Meet a student of Kalakshetra and a teacher at Indian Fine Arts Society, Singapore, Balagurunathan talks about his childhood, dance schools, marriage and job abroad.
Like all temple towns once Karaikal had been famous for its sadir, with devadasis such as Sundarakamakshi (guru Indira Rajan's mother) and Natesa Nattuvanar (who worked with Rukmini Devi) attached to the temple. Born into a family with nine generations of Sivachariars at Karaikal Ammaiyar Devasthanam, Balagurunathan grew up watching his father performing puja and mantra at the sanctum. Of dance all he knew were ‘dabbanguthu' prancings.
His father's artistic leanings made him impart his love of sketching and Tamil poetry to the child, and take him to films famous for song-dance sequences such as ‘Tillana Mohanambal' and ‘Salangai Oli.' He encouraged Bala to participate in Tamil plays staged at temple festivals, where the child played Krishna, dripping with blue paint, twirling a bulbs-winking, battery operated chakram and dancing to film songs set to tune in a Carnatic raga. Bala also began to learn dancing from guru Krishnammal.
“There was no money to pay for private tuitions so I'd to hold the umbrella for my teacher as she went from class to class in the homes of wealthy landowners. I'd pick up whatever she taught there - tattadavu or ‘Natanam Adinar' and ‘Sakhiye,' varnam.”
The next step
Bala landed in Chennai at guru Nandini Ramani's doorstep, at age 17, with nothing more than scholar E.M. Kandaswamy Sarma's prediction at his arangetram that the young dancer had a bright future in that city. Recognising his talent, Nandini paid his first term fees at Kalakshetra where Principal Rajaram bent rules to get the boy in, though admission was closed.
Balagurunathan recalls, “God helped me through so many human beings. Industrialist Pollachi Mahalingam still doesn't know who I am but he responded to my letter with financial aid. Mridangam player Karaikudi Krishnamurti, C. Nachiappan (now Kovilur Swamigal) and the Kalamandir Trust also helped me. Until I completed my post-diploma course, I gave evening classes to make ends meet.”
Kalakshetra opened a new world of technique, discipline and aesthetics. The boy realised that presentation was crucial, especially for a male dancer. “I admired all my teachers – especially A. Janardhanan, Balagopal and P.T. Narendran. Guru V.P. Dhananjayan and what he had established at Bharata Kalanjali awed me. The way these artists conducted themselves on the stage was so different from what I'd seen until then. They defined the dignity and range of a male dancer.” The boy tried to emulate them when cast as Rama and Lakshmana in his alma mater's famous Ramayana series.
In Kalakshetra, veteran artist Krishnaveni, who wholeheartedly supported his dancing, giving him roles in her productions, opposed the jobless boy's marriage to her daughter Gayatri. Fortunately, guru C.V. Chandrasekhar's suggestion bore fruit and Bala joined Mallika Sarabhai's Darpana, Ahmedabad, to teach and perform nattuvangam.
How did a Kalakshetra dancer think of joining the contemporary dance circuit? “Because I wanted to marry Gayatri!” exclaims Bala, before talking about extending experiences beyond home ground.
If Gayatri had total trust in her husband, Balagurunathan was determined that his wife's talent as a dance artist must be nourished and promoted. Bala next joined Singapore's Indian Fine Arts Society, while Gayatri and twin daughters Mayura and Hamsa waited for family reunions on annual vacations.
In the new workspace, the young teacher tried to maintain the high standards exemplified by his gurus, his role models. “With no one to teach or correct me, I had to depend on my own thought processes in creativity. I used every little opportunity to the utmost.” His passion for cinema led to drawing inspiration from actors Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan.
Nine years in Singapore saw Bala conducting 15 arangetrams, with new items composed specifically for the dancer and the occasion. He developed an all rounder's skills when he choreographed five dance dramas.
“I have understood myself now, my aspirations, goals,” says Balagurunathan who has rejoined his family in Chennai last month and hopes to explore possibilities in solo-duo performances and dance drama.
“I have been dancing here every year with Gayatri. Now I want to create new work based on my strengths – knowledge of the puranas, Tamil, good music – without deviating from the Kalakshetra bani.” Balagurunathan also wants to highlight his acting ability and vachika abhinaya in both solo and dance drama. “I'd like to focus on less known characters in our mythology and widen the spectrum of action and feeling.”
The couple's sixth dance drama ‘Anjaneya Vira' will be staged this month as they launch their Krishnanjali Trust to promote what they believe in. “Like providing space for male dancers, and paying them too!” wife Gayatri smiles.
Balagurunathan sums up, “I want to read more, learn more, to do whatever I do with confidence and faith.”