Monday, 16 January 2012



The dance form of Bharatanatyam and the late T Balasaraswati are synonymous. This legendary artiste from South India was recognised worldwide for her dance and music. But her life also offers an extraordinary view of the matrilineal devadasi community from which the modern South Indian dance style has emerged. Independent scholar Douglas M Knight Jr provides us with that view in this biography, Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life.

The book is well organised, with the author beginning by touching upon different aspects of Bharatanatyam: its origin, traditions and the way the heritage was transmitted; and the history of Madras and British rule. He then proceeds to tell us about the devadasi community before narrating the history of Balasaraswati’s family that hailed from Thanjavur. Text on Gurukula and Arangetram or rite of passage involving the entire community also help to build up the context in which one has to understand Balasaraswati’s life. Though one may find it a bit tough to understand certain nuances of the dance form, the biographer has made things easier for the readers with his lucid language.

While he narrates the artiste’s life, he gets several people, who knew Balasaraswati or who had some connection with her, (Birju Maharaj and Kapila Vatsyayan among others) to recall the legend. Their words and views, and the anecdotes make the book engrossing. Along with all that, several black-and-white photographs of Balasaraswati’s performances and her family make the book rich.

An interesting part of the book is where the biographer writes about the Sringara Rasa in Bharatanatyam. Sringara Rasa has been considered part of courtesan practice, which was connected to prostitution and ‘indecent behaviour.’ The biographer has tried his best to understand these controversies. Balasaraswati’s views on the controversies surrounding this emotive expression, and the discourse on the issue is enlightening. The ‘moral police’ brigades that show up here and there in this country, may do well to read this part.

Similarly, Balasaraswati’s tours around the world as the messenger of peace and Indian culture come out quite well. The accounts of other artistes and critics bring out the greatness of Balasaraswati. Their reception in the USA and the celebrity status that Balasaraswati enjoyed is good to read, though the adulatory reviews from the critics in the USA become repetitive. But then that was the reality. The biographer has skilfully stitched them all from the resources available.

This book, though a biography, is also a personal account: the author is the son-in-law of Balasaraswati, whom he fondly refers as Balamma. Still, he has been objective without professing his personal admiration for the great artiste. His effort to come up with a consistent narrative of the later years of Balasaraswati, when she grew more private, is commendable. In all, it is a biography worth collecting and reading for anyone interested in a great art form and a legend.

Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life:
By: Douglas M Knight Jr
Genre: Non Fiction / Biography
Publisher: Tranquebar
Pages: 325
Price: Rs 599