This is the first complete biography of T. Balasaraswati (1918—1984), a dancer and musician from southern India who became recognized worldwide as one of the great performing artists of the twentieth century. In India she was a legend in her own time, acclaimed before she was thirty years old as the preeminent dancer of traditional bharata natyam. Balasaraswati was a passionate revolutionary, an entirely modern artist whose impact was proclaimed by some of the most prominent figures in contemporary dance in India and the West. Her art and life defined the heart of a tradition. Her story offers an extraordinary view of the matrilineal devadasi community and traditional artistic practice from which modern South Indian dance styles have emerged. This deeply engaging biography draws together Balasaraswatis personal account of her life and her reflections on the process of making dance and music. It includes the commentary of family members and dozens of contemporaries from throughout her fifty-year career, revealing hereditary artistic values and conventions that have virtually disappeared in modern India. The book is generously illustrated with rare historical photos and a duotone gallery of distinguished photographers’ images of Balasaraswati’s dancing.
Douglas M. Knight JR. is a musician and independent scholar whose personal and artistic relationship with India and Balasaraswari’s family began in the late 19605. He has appeared in performance with Balasaraswati, her brothers Ranganathan and Viswanathan, her daughter, Lakshmi Knight, and her grandson, Aniruddha Knight. Douglas Knight has been a Fulbright Scholar and a Guggenheim Fellow as well as the recipient of other awards.
Douglas M. Knight Jr. is a musician and independent scholar whose personal and artistic relationship with India and Balasaraswati’s family began in the late 1960s. He has appeared in performance with Balasaraswati, her brothers Ranganathan and Viswanathan, her daughter, Lakshmi Knight, and her grandson, Aniruddha Knight. Douglas Knight has been a Fulbright Scholar and a Guggenheim Fellow as well as the recipient of other awards.
One of the twentieth century’s great performing artists was a dancer and musician named Thanjavur Balasaraswati (1918—1984). Her art was a hereditary practice that integrated music, dance, and a stylized dramatic technique into a form called bharata natyam, originating in the southern region of India. T. Balasaraswati’s art and life defined the heart of a tradition that became the basis for a reconstruction referred to today as one of the “classical” dance forms of India.
A problem that faced the traditional artist in India by the turn of the twentieth century, at least in cities like Madras that had become the new centers of art, was the evolution of a modernized culture and national character in which the reality of the world Balasaraswati inhabited was rejected. That reality became acceptable only in a mythologized form. To visualize Balasaraswati’s significance today, we need to free ourselves of the limitations of our perspective, and see with bigger, more easily astonished eyes the world that embraced the tradition of hereditary bharata natyam.
The contemporary reality of India is different from even the recent past; the cultural and social realities of India in 1918, when Balasaraswati was born, are far more remote and therefore very difficult to perceive accurately. A colonized, deeply injured and, seemingly, irreconcilably diverse nation, India faced the rediscovery of itself, overcoming oppression and uncertainty, misperception and misrepresentation, to mature into self-acceptance and pride.
Balasaraswati’s biography is drawn in large part from material created, collected, and preserved by various members of her family, among the most celebrated of all of the hundreds of professional families who a century ago were the sole performers of this tradition. This is also the story a family told about itself, seeking to connect with the past, long before Balasaraswati’s lifetime — and with the future, since her death.
Balasaraswati’s daughter, Lakshmi, considered the perpetuation and documentation of her mother’s art to be her own life’s work, and she collaborated with others for more than twenty years, until her own death in tool, to collect the materials that are the foundation for this book. Lakshmi, born when Balasaraswati was twenty-five, was the only person Bala trusted implicitly. Herself a dancer and musician of depth and personal conviction, Lakshmi was Bala’s protégée and knew the old art of singing and dancing at the same time. It is her interpretive voice more than any other that brings Bala to life in this biography. Part of Lakshmi’s gift to the world of dance was her capacity to distance herself adequately and appropriately from a great artist who was also a totally dependent and devoted parent, to have the insight and artistry to distinguish between the artist and the parent, and to understand both.
It has been my task to create a coherent and compelling narrative from the hundreds of reviews, articles, transcribed interviews, and correspondence collected by Bala’s family; from information gathered through my own research; and from many, many hours of conversation with Balasaraswati’s family, friends and admirers. In this account I attempt to provide an objective portrayal of the artist and her family. I do not attempt to present a definitive description or history of the entire dance practice that is known as bharata natyam, or of dance in India.
