Had T. Balasaraswati been alive, she would have turned 100 this year. The extraordinary 20th century dancer, who caught Satyajit Ray’s fancy and became the subject of his documentary Bala (1976), represented the seventh unbroken generation of a family of temple dancers and musicians. Her family tree dates back to the early 18th century, when her great-great-great-great grandmother was a musician and dancer at the Thanjavur court.
The restive Balasaraswati not only danced with joyous purity, but was also a consummate exponent of the music of Bharatanatyam, a legacy inherited from her famous musician grandmother Vina Dhanammal and her mother Jayammal. Trained by the legendary Kandappan Pillai, she stunned her audience during her ritual debut performance in Kanchipuram at the age of seven, when she managed to distil the essence of Sringara rasa to perfection. She confessed, laughingly, many years later, that her mother had taught her to emote with music, not words. By the time she was 18, she was already a rage in north India, encouraged to perform in Kashi (now Varanasi), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and other cities by the iconic dancer Uday Shankar.
Balasaraswati received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1955, the Padma Bhushan in 1958, followed by Padma Vibhushan in 1977 — making her the first woman dancer in India to receive the second-highest civilian award. The Music Academy of Madras honoured her with the prestigious title of Sangita Kalanidhi, a rare honour for a dancer. Both as performer and teacher, she was at the centre stage of the international dance arena, considered on a par with dancers such as Margot Fonteyn, Galina Ulanova and Martha Graham. She became a dancing sensation when she performed at the East-West Music Encounter in Tokyo in 1961, at several universities and theatres in the US in 1962 and at The Edinburgh Festival in 1963.
The Edinburgh Festival, dotted with celebrities like Yehudi Menuhin, Martha Graham, Isaac Stern, Eugène Ionesco, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, came totally under the spell of this charming, cherubic dancer who had an astonishingly varied oeuvre. Avant-garde dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham could not stop raving about her performance when she danced her signature padam, Krishna nee begane baro. Her abhinaya rendered in delightful, stiletto-sharp detail transported the largely Western audience to transcendental levels. “Here was Bharatanatyam in full splendour and magnificence, and here was a dancer such as one rarely has the opportunity to see,” Cunningham has been reported to have said. Reporting for The New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff called her one of the world’s greatest dancers, whose gestures, rhythmic sequences and even moments of stillness had a spiritual resonance.
Known also as a dance theoretician, Balasaraswati famously drew the analogy of a temple while describing the intricate nuances of Bharatanatyam. Using the textual authority of the Natyashastra and her own compendious knowledge, she deconstructed the margam, the linear format followed by Bharatanatyam dancers, drawing poetic parallels between dance, temple architecture and ritual practice.
The greatest exponent of Bharatanatyam in contemporary India and a legend in her own lifetime, Balasaraswati died in 1984. Her trailblazing family legacy is now being taken forward by her students and grandson Aniruddha Knight.