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Balasaraswati – Her Art and Life, by Douglas M Knight Jr.

July 26, 2010

It has been my honour to watch the iconic Balasaraswati in the post prime years of her life on stage. I was among the many hundreds at the morning Music Academy lecture demonstration in the early seventies (of the last century!!!) when she expanded her imagination to tint the single line of "Krishna nee Begane" for a full 45 minutes. Having been denied access or learning from any traditional teacher by my strict yet ambitious Brahmin grandparents, it was a revelation as to how an ordinary woman could command such presence and pin drop silence on stage for so long. Walking off stage to collect a bottle of club soda, casually drinking it and placing it next to her brother T Viswanathan who sat to her right as main vocalist, tucking in her silk sari and resuming the narrative by simply singing the line in her glorious voice - this was something completely opposite to what my Kalakshetra/Adyar Lakshman training taught me.

Yet, I was transfixed and later overwhelmed and speechless when she, along with her daughter Lakshmi and son-in-law Douglas Knight dropped in one evening for dinner along with our common guru and guide, late Padma Bhushan Madurai N Krishnan. It was a charming evening, Bala holding a glass of whiskey and regaling us with her humorous takes on many artistes, Lakshmi chatting animatedly and Douglas looking relaxed but reserved. It was a natural moment that I would forever cherish and thank my forward thinking mother who strove to open my eyes to all kinds of art and artistry without borders.

Today, many classical musicians and dancers adopt fake religiosity, hide their liking for alcohol and make politically correct statements about their art and life. Bala was a true original. She was brilliant. She held the sole torch for her entire community of marginalised artistes and was the only international representative of an almost lost art form. Her stature and talent made her stand strong and resilient against the post independence flood of sanitised Bharatanatyam.

Today, history records Bala and Rukmini Devi Arundale (Kalakshetra's founder) as two seminal examples of the renaissance of Bharatanatyam.

We are pleased to post the first in a series of responses to Douglas Knight’s thoughtful book on his mother-in-law BALASARASWATI: HER ART AND LIFE.

We also invite others who have read this wonderful book to send in their comments.

Anita R Ratnam

Dance readings and musings
Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life
- Ragothaman Yennamalli

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