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Balasaraswati, Photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow


Balasarawati (1918-1984) was a native of Madras and personified the Tanjore interpretation of bharata natyam, a classical dance style from South India. At her debut as a seven-year-old, she was admired for pure technique and facility with abhinaya or expressive mime, attributes that continued to be praised throughout her lifetime. Balasaraswati was the seventh generation in her family to be associated with classical dance and music. She was trained initially by the eminent Kundappa Pillai who, with his brothers, codified a training system for dancers. An affinity for mesmerizing audiences made Balasaraswati a veritable ambassador for bharata natyam outside India, appearing first in 1961 in Tokyo, launching her earliest North American tour in 1962 at Jacob's Pillow, and performing at the Edinburgh Festival in the following year. As a teacher and artist in residence, she was associated with several American universities and with the Balasaraswati School of Music and Dance in Berkeley. At home in India, she received many awards, including the title Exemplary Golden Lotus, usually received by outstanding statesmen and scholars.

Pictured right: Balasaraswati, in an undated photograph, excelled in the art of “abhinaya” (carrying emotion toward the audience) in the classical Indian dance form Bharata Natyam. (Photograph from Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Archives, Becket, Massachusetts.)

Balasaraswati (1918-1984)

Essay by Dawn Lille

Balasaraswati was the greatest twentieth century performer of the classical solo style of Indian dance known as Bharata Natyam. Her mesmerizing performances revived this great form in India, where it had been almost obliterated, and in America introduced thousands to her art, both on stage and in the classroom. She was famous not only for her flawless technique, but for her mastery of expressive mime, which elicited the deepest emotions in her audience.

She was the seventh generation in a family of traditional southern Indian musicians and dancers. An early ancestor danced at the Tanjore court; her grandmother, Vina Dhanam, was a musician; her mother, Joyammal, who decided that Balasaraswati would be a dancer when she was four, was a singer and one of her accompanists; two of her younger brothers were musicians.

The ancient and advanced Dravidian civilization existed in the northwest of India, near the Indus river, as early as 3000 B.C. It was a largely animistic culture in which the major deities were female. The Dravidians were conquered by the Vedic Aryans, a tribe from the northern steppes. The melding of the two cultures produced the Hindu religion, which was governed by the strict rules of its caste system and based on the four holy books or Vedas.

Only the Brahmins, the highest in the caste system, were permitted to read or hear the Vedas. A story recounts how Bharata, an actor, asked the god Brahma if he could take one relevant item from each Veda and create a fifth Veda that would be for all the people. Permission was granted and the result, the Bharata Natya Sastra, which dates from sometime between 2 B.C. and 2 A.D., is the first known book devoted entirely to dance, music and drama. There was a later book concerned solely with dance, the Abhinaya Darpana.

The Bharata Natya Sastra gives specifics for training the body, with exercises for each part from the eyelids to the toes to the divisions of the torso. Instructions for Nritta, or abstract dance, include instructions for one foot; for karanas or units that contain hand, foot and body gestures; and for intricate rhythms involved with the feet contacting the floor. Expressive dance, called Nritya, involves abhinaya, the art of carrying the emotion toward the audience. This section of the book gives detailed instruction for the use of the body, the face, hasta mudras (gestured hand language), costume, music, and poetry. It covers interpretive and narrative mime, with emphasis on expressing mood and sentiment.

In Hindu philosophy the world resembles a constantly rotating wheel on which the different aspects of life – religion, dance, death, sex, music – are spokes of equal importance and inseparable from each other. Hence, dance is one with music, literature and sculpture; all are part of religion; and eroticism is an integral part of life. The aesthetic purpose of all Indian art is to elicit an emotional response in the audience.

Indian classical dance is defined as any form of dance that follows the rules of the Bharata Natya Sastra and has at least one section in which a poem is enacted by the body. Over many centuries, different regions of the country developed their own styles, influenced by the local folk dances and customs. Bharata Natyam is from the south and is considered by many to be the most ancient of the classical dances. It is part of the history of the devidasis or temple dancers who were dedicated to serving the gods. They were thought of as skilled courtesans during the late-nineteenth-century British rule in India, which resulted in a decline in the art, except among a few families like Balasaraswati’s, who continued the tradition.

Her original guru was Kandappa Pillai, an exacting teacher from whom she learned the correct placement, line, stance, tempo, and shape required by each of the adavas or pure movement phrases in the Bharata Natya Sastra. She studied improvisation and abhinaya separately. When Balasaraswati made her debut at age seven, her artistry was already evident in her ability to perform expressive mime and complex rhythms. In 1936 Uday Shankar, the renowned Indian musician, who was only one of her many admirers, presented her in northern India; she was the first performer of her style to be seen outside of her home region. In 1961, at an East/West Music Encounter in Tokyo, the outside world saw her for the first time. The following year she started her North American and European tour, which began at Jacob’s Pillow.

Balasaraswati’s art inspired Louise and Samuel Scripps to found the American Society for Eastern Arts in California, and it began to sponsor her many tours and residencies in the sixties and seventies. She taught at Wesleyan University under the auspices of the Asia Society, as well as at UCLA, the University of Washington, and the American Dance Festival. The Balasaraswati School of Music and Dance was established in Berkeley, California, in 1976, and she also had a school in India.

This woman was one of the world’s greatest performing artists. Her knowledge of her body’s capabilities and the close relationship of music to dance was extraordinary. Her brilliance at improvising, her extreme concentration in performance, and her ability to touch the emotions in every member of her audience affected everyone who saw her. For her American public, many of whom were experiencing the dance of India for the first time, the impression was indelible, and they were transformed forever. She was able to communicate, via dance, her belief that in this art form mind, body and spirit come together, creating an art that is, of itself, divine.

Her many awards in India included the Presidential Award (1955), the title of Exemplary Golden Lotus (1977), usually given to statesmen and scholars, and an honorary degree from Rabindra Bharati University (1964). After her death her daughter Lakshmi Knight (1943-2001), also a Bharata Natyam performer, continued her mother’s work, and her grandson, Aniruddha Knight, now heads her school in India. Her son-in-law, Douglas Knight, has written her biography. 

Dawn Lille trained in ballet, modern dance and labananalysis, has worked with dancers and actors as a performer and rehearsal coach. She has taught internationally, headed the graduate program in dance research and reconstruction at City College and taught dance history at Juilliard for fourteen years. Dr. Lille has written two books, chapters in five books and over one hundred articles in encyclopedias, numerous periodicals and Art Times.

More essays by Lille:

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles 

Balasaraswati. ”Music and Dance.” Quarterly Journal of the National Centre for the Performing Arts December, 1973.

____________. “Bharata Natyam.” Quarterly Journal of the National Centre for the Performing Arts December, 1976.

_____________. “On Bharata Natyam.” Dance Chronicle 2.2 (1978).

Knight, Douglas M.  Balasaraswati Her Art and Life. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010.

La Meri. “Encounters With Dance Immortals: Balasaraswati and Ragini Devi.” Arabesque 11 November/December, 1985.

Poursine, Kay. “Hasta as Discourse: T Balasaraswati’s Style of Abhinaya.” Dance Research Journal Fall, 1991.