Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Balasaraswati - Her Art and Life

Author:        Douglas M. Knight Jr.
Published :  2011
Publisher:    Tranquebar Press
Hardcover:  340 pages

I love Indian classical music - both Hindustani and Carnatic.  But I am rather indifferent to and ignoramus about Indian classical dances. If at all I watch them on TV, it is more to listen to the music accompanying the dance. 

Therefore prior to reading this book I only knew Balasaraswati , the famous Bharatanatyam dancer ,as a teacher of Carnatic vocalist Jon Higgins. Therefore this book written by her son-in-law Douglas M. Knight Jr. enlightened me a lot about her life, her values, her struggles, her personality, her dancing style and her dedication to the traditional style of Bharatanatyam .

The book has seven chapters.

Chapter 1 From the Heart of the Tradition – This chapter begins with a brief introduction to the art and the history of Bharatanatyam.  It also discusses the customs of the Devdasi community which Balasaraswati belonged to.  It then traces the genealogical tree of  Balasaraswati  - from  her great-great-great-great grandmother Papamma  who was a court musician and dancer in Thanjavur court towards the last quarter of 18th century, to  the music legend “Vina” Dhanammal.  Balasaraswati was Vinal Dhanammal’s granddaughter.

Chapter 2 – Madman at the Gate (1918-27)- The childhood of Balasaraswati is covered in this chapter. We get to know how her passion for dance was first revealed when as a child she started imitating a mad beggar  who used to come regularly and dance in front of her grandmother Vina Dhanammal’s  house. Short life sketches of her formal teachers Mylapore Gauri Ammal and Kandappa Pillai are also presented. This chapter describes at considerable length  the life and times of Vina Dhannamal around this period. The chapter ends with the  arangetram (first public performance) of Balasaraswati.

Chapter 3 -  Renaissance (1927-1936) –This chapter deals with early public performances of Balasaraswati  especially in Madras Music Academy. It also describes her North India tour along with Uday Shankar’s troupe.

Chapter 4 – Reconstruction (1936-1947) – During the period mid-thirties to mid-forties the art of Bharatnatyam went major changes. Rukmini Devi Arundale was quite successful in her attempt to present a “reconstructed” Bharatnatyam which was almost devoid of Sringara-rasa (the divine erotic element). This impacted the traditional Bharatnatyam dancers like Balasraswati and the invitations for her to perform started dwindling. This dark period in her life forms the major portion of the narrative in this chapter.

Chapter 5 – Dancing for Murugan (1947-1961) – Things started changing for better for Balasaraswati during this period. She began her teaching career by establishing a dance school. She started performing frequently once again all over India and won many accolades like Sangeet Natak Academy award and the Padma Bhushan. All these are described in this chapter.

Chapter 6 – On the Back of a Peacock (1961-1972) – This chapter focuses on the performances of Balasaraswati  on the global stage in the sixties and early seventies and the recognition she received. Starting with East-West encounter in  Tokyo,  it goes on to describe her professional engagements in the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the Edinburgh festival.

Chapter 7 – Something Great and Grand (1972-1984) – The concluding chapter is about the last decade of Balasaraswati’s life. While she continued teaching dance both in India and USA, her performances were now  drastically reduced due to her ill health. She passed away in 1984.

This is a very well researched book and based on interviews with Balasaraswati’s family members, friends, fellow artists as well as published/unpublished  writings about her and reviews of her performances.  However couple of very obvious errors  regarding dates have crept in (year of formation of Indian National Congress was 1885 not 1887as mentioned; India became a Republic in 1950 not 1947 as mentioned). These needs to be rectified in the next edition.

More than 50 illustrations adorn this well produced book . But the highlight of the book is 16 plates of high quality black and white photographs which successfully capture the beauty, grace and emotion of Balasaraswati’s dance.

A must read for all the Indian classical music and dance  lovers!

  • Video recordings of Balasaraswati's performance
Personal Trivia:
  • Balasaraswati's year of birth (1918) and year of death (1984) is same as that of my maternal Grandma !
  • Balasarswati had a brother called Varadan who died when he was 55 years old. My maternal Grandfather's name was also Varadan and he also died at the age of 55 !
  • Balasaraswati had reservations about men dancing certain styles of Bharatanatyam that were self-consciously imitative of feminine qualities" (as mentioned in Page 249 of the book). And so do I ! However her grandson Aniruddha Knight turned out to be a dancer. See a video recording of his performance.
[This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!]

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