Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) recently paid tribute to the iconic Bharatanatyam dancer T Balasaraswati on her 100th birth anniversary. The two-day celebration included a panel discussion on dance homage headed by senior disciple Nandini Ramani, film screening by Satyajit Ray, and lecture demonstrations by Charumathi Ramachandran and Nandini Ramani.
Dr. Sonal Mansingh mentioned being told by experts in London Moscow as well as New York that Balasaraswati was one of the 3 finest dancers of the 20th century. “Balaamma” was the first South Indian dancer to receive the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1955, SNA Fellowship in 1976 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1977; perhaps the Bharat Ratna award should have been given to her too.
Graciously giving credit to the two-day celebration to eminent dancers and IGNCA trustees, Dr Sonal Mansingh and Dr Padma Subrahmanyam, IGNCA Member Secretary Dr Sachidanand Joshi acted as moderator on a panel discussion on Balaamma. The panelists comprised dance Gurus Pt Birju Maharaj, Dr Saroja Vaidyanathan, and of course Dr Sonal Mansingh and Dr Padma Subrahmanyam. Chairing the panel was IGNCA President Ram Bahadur Rai.
Opening the discussion, Dr Sonal Mansingh recalled her first “experience” of Balasaraswati in Bombay in the 1960s at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, saying she “was transfixed. She was beyond beauty, she transcended dance. It was divine dance that was given a form.
There was a spiritual quality in her dance, even when she was playing a “nayika” waiting for her lover. People in the audience physically swiveled in their seats to see if Lord Krishna was actually coming during her immortal rendering of “Krishna nee begane” (Krishna come quickly).” (Balasaraswati’s dance to this piece and her unmatched “abhinaya” is without compare even today).
Dr. Saroja Vaidyanathan shared that she took to dance after seeing Balasaraswati dance; she too like Bala learnt in the Thanjavur tradition of Bharatanatyam.
Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, termed the “Nrtya Saraswati” of India by Dr Joshi in his introduction, said she knew Balaamma well, whom she described as a “complex personality”, and in fact had learnt music from Balaamma’s brother Prof Vishwanathan. Bala’s family nurtured her attitude to dance – grandmother “Veena” Dhanammal was a legend, who apparently used to get so immersed in concert that even the audible giving of “taal” during her recitals disturbed her and she would request silence.
Apparently once when Balasaraswati danced in front of Lord Krishna in Uddipi (where the idol of Lord Krishna is that of a baby) she told her mother, “I became one with the Lord then”. Her musician mother Jayammal reportedly said “why was that not your last breath, when you were one with Him”. The be all and end all of her life’s philosophy was not to solicit performances, but to dance for herself, and this was her greatness, Dr Padma said.
She also elaborated on what a great musician Balaamma was. This holistic knowledge of all the arts added to her prowess as a dancer. She should have been named “Abhinayasaraswati” she said.
Incidentally, one was gratified to witness Dr Padma’s own, by no means ordinary, “abhinaya” when in a flash, she demonstrated how modern dancers usually beckoned to Krishna to come, with coquetry.
Pt. Birju Maharaj shared that he stayed in Balasaraswati’s house for 25 days – those memories were precious he said. He recalled fondly how she would do an “aarti” on him whenever he entered her house.
Amazingly, once when he had a concert at the Madras Music Academy, his accompanying musicians did not arrive, so Balasaraswati herself sang a “thillana” to which, without any rehearsal, he danced, of course with kathak style footwork.
On a lighter note, Maharaj ji shared that Bala’s daughter Lakshmi was the only one in the world who addressed him as “Breeju” fondly, without a preface!
Concluding his memories of the great artist, Pt Birju Maharaj said “Jab kalaakar mein shunya jagrit ho jaata hai, tab mein usse kalaakar maanta hoon” he said, saying “Balasaraswati mein shunya jagrit tha.” In the words of Dr Sonal Mansingh in Sanskrit; there never was, and never will be a dancer like Balasaraswati. One hopes memorial tributes in her name are seen all over India, in her centenary year.