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Proud preserver of Bala's tradition

In distant Canada, Bharatanatyam, as envisioned by Balasaraswathi, is being nurtured thanks to one of her first disciples. Priyamvada goes down memory lane with CHITRA MAHESH.

Priyamvada ... carrying on the legacy.

YOU CAN feel the fragrance, a sense of intangible nostalgia — of a world that has gone by and a time that was full of dreams, of flowers and silks, dance and music, of long evenings with lessons at the feet of a master. A master who is not just that, but also someone who means pretty much to the whole world. That was a time when the guru was held in such reverence and holistic love. It is from this world that she has emerged — like a colourful butterfly, with a charming demeanour. She carries the fragrance of those days to pass it on to those who will never see the legend or her greatness, a tradition that lives by its sincere practice and worship. And who can do it better than Priyamvada, one of Balasaraswathi's earliest students?

She sits on the floor comfortably. It is the eve of her departure to Canada, which she has made her home in the past few years. A home away from home, where the tradition of Bala continues surviving the onslaught of time and modern trends. Where she runs the successful Priyamvada Sankar School Of Bharatanatyam. Over to Priyamvada:

``Bala's bhaani was said to be shuddha bhaani," begins Priyamvada. And reminiscing, she goes on: ``Appa (Dr. V. Raghavan, an eminent scholar in Sanskrit, Indian art and culture) believed in quality. He wanted his children to learn all the good things so we were made to learn some form of art. Then he became the Secretary of the Music Academy. Shakthi Kaariyalayam was the place where the Music Academy now stands. There used to be a huge ground where they erected a pandal for kutcheries. The first floor of Shakthi Kariyaalayam housed the Music Academy's offices. In that big hall, Balasaraswathi started her classes. Her Guru was not there, but her contemporary, Yellappa, who was Yamini Krishnamurthy's Guru, did the nattuvangam, and I was her first student."

How old were you then?

I had just finished my sixth in Children's Garden School. I used to perform in all the annual programmes. My father encouraged me to take up formal classes. A few weeks after the classes started, Balamma had to go to North India. The whole group went with her. Class was left in the care of her guru's son, Ganesan mama. I was the only student there initially. Ganesan was very strict and I was scared of him. But he proved to be very supportive all through my life.

What was Bala like?

Very affectionate, when I was very young. She used to make me sit on her lap and teach. But that changed after I grew a little older.


Dedicated learner.

Maybe because a lot of children came in by then and she became more involved in her profession, her child and so on. That initial bond didn't blossom.

How would you describe those days?

They were hectic. Music classes in the morning, then school. Lady Sivaswami Girls High School, which I joined later, laid emphasis on extra-curricular activities. I would return home from school and after having refreshment would go for the dance class, in a cycle-rickshaw. I would go at 4.45 p.m. and come back at only at 8.30.

How did you have the energy to do so many things?

I don't know. I never felt tired and I never liked missing a single class. My arangetram happened in 1956. Balamma and her mother bought three metres of organdie material and made it into a small sari- in green and white, the traditional arangetram colours of Balamma's school. Balamma's mother, Jayamma, stitched a pajama and blouse in green satin, with zari border. The audience was an unusual mixture of scholars, academicians and artistes — all appa knew. The invitation went out in the name of Balasaraswathi.

How did you feel?

I was only very tense about the dance. Everything else passed like a blur. I had practised a lot with Ganesan mama. He would not tolerate any mistakes. If we faltered on stage, he would make you repeat it never mind if people were watching. It would be so embarrassing.

And dedication, wouldn't you say?

Seventies was a very beautiful period at the Academy. For all of us, up to twenty, it was a golden age. If we didn't recognise a raga, my father would get angry. How could we not know it? My mother never missed a concert even as she was carrying us in her womb. Amma spoke good Telugu as she spent her childhood in Andhra. So appa used to ask her the meaning of a lot of Telugu padams. In fact Appa even wanted Amma to learn dance.

He was very progressive for his time, then?

He was, but he was also very orthodox, wearing the dhoti in the traditional panchakacham style to the Academy. He strongly felt that Bharatanatyam was a noble art and wrote several articles on the subject.

Was Balamma a difficult person? Temperamental as most good artistes are?

