Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life by Douglas M. Knight Jr.

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Blogadda.

About the book: According to Wikipedia, Balasaraswati was “a celebrated Indian dancer, and her rendering of Bharatanatyam, a classical dance style, made this style of dancing of south India well known in different parts of India, as also many parts of the world.” She has received numerous national awards for dance as well as music. This book, written by her son-in-law, is her first biography to ever be published. The book contains many rare pictures of the dancer, along with a huge glossary and notes by the author.

Summary: Born in a matrilineal family with a long and rich tradition of dance and music, we might as well say, that Balasaraswati had art in her blood. That won’t be entirely true though, as is the case with any real artist. Along with that inborn talent, it was years of practice that helped Balasaraswati reach her level of perfection. Ever since she was a little child, Bala learned dance and music from the elders in the family. Her childhood was quite different from yours and mine; she was rarely even allowed time to sit still. Various incidents, right from her childhood, display her love for the art, as well as her dedication.

“As a child just old enough to walk to the door of Dhanammal’s home, Bala was fascinated by a beggar who stopped regularly in front of the house on Ramakrishna Street, dancing wildly, chanting rhythmic syllables like those recited by a nattuvanar mirroring a dancer’s footwork. (…) Bala would imitate him, both dancing like monkeys. (…) That was the real starting point for Bala’s dancing mania.”

After her Arangetram (debut performance after years of training) at the mere age of seven, Balasaraswati began to receive growing recognition, in the art world as well as the general public all over India. The tours and performances that followed were her first steps towards becoming a revolutionary Bharatanatyam dancer, a legend.

My Thoughts: Honestly, I have no idea why I decided to review this book. I don’t have much experience with art – apart from a span of five traumatic years spent learning, quite ironically, Bharatanatyam itself. It taught me, if anything, that I can never be a good dancer. I did however learn quite a bit about the dance form. Besides, considering how I failed at it, I realize, respect and appreciate the effort and passion involved in excelling at it.

I loved it as soon as I tore open the package it arrived in. It is hard not to judge the book by its beautiful, glossy black cover. The stunning front-page photo of Balasaraswati, in a way, conveys more about the dancer than the entire book. Another thing I loved (most predictably) was the author’s note on the translations and transliterations from Tamil to English. The preface is pretty much a brief summary of the entire book, and a look at Balasaraswati through the author’s individual perspective (throughout the rest of the book the author stays clear of that personal touch.)

The book is long and the size can be intimidating. If I didn’t have to review it within seven days, I would have spent months reading it at leisure. That being said, it was hard to pull my eyes away from the book. The descriptions, the imagery is so surreal. It almost made me guilty that I wasn’t as informed about the culture and traditions of my own country. The only thing that bothered me was the chronology of events; I had a hard time keeping up with what happened when.

All non-English phrases or concepts are explained in the book wherever they appear – and more information is given in the extensive (and thoroughly fascinating) Glossary at the end. I guess that’s what makes the book so much more special; you don’t have to be a student of Dance to understand it. The language, of course, is wonderful.
The book tells us not only about Balasaraswati’s life but about the political and social conditions in the India of the 1800s and early 1900s, the evolution of Bharatanatyam and other forms of art, and many other renowned artists of her time. The fine detail makes you feel like you’re living history.

It is hardly possible for a biography to get all the facts right, not to mention be completely impartial, especially when it is written by someone closely related to the person. I am hardly qualified to judge whether all the facts are correct. What I do believe, however, is that while this may not by a completely true account, it is a very honest account of the artist’s life. It is difficult to do justice to a legend or fit such a glorious life in only three hundred pages. It is apparent that a lot of effort and research was required to write this book, and frankly, the result is commendable.
I consider myself incredibly lucky, to get to review such a book. I am also glad, that this book wasn’t published years ago, so that now it’d only be lying in some old library, where I would have hardly gotten my hands on it. It’s a must read for anyone interested in the arts, or anyone interested in getting to know one of the reasons India is known to have a ‘rich tradition’! The book has inspired me to read more about India. According to my mother, reading about great people such as these, makes us feel pretty insignificant and thoroughly inspired at the same time; and it’s true. If anything, I am going to make it a point to learn more about the history of Indian dance and music; if you happen to know me, you’d know that that is saying something.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

One thought on “Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life by Douglas M. Knight Jr.”

  1. prof premraj pushpakaran writes — 2018 marks the 100th birth year of Tanjore Balasaraswati!


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