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Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > T.Balasaraswati > Bharatha Natyam - Classical Dance of the Ancient Tamils


Classical Dance of the Ancient Tamils
T.Balasaraswati on Video
Balasaraswati's Presidential Speech at the Tamil Isai Sangam on receiving the Isai Perarignar award, 2001
T.Balasaraswathy at Center for World Music with photographs by Jan Steward
Balasaraswati in 100 People who shaped India in the 20th Century "...Even before I got to see Balasaraswati perform, I had heard of her legend. There was this great devadasi dancer, I had been told, who had given up performing for some years because she did not find the artistic climate conducive. In the puritanical discipline that I was subjected to as a student in Kalakshetra, my world was limited to the Adayar campus. I was touching my 15th year when a Sri Lankan co-student, Tilakavathi, told me about a performance by Bala. We decided we had to see her for ourselves..."
Balasaraswati at Kay Poursine

One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th Century

T. Balasaraswati
1918 - 1984

Nominated by Sachi Sri Kantha

"In the history of dance, we find every now and then a supreme artist who dominates the field for a generation, enriching the existing tradition, providing a corrective to current practices and setting standards for generations to follow. Anna Pavlova was one such artist and so was Vaslav Nijnsky. And today in India Balasaraswati is one...No dancer captured the public imagination as Balasaraswati did in the thirties and forties. Bharata Natyam to the public until then was an esoteric art practised for the pleasure of a few connoisseurs and dilettantes. Outside the pale of the temple ... there were hardly any public performances. Balasaraswati made the public aware of Bharata Natyam, not by deliberate efforts as a reformer, but by the beauty and the eloquence of her dancing. It was left to others to fight prejudices and stupidity, do research, delve into the past, give the dancer's profession respectability and so on..."

from Balasaraswati by Narayana Menon, published by the Inter-National Culture Center, New Delhi 1, India

" In the history of dance, we find every now and then a supreme artist who dominates the field for a generation, enriching the existing tradition, providing a corrective to current practices and setting standards for generations to follow. Anna Pavlova was one such artist and so was Vaslav Nijnsky. And today in India, Balasaraswati is one. The great dancer, the really great dancer, is perhaps an even rarer phenomenon than great musicians or painters or sculptors. This is because the dance is the consummation of all the arts. The dance, in addition to the qualities that pure dancing demands, must be sensitive to and have an uncanny feeling for music. He or she should have an artist's sensibility to the significant line and a sculptor's approach to form. He should have a practised actor's response to a dramatic situation. Rarely does one come across all these attributes in one and the same person. But when one does, and Balasaraswati has a generous measure of all these, the result is greatness.

The flowering of Balasaraswati's genius has taken place in a garden of great splendor. For generations, the family has been a repository of the Karnatic tradition in its pristine glory. The family tree can be traced back to over two hundred years. Every branch is dotted with music and dance. Balasaraswati's great-great-great-great grandmother, Papammal, was a musician and a dancer at the Tanjore Court - that was in the eighteenth century. Papammal's daughter, Rukmini, was also a court musician at Tanjore. By the time we come to Rukmini's daughter, Kamakshi (circa 1810-1890), the picture is clearer and more details are available. She had been taught by the great Ganapati Sastri and danced at the Tanjore Court till the age of seventy-five.

Of Kamakshiammal's children, two were famous. One was her son Apparkkannu who took to the violin, at that time a newcomer to the Indian musical scene, and attained considerable mastery over it; the other was her daughter Sundarammal (circa 1820-1888). Both were pupils of Subbaraya Sastri, and himself a composer of great qualities who has perhaps not had the recognition due to him.

It is on record that Subbaraya Sastri taught the well known kriti, Nannu brochutakau in Todi to Ponnuswamy and Sundarammal. While learning the kriti they sang the phrase Mayamma Kamakshi with such inspiration and feeling that Sastri said that the Goddess Kamakshi certainly belonged to them. The family and their descendants today are thus a repository of the compositions of Syama Sastri and Subbaraya Sastri and the most authentic interpreters of their works. It is also to the credit of Ponnuswamy that he persuaded his niece and Sundarammal's daughter, Dhanam (1867-1939), to take up the Veena. No finer or more sensitive exponent of the instrument is known in the history of Karnatic music. The Veena was her natural vehicle of expression (though she was also a vocalist of the highest quality), and her music was the quintessence of the Karnatic tradition.

Veena Dhanam and her sister Rupavati both practised dancing for some time; so did Balasaraswati's mother Jayamma and almost every other member of the family. Music and the dance reigned supreme in the household. The family was an inspiration for composers and teachers alike. First there was the association of Subbaraya Sastri. Then there was Sattanur Panchanadier, a pupil of Muthuswami Dikshitar, who taught music to Veena Dhanam and Rupavati. Patnam Subramania Iyer taught Dhanam's daughter. A great many of the javalis of Dharmapuri Subbarayar were composed in that home.

