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The diva of Bharatanatyam

Geeta Chandran 

The term “mother-in-law” evokes different connotations. Here, in South Asia, it usually refers to the husband’s mother. But in the West, the term generally refers to the wife’s mother. And invariably in both, vilification is the norm. So it was a delight to encounter Jr’s well-researched tribute to his mother-in-law, the renowned dancer Balasaraswati, “seventh-generation descendant of the musician and dancer Papammal from the eighteenth century Thanjavur court.”

And he puts together a riveting tale of tradition and change, of society and change, of stigma and acceptance, of joy and disillusion. Seldom does a subject yield to such a vigorous chain of opposites as the story of Balasaraswati.

The doyenne of the devadasi tradition – a strong matrilineal tradition that celebrated dance and music – Bala grew up to become an icon of Bharatanatyam, as the last legend of a hoary tradition. Douglas’ text is crammed with biographical details, well-researched incidents and encounters. But the narrative lacks progressive organisation of thought and becomes a mere meandering diary of Bala’s life.

But to the dance researcher, the fiery masala of Bala’s life is all there somewhere: her famed clash with Rukmini Devi Arundale, for example. In one passage, Bala says of Rukmini that “there is nothing in the bank” referring to the lack of tradition in Rukmini’s training. In another, Rukmini is quoted as saying that Bala’s mother “was particularly anxious that I should do something to improve the costumes of Bala”. Their famous controversy over what occupies pride of place in Bharatanatyam, Sringara (the erotic sentiment) or Bhakti (the devotional aspect) recurs in several avatars in the book. Rukmini also pays her rich tribute: “She was the only one where the music and dance were equally important … her dance moves were deeply affected by this … she was able to convey not only the meaning of the dance, but also the emotion of the music. That’s what I liked best.”

Knight’s narrative also has intricate details like Bala’s arangetram in 1925 at the Ammanakshi Amman Temple in Kanchipuram; her tormented relationship with her partner, R K Shanmukham; her growing disillusionment with the dance in India; her moving to the US in the latter part of her life; and her death on February 3, 1984, in a Chennai hospital.

The book also offers interesting vignettes of the roller-coaster professional relationships that a dancer goes through: the often rocky paths trodden with Gurus and other artists, even though they may be – as in Bala’s case – one’s own relatives; the growing tension with mother (Jayammal was domineering in her command of Bala’s career and her life); and the ultimate challenge to integrate biological ageing with art.

Many recent histories in the evolution of take one by surprise. The use of the dance in political rallies is one. “[In 1936] Bala was asked to perform at the Indian National Congress Exhibition… Artists were expected to promote the Indian National Congress’s political message… Bala danced [to] a song about a spinning wheel, The Chakra...”

Of course, a son-in-law in awe of the mantle of tradition that his mother-in-law donned creeps in with unsubstantiated claims too. For example: “ [In the early 1960s], she was, to my knowledge, the first traditional Indian dancer to appear in Europe since the 1830s.” The Mohan Khokar Dance Archives could easily disprove Knight’s tall claim!

To the author’s credit, embedded in this narrative are incidents that showcase the bruises that classical dancers often face at the hands of insensitive politicians and bureaucrats. “In 1958 Bala was invited by the Government of India to tour Russia… She proceeded to have warm clothing made for her musicians at considerable personal expense… But Jawaharlal Nehru was convinced by advisors that India should convey a particular modernised image… A week before the troupe was scheduled to leave, the government cancelled Bala’s tour and replaced her with another dancer… A government spokesman told Bala that the decision was to save her the humiliation of not being well-received… Made Bala very angry and mistrustful of the central government.”  

The book also contains valuable photographs that trace Bala’s life from early childhood through various vicissitudes. But the one image that makes the photo collection totally worthwhile is a studio portrait of Bala with M S Subbulakshmi, from 1937, when as teenagers the two friends – both from strictly disciplined households – asserted their independence by secretly arranging in a studio a photograph of themselves dressed outrageously in western-style night pyjamas pretending to smoke cigarettes. In that single image, the spirit of Bala and M S is most eloquently captured, presaging their inner will to transcend circumstance and embrace immortality.

The reviewer learnt from Swarna Saraswati, who hailed from the same artistic tradition and also shared several Gurus

Tranquebar Press
325 pages; Rs 599

First Published: Thu, December 29 2011. 00:49 IST