My training with Balasaraswati began in 1955 at her school established on the campus of the Music Academy, Madras, with my father Dr. V. Raghavan, the Academy’s long-time Secretary, playing a vital role in this endeavour. My elder sister Priyamvada was the first student of Bala at this school which was formally registered in 1953. My training with Bala lasted till 1982, around which time she fell ill. In the Kandappa Pillai–Bala technique, all the technical sections, from the basic steps to the items of repertoire were always taught by my revered dance-master K. Ganesan, the only son of the illustrious Kandappa, Bala’s teacher. Bala was present most of the time during rigorous sessions of nritta and kept a watchful eye on the student.
My direct sessions with Bala started when I was in my early teens. At the time I used to feel tense facing her directly, more so because of her legendary stature. But having lived under the shadow of another legend, my own father and my Adi-Guru, I was somewhat familiar with what to expect from teachers of such great eminence. However, every situation was different with Bala, because of her colourful and complex personality. At every stage of my growth as a dancer I learnt about a new dimension of my dear teacher, for whom art and life were inseparable.
Bala’s style of teaching had a smooth methodology where one had to understand the details in a gradual process and progress accordingly. There would not be any questioning by the student during the session and the student had to absorb and repeat the lessons as given by the teacher. I used to be somewhat open and loud in our family, which my father would silence with one look. But Bala would just raise her voice and ask, 'Hey! Is that you whom I have seen right from the cradle days?', and at once I knew that I had to keep my mouth shut. Generally, Bala never liked any parent or student asking about their arangetram—she would get irritated and say, 'Don’t come here only for that purpose. I know about the concept of arangetram but there’s so much more to learn in this art after that level.'
Bala was never after money; she experienced both extremes in her life—struggle for money and the pinnacle of prosperity. But she remained the same at all times. She never demanded any fees from any student and accepted whatever was given to her by way of honouring her. Once the student had perfected the nritta co-ordination, mastering the entire technical repertoire, Bala would first begin with the sabdam and proceed in a leisurely manner to the other items—the lyrical part of the varnam, the padams and javali. The tempo of the song had to be followed firmly by just walking along with the song and with Bala keeping the beat. Then later the hand movements were set for each padam. Initially I was shaped under her protective wings—as I grew, my mind expanded and started to absorb the deeper nuances of Bala’s approach.
Bala used to tackle the classes with ease and simplicity without setting any high expectations from the student. Her mood swings and emotional upsurges used to have an impact on me but generally she never used to get upset at any mistakes that I made in my early days. One had to be very patient and surrender totally to her. That complete submission by us sisters was acknowledged by her at one time when she gave her final affectionate verdict on us, praising our loyalty and sincerity. She never openly expressed appreciation of any of a student's performances but she would also never tolerate ignorance. She wanted me to be well-equipped in the different aspects of performing. She liked the way our father had groomed us with proper training in Carnatic vocal music, Sanskrit, and deep knowledge of our ancient lore, Puranas, dance treatises etc.
Nritta in Bala’s style was very rigorous in the real sense of the term. The training of basic steps with only the footwork went on for at least two years. After the footwork, hand gestures and movements (mudras and hastas) were added gradually. By the time the student was ready for the alarippu, at least three-four years of basic training would have been completed. The margam, as it is now termed (Bala always called it 'cutcheri' and the term margam was not used in our class) is of prime importance in this tradition. A very important aspect of Bala’s technique was its equal emphasis on both nritta (pure dance) and abhinaya (interpretative dance).
This dimension of Bala, who was admired by many as the ‘queen of abhinaya’, as she herself used to say, was something that emerged out of a crucial time in her life when Kandappa left Bala for a while and went to Almora to work with Uday Shankar. Bala was almost deserted in the art-field; she had to continue her art and earn her livelihood. At this point I am urged to recall the days when me and my sister travelled in a hand-pulled rickshaw from Royapettah to Egmore, to that old house where Bala lived, which had at least 10 dependent members of the family including her mother Jayammal (who was very fond of me) and her brothers, Cheena, Varada, Viswa and Ranga, master Ganesa (who was left with Bala as a very young boy by his father Kandappa) and Lakshmi, Bala’s daughter. With such family commitments, Bala said she geared up to give more padam-javali sessions, accompanied by her illustrious mother Jayammal, and there she remained supreme.
