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This story is from the time when Bharatanatyam was ruled by tradition and its hereditary "ownership" lay with the matrilineal households of devadasis. A time, somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, when a three-year-old girl called Bala, who lived in a small house in Chennai, got up every morning to sing and dance before a painting of Lord Krishna in order to wake him up. Little did her mother guess that little Bala would grow up to be T Balasarawati — a performer with a mysterious persona and a worldwide sensation. Now, 28 years after she died, her first biography, Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life (Westland, Rs 599), tells the story of a genius. Penned by Douglas M Knight Jr, Balasarawati's son-in-law, this book also busts many myths and goes beyond conservatism that usually clouds dance writing.
"Writing on dance and, more so, on Balasaraswati, was complicated. Not only because she was a very private person, but also because I became a part of the family much later. I am an American. I had to learn to rethink many things during the 10 years of writing this book," says Knight.
Knight came to India in 1973 and studied the mridangam from Balasaraswati's brothers. He would observe Balasaraswati during those days. "The only time she talked about dance was when she taught it. That was when we would meet her characters. It was as if they lived next door. Lord Krishna, in that context, was our neighbour for as long as I remember," recalls Knight, who married Lakshmi, Bala's daughter. Lakshmi died in 2001.
The book opens around 1920, when the Devadasi Bill was being debated in Parliament and people were raising questions about the morality of Dasiattam practitioners (Dasiattam was the original form of Bharatanatyam, and was performed by devadasis). The subsequent chapters unfold Balasaraswati's life, and in the process, draw images of a different era. Balasarawati learnt her steps in a devadasi household and became the first woman to take the dance to the US and Europe, astounding everyone with her abhinaya. There is also a detail about her famous altercation with Rukmini Devi Arundale, another esteemed dancer, over what was appropriate dance content.