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Reviewed by:
  • Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life
  • Kathy Foley
Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life. Douglas M. Knight Jr. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010. 364 pp. 69 illus., bibliography, index. ISBN 978-0-8195-6906-6. Cloth $35.00.

In 1974 I stumbled into a bharata natyam class taught by Balasaraswati (1918–1984, also known as Bala) with assistance from her daughter Lakshmi (1943–2001) at the Berkeley Center for World Music. I pounded my feet against the stone floor each morning and did bols (drum syllables) in the afternoon—and [End Page 598] I lasted only a week. I quickly realized that I was trying to absorb a system of movement-music as detailed as any on the planet with no background to prepare me. From the awed devotion of the advanced dancers, I knew I was in the presence of an important guru. As I limped at the end of the week over to the “easy” Balinese class, I knew Indian dance and Balasaraswati were bigger than I could then attempt. This is a book I wish I had when I started that class, as it would have oriented me to who and what I was I was experiencing.

In a personal and detailed account, the volume gives the history of the artist, explains her significance in the evolution of twentieth century Indian bharata natyam, and contextualizes the arguments that were current between those raised in a traditional music and dance system and the emerging generation of nonhereditary Indian dancers. This book adds to the history of bharata natyam, which has been outlined in the work of Anne-Marie Gaston (Bharata Natyam: From Temple to Theatre, Manohar, 1996), Janet O’Shea (At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage, Wesleyan University Press, 2007), and Avanthi Meduri (“Bharatanatyam as a Global Dance: Some Issues in Teaching, Practice and Research,” Dance Research Journal 36 (2 [2004]): 11–29, and “The Transfiguration of Indian/Asian Dance in the United Kingdom: Contemporary Bharatanatyam in Global Contexts,” Asian Theatre Journal, 36 (2 [2008]): 298–328). The book delivers its material in a way that is more focused than these other texts by using Balasaraswati’s life as the center. Anyone interested in South Indian performance will want to read this text, and it would work well in a graduate seminar. I will point out what the book achieves and note what it excludes.

The reader comes away from this volume with a detailed sense of major points in the artistic life of Thanjavur Balasaraswati, whose work the author (Balasaraswati’s son-in-law) details largely in chronological order. His strategy has been to place her life in the sociohistorical frames of colonial to postcolonial India. Therefore, he shares good descriptions of English colonial Madras, showing that the support of the arts shifted from courts to the emergent industrial and bureaucratic class and the shaba (music association), and then, with independence, to national institutions like the nationally funded Sangeet Natak Akademi. Likewise Knight discusses how the traditional matrilineal system of the devadasi caste was suspect through the first half of the century and, by 1947, the dance—formally known as sadir—was banned in Tamil Nadu and had been reconstituted as bharata natyam. Knight also details the impact of Western interests in Indian religion, philosophy, and the arts, both in early twentieth-century movements like Theosophy and in the counterculture guise of the 1950s–1970s.

Knight juxtaposes these larger patterns against the specific fortunes of one artist family led in three successive generations by women: first the artist-musician Vina Dhanammal (1867–1938); then her daughter, the noted singer Jayammal (1890–1967); and finally her granddaughter Balisaraswati. We see this family’s conflicted relationship with dance (due to a perceived association with a sexualized dancer) and internal family dynamics as an artistic community struggled with modernity that privileged patrilineal systems. We see that male members of the group may have seen advantages to this innovation. [End Page 599] Knight shows us how the family tested concert stages, national subsidies, and international academic positions to make up for lost patronages of courts or elites.

Readers will find many other major Indian figures who...