Balasaraswati – Her Art & Life

Balasaraswati – Her Art & Life celebrates one of the most renowned Bharatnatyam dancers, indeed, a messiah of this art form in the 20th century.

Balasaraswati – Her Art & Life celebrates one of the most renowned Bharatnatyam dancers, indeed, a messiah of this art form in the 20th century. 

Review by Lavanya Sampath

In the book Balasaraswati – Her Art & Life, Douglas M. Knight Jr. has documented the life of noted danseuse Balasaraswati, and in turn has taken us through the various eras of art and culture that emerged in India in the late 1700s, 1800s and 1900s.

Balasaraswati came from a professional matrilineal community with ancestral roots that spanned across a millennium. Her ancestors were professional artists who adorned the royal courts of the most thriving dynasties of their times – Thanjavur and Thiruvananthapuram.

Whether it is Bala’s intense relationship with her great-grandmother Vina Dhanammal and the evening kutcheris (concerts) at her Mylapore house or the fondness and playtime that Bala enjoyed with Aniruddha, her grandson or the experiences that many of her students shared about their learnings – the visualization of each event along with the photographs in the book makes for an earthy and realistic tale-telling experience. The reader becomes one with the protagonist, Bala, and experiences life with her right from birth, her first childhood dance encounter with ‘the madman at the gate’, Bharatnatyam, her career in dance and later as an ambassador for the art she worshipped.

(The madman at the gate refers to an incident when Bala was a baby and attempted to imitate every movement of a madman who came at the doorstep of their house and started dancing. Bala’s interest in the art form and ability to reproduce the steps surprised her family. For Bala this was more than an incident. The dancer a.k.a. madman who she thought was probably her first Guru or teacher intrigued her.)

Bala emphasized the importance of the ‘Guru-Shishya’ relationship as much as she preached sincerity for the art form. Whether it was Knight’s fortune (or luck) to be able to spend time with Bala in close quarters as a son-in-law or the skill of an author writing an autobiography, Knight has been successful in capturing some of the key moments that speak volumes about the protagonist.

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If there was one thing I would have liked altered in this autobiography, it would be the chronology of events contained in each chapter. More often than not, I felt as though I was being rushed from one era to another and back and forth between different stages of Bala’s and her ancestors’ lives. To be fair to the author, it is quite a task to cover the life of such a prominent personality whose experiences last not just a lifetime, but revolve around the lifetime of the art they are married to. In that case, hats off to Knight to have understood Bharatnatyam, India and Indian culture to be able to draw an authentic picture of Balasaraswathi, Vina Dhanammal, Papammal, Jayammal, T.Ranaganathan, T.Viswanathan, Lakshmi, Aniruddha and many others in our minds, as we read this book.

If you enjoy Indian art, have a keen inclination for Bharatnatyam and devour writing about India in the 1800s and early 1900s then this book is for you. For the average reader too, it is worth reading to learn about a lady who came from the highly ‘judged’ Devadasi family and went on to make a name that became synonymous with dance, art and culture not just within India, but also across the world.

Publisher: Tranquebar Press

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