Book Review: Balasaraswati, Her Art and Life
Author: Douglas M. Knight Jr
My hardbound version: Rs 599/-
A book like “Balasaraswati, Her Art and Life” makes me proud to be an Indian. Prouder still for the connection to Thanjavur, Bala’s home town, as well as our family’s. According to the Wikipedia,
Thanjavur is the cradle for many of the arts and crafts in South India. Carnatic music as we know it today was codified in Thanjavur as was Bharathanatyam. Thanjvur, both the town and district supported several crafts.
I am grateful for my exposure to Carnatic music and dance. Our family, both from my side and Sury’s is full of musicians and currently, Vidur is in his sixth year of learning Hindustani Classical Vocal Music. So you can imagine what a pleasure it was to read this book.
Now, about the book. Let me say right now that you won’t see my standard “what I liked” “what I didn’t like” and “what could have been better” for this particular book. I can only praise this book and so, enjoy the eulogy.
Balasaraswati, Her Art and Life is a wonderful tribute by Douglas M.Knight Jr., her son-in-law. This humble author takes us through a highly descriptive and intricate history of the dance form, Bharata Natyam along with an insightful journey into the artist Balasaraswati’s life, in her own words – nicely embellished with many charming black and white photos.
T.Balasaraswati (1918-1984) is a dancer and musician from South India with a unique place in South Indian dance history. She is described as a “passionate revolutionary – an internationally significant, entirely modern artist”. Bala has a charming introduction to dancing which is lovingly related at the beginning of the book.
One really has no choice but to cherish this book, as it gives us a rare glimpse into the life of an accomplished artist who is recognized as one of the most significant performing artists of all time and a great exponent of her art form.
The book recounts the extraordinary investments Balasaraswati and her family made in the teaching and nurturing of their knowledge and art in India and the United States, and the way their style and repertoire have influenced the present generation. Their extraordinary contribution to the global understanding of the performing arts of India is well-acknowledged.
Balasaraswati has legendary status today. The details about her life and her personal account of her inherited art offer an insight into the mechanisms and values of an enigmatic artistic community and her own exceptional family in that community. Her daughter Lakshmi (the author’s wife) and Bala’s protegee and Anirudha Knight, Bala’s grandson are both acknowledged as accomplished dancers.
From the book, it is obvious that Bala has touched the lives of innumerable people, each with a story to tell.
Thanjavur Balasaraswati received the title “Sangitha Kalanidhi” (“Treasure of the Artof Music”) from the Madras Music Academy in 1973 and is the only dancer to receive the title, till date. She performed on the international stage in several countries from the early 1960s. She toured America soon after. Forty years later, in 2000, the Dance Heritage Coalition, an alliance of leading American dance performers and teachers, institutions and dance libraries and collections said, in the results of their initiative to identify “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: The First 100”. The only artist they included who was neither American nor European was Balasaraswati.
A very quick recap of the book
The book has seven chapters. The first chapter begins with an introduction to Bharathanatyam, the dance form, its history and perceptions. There is also an introduction into the “Devadasi” community, to which Balasaraswati belonged. A description of Bala’s family tree follows. The next chapter covers 1918 to 1927 and is about Bala’s childhood, her teachers, her grandmother the legendary Veena Dhanammal’s life and Bala’s first public performance, the arangetram at the Ammanakshi Amman Temple in Kanchipuram.
The third chapter describes Bala’s public performances at the Madras Music Academy and her tour of North India with Uday Shankar’s group from 1927 to 1936. Chapter four describes the reconstruction of Bharathanatyam and Rukmini Devi Arundale’s involvement in the dance form and how it impacted Balasaraswati. Chapter 5 (1947 to 1961) traces the establishment of Bala’s dance school and her outstanding performances for which she was awarded the Sangeet Natak Academy Award and the Padma Bhushan. Chapter 6 is about Bala’s entry into the international stage from 1961 to 1972. Chapter 7 (1972 to 1984) describes the last years of her life until she passed on in 1984.
This book is Balasaraswati’s first complete biography and an extremely well-researched one. Her extraordinary life sketch includes interviews with family members and peers whose lives she touched.
“Imagine a fascinating book written with knowledge, understanding, and talent celebrating the 20th century’s greatest bharat natyam performer, the incomparable Balasaraswati. Well, here it is.” —Charles L. Reinhart, director, American Dance Festival
At the end of the book is a comprehensive Appendix with “Select Biographies” followed by extensive notes, a glossary and bibliography and Index. My favorite quote from the book is this:
‘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.”
About the author:
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. He has been a Fulbright Scholar and a Guggenheim Fellow, as well as the recipient of other honors and awards.
A must-read book for anyone even remotely interested in Bharathanatyam, the dance form and music. A lovely book that makes you feel as though you shared Balasaraswati’s life.
Enjoy this documentary of T Balasaraswati