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.
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.
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 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.
- Balasaraswati: Her art and life (thatandthisinmumbai.wordpress.com)