Not by love alone

Published: Thu, 04/05/2012 - 12:04 Updated: Fri, 04/27/2012 - 11:59

Book: BALASARASWATI: Her Art and Life

Author: Douglas M Knight Jr

Publisher: Tranquebar Press

Pages: 327

Price: 599

Year: 2011 

Lives of accomplished dancers and singers like Balasaraswati force us to rethink the notion that a woman’s life, unlike a man’s, must be built around love

Ratna Raman Delhi 

This book is a labour of love. Douglas Knight has put together a narrative history of Balasaraswati, one of the last of the dancers from South India’s hereditary tradition of temple dancing. Written and compiled over ten years, this book has a lot of unusual black and white photos, of both people and places. 

Knight’s book gives us a glimpse into the socio-cultural features that comprised the solidification of the metropolis of Madras and the pictures of the city set off a sepia-coloured nostalgia. A descendant from the family of Papamal, a musician and dancer at the Thanjavur court in the 18th century, Balasaraswati was the granddaughter of the then presiding matriarch, Vina Dhannamal. Under the illustrious lineage of Vina Dhannamal, Balasaraswati was to the tradition born at a time when the changing socio-political structures and the city-fication of Madras were rapidly replacing older traditions and known ways of life. 

The dance form known as Bharatanatyam was the subject of much discourse and debate in colonial India and came under substantial attack. Traditional dancers known as devadasis were much reviled and subjected to concerted missionary, moral and legislative zeal in the 1930s, in which the elite, both Indian and Western, participated. 

The aftermath of this intervention changed the course of Bharatanatyam as it is practised in India today. Artists from traditional families were marginalized even as the dance tradition was being reclaimed and reconstructed by a new cultural formation of elite Indians. This paved the way for the advent of this dance form into “respectable” middle-class families, and there were a growing number of first-generation learners who subsequently turned instructors. 

By 1947, legislation ensured that the devadasis or dancers who had once performed in the temples and were patronized by royal courts, receiving munificence of both land and money, could no longer fall back on these systems. 

Significant in this context is a studio photograph of MS Subbulakshmi and Balasaraswati in the 1920s, singer and dancer nonpareil, dressed in striped pajama suits with cigarettes tucked into their mouths. Both young women look desultory in western clothes and espouse a westernization that most Indians in the 1920s would have been wary of. Ironically, the devadasi was to be rescued because of progressive western ideals that sought to free her from a life of debasement and provide her with a life of morality and dignity. 

Balasaraswati spent her early years absorbing a rigorous tradition of Carnatic music and dance, and was initiated into the tradition of dancing by her mother Jayammal, when the odds were against traditional practitioners of the dance. Holding her ground as a Bharatanatyam dancer, when the rapidly burgeoning city was coalescing around a modern Indian nationalism in the turbulent 1920s and 1930s, Balasaraswati’s skill, training and dedication to the art form eventually prevailed upon the State to take cognizance of her talent. 

However, this was a slow and deleterious process, and Balasaraswati’s own powerful persona could do little to stem the tides of cultural change or alter the new alignments that learning Bharatanatyam now involved. 

Her story as a member of the Dhannamal household gives us a glimpse into a world that was once run and consolidated by women. The forces of history ensured that this matrilineal tradition was not to be. Yet the evidence that exists and continues to be unearthed reveals a notion of apprenticeship and women’s work very different from the paradigms set in motion by policymakers in the colonial and early modern period. . 

Byron’s observation in Don Juan that “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart, ’Tis woman’s whole existence”, is characteristic of the way in which men and women’s roles evolved, especially since the 19th century. However, the glimpse we are provided into the life of Balsaraswati, her mother Jayammal, the grandmother Vina, and a host of other women, whose trained skills epitomized the high points of a cultured aesthetic such as Carnatic music and dance, leads us to review this notion of a woman’s whole existence as constituted by love alone. 

Balasaraswati's sustained resistance to attempts to sanitize the tradition of the erotic in Bharatanatyam through her own performance is significant

The women in the Vina Dhannamal household were skilled exponents of dance and music. They commanded great respect in the public sphere, and also lived up to the responsibility of putting the proverbial pot on the fire. Supporting and employing many male nattuvanars (conductors of the dance recital, who also sang and played the cymbals) and instructors, and choosing male mentors and partners, the women-centric world in the Dhannamal household was structured unusually. The juggernaut of colonial and post-colonial cultural reconstruction and the new unit of the family with its emphasis on a central patriarch dislocated the older, differently linked, cohesive, matriarchal structures altogether. 

Balasaraswati created a niche for herself in hostile circumstances. Arriving on the national and international culture circuits, and familiarizing Europe and America with Bharatanatyam, speaks volumes for the passion and aesthetic nuances she brought to the dance. Equally significant is her assertion of ‘shringara’ or the erotic aesthetic as central to the tradition of abhinaya in traditional Bharatanatyam. Balasaraswati’s sustained resistance to attempts to sanitize the tradition of the erotic in Bharatanatyam through her own performances is significant. Although few of her performances have been recorded and the number of students she trained is comparatively smaller, her celebration of the erotic stopped short of indecent or bawdy suggestiveness. 

Her conviction that the expression of the erotic was the starting point of its sublimation in a spiritual aesthetic also follows more closely the Hindu tenets of worshipping earthy, material gods and gorgeous goddesses. Possibly, the dignity and artistry that Balasaraswati and other hereditary dancers brought to the stage contributed to the increased inclusion of shringara in the oeuvre of modern bharatanatyam. 

Early training in classical music and dance is often seen as vital for being a dancer or a musician extraordinaire. Balasaraswati’s daughter Lakshmi, despite the advantages of being seeped in a hereditary culture of music and dance, learnt Bharatanatyam at a later age and had her arangetram long after she had turned twenty. If this was unusual, especially for someone from a hereditary family, we need to remember that the postponement of Lakshmi’s formal training in dance was due to ambiguity of status and lack of respect that dancers from hereditary dance families encountered. 

There is a studio photograph of MS Subbulakshmi and Balasaraswati in the 1920s, dressed in striped pajama suits with cigarettes tucked into their mouths. Both look desultory in western clothes and espouse a westernization that most Indians in the 1920s would have been wary of 

The old traditions of learning to dance and sing, at a very early age were slowly replaced. In its stead was the school and university going young woman, who also trained in Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. 

Knight’s biography gives us important dates and details. His book documents the shifts in Bharatanatyam from the time of Balasaraswati, who was both an accomplished singer and a dancer, to the 1980s when Bharatanatyam attained new levels of acceptance, changes in costume and improvisations in themes. It is now possible to dance without excelling at singing. Rarely do dancers dance and sing simultaneously, in the manner that Balasaraswati did. The book charts Balasaraswati’s journey from the time she reigned over the performing stage and concludes with a host of vibrant memories on the archived page.

Lives of accomplished dancers and singers like Balasaraswati force us to rethink the notion that a woman’s life, unlike a man’s, must be built around love
Ratna Raman Delhi

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