Balasarasvati, T.

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BĀLASARASVATI, T. (1918–1984), classical dancer and musician. T. Bālasarasvati, or Bāla, as she is affectionately called by her admirers, is widely regarded as the greatest exponent of the dance form now referred to as Bharata Natyam. Like her ancestors, most notably her grandmother Vīnā Dhannammal and her mother Jayammal, she was also an accomplished musician, whose "singing exhaled serenity, tranquility and poise" (Mahadevan).

Kandappa Nattuvanar, a descendant of Ponnayya, was her guru. Ponnayya (one of the four brothers known as the Tanjore Quartet) is credited with systematizing the Bharata Natyam repertoire in the nineteenth century. On similar lines, Kandappa Nattuvanar did not hesitate to introduce major changes to Bālasarasvati's presentation, as he "felt the need for imminent reform if dance were to regain social esteem. He dispensed with the ottu or pipe-like drone in favour of a pair of tanpuras. He bade his men in the orchestra give up their old-fashioned attire and take their seats on the right edge of the concert platform instead of moving forwards and backwards with the dancer . . . abolishing anything crude" (Sankaran, p. 56). The foundation of major institutions, most notably the Music Academy Madras (where Bālasarasvati taught) and Kalākshētra (founded by dancer and educationist Rukmini Dēvī), enabled women from any social background to study and perform dance.

Bālasarasvati embodied the ideal of a refined personality for whom dancing was an art that consecrates the body. She postulated that by controlling his breath and by modifying his body, a yogi may acquire sanctity, as does the dancer who dissolves her identity in rhythm and music, making her body an instrument for the expression of her spirit. Bala's international fame notwithstanding, she remained rooted in Tamil Nadu, where her ancestors had shaped the art of dance and music as part of temple and court culture in Tanjāvūr. In her talks, she often referred to the environment in which the fine arts, dance, music, and poetry had enhanced one another and flourished as "a Great Temple: we enter the outer tower of alārippu, cross the half-way hall of jatisvaram, then the great hall of sabdam, and enter the holy precinct of the deity in the varnam. This is the place, the space, which gives the most expansive scope to revel in the rhythm and moods and music of the dance. The varnam is the continuum which gives ever-expanding room to the dancer to delight in her self-fulfilment, by providing the fullest scope to her own creativity as well as to the tradition of the art" (Bālasarasvati in Vatsyayan, 1997, p. 81).

Her daughter Lakshmi Knight (1943–2001) was her foremost disciple.

Ludwig Pesch

See alsoMusic: South India


Guhan, S., trans. Bala on Bharata Natyam. Madras: Sruti Foundation, 1991.

Kothari, Sunil. Bharata Natyam. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2001.

Mahadevan, K. S. "The Peerless Balasaraswathi." Shanmukha Quarterly 10, no. 2 (1984): 28A–28C.

Sankaran, T. "Sangeet Natak." Journal of the Sangeet NatakAkademi 72–73 (1984): 5–7, 55–65.

Sruti Magazine for Indian Music and Dance, nos. 4–5. Chennai: Sruti Foundation, 1984.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts. 2nd ed. New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1977.

——. Indian Classical Dance. New Delhi: Publications Division, 1992.

——. The Square and the Circle of the Indian Arts. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1997.