I t was a small and intimate gathering on a warm evening. Behind the podium, in a corner of the stage, sat Kay Poursine dressed in Bharatanatyam finery. Her blue-grey eyes gleamed with emotion while the salangai chinked softly every time she moved her feet. She nervously got up to talk and looked up at the expectant faces, many of them artists of repute, waiting to listen to her. And her gaze stopped at Nandini Ramani, a prominent torchbearer of the bani that Kay hails from.
She began on a poignant note, “If not for her (Nandini), I wonder if I could have ever picked up the threads of my life. I was shattered when Balasaraswati passed away; her daughter Lakshmi Knight too was no more. Just when I had thought I was living out my creative dreams, I was engulfed in a vacuum of uncertainty. Nandini came as a hope; a beacon of light. She agreed to train me and I felt blood gushing through my veins again.”
The event was curated by Nandini for Dr. V. Raghavan Centre for Performing Arts, of which she is the managing trustee. “I was keen that a dedicated American student such as Kay share her experiences about Balamma. Such interactions are significant as the younger generation should know the greats who have shaped the history of Bharatantayam,” said Nandini. And between them, the two dancers drew an ineffaceable picture of their celebrated guru.
The 69-year-old Kay, descendant of a French Creole family, began training in ballet at age six. “I studied the form till I was 17 but was unable to express my inner joy through it,” said Kay in impeccable English.
And then, she happened to watch Balasaraswati perform in the U.S. and immediately, Kay knew what she wanted to do - learn Bharatanatyam. “With every step and move, she walked closer to my heart. I had not watched something more ethereal.” So, in 1972, Kay began to learn Indian dance in New York City. When she came to know that Bala would be in residence at Mills College along with her family of accomplished artists, Kay was determined to try her luck, despite fear of facing rejection.
“After I performed a tisram alarippu at the audition, Bala looked at me intently and asked, ‘you have obviously learnt another style. Do you want to learn mine?’ ‘Yes, yes, definitely’, I replied, the excitement palpable in my voice. Balamma told dance master Ramiah that she would check my progress in a week,” recalled Kay, looking misty-eyed at Ramiah, who was sitting in the front row.
She worked hard that week and cramps in her legs kept her awake through the night. Kay needed to learn all the adavus and hastas to fit into Bala’s style. “It helped that Ramiah kept encouraging me through those crucial seven days. On the eighth day as Bala walked in, my heart almost leapt out. She went up to Ramiah, said something in Tamil and left. I couldn’t wait to hear what it was. Ramiah said, ‘she wants you in the advanced class.’ I was floating on air. I told myself loudly, ‘Hey Kay, imagine you will be with Balamma.”
After a pause, she continued, “She was overwhelming both as a dancer and teacher. She brought an incredible intimacy between the learners and the art.”
“I was in awe of her attention to detail. She would say that the fingers of each hasta should evoke the meaning and emotion of the sahitya. As she demonstrated, her hands seamlessly morphed from one hasta into another. Bala strongly believed in a holistic approach and made us train in music and nattuvangam from her brothers T. Viswanathan and T. Ranganathan. It took us deeper into the art.”
That was evident as she performed a few pieces to showcase the power of one’s artistic roots. Through her fluid facial expressions and moves, Kay brought out the clarity and complexity, the contrast and connection of the style.
Back to narrating her journey, she spoke about her memorable stay in Madras, when she was invited by Bala and Lakshmi to study the full Margam. “After my initial trepidation, I realised it was an ideal environment to learn the art; in the cultural milieu it belonged to. I cannot forget those excursions to Kapaleeswarar Temple with jasmine flowers in my hair, shopping at the temple tank market, enjoying the evening breeze in the verandah of Bala’s Kilpauk house and chatting with Lakshmi. Till today, when I go visiting universities and institutions to talk about this Indian art, I carry along indelible images of this city and my Bala,” smiled Kay, acknowledging the applause with a namaskaram.
Balasaraswati inspired me to make Bharatanatyam my calling. She was a fiercely independent woman. During her summer residencies in the U.S., she loved going for walks in the evenings. Bala kept herself well-informed and could hold intellectually-stimulating conversations on art. She could make friends easily. I remember a couple, who was into farming, visiting her when she was in the U.S. Bala told me, she had met them at the airport.
She was thorough with every aspect of music and dance. Once, when I asked her what colour my costume should be in for a performance, she asked me the ragas of the compositions I had chosen for the recital. She said that there are specific colours that can enhance the beauty of a raga.
She loved eating pistachios and ice creams. During my stay in Madras, I remember going to the famous Dasaprakash with her often.
My guru’s cherished advice: ‘Don’t be afraid of letting the art take control of you; give in to the rapture of the moment.’