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Balasaraswati was one of the pioneers in Indian performing arts, she was one of those mainly responsible for bringing the wonderful dance form of Bharatanatyam to the mainstream classical arena.
Traditionally, this classical dance, called sadir, was performed by the Devadasi community. It was an ancient temple tradition, where women dedicated their lives to serve God through music and dance. These women were the custodians of art in the country for a long time.
Later though, due to the many social stigmas that became associated with the Devadasi system, the community became isolated, and there was an effort to erase anything and everything to do with the Devadasi system.
Sadir, the traditional South Indian Dance, was a part of the Devadasi community. Early in the twentieth century, there was an effort to free this classical dance form from the stigma attached to it and bring it on to the mainstream.
Unfortunately, the effort also involved isolation of traditional performers who hailed from the Devadasi community. Balasaraswati belonged to this community. Her ancestor Pappammal was a performer in the Thanjavur court. Her grandmother Dhanammal was a wonderful Veena player.
Her mother Jayammal was a singer, and she was the one who encouraged Balasaraswati to learn dance and music. She also accompanied her daughter in her performances.
Balasaraswati soon gained a reputation as an excellent dancer. But, the Devadasi Act and its effect soon made its influence felt. Major patrons of art were hesitant to be perceived as encouraging the Devadasi institution, and before Balasaraswati was 30, invitations to perform became few and far between.
But Balasaraswati was not one to give up easily, and she soon overcame this threat as well as others like her weight gain due to thyroid problems. She was eventually recognized as one of India’s premier performers and she was soon giving dance performances outside India too.
The author, who is also Balasaraswati’s son-in-law, has used his personal knowledge of the dancer and her family, and interviews with family, friends and admirers to create a work that gives an intimate portrayal of the dancer, her art and her life in Balasaraswati: Her Art And Life.
About Douglas M. Knight Jr.
Douglas M. Knight Jr. is an American percussion artist and the son-in-law of the great Bharatanatyam dancer, Balasaraswati.
The book, Balasaraswati, Her Art And Life is a biography of the great dancer whom he knew so well.
Douglas M. Knight is an ethnomusicologist who learnt to play mridangam from Balasaraswati’s brothers, Ranganathan and Vishwanathan. He later married the dancer’s daughter, Lakshmi. They have a son, Aniruddha Knight, who is also a Bharatanatyam dancer.