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January 20, 2012 / subramanyam

Balasaraswathi – Her Art and Life :: A review

          I did read some biographies before but none of them left the profound impression Balasaraswati left.  This book, a biography of one the greatest performers of Bharatanatyam in the twentieth century,  offers us some wonderful insights into the cultural, social, and political developments of India and their influence on art during the last century.

          Under the colonial occupation and in the era where western bred intellectuals called shots on many aspects of life, the traditional south Indian dance Bharatanatyam  was associated with vulgarity and was pushed to near extinction.  After fighting the repressive forces for about 50 years and making tremendous sacrifices, a handful of great artists and some traditional artist families revived this great south Indian dance form, one of the stalwarts who worked relentlessly for this cause was Balasaraswati.

          Balasaraswati was a legend in true sense, she was not just a great dancer but also a “Sangeetha Kalanidhi” ,a great singer in herself. She was one of the persons who learned, preserved, performed and taught the traditional style of Bharatanatyam.  In an illustrious career that spanned over 50 years, her performances and approach to the art were widely acclaimed not just in India but in the west as well.  The very fact that she taught dance in more than half a dozen universities outside India speaks volumes about her prowess, her style ,her passion and her contribution to Bharatanatyam.

          While Balasaraswati and her repertoire make the book worth reading, the author’s knowledge, the amount of research he has done about India and the way he presented it left me spellbound.  Quite understandably , Douglas M Knight Jr. who is the son-in-law of Balasarswati has drawn from family sources and his experiences with Lakshmi (Balasaraswati’s daughter) to produce all this content. While the narration is centered around Balasaraswati and the changes in her life, the author also provides us with deep insights on the changes (with respect to the social order) that were happening in late 19th and early 20th centuries in India.In the disclaimer at the beginning of the book the author says thet the intention is not to debate these changes in the Indian society , but then he speaks about them and I liked it.

          Balasaraswati was born into a Devadasi family, there a number of misconceptions about Devadasis and there was an anti-nautch movement which wanted the system of Devadasi’s to be abolished.  In the post-independence literature and cinema it is very tough find anything positive about the Devadasi system. There is a popular notion that Devadasi’s (majority of them) were subjected to sexual abuse and the success of the anti-nautch movement in abolishing the Devadasi system was the best thing that happened to Devadasis.  This notion is in a way challenged in this book.  Douglas Knight Jr. shows us how these families were the guardians of traditional art and how they were respected for their art. While he does not reject the claims of anti-nautch movement altogether, he provides the much required other voice.  He dwells over the matriarchy that existed in these families and tells us how this set up helped the families preserve art.  He also points out the different sub-sects that existed among Devadasis and their contribution to the society.

          This book traces the roots of Bharatanatyam and gives us the timeline of Bharathanatyam and modifications to right from middle of the 18th century.  It also speaks about various styles and the modifications done to Bharatanatyam over a period of time.  It also brings to forth the difference between various dance forms.  The author must be appreciated for the research done on this front.

          There were a number of  “greats”  who admired Balasarswati, Rukminidevi Arundale , M.S.Subbalakshmi, Uday Shankar, Anna Pavlova, Martha Graham, Ravi Shankar (sitar maestro), Akbar Ali Khan. Birju Maharaj, Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray to name a few. Satyajit Ray was so inspired by her performances that he made a movie on her.  This book brings to light their thoughts and the influence they had on her dance. It also has a nice anecdote about how “Jana Gana Mana” India’s national anthem, was performed as a dance before it became the National anthem.

          The book also has a rare collection of photographs of Balasaraswati, wonderful photographs, I liked them. I might have to read it again at leisure to understand and appreciate the book in more detail,(I had to complete it in seven days as I had to write a review) I liked the way the author discussed the socio-political changes and their impact on art and culture.  I also liked the way he researched for about 4 generations of Balasarswati’s family and came up with the music traditions and styles of each of the musicians who came from the family.

          All in all, this is a must read for anyone who is interested in Indian art and dance. Anyone who wants to know about the cultural history of India has to read it.  As this book does not sound too technical even for people  who do not know a,b,c, of traditional dance (the ones like me), it would be an enjoyable and rewarding read as we get to know how art forms were preserved by the families which lived and died for the sake of art. I am happy I read it.  Pick this book up and I assure you, you will not be disappointed once you have finished it.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!


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