Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Art of Srimati Balasaraswati

K. Chandrasekharan

[This talk was delivered on the occasion of Smt. Balasaraswati, the celebrated exponent of Bharata Natya, completing fifty years of her dance experience.]

It was, I believe, in the middle ’thirties that the Madras Music Academy first announced a performance by Smt. Balasaraswati at its premises “Gana Mandir” in Thambu Chetty Street, George Town. The building had only a small hall where people could not be seated comfortably if the number exceeded a hundred. Bala, as she is familiarly called by her admirers, was just then in her teens with a dark, tall figure which was not prepossessing. The audience was not prepared for any engaging change in the atmosphere by her art. The late Kandappa Nattuvanar conducted the Natvangam and the music was rendered by Smt. Jayammal, the mother of the dancer. No doubt the spectators were ready for the high quality of music, as Smt. Jayammal’s powers of singing had been acclaimed as a mine of suggestiveness along with sweeping curves of a voice which normally could explore the depths in order to make the Rasikas Sway to the lingering melodies. None seemed confident of a feast for the eye or the ear from the slip of a girl standing in the confined arena. Soon after, when the first few items of Alaripu, Sabdam and Jatiswaram went through their usual formula, the tour-de-force of the art, namely Varnam, began. A Kambhoji Varnam was with rare verve and exactitude to the finish. Her costume was of the earlier type with something like a close pant over which the was wound tightly and with little sense of loveliness. But everything of physical aspects got completely obscured the moment her Abhinaya began weaning away the audience. Even so early in her age, the graceful movement wards in unison with the Laya claimed special attention from Rasikas. Contending facial expressions and speechless messages from her lively eyes transported the members of the group sitting opposite. Of them, one was the then already very widely known Udaya Shankar whose avidity to know more of the art of Bharata Natya had made him seek this opportunity. His appreciation exceeded all bounds when at the end he conveyed his earnest desire to have some of the items filmed and taken with him. But it did not then fructify and it was given to Sri Satyajit Ray to fulfils that dream on a later day in the early ’seventies. 

Balasaraswati’s inheritance of a chaste tradition in music descending from her famous grand-mother of imperishable memory, helps her considerably in the exposition of Bharata Natya. Unless one has a good grounding in music of the correct type, the movements of the body and the footwork would all end in mere mechanical execution. The mainspring in Abhinaya for interpretation of ideas is the endowment of a rich imagination which Balasaraswati has in abundance. A happy blending of inborn gift for inventiveness with a sense of devotion to tradition marked her out from the rest of danseuses, however gifted they may be in the skill of display of movements and gestures. Indeed, if one may be bold to assert, her somewhat ungainly figure gained the absorbed attention of art-initiated Rasikas to feel that had she been more attractive in her person, people would have remained without ever entering into another world created by her people with delicate damsels pining for love, youths longing for their sweethearts, mothers in ecstasies over their darling little ones, sages in deep meditation and heroes in triumphant tread on the battlefields. Her own winsome figure would have shut out the vision of a panoramic procession of different persons in difference straits whose joys and sorrows were shared for the moment by the onlookers through the art of Abhinaya which was uniquely her own.

It is not everyone who takes to the classical art of dance that can take us to another world of experience. It is no doubt difficult to dance without missing the Laya expressed by beat of the feet, the vigorous gyrations of the body or the movements in consonance with the music. The gingle of bells and the swaying of the agile body can make any audience attentive to what is happening before its eyes. For a few moments everything would gain an impression, but the moment the gestural language begins to convey meanings there would be a perceptible slowdown enthusiasm. Sometimes a section of the audience would even get bored. They scarcely would pause to inform themselves that the arts of dance and music are full of their own lexicons, idioms and grammars just as any other language. Further they should know that there can hardly be any reason “why every such language should not be atleast as complex and full of resource for the expression of both concrete and abstract ideas.”

Today there is certainly greater initiation into the knowledge of angaharas (movement of the limbs), rechakas (movements of the neck, hip, etc.) and hastas (symbols), employed in the course of a Bharata Natya dance. If form in poetry can reveal the mood and the sentiment as effectively as the words employed, can we not in the same manner imagine the capacity of the gestural articulation to satisfy our avidity for the same experience? The Nritta sequence in a full-length Natya moves the Rasika as nothing else does. Without the Nritta elaboration earlier, mere Abhinaya would easily appear bereft of the sumptuousness of the art. The abstract and the concrete form an integral whole even as Raga Alapana and Kriti rendering inviolably unite for perfecting of the melodic treatment.

Smt. Balasaraswati is not only an adept in her presentation of themes for Abhinaya which would allure hearts inclined for aesthetic enjoyment through wordless speech, but has a repertoire of selections of Padams and Javalis that have not their equals in any others. In the realm of interpretations, she is again without an equal. Her decorations are not devoted to her own personal appearance on the dais but to her Abhinaya creations derived from a spirit of mystical experience. If she portrayed Krishna as a child, it was by gradual lifting us to the ultimate stage of the opening of the mouth of the child to reveal an entire cosmos within; if she imagined Krishna as an adult, she would not be satisfied till she planted him in his chariot with Arjuna ready to carry out His behests of doing his duty alone without waiting for results; if she showed the blowing of the conch by Krishna, it would be to make Him turn towards the four directions implying that the blowing was not the mere challenge to fight but the spreading of the message of His Gita to every corner of the universe. Rare springs of imaginative rendering of the Abhinaya endeared her art to the Rasikas who were ready for them.

With the years her outlook has also become more and more Godward. If she prays to the Goddess Kantimati, the mother of all, she takes indeed time to recover from the experience of a Higher presence in the vision she had created. Her melody preserves subtler nuances of Bhavas. She is not any more the dancer, but the creative genius of elevating moments for Realisation, and the duration she engages herself in confers upon the earnest seeker of serenity real rewards of unforgettable sublimity. Her art, in short, has not been lost to us to despite her disinclination to continue its practice in public. Her singing compensates for us the role of a maturer mind in transcending the limits of all languages in order to enter into a region where speechlessness alone dwells

It is India’s glory that as long as she retains her national temperament, her various arts would little change their basic nature. The predominance of lyricism in poetry, gestural articulation in dance, lines in painting and melody in music–all bear out her subjectivism. Her traditions have peculiar bias to things of the spirit in every bit of human activity. It is said that the poet once remarked, “my future is my past.” Smt. Balasaraswati’s future is her own past of unfading Abhinaya full of interpretations of the mysticism of the soul.

–By courtesy of All India Radio, Madras

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