Book# 2 Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life by Douglas M Knight Jr



MY principle emotion while reading Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life was one of deep regret. I have never watched this legend sing and dance and so I’ll never truly know what beauty there was in something as basic as the walk that accompanied her dance. “Leave the dance alone. What an unforgettable, ambling gait!” one admirer is known to have remarked.

If Douglas M Knight Jr’s attempt was to make us feel the same fascination that the world felt as it watched Balasaraswati dance, then he’s succeeded to quite an extent. The author, who also happens to be the dancer’s son-in-law, is in a unique position to tell us not only what Balasaraswati had to say about her art, but also what her family, friends and close collaborators had to say. The author states right at the beginning that it isn’t his intention to start a discussion about the social circumstances which formed the background for Bala’s rise. Luckily, he hasn’t completely shied away from presenting relevant facts about the dancer and her family: the Devadasi system that formed the structure for the hereditary artistic families, the matrilineal family system and the methods through which knowledge and learning was transmitted within these families. To many, however, what will be most interesting will be the account of how after many years of prestige in the courts of kings, the traditional dancers were looked at suspiciously and were accused of prostitution; a charge which Balasaraswati, among others, fought hard against. Indeed, it is to this dancer’s credit that through her sheer grace and proficiency, and the great reverence with which she treated music and dance, she managed to convert many opposers of Bharatanatyam into ardent supporters.

Balasaraswati’s remarkable journey began when she was four years old: her family noticed her passion for dance when the young Bala would hop and jump along with a mad mendicant who would show up dancing at the house everyday. The book takes us through her initiation into the art by her teacher Kandappa Pillai, her first public performance and her first performance in North India. She was rapturously received by the audience, and also met the legendary Uday Shankar, who helped pave the way for her international prominence. Balasaraswati went on to be one of India’s most famous dancers and audiences around the world were mesmerized by her performances.

English: A photograph of two Devadasis taken i...

Image via Wikipedia

But this isn’t a book that just charts Balasaraswati’s progress: it also delves deep into the history of Bharatanatyam, a dance form that would have been lost to Victorian morality, if it hadn’t been for a few dancers who held out against the way of antipathy towards them.  Knight’s research is in-depth and makes this an invaluable book for those interested in the dance itself. It is also of great value to people who want to know more about the history of Carnatic classical music, as music and dance were twin strands to Balasarswati, and Knight has made sure that readers know that. Particularly delightful for me, as a reader, was Knight’s pen portrait of Vina Dhanammal, Bala’s grandmother and the Grande Dame of Carnatic Classical music at the turn of the century.

Also commendable is the wealth of images used in this book. I particularly liked two: one which shows the old style of performance, with the musicians standing with the dancer, and moving along with her on a small stage. This was before Kandappa Pillai introduced his new format for Bharatanatyam performances, which included the musicians being seated on one side. Another lovely image was that of a teenaged Bala with her close friend, MS Subbalakshmi. The two girls, in an act of rebellion against the rigidly controlled environments they were brought up in, had arranged to have this picture taken of themselves wearing pajamas and smoking cigarettes.

Bharatanatyam dancers. Raja Serfoji II's period

Image via Wikipedia

Perhaps my only problem with the book was that sometimes it felt like there was too much information. This is not an easy book to read: certainly not something you can hope to read over a weekend. It requires great focus, especially when reading passages such as the one below:

“There is some controversy withing the families closest to Kandappa Pillai about the degree to which his approach to bharata natyam was revolutionary, and whether or not he altered the Tanjavur Nattuvanar family style. Within a hereditary syle, diversity is the result of unity. As example of the difference in perspective this creates is the way Thanjavur K.P. Kittappa Pillai, Kandappa Pillai’s cousin, responded when asked about the differences between the Pandanallur style and the Thanjavur style. Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Kitappa Pillai’s grandfather, lived with his family in Pandanallur, and the Thanjavur style is named for the practice in the Thanjavur court codified by Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai’s grandfather and great uncles.”

I had to go over this passage and the ones that follow it a couple of times before I could get it. Perhaps its the result of reading just fiction, but a highly academic, non-fiction book such as this takes a little extra effort. However, its safe to say that this is a book well worth the effort.

*This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books!

**This review does not form part of the Mt. TBR Challenge or the Chunkster Challenge, since the book has only 325 pages and is something that I recently received.

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Questions for a Bookworm

Hot Chocolate & Computers

There’s nothing more shocking to a bookworm than the revelation that lots of people get by without reading books. How does that happen, you ask? I have no idea: I’m a bookworm, you see, and people’s ability to not read is something that I simply can’t comprehend. If you know someone like me, I’m sure you’ve been told how indispensable books are to leading a fulfilling life; how they’re the best companions you can have. When its cold outside, you wrap yourself up in blankets, place a thermos full of hot chocolate at your elbow and read. When it’s sunny outside, you sit on your balcony or porch with a cool drink in a glass and read. When you’re alone, you read because it alleviates loneliness. When you’re surrounded by people, you read because it’s one of the few solitary pleasures left in life.  No matter what situation you find yourself in, a good book is an indescribable comfort.

