May 13 is a day to remember by all those who admired and adored the Bharatanatyam legend T. Balasaraswati, the only dance exponent to receive the esteemed title of Sangita Kalanidhi from the premier cultural organisation of India, The Music Academy, Chennai. On this day, this year, it is Bala’s 96th birthday. The occasion brings home some cherished memories of this renowned dancer-teacher to this writer who is not only a senior disciple of the legend, but also was almost an ‘Antevaasi’- remaining close to her for more than three decades.
Bala, a strict adherent to sampradaya, was uncompromising in her artistic exposition. Her presentation of the margam–based performances remained the mainstay all through her life, whether in India or abroad. Her conviction and utmost dedication to her art was impeccable and her guru bhakti towards Kandappa, was in fact Bhayabhakti, an approach worthy of emulation.
While she was known as the ‘Queen of Abhinaya,’ her exquisite nritta intricacies were extolled by stalwarts in the sphere of Laya. Bala’s grip over musical aspects and her grooming from childhood with a multi-dimensional training into the realms of Indian heritage through oral tradition, gave her a mature insight into the aspects of interpretative skill of the various lyrical contents that she explored in her performances. Her Bhashaa gnanam, sharp memory, swift and spontaneous skill for expressive improvisations made her unique among dancers of her own times. Bala’s training under Kandappa that blossomed with her mother T. Jayammal’s soulful music happened in a leisurely, exquisite process, resulting in momentous performances.
The art of Balasaraswati was one of pristine quality that was based on a strong bhakti-oriented approach. Her handling of the sentiment of Sringara, was unique in its own way, coated with dignity. Her strong belief in traditional aspects of the art gave her a unique status in the ‘world of dance.’ Her mingling into one with any composition that she performed or taught was something special as her imagination for the abhinaya improvisations would flow on and on, and her extraordinary skill would immerse the student or the viewer in a state of ecstasy. Subtlety and propriety (Aucitya) were unique features of her inimitable interpretative technique.
Bala was a strict disciplinarian in matters of her art, although as a person she was a simple woman with dance as the mission of her life. In spite of hardships that she had to face from her young days, Bala’s respect to her guru, hard work and total dedication to her Natya Sampradaya, brought her name and fame, nationally and internationally.
If Bharatanatyam is so well known in the West, it is mainly due to Bala, who introduced the art to the western audiences from the end of 1950s. The intricacies and nuances of this art form were conveyed to the audience at large through her solo performances at major platforms and renowned festivals within the country and outside. Her master classes and workshops, especially at the prestigious Wesleyan University, apart from others drew great attention from many an American dance enthusiast, some of whom became life-long devotees of Bala. All these efforts of Bala that continued until 1982, created a strong base for Bharatanatyam in the west.
Even as a teenager, Bala displayed tremendous responsibility and commitment by dedicating her entire life to this sophisticated art. It required a Bala to carry on the task of the upkeep of this beautiful artistic activity. Thus Bala’s role in the renaissance period of Bharatanatyam sparkled with unique identity.
Bala’s contribution to the field of Bharatanatyam was unique and occupies a special status in the annals of ‘Dance History.’ Bala’s propagation of the dance-form as a sublime art that elevates the soul towards supreme bliss created wide response among serious connoisseurs of this dance over the decades that followed the period of resurgence for this dance form. Bala was endowed with a rare blend of an in-built spirituality and creative genius, both of which she combined with utmost Auchityam or propriety to extend a unique touch to her art. For her, life and art were not separate entities. She breathed music and dance and meditated on them all through her life, thereby achieving immortal reputation. Her art remained timeless as it was aimed towards Godliness.
The moment she was on the stage, Bala would become a live wire and generate the right response from the learned audience whom she always respected. She was always alert in using her art to elevate the Sahrudya and would never deviate from the norms at any point of her life. Bala's abhinaya technique was highly aesthetic that rose above all mundane considerations. This was possible for Bala, whose mind was bent on higher values of the art. Her art was nothing but a visualised form of music of the high order.
Much recognition came to Bala only in her late forties. Her constant words of wisdom were, “Do your duty and do not bother about the outcome.” After three decades of her passing away, if a dancer’s name still reigns supreme, it could only be Bala, for, when institutions came into foster the art of Bharatanatyam, Bala stood firmly as an institution by herself, and strove to uphold the torch high as a solo dancer all her life. It required a Bala to prove to the world and make them realise the greatness of the art through her constant, magnificent presence on the stage during her 50 and more years of career span.
The Music Academy and Bala were inseparable. She performed for this prestigious platform continuously for nearly three decades and taught at its school in its campus. It was her highly aesthetic performances here at this august platform that brought great respect not only to the art, but also to Bala herself. Her perseverance and commitment to her art kept her away from all the changes that were happening around in the Bharatanatyam scene in the later times. Her excellent music, extraordinary abhinaya and undiluted nritta, and above all, her lofty goals towards her dance would remain forever a glorious path of knowledge.
Until her last Bala remained the same simple, unassuming, majestic woman, who readily responded to the request of a true rasika and danced a Padam or Slokam spontaneously, and created an atmosphere of absolute tranquillity then and there in the classroom. As an artist, she stood high and magnificent, away from all the petty cries of jealousy and controversies. For her, nothing was greater than her art. Indeed Bala was a true Saadhikaa, the achiever, a woman of great strength and substance who straddled the spheres of art and life, accepting both with equal command and composure.