I worked for several years on this manuscript avoiding mention of modernized bharata natyam, in an attempt to avoid the inevitable contention that would arise if I did. But the commentary that I have used as a basis for this book disagrees substantially with popularly accepted accounts. The his- tory of bharata natyam told in the large volume of primary source material that I have woven into the narrative is comprised of Indians’ contemporaneous accounts of the history of this practice. One of the most difficult problems I faced writing this book was to be honest about my own assessment, regardless of how I imagined that assessment might be received. I realize that it may raise some eyebrows. I have struggled with the personal realities of what this might mean for me; but I have not hesitated to tell Bala’s story with as much integrity and perception as I have been able.
This narrative deliberately does not examine the subject from several points of view that have become concerns of some academic disciplines, including comparative gender studies, dance studies, and ethnomusicology. I am, nonetheless, indebted to scholars, practitioners, critics, and other writers who have addressed subjects that contribute to Balasaraswati’s story. I hope this book will be a useful response to the current discourse in each of these, and other, fields.
I have written this book knowing that the audience is very diverse, rep-resenting numerous audiences within two distinctly divergent culturally defined groups of people, South Asians and non—South Asians. An objective has been to speak both to readers who are knowledgeable about this particular tradition of music and dance and to readers who are unfamiliar with Indian dance of any form. The Notes on Translation, Transliteration, and Dates following the list of illustrations, as well as an Appendix containing selected biographical sketches and a glossary at the end of the book, are intended to be useful to readers in both groups.
In the narrative there may sometimes be more explanation than those who are well informed will feel they need, and at times there may be more detail than nonspecialist readers will feel they want. But however the book may be judged, the story itself is important for many people from many backgrounds. Over the years since I began work on this book, Balasaraswati’s story has continued to amaze and move me, and I hope I have succeeded in communicating the essence and the relevance of that story.
Because this book draws substantially on unpublished interviews, recordings, and personal letters the source and veracity of the quoted material may understandably be questioned. The reader may assume that quotations are taken from a published source, a transcription of a recorded interview, written commentary, or correspondence. All of the material I have used is preserved in its original form, but much of it was also translated. Several people contributed to the translation effort in addition to Balasaraswati’s daughter, Lakshmi Knight. They included Balasaraswati’s brother T. Viswanathan and cousin T. Shankaran; two distinguished critics, Subbian and R V. Subramaniam (known as Subbudu); and several of Balasaraswati’s friends, including Ra Ganapati and S. Guhan. Among these contributors, T. Shankaran deserves particular note for his translations of many of the reviews, articles, interviews, and letters that inform and bring life to this account.
My relationships with several members of Balasaraswati’s family have been at the center of my musical and personal life since the late 19os. I first met Balasaraswati in 1971, when I was a graduate student at California Institute of the Arts. I was studying with her brothers T. Ranganathan, a drummer, with whom I had begun to learn three years before at Wesleyan University, and T. Viswanathan, a flutist and singer.
I first performed as a drummer with Balasaraswati’s daughter, Lakshmi, in 1974, beginning with concerts in the United States and then on several occasions in India when Balasaraswati sang. Lakshmi and I continued to perform together over the next twenty-five years in India and North America. We were married in 1980, and in India we lived in Balasaraswati’s home. Our son, Aniruddha, absorbed and learned the family styles of music and dance, which he continues today. Between 1971 and 1981 I attended dozens of Balasaraswati’s performances in India and North America, and I attended seven of her residencies in the United States. I observed Bala An saraswati teaching classes in the United States and at the Madras Music Academy. I also watched her teach her daughter and coach my son when he was a young boy.
Living within Balasaraswati’s family for more than three decades has taught me something about how a hereditary art form endures. Being a household participant in the artistic process, I observed how a hereditary system functioned; how it protected and nurtured a family art; how it enabled the production of revolutionary art; and how it framed hereditary art be ists’ understanding of their position in the community. Writing this book is the fulfillment of a commitment to give voice to that process and to a family of hereditary artists.
Some early readers of this book have cautioned me not to give too much weight to what I perceive as the European and American influence on the history of contemporary dance practice in India. This history was not of particular interest to Balasaraswati, who understood the transmission of the art through the process of inheritance. As I comment on the roots of recon- structed bharata natyam, I do not intend to be critical of the institutions that were created to support or propagate the new practice, or to question the significance of the remarkable individual artists who conceived the new dance. But the fact that modern South Indian dance was directly influenced by a Western social organization and by the echo of British colonial and missionary attitudes is important. That influence contributed directly to the re consideration and redefinition of the organization and intent of dance, and the renegotiation of who could and should dance. What emerged are two distinctly different performance idioms: the traditional hereditary practice and the reconstructed “classical” form. The distinctions between these two idioms are not well understood; one objective of this book is to more clearly delineate these differences.
