I enjoyed reading this book immensely. A review that I wrote for Madras Musings is given below:

Bharata Natyam today is an art form well understood the world over. And yet, less than a 100 years ago, the dance was considered contemptible, practised by women who were equated with prostitutes and comprising songs that were said to be morally corrupting. Ironically, the dance had for several centuries been considered worthy of the Gods! It had originated with the Devadasi tradition, a temple-oriented practice and as times changed it had moved to secular spaces. The last century witnessed the separation of dance from the Devadasi, who was prevented by law from practising her traditional art. As the art grew to international stature, the Devadasi became a term of ignominy. And with time they faded out. One woman alone stood firm, remained proud of her past, practised her art, got the world to see its beauty and grew to gain fame all over the world. That was T Balasaraswati.

As the princely courts declined in stature, modern cities such as Madras gained prominence with several wealthy men residing in them. The Devadasis and musicians naturally gravitated to these metros. One of these was Tanjavur Kamakshi, a woman who was known as a dancer and singer of great repute. Kamakshi came from a hoary lineage, her ancestors had danced in the Maratha court of Tanjavur. Kamakshi’s talent and repertoire passed on through her daughter Sundaram to her granddaughters Dhanam (1868-1938) and Rupavati. Though both the girls were trained in dance, thanks to the virulence of the anti-Devadasi campaign, they abandoned the art and took to music, a migration that most of the community were attempting to escape public censure. Dhanam became a star, but entirely on her own terms. She took to the veena and became an expert on it. Though she acquired a large repertoire of songs, she rarely performed in public, practising her art instead at her own narrow home in the congested George Town district of Madras. Moody in temperament and taciturn and sarcastic in speech, Dhanam did not seek adulation or popularity. And yet it was this Garbo-like attitude that enhanced her fame and to be at her Friday evening performances was to be seen as a connoisseur of the arts. Dhanam was never well-to-do but her musical worth was beyond estimation.

Dhanam had four daughters and the third was Jayammal (1890-1967). And her daughter was Balasaraswati (b1918). In a music-drenched domestic atmosphere, Bala, wanted to take to dance, despite being a gifted singer. But the circumstances were hardly propitious for hardly any Devadasi family was contemplating dance as a career option. Imperious Dhanam was dead against it but such was the insistence of the child Bala that soon family opposition was won over. The talented Kandappa Pillai, was roped in as guru and Bala’s dance training began in right earnest. The training process was tough for the gurus of those days rarely expressed their appreciation and Kandappa was tougher than most. And by 1925, Bala was ready for her formal debut.

This took place in a fairly hush-hush manner at the tiny Ammanakshi Temple in Kanchipuram, for by then a dance debut was equated with dedication and could excite public protest. And two years later, the Government acted. In 1927, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy piloted a Bill in the legislature, demanding the abolition of the practice of dedicating women to temples. The Bill became Act V of 1929. The equating of Devadasis with prostitutes hit the community hard and from then on most members began to move away from the hereditary arts. Huge chunks of musical and dance repertoire simply vanished. It was a massive loss to the world of Carnatic music and classical dance.

Bala was then a much-in-demand dancer and her skills were praised by the cognoscenti. But those who continued practising dance were criticised sharply in the Press by Dr Reddy, who believed that dance being the most visible element of the profession, was as evil as everything else in it. A reaction to this was inevitable and came from people like E Krishna Iyer, a successful lawyer who had trained in dance and was a champion of the arts. EK, as he was known, began a campaign for saving dance from extinction. In 1931, the Music Academy, largely at EK’s insistence, organised the first public performance of classical dance. It continued to stage several more in the succeeding years and the common public had an opportunity to see what had hitherto been witnessed only in the homes of the rich and at temple festivals. Several appreciated the beauties of the art and upper-caste women wanted to train in it. The biggest breakthrough came when Rukmini Devi Arundale of the Theosophical Society began learning dance. She was to stage her first public performance at the Society in 1935.

But those who championed dance were not for its Devadasi background. The art had to be therefore recast. What had all along been referred to as Sadir was now rechristened Bharata Natyam, with its origins being traced from the 2nd Century work – Natya Sastra. With Rukmini Devi as the newfound arbiter of aesthetics, several hand movements, gestures and songs that were found ‘unsuitable’ were excised. On the positive side, improvements were made to stage décor, the positioning of musicians and the artiste’s costumes. Those from Devadasi backgrounds now found a new opportunity, albeit briefly – as teachers of the art. With time, even this slowly faded away and several practitioners vanished into the darkness of poverty and want. As the number of upper-caste performers increased, engagement opportunities for hereditary dancers reduced and almost stopped.

