The devadasi redux: centenary celebrations of T Balasaraswathi
The queen of abhinaya. A revolutionary. An upholder of the devadasi tradition of Bharatanatyam. There are many facets to the legendary Tanjavur Balasaraswati (1918-1984) that the world knows. To her family, she was simply Bala amma, the matriarch of a household where tradition and pure love for art took precedence over everything else. In honour of her centenary year celebrations, her grandson Aniruddha Knight, a dancer and musician who currently runs the Balasaraswati Scripps Institute of Performing Arts, is putting together a special world tour. But what the teacher and his students are currently busy preparing for is the annual Balasaraswati/Scripps award ceremony, to be held this weekend. The award, which recognises artistic excellence in dance, is being conferred upon Padma Vibhushan Sonal Mansingh, the New Delhi-based Odissi and Bharatanatyam exponent. Sitting in the rehearsal hall at Bala amma’s home in Kilpauk and sipping on tall tumblers of lemonade, Aniruddha chats with us about what his grandmother left behind, the little things that made her unique, and why tradition is everything in their family.
Bala’s little helpers
A seventh generation representative of temple musicians and dancers (a sect called devadasis), Bala’s rigorous training began as a four-year-old under the aegis of her guru K Kandappan Pillai. A lost childhood was perhaps one of her greatest regrets, recalls Aniruddha. “From the age of four, she was forced to practice for six hours a day. Her only playmate was a cousin who would show up at her class only to be shooed away because Bala amma had to focus on her training,” he says. That was perhaps why she started collecting dolls. “It was a very solemn thing to do because it reminded her a lost childhood. Wherever she would go, be it Austria, France, Japan – she always bought a doll there. The dolls were her prized possessions,” shares the 36-year-old adding that there are about 600-700 of the treasured dolls safely stored in the attic.
Of friends and rivals
It is often said that what MS Subbulakshmi (MS) is to Carnatic music, Balasaraswati is to bharatanatyam. And the two were known to be close friends. “MS lived about three houses down back then. They belonged to the same devadasi community and my grandma had great respect for what MS was achieving. Every year, my grandmother would perform at Music Academy, and MS paati was always there in the front row,” recalls Aniruddha.
Her contemporary, on the other hand, was Rukmini Devi Arundale who sought to break away from the devadasi tradition of performance and established the Kalakshetra Foundation that went on to revolutionise bharatanatyam. So dissent was natural. “It was not only about the loss of a certain community. It was also about the loss of an artistic way of doing certain things. For example, the dichotomy that was created between what is bhakti and what is shringara...and what is apt and what is not apt. There’s always a respect for what is happening but ideologically it is something stylistically different,” says Aniruddha.
Rebel with a cause
Tirelessly fighting for the devadasi community, Bala amma was considered a rebel. “The best way to rebel was to do what she did. She never ever moved away from doing what she did. There were people telling her that what she was doing was not right or it was aesthetically so different, but she never bothered. She did what she did and that is why I can sit here today and talk about it,” says Aniruddha, who adds that her cause is what he is personally fighting to uphold. “The emotional and sentimental attachment to what she represented has moved forward and runs through the family very strongly. She went through hell to make sure that this dance stayed the way it was,” he declares.
The way forward
Today, the school teaches children who are from lesser privileged backgrounds, but it has gone through its phases. Says Aniruddha, “Right now, we are concentrating on the societal development of the arts. When the devadasis weren’t allowed to dance anymore, the main issue was about entitlement. A lot of people thought that it was stuck within a community. But it’s funny because we seem to be hypocrites. Today, we have fallen to the idea that only people who have money, affluence or political ties can actually be dancers.” He adds a tad bitterly that people don’t really care about dance anymore. “I have moved away from the entire idea of conventional teaching and we have students who come from really low-income families. Students whose fathers are auto rickshaw drivers to sweepers to whatever it is... it doesn’t matter. Students come and learn — they are taught as professional dancers and not like hobbyists,” he signs off in time for his next batch of students, who have started arriving at the hall.