A Tribute to T.Balasaraswati

I am no connoisseur of the carnatic arts. My music teacher told me when I was twelve, that I was tone deaf. I have faithfully believed her. I did learn Bharatnatyam as a child. The abinaya pieces petrified me. It turns out that standing out from a crowd scares me. The authoritarian attitude of the dance teacher did not help one bit. I hope things have changed in the last twenty years. I have my doubts. This is Chennai. Change is not liked.

Balasaraswati is something else. I caught my first glimpse of her dance a couple of years ago. In a small piece of a video I scrapped off the youtube. She was dancing on the beachfront in a simple white saree. It is false to say that her dance captivated me. Balasaraswati captivated me. Her simplicity, her accessibility, the humanness of her dance, I was drawn to all of it. So far I had had the idea that to dance the bharatnatyam you must be under layers of colourful silk and wear a lot of bridal jewellery. Here was a dance doyen dancing classical on the beach. I was stunned. I felt a kindling of interest in this dance form again. Thus did Balasaraswati decades after she passed away bring an unsuccessful student of her style back into her fold. The movie, by the way, was by that farseeing director Satyajit Ray – Bala. Apparently it is not even a well received movie and has a serial narrative. I can imagine the emotionality of her live audience.

Since then, I have followed Bala as I could. Last year I heard a speech by one of her old students. She hinted at the shame that Balasaraswati seems to have carried with her for being a devadasi. I read the few articles on the internet on the unhappiness and loneliness of her last years. One can put together the pieces of the talented dancer who could not get fully rid of the scarlet letters of a dasi that society pinned on her. Approachable, maybe even available. Bala was not lucky enough to get married, brahminised and thus sanctified like M.S.Subbalakshmi. And she seems to have borne a child.

The respect of the profession that must have come in their way of living, as it was a tradition that could be traced down to centuries, was torn down by the British and the social reformists. However, they do not seem to have done a good job of handling either handling the cultural heritage these artists carried with them or the socio-psychological aspects of bringing this community into the social setup. However, I am writing about my own angst against a society still deeply steeped in social hypocrisy. I can only guess at the emotional map of Bala herself and take as evidence the few talks or writings.

After hearing a singing of a few of the padams from her family’s repertoire in the lecture demonstration by her grandson today, I feel convinced that Bala brought her woundedness to her dance. She opened her heart and poured it into her abhinaya touching deeply the hidden emotions in her audience. One of the songs talked about a woman with closed eyes resting in the forest. She is awakened by the kiss of a man and submits to the union. In the morning the nayika awakens alone and is left wondering whether the meeting was a dream. The poignancy, the hints at reality, the wonderful musicality of the dance that has been handed down nine generations in that family. Aniruddha Knight is a proud son and grandson and rightly so. Shrimathi Shymala Mohanraj in the same demonstration at Natya Darshan happening currently at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, brought Bala’s abhinaya to life. The humility of the postures, the speaking eyes, the heart-rending music, I had tears in mine. I usually never cry for Bharatnatyam dances, I feel like I am watching march past. I feel proud of a good dance but not emotional. In the case of Alarmel Valli, I feel like I am watching a bee flitting on flowers.

The shringara in Bharatnatyam is often about conjugal love. This has been cloaked over by references to gods, Krishna being the favourite. However, the dance pieces are about conjugal love, even sexuality at times. Shringara can depict the Gods, but to evoke a response from me it has to connect to the pains, the tenderness that I know of and relate to in my earthly life. T. Balasaraswati brought truth to her dance, brought herself fully. To my maybe poorly trained but hopefully artistic eyes, Bala has been irreplaceable. Both as a performing artist and as an inspirer.

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