In an age of excess, epithets like ‘legendary’ and ‘iconic’ get tossed about lightly. In performing arts particularly, given the nature of a live presentation, the heady mashup of excited audience and charged performer can generate superlatives in abundance. Yet, in the array of artists produced by India over the past century, a few override all conflicting opinions. T. Balasaraswati was one such.
Balasaraswati was trained in the days before Sadir was renamed Bharatanatyam, before it received what some might call a makeover and became one of the neo-classical showpieces of independent India. Today, the process and consequences of that transformation, the irony of a democratisation that made the arts accessible to a new elite while disadvantaging the hereditary practitioners; these and issues of caste privilege and women’s emancipation and how they affected the quality of the dance are increasingly debated. However, no matter which side of the debate dance lovers place themselves, they all agree Balasaraswati was unmatched, the kind of dancer India has not seen again; in short, legendary.
Born on 13 May 1918 into the seventh generation of artists descended from the great musician Pappamal of the Thanjavur royal court, Bala, as she was fondly known, had an exceptional command over both music and dance. Her dance training was under the celebrated Kandappa Pillai.
Bala was most celebrated in her later years for her abhinaya. Her exposition of padams became unforgettable pieces of solo theatre, thanks to her refined facial expressions, telling use of gestures and the way she placed the nayika (heroine) in a suitable setting. The late critic P.V. Subramaniam ‘Subbudu’ once described to this writer how Bala performed a padam featuring a mother scolding a Kalahantarita (heroine who has quarrelled with her lover). She depicted the mother braiding the daughter’s hair — and therefore holding her captive — while lecturing her on her immature behaviour!
But it was not only the abhinaya. Bharatanatyam guru Sudha Doraiswamy, now based in Michigan, U.S., vividly recalls seeing Bala for the first time around 1954 in Bombay. “Jayamma (Bala’s mother) was singing. The varnam in Todi was what impressed me the most,” says the veteran. “The setup was slow. It was so simple. I felt she was showing the real structure of the adavus.”
She remembers the precise but unselfconscious way Bala’s eyes followed her hands in the nritta. It was “not stylised, the way they do it now,” she explains. “You’re not looking at the body. You’re looking at the movements. Her dance enhanced her personality. It was not her personality enhancing the dance. The design of the dance spoke in her. When I think of Bala I remember how (the varnam) ‘Daanike’ should look – dooti bhavam .”
Service to god
Guru Sudha, a disciple of Thiruvadamaradur Kuppiah Pillai, A.T. Govindarajan Pillai, T.K. Mahalingam Pillai and others, recalls, “My mother said, ‘Dance is a service to god for this family. This is where your gurus were trained.’ That is why I respect them. The real art is with them.”
The late K.J. Govindarajan, one of the first gurus of Bharatanatyam to come to Delhi, and himself born into a traditional family — his mother was the musician Kiranoor Jayalakshmi — also saw how the art shone beyond the corporal in Bala. His wife Chandra Govindarajan, relating an incident to her son G. Elangovan, recollects, “In the early ’70s, after a day of teaching at Triveni Kala Sangam where he was conducting Bharatanatyam classes, Guru Govindarajan went to AIFAACS auditorium to attend a dance recital by the doyenne Balasaraswati. His first impression was that her appearance didn't correspond to the credo of a dancer as mentioned in the Natya Shastra. She looked look like any woman he might meet in the neighbourhood. However, the instant she started dancing, he experienced a deep connection with her as she transformed herself into the many roles she portrayed. He said she was the perfect example of saatvika abhinaya, as she emoted spontaneously with myriad of shades of expressions, touching each and every one present with her charismatic presence.”
Bala was known for singing beautifully while dancing. Guru Sudha remarks, “She didn’t need a mike. It would reach.”
In the tradition Bala inherited, dance was music embodied. It was this aspect that impressed itself on the memory of Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, well known Chennai-based musician, scholar and connoisseur. Though as a youngster she had little opportunity to see Bala perform, she says, “The real revelation was through listening to the music of her choristers, two men who sang impromptu in response to her abhinaya and sancharis created on stage. That gave me the key to her genius which could inspire Carnatic music at its classical best.”
Like other connoisseurs, she feels “Bala”, Satyajit Ray’s documentary, “could not convey the greatness of her art.” Alas, it is also perhaps the only record remaining, besides fading photographs. The recollections of stalwarts, though, are not fading.
Eminent Bharatanatyam exponent and scholar Lakshmi Viswanathan, among the foremost representatives of the Thanjavur bani, says, “What struck me was her originality and her musicality. She seemed unlike any other dancer in appearance but commanded a stage presence which was majestic. I admired her detailed gestures with arched fingers, and her singing ‘Krishna Nee Begane Baro’. Her eloquence in shringara as I recollected later, when I became a mature dancer, came from what is known as bhava abhinaya, and saatvika abhinaya, which was minimal, intense, and sensuous. It expressed small details of very subtle facial expressions and head positions, while she moved slowly with the music.”
Lakshmi would sometimes see Balasaraswati at Chennai’s Kapaliswara temple. “She always had a distant air, engrossed in her world of music and dance or, as in the temple, touched by being at the altar of the goddess Karpakambal.”
But once when she had a chance to visit her with a common friend, says Guru Lakshmi, “I enjoyed her engaging conversation, with anecdotes of her life, laced with wit and humour. She spoke with utmost reverence about her gurus and her family traditions of music. She had a big collection of dolls from her travels. But in her display cupboard the pride of place was for her grandmother Veena Dhanammal’s instrument, with her portrait adorning the wall. Family artistic heritage meant all to her.”
Fittingly enough, in Lakshmi Viswanathan’s book “Women of Pride”, the section on Balasaraswati is titled “The Last Empress” .