Balasaraswati – A Queen of Bharatanatyam

This year marks the birth centenary of the iconic Bharathanatyam dancer Balasaraswati, fondly known as Bala or Balammma. Born on May 13, 1918 in …., Balasaraswati started her training at the young age of four under the tutelage of Guru Kandappa Pillai. Kandappa Pillai considered music to be an inseparable component of training and insisted on her taking Carnatic music lessons also. This soon evolved into her style later which came to be known as the Balasaraswati style.

As is the custom for an aspiring dancer, Balasaraswati performed her Arangettam or first formal performance in front of an audience. Her Arangettam was at the age of seven years and was organized at a temple in Kachipuram. Her performance stunned the elite audience who acknowledged the arrival of a young prodigy. They were amazed at how she sang the varnam that was part of her performance lineup as she danced flawlessly. As she neared her teens, she began to be known in art circles for her unparalleled abhinaya or expressions while performing.

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All this while and for many years thereafter, her success as a dancer was met with criticism also. During this time period, women were restricted from coming out publicly as dancers. This was the time when the morality of the female performing class was the subject of heated debates. Her mother Jayammal was chastised by ‘well-wishers’ for exposing her daughter to this so-called vice. But as fate would have it, Jayammal and Bala’s family refused to yield to societal pressure. Such was the confidence that Jayammal had for her daughter which played a defining role in sharing her career as a Bharatanatyam dancer. As is rightly said, a woman is strong because she was raised by a strong woman. Supported by Jayammal’s confidence and her gurus’ training, Bala began touring the country to give performances leading on to her first international performance at Tokyo in 1961. Her performance was so impressive that the Earl of Harewood is said to have commented: “I have seen one of the three greatest dancers in the world today — Balasaraswati. The other two are Galina Ulanova and Margot Fonteyn.”

Balamma continued to give performances in the US and Europe. She is believed to be one of the strongest reasons why Bharatanatyam became popular in the West. It was she who introduced the art to them in the 1950s. As years passed, Balamma developed a unique rehearsal routine for performances. While most dancers focus on exhaustive rehearsals before giving a performance, Balamma would discuss the jatis to be presented that evening with her Guru’s son K. Ganesan who was also the music conductor or Nattuvanar during her performances. Her mind was constantly researching her art, the ragas, the talas and the material for abhinayas. Her love for music comes as no surprise as her family was renowned for their profoundly expressive style of singing, right from her grandmother Vina Dhanammal and mother Jayammal. They introduced her to an extraordinary range of Kshetragna padams and Dikshitar kritis. There is an anecdote from her life where Jayammal is said to have diligently followed an old beggar woman who was singing the son ‘En Palli Koondirayya’ in a marketplace. In awe of the captivating effect that this beautiful piece in Madhyamavati elicited, Jayammal took her to her home, gave her food and sat down with her to learn this version. This was later finetuned by her and went on to become a masterpiece of Balamma.

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Through her dance school that was inaugurated with the blessings of the Music Academy in Chennai, Balamma popularized her unique style of performance which came to be known as the Balasaraswati style.She emphasized the importance of being trained in Carnatic music. She gave due importance ot both music and diction. She believed that when a dancer sang while performing, especially while doing padams, this enhanced the abhinaya. She never wanted to be called Guru and said that to be addressed as a Guru, one had to really earn that title. The recipient of the country’s second highest civilian honor – the Padma Vibhushan, her artistic journey is one of grit and determination.

“It may be true that I had dancing in my blood... I was a toddler when I danced deliriously with that street beggar. All called him a madman when he brought the house down with his frenetic dancing. Was he really mad? His unerring jatis (danced to rhythmic patterns) reverberate in my mind. Who knows which siddhapurushahe was? I can still see the gleam in his eye. If I am dance-mad now how could it be otherwise?... My first guru was a madman.”

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Excerpt taken from Knight, Douglas M. (15 June 2010). Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life. Wesleyan University Press. *