Balasaraswati centenary special (1918-2018)

Tracing Balasaraswati’s journey

Balasaraswati with Gauri Ammal   | Photo Credit:

Balasaraswati was born on May 13, 1918, into a family steeped in classical music and dance (see family tree). Her training in dance under Kandappa Pillai started at the age of four and it was a rigorous regimen. Music never was considered a separate entity and hence lessons in Carnatic music were mandatory. Later that became a hallmark of Bala’s style. In every way she qualified for the title Sangita Kalanidhi that came her way in 1974.

Balasaraswati’s arangetram happened when she was all of seven in a temple at Kanchipuram. The line up included Kalyani jatiswaram, Vennuda shabdam, Thodi varnam and padams. She sang the varnam too as she danced. It is recorded that the flawless performance wowed an elite audience, which declared that a star had arrived. Now how could a child have done justice to the piece or for that matter to the padam? Perhaps the same genius that is associated with other prodigies.

T. Jayammal

T. Jayammal   | Photo Credit:

By the time she reached her teens, Balasaraswati became a sought-after dancer, especially known for her abhinaya. Tutelage under Kandappa Pillai continued along with guidance from Gauri Ammal and Chinnaya Naidu. The latter taught her slokas and abhinaya. Another teacher was Kuchipudi Vedantam Lakshminarasimha Sastri. Talent and charisma catapulted Bala, as she was fondly called, but on another front she faced severe criticism. Conservative groups opposed women coming into public view as dancers and the Devadasi issue reared its ugly head. Jayammal, her mother was taken to task for exposing her daughter thus. But the family did not yield.

Kandappa Pillai

Kandappa Pillai   | Photo Credit:


The struggle did leave Bala depressed but always art prevailed and she emerged stronger. During these stressful times, support came from doyens such as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar. The Music Academy was a pillar of support too. The institution and secretary Dr. Raghavan stood behind Balasaraswati, offering her a platform. Music was of a superior standard in her presentations raising the level of aesthetics several notches.

She performed all over India and the first overseas performance took her to Tokyo in 1961. It is documented that she was a little nervous about the kind of response her art form would get from an audience that was accustomed to Western style. Well, Bala swept them off their feet with her brilliant offering, which moved the Earl of Harewood to say: “I have seen one of the three greatest dancers in the world today — Balasaraswati. The other two are Galina Ulanova and Margot Fonteyn.”

In 1962, Bala flew to the U.S., where she performed, taught and demonstrated at some 16 centres. Her performance at the Ted Shawn’s Jacob’s Pillow Festival made a critic exclaim: “A unique experience.” Another said: “Her delicate and beautiful art is timeless and knows no frontiers.” Garlanding her Shawn himself told the spectators: “You are in the presence of greatness. Tonight has been a historic night.”

K. Ganesan

K. Ganesan   | Photo Credit:

A report published in The Hindu after her performance in Edinburgh said: “Smt. Balasaraswati kept an international audience spellbound for over two hours with the magic of her art in her first dance performance at the Edinburgh Festival on Thursday night. She went through all items of Bharata Natyam repertoire with the litheness of gazelle. She was draped in orange and green costume and wearing typical Bharatanatyam jewellery and auspicious yellow chrysanthemums on her hair... The dramatic power of her “abhinaya” when she lovingly beckoned the child Krishna or depicted decision and jealousy of the neglected maiden or implored the divine lover for reciprocation sent the audience to ecstacies. A highlight of the performance was the Todi varnam “Dhanike.” She executed quick “Tirmanams” with clocklike precision and her improvisations in the “Nritya” part of the Varnam which lasted half an hour were varied and sublime.

Many awards, including Padma Vibhushan adorned her but Bala never shed her childlike simplicity. In a homage, Sakuntala Narasimhan observes: “She struck no sculpturesque poses. she did not even flash the smile, which I thought dancers were supposed to… but when she let her eyes speak, to interpret lyric of the Kshetragna padam, everything else became immaterial.”

About the uncompromising standard that she set and observed, Sakuntala writes: “She refused to package the art for a modern audience. With her gesture became the music, while the melody was transformed into visuals…”

Sakuntala goes on to describe the way Bala made ‘Krishna Nee Begane’ her own. Records Sakuntala: “When I was a student at the Music College, we invited her over for puja celebration. She turned up a day late… while we were thoroughly flustered, she coolly sat down and her body rippling with mirth, laughed at her own absent-mindedness and left after a while, without a trace of self-consciousness.”

Bala spent her last years in the sprawling house in Kilpauk, built with her hard earned money. After a prolonged illness, she passed away on February 9, 1984. Her legacy is preserved by disciples.

Tracing Balasaraswati’s journey

(Compiled from the archives of The Hindu and Dr. V. Raghavan Centre for Performing Arts; Photos courtesy: Dr. Raghavan Centre )

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 1:11:45 PM |

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