Balasaraswathi – Her Art and Life

Warning: Long Post ahead! I got carried away as usual!

An in-depth and personal account of the beautiful south Indian dance form  Bharatanatyam and the one dancer who literally rescued it! This is how I would describe this book by Balasaraswathi’s son in-law Douglas M.Knight Jr. Having been a student of this art form for a good 14 years of my life, the book was an eye opener in terms of the history and evolution of this dance form and the hard work, dedication and discipline invested into it by some of its early proponents.

The book opens up by trying to trace the origin of this dance form. Once the dominion of the Devadasi community, this continuously evolving dance form has come a long way from being presented to a royal audience by a hereditary group of dancers to a far-reaching global audience  performed by those outside the community. It was an eye opener to know that the women of the “Devadasi” community were not notorious for the stigma that is associated with them today. In the days of the Maharajas, the community dedicated its girls to the temple and then initiated them into the performing arts. They performed exclusively for the temple and the royal courts thanks to which they enjoyed the patronage of the cream of society. The arts were always passed down through the generations and the knowledge of the arts remained exclusively within this community. The community was essentially a matrilineal one, with the woman responsible and in control of the family. Devadasi women were free to choose their own partners, the choice of which would be approved by the families and sanctified through proper religious rites. As times changed with the new age British reforms and other political movements, the arts no longer enjoyed royal patronage and some women of the community had to resort to extreme measures to take care of their families and survive thus giving the community bad press.

Balasaraswathi was born into one of the most famous Devadasi families of the times; she was a 7th generation descendant  of a musicians and dancers that had been performing for the Thanjavur royal court from the 18th century. . Born in pre-independent India, she managed to hold on to the traditional form of the art when the new age reformers where trying to give Bharatanatyam a new identity, an identity that disassociated itself from the Devadasi community!

The books explores the intricacies of Bala’s childhood and the influence of her grandmother and mother over her career and way of life. Surrounded by dance and music, Bala started dancing at a very tender age under the tutelage of the most famous “nattuvanar” of the times. It was interesting to note, how her grandmother, Vina Dhanammal a very influential and expert musician of her times had to approve the family’s decision to initiate Bala into the arts after ensuring that Bala had the talent to do justice to the arts, Her – a direct contrast to this date where anybody can learn how to dance – talented or not!

Back Cover - Image courtesy: Internet

Bala’s rigorous training got her pulled out of school so that she could concentrate on her dance and music. There were no words of praise or encouragement during her 16 hour days. I found it very interesting to note that the hereditary methodology of teaching meant that the Guru knew all. A student had to completely surrender to the teacher no matter how harsh the teacher was…The student always remained humbled and finally emerged an expert of  as in the case of Bala who was known for her perfect rhythms and abhinayas (expressions)

Bala’s rise to fame was not an easy one. Her journey was riddled with problems of ill-health, fighting the stigma attached to her community, political reforms, monetary issues, family problems, loss of dear ones and a new age audience within India and abroad who weren’t really sure what the dance was all about. However the powerhouse of talent which was Bala  converted even the most harshest of critics with her spell binding performances.  This is very beautifully explained by Knight when he describes one of her impromptu performances in Tokyo where she performed the abhinayas  to a speech rendered by the organizer of the event, immediately winning over the audience with great ease.

Compared to most traditional dancers of her time Bala never minded sharing the knowledge of her art with those that were genuinely interested in it. She taught at Madras and the United states. Each one of her students shared a special bond with her and every one who came to know her felt that she touched their lives in one way or another

A good part of the book also talks about her spiritual connection with the Divine – Bala always dedicated her dance  and music to God. When she performed she imagined that the Lord was present and that she danced with him. Those close to her felt that this was the secret behind her perfect expressions which kept audiences in a trance. She was the only dancer of her times who could sing and dance at the same time.  The touching accounts of her performances at the Murugan temple  at  Thiruthani and Lord Krishna’s temple at Udipi  drive home this point and are beautifully described by the author. Bala was awarded with the Padmabushan in 1977 almost 50 years after she first started performing.

After reading this book, I fervently wished that I could have witnessed one of her performances. What would be even better was if I could travel back in time and be one of her students.  The book also traces the growth of the dance in terms of costumes, props, stage, lighting, music etc., and different facets of Indian history like the Anti Nautch movement, the devadasi protection act, formation of the Theosophical society, evolution of the arts in India and more.

Bala and M.S - Image Courtesy: InternetReports of performances and other personal events have been explained beautifully with several beautiful pictures of Bala through her life and pictures of her home and family. I was especially drawn to the pic of a young Bala and M.S. Subbulakshmi donning western style pyjama night dresses with a cigarette in their hands. Apparently this was a way of rebelling by the close friends brought up in strict households. The photograph was taken in  secret of course!! I can’t help but imagine how cheerful Bala must have been during her younger days in spite of her rigorous schedule. On the whole this was a very intense and personal book about the most original dancer of India!

My Verdict: Read it only of you are interested in the history of Indian classical dances or  if you a great fan of Bharatanatyam or a if you are a passionate dancer yourself. Do not read it of you are one of those who think that Bharatanatyam is all about moving  your head, hands and legs and that anybody can do it! I have heard people say this and trust me, it is the most annoying statement an individual interested in the performing arts can hear!

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!



  1. I too reviewed this book and as I am reading the different reviews of this book, what is striking is the similar sentiments that are being evoked—that of having seen her dance at least once.

    Nice review, Shweta 🙂

    • Hey sudha-thanks for stopping by! Am gonna head over to your blog soon… I’m intrigued by the caricature on ur profile 🙂

      Yes. Bala does seem to be an amazing personality and by reading the book one understands how she touched lives with her dance and music

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