This was Bala’s darkest hour. To compound the situation, she had health problems that made her gain weight. With several nubile young things prancing about on the Bharata Natyam stage, Bala, her background already working against her, lost out further. A bigger blow came when her tutor and conductor of her performances, Kandappa Pillai, went away to Almora to join Uday Shankar’s troupe. Rather ironically, Uday Shankar had been a great admirer of her dancing.

And yet it was at this time that Bala chose to make a shift to what would make her stand out – abhinaya or the mimetic interpretation of padas, the love-soaked musical pieces that were her family’s treasures, songs that had been garnered painstakingly by grandmother Veena Dhanam. Bala’s mother Jayammal, like her sisters, had a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of padams and with her singing for Bala’s dance, the performances acquired an ethereal quality. Bala had an inherent talent for mime and benefiting greatly from the tutelage of Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry, a Telugu scholar, she became an expert at it. At a time when speed, dancing to conventional kritis and a uniformity in presentation had set in as far as the other dancers were concerned, Bala’s performances were different. Here you got to see a different dance and a select few continued to remain ardent champions of her style.

In 1947, the Madras Legislative Council passed its Devadasi Act which banned the performance of dance by any woman inside a temple, a religious institution or procession of a Hindu deity. It brought back to the fore memories of the 1920s and that meant a further setback for Bala, a woman who had always taken pride in her background. It meant a further cut in performance engagements and she did not dance through 1946 to 1948. In 1949, there was one solitary dance performance and from then on invitations gradually increased, coming in from Bombay, Delhi and Madras. At this time, Dr V Raghavan, one of India’s foremost Sanskrit scholars and an admirer of Bala’s began encouraging her. He was a Secretary of the Music Academy and in this capacity he encouraged Bala to set up a dance school under the auspices of the institution which began in 1953. Bala could not disseminate what she stood for. Another supporter was the Tamil Isai Sangam, where Sir RK Shanmukham Chetty, businessman, public figure and independent India’s first finance minister was an important functionary. He was also Bala’s consort, the two having come together in 1936. Their daughter was Lakshmi Shanmukham Knight, who would later emerge as the torch-bearer of the Bala style. Sir Shanmukham passed away in 1953.

National recognition was slow in coming though it did happen in fits and starts. In 1955, Bala received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award instituted in 1952 by the Government of India. The Padma Bhushan came in 1957. It was international recognition however, that would turn the tide in Bala’s favour. That began from 1956, when thanks to the US consulate, Bala performed for Martha Graham’s troupe when they visited Madras. Graham was to become a lifelong admirer. Even then, a proposed visit as a representative of Indian art was scuttled thanks to Babus in distant Delhi objecting to her background. It was left to the formidable Kapila Vatsyayan to fight for Bala.

Beginning from 1960, Bala began travelling frequently abroad. In 1961 it was to Tokyo where she was received rapturously. In 1962 she was at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts. And in 1963 she was performing at the Edinburgh Festival. Between 1962 and 1981 she was to teach during twelve residencies at the Wesleyan University. Western audiences could understand all that she conveyed thanks to her abhinaya which transcended all language. In a flash she was Krishna, Radha, the Gopis and many more. Her vast knowledge of Indian legends enabled her to mime impromptu and there were no set movements for her performance. In short, no two dance presentations by Bala were the same. Back home there was to be great acclaim too and in 1973, she became the only dancer to receive the most prestigious award in Carnatic Music – the Sangita Kalanidhi of the Music Academy. Bala was a talented musician too and her dance had the added attraction of her singing for her own abhinaya. In 1978, she received the Desikottama award from Santiniketan. Tagore had once admired her dance and this was but a fitting expression of that. Audiences were however always limited but as Bala herself would have been the first to admit, the classical arts were not meant for everyone.

Sadly, hardly anything of Bala’s dance was captured on film, barring a fairly mediocre documentary by Satyajit Ray. He could not be entirely faulted for Bala and he did not see eye-to-eye on several issues.

From the late 1970s Bala’s health became indifferent. But though she had to give up performing, she continued teaching, her last disciple being perhaps Aniruddha, her grandson who took the first steps under her guidance. He was all of three! The end came for Bala in February 1984. Among the first to pay their respects was the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who sent a wreath by way of her tribute. From being ostracised, Bala’s art and all that it stood for, had gained recognition.

It had been a life of struggle. But well worth it. She had stood firm by her ideas of the tenets and aesthetics of her art and shown that there was a different, older and more traditional form of presentation. And the critics had been gradually silenced.

Balasaraswati, Her Art and Life is a recent biography of the legend, written by her son-in-law and scholar, Douglas M Knight Jr. An extremely well-written account, it makes for easy reading, with even the most esoteric aspects of Bharata Natyam explained well. It also brings forth the struggle that Bala went through. The book does suffer from a few errors in a larger historical context but that does not in any way detract from the intensity of the core story – the life and times of Balasaraswati.