It wasn't just her dance that made Balasaraswati special. It was also her outlook towards art and life.
Balasaraswati would have been 94 years old today. Although she has not been around physically for several years now, her presence is still bold and striking in the world of dance and art. Even today, dance teachers mention her in their classes; dance historians study her life and art and the mention of her name in the art world commands respect all over India and in many parts of the world.
Balasaraswati's extraordinary dancing needs no explanation. Her dancing touched the lives of many people all over the world. Interestingly, at a young age, she was urged to dance by well-wishers despite some family opposition; those being the days when dance was under a lot of scrutiny. Jayammal, Balasaraswati's mother, and a few people outside the family however, saw the magic of Balasaraswati's dancing even at the young age of seven. Balasaraswati's dancing, since then is legend. Her talent was recognised by people like Rabindranath Tagore, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Chandralekha, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and many others.
Balasaraswati was also an extremely gifted singer, it is said. While she practiced dance with Kandappa Pillai in the day, she practised Carnatic music in the latter half of the day with her mother, a famous singer. Within a group of traditional practitioners, she learnt languages, the subtle art of abhinaya and, later, improvisation from Chinnaya Naidu. In her later years, Balasaraswati sang for her daughter, Lakshmi Knight's dance performances.
Balasaraswati's artistry was unquestionably sublime. What makes her even more special is not only her magical talent and tremendous skill, but also her outlook towards her art and life. Balasaraswati was a seventh generation dancer of the traditional practitioners of what we call Bharatanatyam today. Like others in her community, she lived within a matrilineal system, and never married. She did have a long-term partner and started a family. Her daughter, Lakshmi, and grandson imbibed her resolve to keep the legacy of the traditional practitioners alive.
Under the shadow of colonialism, many in India were in the process of redefining themselves, recovering from an injured sense of pride in their nation and culture inflicted upon them by colonialism. Some chose to define themselves in accordance with the norms that were put forth by the colonisers, hoping that at least a part of their identity could thus be transformed and preserved. The Devadasi community came under scrutiny around the time of colonialism, and many in the community were forced into taking up other means of livelihood; a few even driven to prostitution. Balasaraswati, on her part, “remained true to her heritage, unwilling to subscribe to an effort to define India's greatness through a reconstruction of a mythical ancient past,” says Douglas M. Knight, her son-in-law and author of Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life. Instead, she continued to ardently support and fiercely defend her heritage, one that was subjected to a violent cultural repression.
Balasaraswati also strenuously guarded the integrity of her dance form under all circumstances. She insisted that there was nothing about Bharatanatyam that needed redefining or purifying. Balasaraswati was often flustered by the post-colonial revival movements in dance, finding the ‘sanitisation' process to be a vulgar one, according to Avanti Meduri. The reorganisation of Bharatanatyam in the aftermath of colonialism had created a division between devotion and love, elements in dance that were not in conflict with one another in Balasaraswati's mind. Thus, in many ways, Balasaraswati was a revolutionary.
Balasaraswati's life gives one a deep insight into the simple life she led in practical terms and what a profound life she herself was. She survived tremendously challenging circumstances, personally and professionally, although not always entirely unscathed. She was utterly devoted to her art, but not in a blind, uncritical manner. She was also an incredibly modern woman, who was constantly improvising within the dance form, creating new avenues for exploration and broadening her mind with infinite possibilities.
It is difficult then to conclude by saying that it is one or the other of all these factors that makes Balasaraswati so remarkable. I think what makes her so brilliant is that she was able be so many things simultaneously in one lifetime: an outstanding dancer and a refined musician, a fierce revolutionary and a devout mother, a dedicated member of the traditional community as well as a modern, open minded person.