Book Review: Knight, Douglas M, Jr., Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life

28 Sep

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is currently installing Maharaja, a magnificent exhibit which was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It will be the second North American  venue  for the 200 objects to be on view from late October  2011 to early April 2012, then to be seen in Richmond, Virginia following  its closing in San Francisco before returning to London.

From what I have learned of the objects, I  doubt that Tamil culture will be given much representation in the Maharaja Exhibit.  The biography reviewed below, however, should do much to give flesh to the performing arts which both flourished and struggled to survive in the years represented by the V& A objects.

Knight, Douglas  M, Jr., Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life

Middletown CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2010, 325 pp, illustrated, $35.00

Written with meticulous care, Knight, who is Bala’s son-in-law, has related not just Bala’s life, but an effective portrait of the trials of traditional artists in late nineteenth- twentieth century India .  The devastation that moral certitude and Christian mores emanating from the British Raj wrecked on their lives and livelihoods is described through the legislative acts and the influence it visited on certain former devasdasi  family members.  That Bala’s family, immediate and extended, have survived is a testimony to courage, dedication and the power of an artistic expression to sustain its practitioners.

Knight provides a singular service in the early chapters where he reviews the devadasi system, how it worked, its matrilineal descent ,  the reliance on regal and aristocratic patronage, plus the devastation when the artists were prohibited from following traditional patterns of dedication and performance in the temple.  Bala’s family managed to circumvent those restrictions and she was dedicated at an early age and danced in a small temple, apparently with the aid of rupees passing hands with the temple keepers.

The intensity of Bala’s training, commencing at the cradle, was unremitting.  It was partially dislocated when Uday Shankar lured Kandappa to his short lived artistic colony Almora. Knight  reviews the extraordinary talent and influence of her grandmother Vina Dhanammal.  The movement parallel to her training, that of the rise of Kalekshetra, a multi-classical form theatrical institution, is discussed. Started by Rukmuni  Devi Arundale,  her connection with the Theosophical Society and its influence  is also recorded.  Kalekshetra reflects the transition for many dancers of the shift from individual dedication, disciple to guru and the years of servitude connected with training, to instruction by masters hired by an institution and paid a salary for transmitting their knowledge.

Born with a heart murmur, Bala’s health intermittently provided problems and resulting economic difficulties.  In 1949 Beryl de Zoete managed to get Bala to dance for her.  Recorded in de Zoete’s book, The Other Mind, this fostered a tardy if steady path of recognition.  In 1955 she was honored with other  traditional artists by The Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi, India’s equivalent of the National Endowment of the Arts’ performing division;  in 1957 she was awarded The Padma Bushan by India’s president.

A visa permitting Bala to travel abroad had been periodically denied her;  in 1961 Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan staked her government career on Bala’s appearing in Tokyo at the East-West Conference where the likes of Yahudi Menuin and Margot Fonteyn represented the West and Ali Akbar Khan and Bala and her family represented India.  Dr. Vatsyayan used Bala for a lecture demonstration and following her recital, Fonteyn remarked to Dr. Vatsyayan, “And I thought I was a dancer!”

With this breakthrough, Bala was invited to teach at a six-week residency at Wesleyan University, to be followed by selected performances at universities and non-profit organizations.  She also danced for curry concerts at Wesleyan University. I provided information leading to Bala’s San Francisco appearances under the Welland Lathrop Dance Studio, underwritten by Samuel H. and Luise E. Scripps.  Bala’s dancing was an emotional tsunami and forever stamped my evaluations of dance and dancers.

Bala’s effect on her American students was simply huge.  A reticent, if pithy-spoken woman, she created a coterie of passionate disciples of bharata natam.  Prime among them was Luise Scripps. It was totally intriguing  that  Bala, most traditionally feminine, created such a response in American women at the height of Women’s Liberation,  two approaches to life  at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Because of her influence, The American Society for Eastern Arts (ASEA) was incorporated in 1963; during its comparatively brief history ASEA provided American students of non-Western music, dance and theatre forms with intensive summer training under acknowledged masters. ASEA presented Ali Akbar Khan in his first U.S. tour and musical residency and the Kathakali performances by the Kerala Kalamandalum troupe.

Unfortunately, there are just two known films of Bala; one was recorded during Bala’s residency at Wesleyan and the other by Satyajit Ray, filmed on the beach near Madras  and therefore subject to the vagaries of sea breezes.   Some footage is available through Aniruddin Knight, Bala’s grandson , a dancer trained by his mother, Lakshmi Knight, and appearing in special venues in the United States and  India.

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