Balamma was temperamental, moody and openly demonstrated her like and dislike. Perhaps that stemmed out of a feeling of insecurity — there was only the art to fall back on. My father got me many programmes after my arangetram, and she really didn't mind. But later, she started feeling that her daughter was not getting enough exposure. After my father's demise, in about five or six years time, the classes shut down completely for various reasons. But that period of Bala's life was very sad.

Did she die an unhappy person?

Yes and no. She had a raw deal in her personal life. Her daughter married an American who wanted her to shift there. Then she (her daughter) wanted to dance but Bala didn't think she would. Bala tried to create a platform for her but nothing big happened. Meanwhile Balamma's health deteriorated. But a few days before she died she told another old artiste friend of hers that my sister (Nandini) and I were her disciples and that we would safeguard this art form very well. Nandini even asked her whether she should not be going abroad for better medical facilities. Bala refused saying she wanted to die in this land. Nandini had the good fortune to make peace with her at the end, which I never could and that makes me very sad.

You never got the chance because you went away from Madras?

I never had the chance. I got married. And in any case as I started performing more, it became a very big issue. It was not a pleasant exercise to ask her permission every time I had a recital. And when I was chosen to lead the Indian delegation to Nepal, it was Kapila Vatsyayan who told Balamma that I would bring her credit and that she should let me go. Which she did only half-heartedly. I was the group leader, though I was the youngest. All this told on our relationship. I continued to attend the class but there was a distance. It was a far cry from the days when she had me on her lap during classes. That affection was not there anymore. It hurts to think of that now. In a way, it has helped me in my relationship with my disciples. The love is mutual, no strings attached. Did you set up your school in the same tradition as Bala?

Yes. When I went there, I was only performing. Those days Canada was not as exposed to Bharatanatyam as the United States. Yamini Krishnamurthy had just performed at Expo '67. So when I went in 1968, they arranged for ``Man and His World." I introduced the art form to them and slowly educated them. Mine was the very first school over there. As I was performing, I also wanted to teach. Some ballet dancers from the Montreal Dance Company came and some kids from the Indian community learnt. It has grown over the years, of course surmounting many challenges.

Is your husband supportive?

He knew nothing about this art form when we got married. Over the years, he has learnt to appreciate Bharatanayam and along with my two sons has been extremely supportive. Looking back, it is surprising that my father, who was so keen that I should learn dance and perform never gave it a thought when it was time to choose a groom for me. But I managed thanks to the passion I had.

Sanskrit is also a major passion with you, isn't it?

Yes. Because I majored in Sanskrit, I was able to give a lot of lecture-demonstrations. Hinduism was beginning to be an important part of the curriculum in the North American universities. I used to perform for the small Indian community. Gradually the composition of the audience changed. In India, I was used to full-scale concerts but in Canada it was totally different. Today I feel very satisfied, very contented when my students perform what I teach. They are all bright, professional girls who consider it a very important hobby.

It is now 35 years. Any regrets?

Regrets? Hmm... again I can't help thinking of Balamma. If I had stayed here may be I would have had more opportunities to interact with her as a grown up. My other major regret is that I was not with my father at a crucial time. He was very supportive. Now of course I don't think I will fit in here. A lot of new things are being done, but the kind of depth that was there earlier is not seen now. Bala had intense competition from women younger than her and now I can understand her better. Those days, we used to follow whatever the teacher said just as we used to listen to our parents. We never thought of changing the style the way it is done now.

What was so special about her dance?

You have to see it and experience it. Visually there were no unnecessary moves and twists. There used to be propriety — right from the stance. The adavus were so pure. The sound of the feet would be just right. Even in the abhinaya, there would be no excess. She used to say that a dancer should be able to stay in one place and position and still dance. It is because of the good foundation that I was able to start and do so well in a different environment.

At the end of it all, what do you expect for yourself in the coming years?

Nothing much. I would be happy if things continue in the same vein — to enjoy performing, teaching and good health. To have the strength to perform as much as I want. The tradition should continue. Even recently, I went with my students to interior Quebec to perform at the Global Health and Equilibrium Conference. There was a lot of appreciation and I thought it was an achievement. It was a poignant moment. To think that Bala's art lives through her students. She was one of the greatest artistes and I am totally blessed to have been her disciple.

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