Balasaraswati centenary special (1918-2018)

Bala’s first disciple, Priyamvada Sankar, on her guru

Brinda and Balasaraswati getting Priyamvada ready for arangetram  

My initiation into the art of Bharatanatyam and formal entry into the fascinating world of Balasaraswati happened in 1951. When her dance school was inaugurated under the auspices of The Music Academy in a simple but beautiful ceremony. To the beat of Ellappa’s thalam and Kuppuswamy Mudaliar’s mridangam, Balamma taught me “Thaiyyaa Thai” and the initial adavus in the presence of an august audience.

Cut to my arangetram (1956), which took place in the thatched roof hall of the Music Academy. The hall was filled with vidwans, vidushis, acclaimed dancers, nattuvanars, rasikas and others. I could see that everyone had responded to the invitations of my father and my teacher. Naturally, Balamma was presenting me, conducting the performance. She was accompanied by her mother Jayammal in singing. Ganesan did the nattuvangam. Viswanathan on the flute, Kuppuswamy Mudaliar on the mridangam and Radhakrishna Naidu playing the clarionet completed the orchestra. This was indeed a dream team.

As Chief Guest, my father had invited his friend Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, multi-faceted artist, renowned scholar, painter, and the husband of the renowned Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, the then vice-chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. The arangetram received accolades for Balasaraswati and the School. I continued with my training with Balamma more intensely and learnt many new items. Particularly, the padam sessions became more and more magical. Both myself and K. Ramaiah, who joined as a nattuvangam trainee, would spend hours listening to Balamma singing — to pick up the nuances of the abhinaya. Her delineation of the rasas through simple but effective gestures and the majestic manner in which she conveyed them to the audience taught me many key ingredients that are special to the Balasaraswati style.

She insisted on good training in Carnatic music and the dancer singing along, especially while doing padams, in order to enhance the abhinaya. I adored her genius and attended every one of her public performances. I was fortunate to accompany her in 1958 to the All India Dance seminar of Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi to present a demonstration on behalf of our school. It was a memorable occasion not only for the opportunity at the national level but also for the chance to travel in a train with Balamma and Jayammal, who showered me with affection.

In one of her performances at the Music Academy, she premiered the “Kalpakamba” sabdam, which my father had composed specially for my arangetram. He had requested her to inaugurate this special sabdam before I performed it. This became a masterpiece of Bala, as she was an ardent devotee of Goddess Kalpakamba.

At another Music Academy performance, she presented the famous Husseini swarajati. What a brilliant execution it was! It took almost one hour with five jaathi rhythmic sequences that Kandappa Pillai had taught her. I was fortunate to be taught this rare piece by Balamma in its original version and complex structure and execution. In another performance, Balamma presented her famous ‘Krishna Nee Begane Baro’ padam. I had seen her perform this padam many times before, but on this occasion, she just surpassed herself.

Substituted Bala

Once, she asked me to perform in her place at the Music Academy’s annual festival in the late 1950s, as she could not, due to Jayammal’s illness. I gave my best under her supervision. The Swadesamitran review in Tamil lauded my performance and mentioned that “I am an able heir of the illustrious Bala.” I thought that was the best compliment I could ever receive. GNB, who was Sangita Kalanidhi that year, presented me a gold medal and praised my skill. Vazhuvur Sri Ramiah Pillai blessed me and said that I had the true stamp of Balamma. The icing on the cake was the presence of M.S. Subbulakshmi.

Life changed course. I got married in 1967 and moved to Montreal, Canada. Balamma was travelling and teaching in the U.S. almost every year. I spoke to her a few times but never got a chance to meet her there. I met her last in 1982 during my visit to India to perform the upanayanam for my son. She told me that her health was not good. She recalled our association and asked about my life, family, my dance school in Montreal. I took leave after she gave her blessings.

The Bharatanatyam legend, an artiste with impeccable credentials and incomparable talent, a gentle but strict disciplinarian, a proud and unyielding traditionalist, an uncompromising perfectionist, a dancer, who revered her gurus — this was the real Balasaraswati I knew.

She never wanted to be called Guru and said one had to really earn that title. For her, that title was reserved only for her own Guru Kandappa. But I want to call her Guru Balamma. I owe it to her for blessing me with a unique dimension of a precious art.

Thank you Balamma!

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Corrections & Clarifications: The caption of the image previously mentioned Brinda as Jayammal. The error is regretted

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 7:45:41 PM |

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