“She laughed once when an interviewer asked her which she thought was more important, music or dance. ‘Ha' she burst out. ‘Get the joke?' Music and dance were the same for her.”
That in a nutshell was Bala, the legend of Bharatanatyam, as painted with love and reverence by Douglas M. Knight Jr. in this biography of Balasaraswathi. The perspective is dual, of an insider and outsider that Knight is — he being the American born son-in-law of Bala. The presentation is dual as well; it is addressed to the Indian and the alien, and to the cognoscenti and the lay reader. The biographer's remarkable success lies in his holistic approach, meeting all these demands in the simple narrative structure that begins with tracing the roots of Bala's ancestry and artistic tradition.
Working with the material collected by his late wife Lakshmi for the biography she intended to write, Knight has supplemented it with his own — gathered through interviews and research — to present a coherent and compelling story. Every detail, every anecdote, and every quote is carefully chosen, researched and woven into the fabric. His purpose has been to record how a hereditary art form endures, protected and nurtured by a family of hereditary artists.
In a family teeming with artists of the highest order, Bala had to tread an arduous path that commenced with Dhanammal, the matriarch, initially refusing to let her learn the art. The corporal punishment meted out by her Guru, the social stigma attached to her vocation and her birth, and the health problems she ran into at the prime of her career, among others, contributed to the toil and tears that went into the making of the queen of abhinaya. Bala's passion for the art ensured that she withstood these trials and tribulations and went about enriching her knowledge and experience by imbibing the nuances of abhinaya from masters like Chinniah Naidu and Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri. Apart from learning several languages, she is said to have memorised ‘Amarakosa', the Sanskrit lexicon of the names and attributes of the Hindu pantheon, an exercise that must have come in handy in her sanchari (elaboration of phrases or lines in dance).
Knight has brought to light several details of her life and artistic perceptions, hitherto unknown. Bala's anguish over separation from her father, her differences with her mother Jayamma, her stormy relationship with her partner R.K. Shanmukham, her deep affection for her daughter Lakshmi, and her firm faith in ‘Thirutthani' Murugan and Devi Karumari reveal the emotional and sensitive core of her inner self. Her defiant and indomitable spirit is seen as much in her challenge to Dhanammal as in the rare studio photograph (1937) featuring Bala and her friend, M.S. Subbulakshmi, in their sleeping suits and sporting cigarettes.
Bala's singular advantage was her musical heritage and the great musicians she was fortunate to have as her choristers. Her art was more than visual poetry and visual music. It was a spiritual journey and experience. Advocating Sringara (love) as the supreme emotion, she demonstrated and declared that “the spiritual quality in Bharatanatyam is not achieved through the elimination of the sensual but through the sensual itself, thereby sublimating it.” For her, if music and dance were synonymous, so were Sringara and Bhakti.
Honours at the national level came Bala's way, as fellow artists, connoisseurs and bureaucrats acclaimed the uniqueness of her art, an amalgam of tradition and creative genius. Critics abroad went into raptures over “the most articulate forefinger in the world of dance.” But, back home, her own people, while acknowledging and even admiring her greatness, hardly attended her concerts in large numbers. Knight, who has tried to trace the history of Bharatanatyam in Tamil Nadu from the 1930s to the 1960s, mentions this anomaly just in passing. He has refrained from going into how and why abhinaya lost its appeal for the local audience.
Subscribing to the view that the modern south Indian dance was directly influenced by British colonial and missionary attitudes, Knight sidesteps the natural evolution of the art under traditional masters. The 1940s were witness to the emergence of a vibrant form and Satvika abhinaya as that of Bala came to be regarded as one of the aspects of the many-splendoured art of Bharatanatyam. Knight's tale ends with a poignant account of the last days of Bala. Through the several phases of her life and career, he succeeds in conveying what she believed was the most important part of her story, “The truth.”