It was into such a treasure-house of the Karnatic tradition that Balasaraswati was born on the 13th of May, 1918. Music and dancing were in her blood. And music and dancing were all around her. And they were, of course, music and dancing of the highest quality and practised and heard in abundant measure. Her formal training started at the age of four under the late Kandappan.

Kandappan himself was the inheritor of a great tradition. For over six generations, the family were nattuvanars, dance teachers. Kandappan's great-great-great grandfather Gangamuthu must have been a contemporary of Papammal. Two generations later we come to the celebrated Tanjore quartet-Chinnayya, Ponniah, Sivanandam, and Vadivelu- all of them teachers and composers of the highest standards. Kandappan was the great-grandson of Chinnayya, the eldest of the Quartet. Kandapan's father, Nellayappan (1854-1906) was perhaps the finest teacher of his time. Kandappan born in 1899, died prematurely in 1941 at the age of 42. The tragedy of his early death is alleviated only by the fact that he trained with a devotion rare even in those days of dedicated teachers the greatest Bharata Natyam dancer of our age.

Balasaraswati's Arangetram (debut) took place in her seventh year at Kancheepuram at the Amanakshi Amman temple. The great Nayana Pillai was present at the Arangetram. Word had gone round in Kancheepuram that the great Dhanam's grand-daughter was to dance at the temple and there was an enormous crowd. But the seven-year-old child betrayed no signs of nervousness and astonished those present with the exactitude of her rhythm and the precision of her movements. "Tremendous" was the word with which the excited Nayana Pillai summed up the evening.

Soon she was in great demand for public performances. But life was by no means a bed of roses. Those were the days of the Devadasi Bill. While veteran musicians and connoisseurs went into ecstasies over her art, there were others who scoffed at the practise of Bharata Natyam as a profession. But Jayammal, her mother, stood firm. The result was not only a personal triumph for Balasaraswati, but the preservation and the strengthening of a great and ancient tradition.

No dancer captured the public imagination as Balasaraswati did in the thirties and forties. Bharata Natyam to the public until then was an esoteric art practised for the pleasure of a few connoisseurs and dilettantes. Outside the pale of the temple ... there were hardly any public performances. Balasaraswati made the public aware of Bharata Natyam, not by deliberate efforts as a reformer, but by the beauty and the eloquence of her dancing. It was left to others to fight prejudices and stupidity, do research, delve into the past, give the dancer's profession respectability and so on."

Balasaraswati's Presidential Speech at the Tamil Isai Sangam
on receiving the Isai Perarignar award, 2001 (Translation) Courtesy: Shanmukha

I am sincerely grateful to the Tamil Isai Sangam for giving me the honour of presiding over the Conference this year. I consider it a great privilege to have this honour conferred on me in this year of the 600th anniversary of Arunagirinathar, who sang the praise of Arumugan (Lord Muruga), the darling deity of Tamil Nadu.

There is a special relationship between Tamil music and Bharatanatyam. The Tamil lyrics of Muthutandavar, Ghanam Krishna Iyer and Subbarama Iyer lend themselves wonderfully well for dancing with intense participation. It is the distinguishing feature of Tamil music that compositions, coming in an unbroken line from the Vaishnava and Saiva saints through Gopalakrishna Bharati down to the composers of our own time, are replete with moods and feelings suitable for abhinaya.


As far as I know, Bharatanatyam is bhakti; Tamil is also nothing but bhakti. I believe, therefore, that Tamil and bhakti are part of the same tradition.

In Silappadikaram, eleven dances are referred to, which were danced by divinities like Siva, Tirumal (Vishnu), Muruga, Kama, Kali, Tirumagal (Lakshmi) and Indrani. They depict the destruction of various demons and symbolize the triumph of good over evil. This is evidence enough that dance was a divine art whose theme was the destruction of evil and the purification of the spirit.

In these early dance forms, valour and wrath are the predominant emotions. Yet, Sringara which was, later to become the ruling mood of abhinaya was pre-eminent in the Tamil dance tradition right from the beginning. In the two important dance forms, the court dance and the common dance, which relate respectively to the inner and the outer life of man. Sringara belongs to the court and to the inner life. This explains the eminence of sringara as a mood. In dances such as the group dance of the cowherd girls, this same sringara becomes the love of God. This bhakti is beautifully expressed in the following verses of Silappadikaram:

'The Girl to her companion:

The magical one,
Who shook the young tree like a stick,
And brought the fruits down-
Should he come amidst our cattle,
Shall we not hear again,
The music of the sweet kornai flute
On his lips
Oh, the look on her face!
Her garment and bangles slipped away
With her hands, covered herself,
Seeing her,
Who hid herself with her hands,
His shame and pity became wild passion
Oh, the look on His face!"