Feeling as I do about books – that they do more than just furnish rooms – when I saw this post by Cassie over at Books and Bowel Movements, I thought it would be fun to answer these questions myself. These are the original questions for a book worm. You might also want to see how other bloggers – bookgrrl and Her Library Adventures – have answered them.

Imagine you sit in front of a fireplace. You read and beside you there is a cup with something hot in it. What would that be in your case: tea, coffee or hot chocolate?

A few years ago,  suppose I might have said ‘hot chocolate’, because that is the drink one associates with a cozy fireplace scenario. However, since I started drinking green tea a few years ago, I’ve discovered how much more refreshing it is. It doesn’t weigh me down and helps me stay alert and I certainly would want to stay alert while I read a book.

If an author gave you the chance to rewrite or to change the fate of a book character, who would you chose?

I think I would give the Little Mermaid her voice, two legs and her prince. I agree that the story will no longer be as romantic or poignantly beautiful as the original, but at least the poor sweet thing will be spared a lot of pain.

Did your parents read stories to you when you were little? if yes, are there any special ones you remember the most?

No, nobody read me stories as a child. However, my maternal grandmother used to tell me stories from Indian mythology.

What do you like more the smell of old antiquarian books or the smell of new fresh ones you just bought?

Old books come with so many stories, not just the ones that are printed on their pages. I love that about them, and I think their unique smells say a lot about who’s touched them and where they’ve been. For me, personally, old books have a lot more appeal because they remind me of the time I discovered my grandfather’s collection of old books. It was one of the best afternoons of my life.

You get the opportunity to chose between two secret talents: either to be able to make things come to life through reading them or the gift to read yourself into a book. Which one would you like to have?

I think I would like to read myself into a book. Then I can always get back to the real world when I want to. I’m not sure it would be easy to get a fictional character back into their world – what if they liked it here too much?

Do you have a favorite children’s book or a favorite fairy tale?

Knock Three Times by Marion St. John Webb. Not a lot of people seem to have heard of this one. It’s one of the most thrilling and chilling books I read as a child, and certainly better than much of the tosh that Enid Blyton churned out.

Someone would talk to your friends and ask them to compare you to a book character. With whom do you think would they compare you?

Probably Arjun (from the Mahabharata). I’m in a permanent state of doubt.

Tell me the name of a writer whom you would like to have as a friend.

Orhan Pamuk, turkish novelist. The photo is de...

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Orhan Pamuk – he’s so articulate and knowledgeable about his craft. Just like I could keep reading his books, I think I can keep listening to him talk. I’m sure I could learn a lot from him. Also Stephen King and Margaret Atwood: they seem like the witty, straight-talking type and I love people like that.

You can hide in a written down world for only one night. Into which world do you escape?

I think I would read myself into the world of PG Wodehouse. I would risk meeting aunts as fearsome as dragons and potty old dukes, but then I would also meet delightful idiots like Bertie Wooster and Freddie Widgeon and that irrepressible schemer, Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge.

Something terrible happens: you have to flee to an unknown place and all you can take with you are three books of all the ones you own. Which three ones do you put into your bag?

Weekend Wodehouse, because I know I’ll get depressed and I’ll need cheering up. Other Colours by Orhan Pamuk because that’s the textbook I would follow when I need to understand literature and its many purposes. The Mahabharata, because that’s a thousand stories in one and it never gets old.

Holy Cows, Holy Mess

English: Cow and calf, Katni, MP, India. Franç...

Image via Wikipedia

In a recent interview he gave to Omnivoracious,  Haruki Murakami says, sitting in the lounge of an airport in Hawaii, “… the airport’s security check is definitely an Orwellian world, an extreme dystopia. If you don’t take off your belt, remove your shoes, put your chewing gum through the scanner, raise both arms and turn around, you can’t board the plane. In response to this, none of the airport personnel give you a word of thanks. And we have to pay such high air fares… When the real world operates this way, why would you have to write a ‘dystopian novel’ that goes even farther?”

The world, it would seem, has got weirder and weirder since we first started suspecting that fact may just be stranger than fiction. This is a world where the poor in one part of the world are dying of obesity because they can’t afford basic nutrition, while in one of the world’s largest democracies, not only are infants starving to death, but tonnes of grain lies rotting in warehouses because the government cannot decide how to distribute it. The Blackberry is used by protestors in one country to topple a tyrannical regime, while the same gadget is used in another country by rioters to plan and co-ordinate looting sprees. In this world only the most absurd forms of protest can express our disgust for the mess we have gotten ourselves into.

