In the Ode on Grecian Urn Keats, the youngest romantic poet drew a picture of a crowd of revellers and a desolate village. It was an expression of movements in words. In another, Ode to Psyche he draws the portrait of Psyche and Cupid in a posture where the “lips touched not, but had not bade adieu.” It is a picture of a static gesture that has been immortalized to be relished in the same state for the coming generations.
At the age of 7, in 1925 when T. Balasaraswati was presented to the world in the Ammanakshi temple, Kancheepuram one could see the picture sequences of poet Keats in the ‘talam’ (rhythm) in her feet, the ‘mudrai’ (gestures) of her hands and ‘abhinayam’ (expression) on her face combined artistically in the dance she presented. Spellbound was the audience of devotees by the perfection with which the little girl offered her art at the feet of the deity with full devotion.
The little bird, as one of her friends used to call her Bala was born on May 13, 1918. She was not the first in her decadence to be a perfect dancer. The family traces its roots to T. Papammal who was a noted dancer at the court of the kings of Tanjore six generation earlier.
The mother Jayamal was a renowned singer and the grandmother Veena Dhanammal was the noted and respected Veena player. This Shishya (disciple) of Guru Kandappa was, of course, born into devadasi tradition of temple music and dance as adopted by the family earlier. But as the very institution of Devadasis was brought to disrepute a few generations back no one in the family liked the idea of Balasaraswati adopting the earlier family tradition.
All the family members would snub her when she made dancing movements. The social norms did not allow anyone to inspire Bala. But the more she was snubbed the more would she dance. There was agility in her body and she was electrified to movements like an electronic toy.
It was only when Bala’s grandmother Dhanammal recognized her talents that she was given lessons in dancing by Guru Kandappa. The girl rose from strength to strength learning the art with perfection, working ‘strenuously’, waking at 3 in the morning to do some basic dance movements (adavus). She introduced such natural movements with the accompaniment of music that in her later years her name became synonymous with ‘abhinaya’. She believed that for a dancer of Bharat Natyam, dance and music are one, rather Bharat Natyam is the personification of music.
Thus she had mastered the art of music too which she had partly inherited from her mother and partly mastered herself. That is why when Bala came to the stage the dancer, the singer, the accompanist and the mood became one.
Although Balasaraswati had mastered the art much earlier, the first public recognition came in 1932. It took Bala two decades more to be presented before national audience in Delhi. The Sangeet Akadami Award followed her perfection immediately in 1955. She was Padma Bhushan in 1957 only two years-after the Akadami award.
Eleven years before her departure from the world a doctorate degree was conferred upon her by Rabindra Bharati University in 1973 when the Madras Music Academy too gave her the title of Sangeetha Kalanidhi. It was just an irony that the highest reward from her own State came last to her when she had already reached the pinnacle of fame in national and international forums. Bala had already received tremendous applause from the audiences in Tokyo at the East-West encounter, at the Jacob’s Pillow festival in the VSA and at the Edinburgh festival.
Balasaraswati took the task of training girls when she was in her fourties. Girls flocked to her from different parts of the country and even from Sri Lanka. They had all the adoration for her. Balamma (as she was known among her pupils) was a hard task master. She would take pains in training the girls, some of whom remained with her for years together. She would teach them on ‘Mudrai’ in a dozen ways and would tell them that BharatNatyam is perfected only with ‘abhinayam’ (facial expression). They had to work as hard as Balasaraswati had in her training period. This discipline was her life long companion.
Although Balasaraswati gave her performance in Bharat Natyam in the festivals of different countries and gained prominence she had no ego. She had a great respect not only for her family members and Guru Kandappa but for her audience too. She knew it well that most of the people may simply enjoy the dance and not appreciate the art. But she had firm belief that there are some who understood and appreciated her art too. In devoting to these few she devoted herself to the whole audience.
The secret of her life lay in her humility. Living in a small house with her family Balasaraswati offered her graces lavishly with all the courtesy that was her great legacy. The bird flew gracefully out of the cage on February 9, 1984—the cage all covered with the rhythm that she had solemnized it with.