Understanding the greatness of Balasaraswati

Balasaraswati in San Francisco, California, 1974.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Jan Steward

How and why is yours a different account on Balasaraswati's life from the ones that are already circulating? Why another book?

In this biography, I've tried to be as objective as possible. It is not an easy task being a member of her family and still look at her life with a critical perspective. It was after Lakshmi fell ill that there was a sudden sense of urgency to document. Lakshmi was the real living link to interpret what was recorded on the life of her mother. Eleven years ago, she even questioned the mention of the label ‘Devadasi community' in the writing of this book. She considered it very important but till a decade ago in Chennai, people weren't using the ‘D' word. Lakshmi felt it was distracting people from understanding Bala's greatness if ‘they' turned it into a social controversy. No one knew who this ‘they' were but everybody thought it was everybody else. Having lived through the 1960's, particularly as an American, for the first time I had to come to terms with the social prejudices here. It was a diverse society but not an integrated one. That was a big shock in my generation. As a teenager, I knew about the caste system but nothing about the ‘Devadasi'.

What was your first understanding of the Bala phenomenon?

I first came to India in 1973. By then, Bala was a celebrity in the western world. She had been described all over the press as one of the supreme performing artistes in the world. I presumed that Chennai — where she lived — had the same opinion. But I was shocked to know that not everyone felt the same way. To me it was an issue of a performing artiste but I didn't have any grasp over the social issues that surrounded her. I was alarmed to know that people considered her way of performing as ‘indecent'. She danced ‘Shringara' with subtlety and minimal gesturing but the idea of ‘indecent' would never come across. The rhetoric of what started happening in the 1930's, especially Bharatanatyam, was that the performance of ‘Shringara rasa' was identified as part of courtesan practice, which was somehow connected to prostitution and ‘indecent behaviour'. One of the challenges of my book was to find my way through that dialogue. In European traditions, no one considered it ‘indecent'. Courtesans were certainly out of the more general social structure but not considered as sleazy women. They were regarded as the most privileged and were kept in great style. I realised that I had come to understand how to view them outside my own frame of reference. I came from a family of church Presbyterians for the last five generations. I was a renegade and a misfit. I had to take all of that apart to understand without judgment. Balamma never said she was embarrassed or sorry to be a Devadasi. She was proud to belong to a cultural heritage. The only boastful thing I ever heard her say to me was, “I am a great cook and I know it!”

Was Bala the person very different from Bala the artiste? Did she feel isolated?

She knew she was a great artiste and was in awe of her elders and other artistes, especially the ones from north India. Many like Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Achchan Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj were her idols and were artistes who opened up her mind to a larger Indian context. Uday Shankar was a great friend and often visited the family. Having seen Achchan Maharaj in Banaras in the mid 1930's she remarked how she had never seen such a brilliant male dancer. I think it's true of many great artistes that they become very guarded and don't know exactly how to manage. By the time she was 29, Balamma was nationally famous and also the object of gossip because she was a dasi. Lakshmi was very protective of her mother which was misunderstood as being very possessive. Even as Bala started learning to dance at the age of four, she would remark later, “How was I to understand the rage of controversy that was underneath?” She had no idea that the fires of controversy of Bharatanatyam and devadasis existed and learned it the hard way. She was a profoundly spiritual person and the isolation she felt was that of a spiritual practitioner. From 1940-50 she found herself increasingly abandoned. Between 1945 and '49 she was asked to dance only once, ironically by a sabha that her partner Shanmukham ran, and she never had the habit of asking anyone, which was also one of the reasons why the professional community's style of the art faded out. It was also the time when the new social reconstructions of art were under way. It's appalling to know that a repository like Bala was totally rejected in that process. Around that time, Ram Gopal was a touring English journalist in Madras and sought an audience with Bala. She replied saying she had stopped dancing. I kept reminding myself that I was writing about a 29-year-young girl who had been rejected. That's a very young age for your society to turn on you.

What was the biggest challenge as a writer and researcher for a book like this?

Several! It was easier to get accounts of Balamma's early life. It was her later years that were inaccessible because she became a more private person. She didn't trust anyone other than her daughter Lakshmi. The real challenge was to create a consistent narrative rather than saying I don't know what happened, though the fact remains that a lot of history was rather blurred. I drew on a bunch of resources. The reason it took me a very long time to put this together was that I relied on a very sizeable archive, running into several thousands of pages collected from all sorts of sources. There was also the voice in the back of my head of Balamma and my understanding of her and the voices of Ranganathan and Vishwanathan who were not just her brothers, but also male members of the last of a dasi family.

In general, there isn't a great deal of history of artistes in India. There are almost no accounts of the family of Rupavati, the sister of Veena Dhanammal. Courts kept records of artistes who they paid.

But for exceptions such as B.M. Sundaram, almost no one else knows much on the subject.

(The book ‘BALASARASWATI- Her Art and Life' by Douglas M. Knight Jr., published by Westland Tranquebar is being launched at the TAG Centre, Chennai, on December 27, 2011.)

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 1:04:44 PM |

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