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T. BALASARASWATI (1918–1984)

Balasaraswati was a proponent of dasi attam, the original sacred-erotic dance discipline of the devdasis or women dedicated to temple service. She represents the other side of Bharatanatyam, the side that dancers like Rukmini Devi Arundale tried to dilute and transcend.

Balasaraswati’s great great grandmother, Kamakshi Ammal, had been a court dancer. Her grandmother was one of the most famed veena players of South India, and was known as Veena-Dhanam in homage to her prowess. Her mother Jayamma was a classical singer. Balasaraswati herself was an exponent of the true Bharatanatyam as it had been practised at the Tanjore court in the heyday of Indian classical culture. She actively resisted attempts to sanitise the dance and transform it into a ‘drawing room’ art that young Brahmin girls could practice without fear of ‘pollution’. Her own style was sensuous and unconstrained; she made great use of padams and javalis, the traditional components of shringara rasa, the essence of love and seductive grace.

Her training began when she was four under Guru Kanjeevaram Kandappa Pillai. On reaching adulthood, as was the tradition of the devdasis, she was placed under the patronage of Chidambaram Chettiyar. She emerged as a great dancer as she united superb technical mastery with an almost superhuman ability to become the rasa through abhinaya, or the dramatic presentation of the essence of the soul of a lovelorn woman, pining for Krishna. Uday Shankar saw her perform in the South and was very impressed by her dancing. ‘He commented ‘As long as Bala Saraswati lives, the real spirit of Bharat Natyam lives.’ Her daughter Lakshmi, born in 1943, also became a superb dancer.

In the 1950s she began to work with both devdasi and caste dancers to revive the traditional dasi attam, staging technically pure forms of the dance around the world. She did not hold with Rukmini Devi’s practice of decorating the stage with images of gods; to her the temple and the stage were distinct. Satyajit Ray made a documentary film on her. Her art transcended the boundaries of culture and country; she won many accolades when she performed in the west. Clive Barnes admiringly commented that she ‘made her hands wreath through the air like the unfolding of flowers.’ India Today classified her as one of the 100 prominent Indians who have shaped the destiny of India. She received an honorary doctorate from Rabindra Bharati University.
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