Balasaraswati, among many who sought to redefine themselves and their culture, remained true to her heritage, unwilling to subscribe to an effort to define India’s greatness through a reconstruction of a mythical ancient past. She embodied that greatness instead through persistence in an artistic practice and system of belief that survived the violence of subjugation and cultural repression.
Balasaraswati’s story is set in a community organized according to matrilineal principles. That is, heads of households were women, as is still true today of some families in parts of India and elsewhere in the world. This community, sometimes known by the name devadasi,2 has not had the opportunity to represent itself well, although its members are recognized as the historical beaters of several traditions of music and dance that are currently popular in India.
The term devadasi has long been used to refer to a variety of groups of women and their families. In the census published by the British Administration of the Madras Presidency in 1901, seven differentiations of the term devadasi are enumerated; one of them is a descriptor of the women who danced and sang as performance practice. That community has become known by other names, including isal velalar, and the men of the community sometimes attached suffixes to their family names, commonly Filial and Mudaliar. Today the word devadasi is often used without discretion, and sometimes misleadingly or reductively. For the sake of clarity, whenever I use the term devadasi in this book, I refer exclusively to the hereditary community of musicians and dancers who were the bearers of the tradition of bharata natyam. (Most devadasi families supported themselves through farming; only some family members became musicians or dancers,) In English, I refer to the performing artists and families as “hereditary” or “professional. Professional” refers to the fact that these artists earned their livelihood through the practice of their art. The history of the devadasi is preface tremendously complex and involves various social and socio-religious issues in historical India that are beyond the scope of this work and my scope as an author.
Outside of India, as well as within, Balasaraswati has become something unique in South Indian dance history: a representative of a hereditary art and of a community otherwise almost disappeared. As true as this is, she was first and foremost a passionate revolutionary—an internationally significant, entirely modern artist. ‘Whatever our various interests, and this is a defining qualification, we must accept and understand her and what she did on her terms.
Balasaraswati was a seventh-generation descendant of the musician and dancer Papammal from the eighteenth-century Thanjavur court. Since Papammal’s time, music and dance have flowed continuously within the family, from one generation to the next. Twentieth-century members of Balasaraswati’s family recognize Papammal’s great-great-granddaughter Vina Dhanammal, the seminal musician from Madras, born in 1867 and the matriarch of this family, as the source of its art.
Among the large assortment of people worldwide whose lives were touched by Balasaraswati, each has had a distinct and personal story. Balasaraswati was like that. The multitude of lives she imprinted is one mark of her greatness. Everyone who had a relationship with Balasaraswati felt it to be intensely personal. Bala s vulnerability, from which her daughter would try hard to protect her, grew out of her incapacity to be deliberate in her interactions with people. If she was trustful of someone, she emerged as completely engaging, intensely and profoundly accessible. This meant, of course, that many people who knew Balasaraswati had a particular vision and intuition of who she was. I am aware that my impression is one of many, and I have attempted to reveal this story through the voices of many work new and admired her, as well as to represent those whose voices I did not use. I have endeavored to be respectful of the multitude of relationships she had, all of which were fully as remarkable as they seemed. There are many relation shins that I have been unable to acknowledge.
One of the characteristics of the artists in this family is the energy they devote to teaching and sharing. Balasaraswati and her family made extra ordinary investments in the teaching and nurturing of their knowledge and art in India and the United States. Many of the present generation of musicians in India have been influenced by this family s style and repertoire. Since Balasaraswati’s brother Viswanathan first visited the United States in 1958, eight members of the family have taught and toured in North America, Europe, and East Asia. The contribution of this one family to the global understanding of the performing arts of India is extraordinary. I am among many who have learned from Balasaraswati’s family, though for many years I, at least, did not fully grasp the deprivations and social conditions that surrounded much of their lives. As I worked on this book I was faced with the need to reconcile Balasaraswati’s legendary status today with the reality of the strenuousness of the life she led.
I sometimes refer to Balasaraswati as Bala, just as I refer to her brothers Ranganathan and Viswanath.an as Ranga and Viswa. It feels awkward, as I write, to refer to them as Bala, Ranga, and Viswa—yet it also feels awk ward, when I read, to see their names as Balasaraswati, Ranganathan, and Viswanathan. I think their many friends all over the world may share these complex feelings of respect and lack of familiarity coupled with fondness and a feeling of informality. I have been unable to resolve the ambiguity of awe and friendship, and so in this book I use both the formal and the familiar forms of their names.
Years ago I asked Lakshmi what she thought Bala believed was the most important part of her story, if it were told. Lakshmi responded without hesitation: “The truth.”
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