One would assume that after years of dealing with the absurd, the illogical and the frankly dangerous, we would all be inured to them. But as each day passes, and a new height of absurdity is breached, we continue to shake our heads in disbelief. The most recent such act of stupidity would be the Madhya Pradesh government’s Govansh Vadh Pratishedh Vidhayak – anti-cow slaughter law – which allows raiding of any premises on the assumption that cow slaughter is likely to take place, or beef is likely to be stored or transported. It doesn’t take an idiot to see how this law could be misused to harass minorities in a state that doesn’t exactly have a great track record in protecting them.  So now anyone who slaughters the cow or its progeny, or transports them to slaughter or stores beef will face seven years in prison. This, when the punishment for defiling a place of worship under the IPC is imprisonment for two years or a fine or both.

What this whole business reminds me of is Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s wonderful novella The Beast. I read a recently translated version (a great job by Musharraf Ali Farooqi) late last year, and as I read reports of MP’s new legislation I was stuck by the similarities between fact and fiction. In The Beast, the powerful Thakur Udal Singh makes a pet of Neela the blue bull so that the fearsome animal can protect him and his ill-gotten wealth. As the bull runs amok through the village, goring whoever and whatever lies in its path, voices rise against him. The blue bull must be destroyed. The Thakur, however, plays a card that can trump the strongest of protests. He plays on people’s religious sentiments and tells people that since the blue bull is a relative of the holy cow, killing him would be tantamount to kill the cow herself. His real motive, of course, is to continue using Neela as an instrument of terror and protect himself and all that is his.

What’s to stop us from believing the same about the government of Madhya Pradesh? As Javed Anand writes in his piece Using the Cow, “Cow protection laws may be justified on religious grounds. But the provision of stringent punishments in BJP-ruled states clearly points to the communal dimension.”  I should go back and correct myself. The MP government’s act isn’t one of stupidity; it seems to be a cunningly calculated move and perhaps that is why, it needs to be watched out for even more.

In Ashraf’s novel, the Thakur’s ploy backfires on him and the finale is a bloody reminder of the fact that instruments of terror have a way of boomeranging on their creators. I hope the result in Madhya Pradesh won’t be quite as gory, but it wouldn’t be so bad if one of the Holy Cows came and bit these Apostles of the Bovine on their backside.

Climbing Mount TBR with a few Chunksters on my back

Cover of "The Eagle's Throne"

Cover of The Eagle's Throne

I’ve spoken before of my inability to stop buying books. The result: a veritable mountain of Books To Be Read Sometime in the Near or Distant Future. How appropriate then, that there’s something called the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2012 being hosted by Bev over at My Reader’s Block. I’m signing up to read at least 25 books from the TBR pile, so climbing Mt Vancouver, I will be.

Books from Mount TBR that need to be tackled are:

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Sea of Poppies/River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

The Scar by China Mieville

A Severed Head/The Black Prince/The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller

The Eagle’s Throne by Carlos Fuentes

2666 by Roberto Bolano

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneggar

The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

The Stranger at the Palazzo by Paul Theroux

The Journals of John Cheever

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Baulsphere by Mimlu Sen

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron by Jai Arjun Singh

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

The Naive and Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

Also, since at least six of the books I have listed above qualify as Chunksters (450 pages or more of adult literature), I figured I might as well take on the 2012 Chunkster Challenge being hosted by Wendy and Vasilly at Chunkster Reading Challenge. With this post, I hereby commit to the Plump Primer level of commitment, which means I need to read at least six fat back-breakers. Yes, y’all please feel free to laugh at me when I have managed to finish just one chunkster by the end of the year.

New Year, New Resolutions

Cover of "The Museum of Innocence"

Cover of The Museum of Innocence

I’m wondering…is it worth it? Making New Year Resolutions, I mean. I was 10 books short of my 2011 resolution to read 52 books within the year. 42 isn’t really a bad number…some of the books were long and tedious (Such a Long Journey), while others were complex in the extreme (The Museum of Innocence). Mostly though, they were all very rewarding and I certainly don’t feel awful that I couldn’t meet the challenge I had set for myself. Better luck this year, I suppose.

Anyway, in order to bring 2011 – The Year in Reading to a proper conclusion, I provide the list of books which I did complete, but which I didn’t get around to writing about.

1) The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

2) The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

3) Treasure Island by RL Stevenson

4) On Writing by Stephen King

5) The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates

6)Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence

7)The Beast by Syed Muhammad Ashraf

8)Inez by Carlos Fuentes

9)My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead edited by Jeffrey Eugenides

10) Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

11) Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

12) A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

And yes, 52 books is the goal this year too. The book I’m currently reading, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is a carry-over from December 2011, but I think I’ll count it as the first book of 2012. Is that fair?