Bala had a definite mode of teaching the young student, starting with very simple straightforward mudras that brought out the direct meaning of the lyrics. Later there would be a couple more hand gestures to elaborate, and these would have to be practised as per her direction without any input from the student at that point of time. Bala allowed the student to mature all by herself. Hence for me the process started with an inward journey as I grew older. That way I could envisage the manodharma of her abhinaya technique to a certain extent. Bala expected us sisters, since we were trained in vocal music, to apply our minds towards a deeper approach and widen our variety in abhinaya, while our master Ganesan was keen on the points of perfection of the rigorous, rhythmical nuances and the limb movements. Since I was fortunate to have been taught both aspects under one roof, I feel it made, as Kandappa insisted, the body-orientation and interpretative expansion blend well, each one continuing in an unbroken chain of action, having been moulded in a single sampradaya.
Well-maintained sthayi-bhava (the permanent mood), hand gestures moving in an unhurried manner blending with the music gently, and hand delineations having an innate beauty are some of the striking features of Bala’s depiction. Subtlety and suggestion (dhvani), smooth portrayal of role-reversal, elevated thoughts in interpretation, a certain spontaeneity in linking the different hand gestures to offer a whole visual picture, led to further beauty in gesticulation. No hand gesture was fixed and the abhinaya portions were never rehearsed prior to the performance. The rehearsal was only for the jati (technical) choreography, that too, just a day before the recital, for the sake of the mridangam accompanist.
What I have learned by way of values of my chosen tradition is to mainly adhere to the traditional format codified by the Thanjavur Quartet and followed very faithfully by my revered teacher all her life, with all the details of this sampradaya as handed down to her by Kandappa. She always said, 'I dare not touch any choreography that he gave me out of fear and respect for his genius. I will not touch even the thattu kazhi (the beating stick),' and she did maintain that till the end. Whenever she needed to show a beat, she just displayed the same on her lap. Such was her respect for her guru that she never compromised the format at any point of her performing career and tried to keep up the margam pattern till her last. Loyalty to one’s own tradition, utmost patience, hard work, and above all intense guru bhakti were core values that Bala propagated in her life. For me it was always a life’s learning process and what I had for Bala was bhaya bhakti (awed devotion).
This bhaya bhakti of mine was transformed into beautiful experiences with Bala towards the last stage of her life. I was very fortunate to have lived continuously with two legends, my father and Bala, as also of course Ganesan who breathed his last on my lap, especially during their ripe years which saw the best of their works. Even in day-to-day activities, it was a great opportunity for me to see them, observe, understand and assimilate their approach in judging and accepting art and life, their subtle, yet firm outlook on life and people and their ripened thought processes—all these shaped my own views.
For Bala, the last period of her life left her quite saddened due to various developments. From 1982 onwards she did not travel anywhere outside. From Monday to Saturday, she was at the Music Academy’s campus, sitting outside the classroom in the open air. Most of the time she looked forward to my arrival just to be able to chat. Various episodes, old and new, different people, a softened attitude, care and concern for the bharatanatyam scene, were all part of the discussion. I felt that she looked up to me like a long-time friend. Sometimes she opened up her heart about her only patron and her experiences during those times. I sat in wonder at times and other times I felt like crying for her. She said once, 'Now you are a mother, you will understand me well now', while explaining a problem. Another time she appreciated my father’s decision to marry us off at the appropriate time and suddenly said, 'It is a must to have a partner and a married status; nobody should stand like me.' With all the personal outpourings that she used to share, I felt a deep pain and sympathised with my teacher even more. I could sense that she felt very lonely at those times.
Bala herself was a very spiritual person; her art was aimed towards the higher goals of life. She never ever treated the art light-heartedly, as entertainment. For her, art was to reach the Ultimate and that was the reason her art attained such an immortal status. The Tamil term 'marabu', or tradition or sampradaya, is perennial. Only followers of marabu vanish in due course of time—but the marabu they create and curate remains forever, either with relevance or no relevance to today’s scene. The fact that Bala’s natya sampradaya is featured here as part of this unique seminar is itself proof of her role, her total dedication to her art and the unique status she achieved in her artistic life. Indeed, Balasaraswati, like all the epic women who are being discussed here, was a true sadhika (achiever) in every sense, remaining in our minds with her timeless art.
(Edited version of a lecture delivered at the Natya Darshan conference/performance conclave, 'Epic Women' convened by Kartik Fine Arts, Arangham Trust and the dance portal www.narthaki.com on December 20–23, 2012, later published in Katrak and Ratnam 2014).
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Katrak, Ketu, and Anita Ratnam. 2014. Voyages of Body and Soul: Selected Female Icons of India and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 101–08.
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