Tanjore Balasaraswati: The empress of Bharatanatyam
As the world of dance gears up to celebrate Tanjore Balasaraswati's birth centenary, a look at her legendary performances
Indian classical dance forms have had a long and tumultuous journey. In south India, for instance, Bharatanatyam was known by different names, such as “Sadir" in Tamil Nadu, before it became popular as “Bharatanatyam". The documented history of dance practice can be traced back to over a thousand years. It was the preserve of communities of traditional performance practitioners in temple-run economies.
Several families of traditional artists later came to be called “devadasis", and continued serving the arts. Veena Dhanammal (1867-1938) was one such artist, whose ancestry in the world of performing artists in the courts of the Thanjavur rulers can be traced back over 200 years. Dhanammal was a celebrated veena player and Tanjore Balasaraswati was her granddaughter. Balasaraswati, arguably the greatest exponent of Bharatanatyam in modern India, was primarily responsible for popularizing it in other parts of the country and abroad.
Born in Madras (now Chennai) on 13 May 1918 to Jayammal and Modarapu Govindarajulu, Balasaraswati was inducted early into the art of Carnatic music and dance. She belonged to the seventh generation of artists in her family. Her dance teacher, Kandappan, hailed from a traditional family of Nattuvanars, or dance masters, who were contemporaries of the Thanjavur Quartet. Balasaraswati made her ritual debut at the age of 7 in the Amanakshi temple in Kanchipuram. Her professional debut in Madras in the presence of great stalwarts of music was hailed across the Carnatic landscape. She was clearly a superstar in the making.
Awestruck by Bala’s performance, the famous dancer, Uday Shankar, hosted a dinner for her in Madras and later invited her to perform in Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the All Bengal Music Conference in 1934. She performed to Jana Gana Mana in the presence of Rabindranath Tagore—the song, obviously, was yet to become the national anthem. The press couldn’t stop raving.
A year later, Tagore once again watched her perform at the All India Music Conference in Benaras (now Varanasi) and was impressed. Bala’s name spread far and wide in north India. She made her first overseas trip to the East-West Music Encounter conference in Tokyo in the summer of 1961.
In 1962, when she debuted at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, at the invitation of legendary dancers Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis in the US, the American press was hyperbolic.
Garlanding her after her performance, Shawn told the audience: “Tonight you are in the presence of greatness." From then on, there wasn’t a dance festival of repute that didn’t showcase Balasaraswati’s Bharatanatyam.
Those who saw Balasaraswati performing at the peak of her career compared the feeling of grandeur to that evoked by the famous, 1,000-year-old Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur. Recollecting his earliest memories of Veena Dhanammal, almost blind by then, and Balasaraswati, sitar maestro and Bharat Ratna awardee Pandit Ravi Shankar said, “...I still remember what she played... I remember clearly that while listening to her, I had tears in my eyes.... She had something very special, apart from technique. There was so much feeling, soul and emotion; that could bring tears to people’s eyes. This is what Bala herself inherited."
She shared a great friendship with her contemporaries in north India—be it dancers like Pandit Shambhu Maharaj or the great Hindustani vocalist Ustad Amir Khan. Most pertinently, she was the first real bridge between north and south Indian artists in the 20th century.
It is impossible to condense the life and art of Balasaraswati into one article. For those interested in reading further, there is a detailed biography, Balasaraswati: Her Art And Life, written by her son-in-law, Douglas M. Knight Jr, and published by Tranquebar Press. She was a versatile genius, an ace Carnatic vocalist apart from being a dancer. She was the first Bharatanatyam dancer to receive the prestigious title of Sangita Kalanidhi from The Music Academy in Madras in 1973. In 1976, she was honoured with the fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. The same year, the famous film-maker Satyajit Ray directed a documentary on her titled Bala. In 1977, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan. Balasaraswati, who died in 1984, continues to be hailed as the empress of Bharatanatyam across the world.
As the world of classical dance gears up to celebrate her birth centenary year, the Tamil edition of her biography, translated by D. Arvind, has been released. The Balasaraswati Institute of Performing Arts has been training many young dancers under the guidance of her grandson, Aniruddha Knight, in Chennai. For in the 20th century history of classical dance, Balasaraswati can only be compared to ballet dancers Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky.
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