangitha Kalanidhi (Treasure of the Art of Music). In a memoriam written after Balasaraswati’s death in 1984, Narayana Menon (Secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi) had this to say:

Balasaraswati became a legend when she lived. (pg.1)

The verdict

The author gives a disclaimer right in the beginning of the book that it is not his intention for the book to be a discourse on India’s social or socio-religious issues at the beginning of the 20th century or the devadasi system. But intentionally or unintentionally, Knight does provide the reader with such a perspective and it is a perspective that is quite different from what is available in popular or academic literature. It is a perspective that looks at the transmission and preservation of an oral tradition and an intangible artistic heritage through generations. It is a perspective that looks at how the introduction of the legislation, supposedly to protect the devadasis from exploitation, actually killed a centuries-old tradition. All this is woven in beautifully with Balasaraswati’s journey of rejection, disapproval, pain, loss, and struggle for acceptance. It is an account that is narrated with dignity and as much objectivity as a researcher, who is also a family member, can have.

It is impossible for the reader to not feel all these emotions while reading the book. Indeed, Balasaraswati’s extraordinary journey is something that needs to be read in this book and not just as a review here. Though it is a book about Balasaraswati, her art and her life,  it is also a book on a way of life that does not exist anymore, and of an art form that has changed beyond recognition.

It is a book that made me wish that I had seen Balasaraswati dance, at least once.

♦   ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Programme at Participate now to get free books!

22 thoughts on “Balasaraswati: Her art and life

    1. Welcome here, Amit, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. The biography is a fantastic book, and though it is a must read for dance lovers, I would actually like to see everybody reading it.


    1. I am not at all surprised that you picked out the reviewer’s love for the arts. 🙂 But the book is important as it documents a history of bharatanatyam that is quite different from the mainstraem knowledge and understanding of this dance form. Do read it, Rajshri.


  1. I had never heard of the artist before. Having read your review, i will definitely get a copy of the book now and proceed to alleviate my ignorance.


    1. It’s not about alleviating ignorance; I prefer to call it gaining knowledge 🙂 But yes, do read it, Meera. Since you are interested in music there is a lot about the development of padams and javalis, which Balasaraswati’s cousins Brinda and Muktha are credited with for popularising..


  2. Your felicity with words never cease to surprise me, Sudha. I had not read this post because I am not into performing arts as many of my generation were and are. But thought I should read your review of the book knowing what I wrote about in the first line. And I must say it is so well done that even someone like me is intrigued enough to read it 🙂 I am so glad I started reading you all those months ago 😀


    1. Coming from someone like you for me, Zephyr, is highest possible praise. Thank you so much for your words which give me encouragement to write better each time. 🙂


  3. WoW! So Balasaraswati (she actually did justice to the name also) is another example of the 10,000 hour rule! Imagine practicing 16 hours a day from the age of 4-5!

    Isn’t it also noticeable how good a job foreign authors do when they conduct research & write on Indian society & people?

    Great write up Sudhagee 🙂


    1. Thanks, Vishal. Balasaraswati’s story also reiterates that fact behind all the success, and fame and adulation lies a lot of hard work and many personal sacrifices. This is true of any success story and particularly creative people.

      And you are right when you say that foreign writers do a good job of the research and also bring in a lot of objectivity in their writing. While this one has succeeded, it is not always the case. 🙂


  4. Wonderful review. I have a copy of a video and a documentary movie that her grandson ( the authors son, me thinks) has made. It has clips of her dance. I would be happy to lend that to you. Of course, it does not equal a live performance.

    Too many people, in their concern for the plight of the devdasis ( which is a very real concern), seem to think the answer is to negate their contribution to history and culture. it is dehumanising because it belittles people and contributes to collective low self-esteem. While Rukmini Devi Arundale contributed to dance by making it ‘acceptable’ to the higher castes….we have lost a lot in the process of stylization of dance.


    1. Thank you Sumanya and I would love to borrow that DVD, something that will also make my mother’s day.

      Rukmini Devi Arundale’s contribution to bharatanatyam and giving it “respectability” is the only viewpoint that is easily avaible to a reader. It is only when you start digging, that other stories emerge. Stories like that of Balasaraswati.

      I actually see this biography as a perfect example of looking at the “other” through a non-mainstream approach. I have even used it in my sessions on Literature review for my course on academic writing skills and have come away amazed when students say that the viewpoint expressed here cannot be correct !


  5. Some of the issues in the book were touched on in the 70s or so. Satyajit Ray made a documentary on the dancer and I remember at the time reading that Bala was one of the greatest dancers the country had produced. Its sad if people don’t know her now and its great that the book has drawn attention to her again and great to see a blog review.

    I think the documentary is on youtube.


    1. Welcome to my blog and thank you so much for commenting. I did see Ray’s documentary and was quite disappointed with it. In fact Douglas Knight touches upon the quality of Ray’s documentary rather diplomatically.

      It is a fact that people have short memories, and for someone from an age where there are no or very little quality recordings it is difficult to imagine the greatness of such an artist. I got to know of Balasaraswati through my mother; and I am pretty sure that there are many more artistes who have been forgotten today.


  6. I have just found your blog today. I wish I had seen it sooner. On my blog, you can see that I recently attended a workshop by Balamma’s grandson. I would be honored if you took a moment to read it 🙂


    1. Welcome here, Srithe artist. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. You’re lucky that you were able to attend a workshop by Balasaraswati’s grandson. I had a quick look at your post and will go back for a more leisurely read. 🙂


    2. Welcome here, Srithe artist. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. You’re lucky that you were able to attend a workshop by Balasaraswati’s grandson. I had a quick look at your post and will go back for a more leisurely read. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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