As part of the Sanskriti Samwaad Shrinkhla series, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) organised a two-day celebration in honour of the legend’s birth centenary. The array of dancers and connoisseurs included Sonal Mansingh, Padma Subrahmanyam, Pandit Birju Maharaj, Saroja Vaidyanathan, Sachchidanand Joshi and Ram Bahadur Rai, and leading the festival was Nandini Ramani, dancer, arts writer and author, and one of Bala’s foremost disciples, with her daughter Sushma Ranganathan.
Says Ramani, “Balamma’s art was as pure as the person she was. She was a pioneer who achieved so much in her time and became a legend. Nobody reached her fame and reputation. She had an unswerving mind, carrying a discipline all her life as a soloist. There are many aspects which the contemporary dancer should take from her life and dance experience. She had no big support, except the fact that her family was traditionally artistic. In those days, dancing as profession was not easily sustainable.” Ramani’s father, V Raghavan, the esteemed Sanskrit scholar and musicologist, was the reason Ramani and her sister Priyamvada went to Bala to learn dance. Raghavan saw Bala’s innate genius early on. He was a mentor as well as a great friend to her.
But her greatness was not something that fell into her lap, unlike many others. She struggled, despite a guru like Kandappa Pillai. And post-independence, it was a different kind of struggle altogether. But now, artistes can’t help but watch her videos and read about her. “The level of her own art kept increasing over the years. But even when she was alive, there was a sidelining of the Bala tradition. The West took greater interest in her work, and they were also supporting her. There are always parallel and opposite forces at work, but her struggle was of a different kind,” says Ramani. “If you see today, the jathi mostly is the mridangist’s province. The destruction of nattuvanars was because they did not share their skill, and the nuances of conducting a recital. But that does not mean the dancer gives up on the music,” adds Ramani.
As young students of five, Ramani or her sister never knew what legacy they were tapping into. “We have been extremely fortunate,” she says. A teacher unlike any other, tutelage under Bala was never about memorising. Perhaps, owing to the said vastness of her own art, Bala forgot what abhinaya gestures she used the previous day and improvised with every repetition. There were no notebooks, no writing down, and no one-hour classes. “Bala never used to compliment. She was just like her teacher was to her. First of all, she would never come for our performances, she would only prepare us and send. Later, she would ask us, ‘what did you feel about your performance?’ Once, at the Music Academy, I was performing a set of compositions by Swathi Thirunal. That same evening, Bala was receiving the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award. The auditorium was full of the top stalwarts of the arts industry. After my performance, MSS (MS Subbulakshmi) came to me and was holding my hands, telling me how much she enjoyed watching me. And behind her was Bala. Suddenly, Bala just patted my back very hard followed with a slight smile. And that was that. It meant I had done something to please her,” adds Ramani.
As Ramani puts it, growing, maturing, and learning with the art changes from period to period. Bala’s is a period story. “If someone can emulate her, they will only enrich their art,” she adds.
On the first day, apart from panel discussions, there were performances of Bala’s padams by Ramani, Sushama, Roja V, Lavanya Ananth and Divyasena Haribabu. On the second day, was a lecture demonstration by Ramani, a talk on Bala’s music by Charumati Ramachandran and the screening of “Bala”, the Satyajit Ray’s film on the legend.