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.
Last Saturday, I attended a dance performance after many years—”Only Until the Light Fades: Love in Dance and Poetry”, a bharatanatyam performance by noted danseuse Alarmel Valli at the Tata Theatre of the NCPA (National Centre for Performing Arts) in Mumbai. This performance, which was part of the NCPA’s ongoing Nakshatra Dance Festival, was conceptualised in collaboration with the noted poet, Arundhati Subramaniam.
When I set out for the NCPA that evening, all I knew was that I was going for Alarmel Valli’s bharatanatyam performance at my favourite theatre in Mumbai and unaware that I was attending the premiere of a special production. I was also unaware of the fact that this was the first time that Alarmel Valli would be performing to an English poem, or even the fact that the theme of the dance performance was love and poetry!
“Only Until the Light Fades…” explored love through poetry in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit and English from the Sangam Period to the medieval period to contemporary times and through the narration of a teenager, the feelings of a woman desolate in love, the actions of a jealous lover, and through the questioning thoughts of a contemporary Indian poet writing in English.
The dance programme was quite unusual in that there was no bhakti element at all. Alarmel Valli’s opening dance item was an invocation to love, instead of the conventional invocation to Ganesha or Saraswati. And yet it also followed the conventional pattern of a bharatanatyam performance by beginning with an invocation and ending with a tillana.