As a toddler growing up in erstwhile Madras, T. Balasaraswati (1918-1984) was fascinated by a beggar who frequented her grandmother Vina Dhanammal’s house in hopes of receiving a few coins. Chanting rhythmic syllables like a nattuvanar—a conductor of the bharatanatyam dance—the beggar moved wildly, jumping up and down while reciting tat tarigappa tei ta.
Enchanted, Balasaraswati joined in the dance, trying to mirror his footsteps. Years later, she would reminiscence, “If I am dance-mad now, how could it be otherwise? My first guru was a madman.”
Stories such as these fan the soul-fire in Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life, a biography by Douglas M. Knight Jr., an American mridangist who studied Karnatik music from Balasaraswati’s brothers at Wesleyan University in the late 1960s. Knight first met the legend in 1971, when he was a graduate student at California Institute of the Arts, and subsequently married her daughter Lakshmi in 1980. “Living within Balasaraswati’s family for more than three decades has taught me something about how a hereditary art form endures,” he writes in the preface.
Knight’s narrative is within the construct of seismic social changes in post-colonial India, which altered the course of hereditary, traditional bharatanatyam, of which Balasaraswati was unquestionably the reigning queen. Unlike the reconstructed version, hereditary bharatanatyam is characterized by improvisation and interaction between the dancer and her musical ensemble.
The passage of the Devadasi Act in 1947 by the Madras Legislative Council made the performance of any dance by any woman in a temple or religious institution unlawful. “By the end of 1947, the defamation of the devadasi [dancer of the hereditary art form who performed for the temple deity] had been legislated, and it appeared that both the art and the artist had been banished and replaced,” Knight writes.
For Balasaraswati, whose art was a “communion with Him,” the act was a crushing blow. Knight narrates an incident that occurred in 1954, which he heard from Lakshmi, about Balasaraswati’s visit to the Murugan shrine in Thiruthani. After sending away the priest on an errand and bribing the security man, Balasaraswati danced for the god Murugan. Knight says Bala, who had been ill for sometime, began to recover after her visit to Thiruthani. “What dancing He manipulated through me, He alone knows,” she is known to have remarked to her daughter.
Knight says the power of Balasaraswati’s dance lay in the marriage of devotion and abhinaya (expression). “She was not imagining she was laying flowers at the Lord’s feet [while depicting abhinaya]; she was laying them at his feet. Balasaraswati understood the object’s meaning as she perceived them from her own interior, and from her absorption in the gesture,” he writes. Balasaraswati was born at a time when re-constructed bharatanatyam gained social acceptance as a traditional art form, while the art she practised, a seventh generation dancer of a hereditary tradition, was ostracized socially in light of misconceptions and bawdy artistic interpretations and lifestyles of some hereditary dancers.
In contrast to the reputations of heriditary dancers for promiscuity, Balasaraswati took a partner at the age of 18 and was devoted to him till her death. R.K. Shanmukham was already married when he took Bala as a life companion, a practice that held no shame in pre-colonial India. Their union had the blessing of Bala’s matriarchal family, and Shanmukham was a frequent visitor to the household. A successful businessman in Coimbatore, he served as the first finance minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet. But Bala’s relationship with Shanmukham was often a source of contention.
“Their relationship suffered from the conflict of two towering personalities, one eager to be viewed as an authority on Balasaraswati’s art, the other determined to maintain her independence,” Knight writes.
Balasaraswati was destined to fight many battles, and Knight meticulously documents each one of them. Foremost, Bala sought to restore the hereditary art form to its rightful place in the cultural fabric of India. She took on another legend—Rukmini Devi Arundale, founder of Kalakshetra—in an artistic conflict to legitimize the respectability of sringara rasa, or amore, which Arundale sought to purify.
“There is nothing in bharatanatyam which needs to be purified afresh; it is divine and is innately so,” Knight quotes Balasaraswati. “Sringara stands supreme in the range of emotions. No other emotion is capable of better reflecting the mystical union of the human with the divine,” she said.
Arundale reinvented bharatanatyam to reflect “modern Western theatrical aesthetics and effectively distanced the new performer from the negative stereotypes by then attached to the traditional artist,” Knight writes. Compared to Arundale, Balasaraswati’s costumes and stage-settings were austere—it was as though she was trying to say that dance is self-contained and beautiful, and is independent of the appearance of the dancer and of stage-props. When a thyroid imbalance led to weight gain, Balasaraswati still danced and created the same kind of magic because, as Knight says, she helped the audience transcend the superficiality of appearances.
Knight chronicles Balasaraswati’s artistic lineage, her childhood, her initiation into dance and music, her rigorous training, her relationship with loved ones, the birth of her dance school, her performances in India and abroad, the proliferation of her art in the United States during the 1960s and early 70s, and the rich recollections by members of Balasaraswati’s family, and her large circle of friends, admirers and newspaper critics.
In the words of dance critic Clive Barnes in the New York Times, “A dancer such as Bala makes nonsense of ethnic boundaries. Faced with an artist of the stature of this great bharatanatyam dancer, one looks and wonders, and salutes a great dancer when one sees her.”
Balasaraswati is a must read for aficionados of Karnatik music, bharatanatyam, post-colonial social history of India, and for anyone who loves a great story.
Sujata Srinivasan is a Connecticut-based writer, reporter, editor, and educator.