Douglas Knight and Aniruddha speak of a great tradition.

‘Dance is a three-dimensional presentation of music.’ – Aniruddha Knight

Those of dancer Balasaraswathi’s family who lived in the U.S. had gathered together for a memorial service for Ranganathan, Bala’s brother. Lakshmi Knight, Bala’s daughter, was presenting a varnam. Suddenly a voice was heard, an octave above the others. It was seven-year old Aniruddha, Lakshmi’s son, who was singing the varnam!

Lakshmi hadn’t taught Aniruddha the varnam. The child had just picked up the varnam by listening to his mother. But as he listened to Aniruddha, Douglas Knight, Lakshmi’s husband, knew that his son Aniruddha had got it right. “If I hadn’t, my mother and Viswa uncle (flautist T. Viswanathan) would have told me to shut up!” laughs Aniruddha.

I meet Douglas and Aniruddha, at the National Folkore Support Centre, where Douglas is going to lecture on ‘Sampradaya: the mechanisms of change.’ Talking of Balasaraswati’s bani, Aniruddha says he is sorry when he hears people say that Bala’s abhinayas were great, but her technique was flawed. How can anything great come out of a flawed technique, wonders Aniruddha. The technique of her guru Kandappa Pillai was so unique, that one could spend a lifetime trying to fathom it, but still not grasp all its contours, he says. “The fluidity of Bala’s movements made it seem easy. But it wasn’t.”

Douglas says bani is something unique to an artist. “Even within the family, no one tried to be a Veena Dhanammal or a Bala. The process of evolution is unique to every individual. For example Viswa would play a piece differently from the way his sister Bala sang it. Brinda and Mukta would sing the same piece differently from either Bala or Viswa. Yet you could see the stamp of the Veena Dhanammal paramapara in each of them.”

Does this mean someone of the family cannot absorb the tradition? “Not at all,” clarifies Douglas. “But you must absorb the family’s way of understanding music or dance.” What was the learning process like for Aniruddha? “I learnt music in two different ways - music for the sake of music and music for dance, and the two are different. But there are people who can be both concert singers and singers for dance. I realised this after learning music from Vega aunty (Vegavahini Vijayaraghavan).”

To Aniruddha music is integral to his dance. Even if it’s a jatiswaram, he has to know the music well. “Music is like the mythical river Saraswati. When you talk of Triveni Sangamam, you can see the Yamuna and the Ganges, but not the Saraswati. Yet you know it’s there, when you take a dip in the water. Music is like that. Dance is a three-dimensional presentation of music.”

The learning process has been continuous. When he didn’t understand something mother Lakshmi did, that meant it was something he was yet to learn. How strict was his mother? “If she didn’t criticise me, I would take that as a compliment.”

Something that’s lost in today’s dance music is the alapana, says Aniruddha. “Alapana creates the mood, and also helps the dancer to rest between pieces.” To Aniruddha, it’s not the lyrics that are the guiding force so much as the music.

Aniruddha says simply being part of the family doesn’t necessarily make one a great artist. Committed learning is necessary. “However, a great advantage of growing up in a family like ours is the constant absorption of what one hears and sees. Often the process of absorption isn’t even a conscious one.” That is why he is sad when his students come to just three classes a week, each an hour in duration. “What can they learn in just three hours a week?” he asks.

Veena Dhanammal’s grandmother Kamakshi ammal was a dancer and musician in the Thanjavur court. But after her, there seems to have been a hiatus in the dance tradition of the family, until Bala came along. What was the reason for this? “In the family, dance was never spoken of as having disappeared. The issue here is not whether one performed in public or not.” Douglas says, “I’ve been told that when Veena Dhanammal sang at home, she would often do abhinaya.”

T.R. Murthy, Viswa’s student, plays the flute, as Aniruddha presents a small segment from a padam to show how the abhinaya flows from the music. “Murthy is an example of someone outside the family who has helped preserve the family tradition. But Murthy is getting old. Who is going to carry forward the tradition? Forty years ago, there were 12 people in the family sustaining a repertoire of more than a 1,000 songs. How many do we have now, wonders Douglas.

He talks of the pain Bala felt when the Madras Devadasi Abolition Act of 1947 banned female dancers from dancing in temples. “It says a lot for Bala’s spirit that she was not cowed down by all this. But think of the many Devadasi families that simply let go their art, because there was no advocacy of the art from within the community. How much have we lost?”

Aniruddha repeatedly makes the observation that the family tradition has not been properly understood. “We are considered good for just padams. Sometimes we are asked why we do not smile during a tirmanam. Tirmanam is about technique. There is no room for mukha bhavam there.” So how does he plan to dispel these notions about his family tradition? “Maybe through lec-dems. Or even better, through workshops.”

Aniruddha is going to perform in Delhi in connection with Birju Maharaj’s 75{+t}{+h} birthday celebrations. “Whenever Birju Maharaj visited Madras, he would stay in our family home in Egmore. I consider it a great honour to be a part of his birthday celebrations.” Aniruddha will also be performing at TTD Centre, T. Nagar, on February 7, 6.30 p.m.

Search across the continent

Douglas Knight’s book titled ‘Balasaraswati - her art and life,’ which has colour pictures of Bala dancing, will be released in May. The story of how Aniruddha got the pictures is interesting. Marilyn Silverstone, a photojournalist, who later became a Buddhist nun and died in Nepal, had taken these pictures of Bala, during the Edinburgh festival in 1963.

Aniruddha knew that Marilyn had joined Magnum Photos in 1967. So he went to London, and asked Magnum if they would let him have the pictures, but they didn’t have the pictures. However, three weeks later, Aniruddha had a call from Magnum. The negatives were in a manor house in Paris, as part of a private collection. Sadly many of the negatives had been spoilt because of mildew. But Magnum made copies from the good ones for Aniruddha, and these find a place in Douglas’s book.