It is this stream of sringara that swells into the mighty river of the lover-beloved songs of the Vaishnava and Saiva saints, the Ashtapadi of Jayadeva and the compositions of Kshetragna. In Bharatanatyam, too when it comes to abhinaya, sringara has been the dominant mood.


I emphasize all this because of some who seek to "purify" Bharatanatyam by replacing the traditional lyrics, which express sringara with devotional songs. I respectfully submit to such protagonists that there is nothing in Bharatanatyam which can be purified afresh; it is divine as it is and innately so. The sringara we experience in Bharatanatyam is never carnal; never, never. For those who have yielded themselves to its discipline line with total dedication, dance, like music is the practice of the Presence. It cannot be merely the body's rapture.

Bharatanatyam is an art, which consecrates the body, which is considered to be in itself of no value. The yogi, by controlling his breath and by modifying his body, acquires the halo of sanctity. Even so, the dancer, who dissolves her identity in rhythm and music, makes her body an instrument, at least for the duration of the dance, for the experience and expression of the spirit.


I believe that the traditional order of the Bharatanatyam recital viz., Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Sabdam, Varnam, Padam, Tillana and the Sloka is the correct sequence in the practice of this art, which is an artistic yoga for revealing the spiritual through the corporeal.

The greatness of this traditional concert-pattern will be apparent even from a purely aesthetic point of view. In the beginning, Alarippu, which is based on rhythm alone, brings out the special charm of pure dance. The movements of Alarippu relax the dancer's mind and thereby her mind, loosen and coordinate her limbs and prepare her for the dance. Rhythm has a rare capacity to invoke concentration. Alarippu is most valuable in freeing the dancer from distraction and making her single-minded.


The joy of pure rhythm in Alarippu is followed by Jatiswaram where there is the added joy of melody. Melody, without word or syllable, has a special power to unite us with our being. In Jatiswaram, melody and movement come together. Then comes the Sabdam. It is here that compositions, with words and meanings, which enable the expressions of the myriad moods of Bharatanatyam, are introduced.


The Bharatanatyam recital is structured like a Great Temple. We enter through the Gopuram (outer hall) of alarippu, cross the Ardha mantapam (half-way hall) of Jatiswaram, then the Mantapa (great hall) of Sabdam, and enter the holy precinct of the deity in the Varnam. This is the place, the space that gives the dancer expansive scope to revel in the rhythm, moods and music of the dance. The Varnam is the perpetuity which gives ever-expanding room to the dancer to delight in her self-fulfillment, by providing the fullest scope to her own creativity as well as to the tradition of the art.

The Padam follows. In dancing to the Padam one experiences the containment, cool and quiet of entering the sanctum from its external precinct. The expanse and brilliance of the outer corridors disappear in the dark inner sanctum; and the rhythmic virtuosities of the Varnam yield to the soul-stirring music and abhinaya of the Padam. Dancing to the Padam is akin to the juncture when the cascading lights of worship are withdrawn and the drum beats die down to the simple and solemn chanting of scared verses in the closeness of God. Then, the Tillana breaks into movement like the final burning of camphor accompanied by a measure of din and bustle. In conclusion, the devotee takes to his heart the God he has so far glorified outside; and the dancer completes the traditional order by dancing to a simple devotional verse.


At first, mere meter; then, melody and meter; continuing with music, meaning and meter; its expansion in the centerpiece of the varnam; thereafter, music and meaning without meter; in variation of this, melody and meter; in contrast to the pure rhythmical beginning a non metrical song at the end. We see a most wonderful completeness and symmetry in this art. Surely the traditional votaries of our music and dance would not wish to take any liberties with this sequence.

The aesthetics and the artistry of Bharatanatyam alike make us realise that sringara has pride of place here. In a sense, Bharatanatyam is a combination of the yoga and mantra sastra-s. The mudra-s of the mantra shastra-s are the same as the hand gestures of Bharatanatyam. When dancing to the beat of the rhythm, as in a yoga exercise, the dancer's body is rid of its human weaknesses and is purified into a conduit of the spiritual and the beautiful. However, the experience of the art can be total only if a variety of moods and feelings are portrayed; variety is the soul of art. But these feelings should be universalized into aspects in divinity and not remain the limited experience of an insignificant human being. The mood of a song may tend to get portrayed as the subjective feeling of one individual; but true art lies in universalizing this experience. To train the dancer in this art, melody and meter join together in Jatiswaram. The dancer takes leave of her subjective consciousness in the Alarippu and identifies herself in with the universal consciousness in the Jatiswaram. Thereafter, she is ready to explore and express the infinitely varied nuances of the entire gamut of emotions and feelings not in terms of her subjective self but in terms of which bring out their universal essence.


Sringara stands supreme in this range of emotions. No other emotion is capable of better reflecting the mystic union of the human with the divine. I say this with great personal experience of dancing to many great devotional songs, which have had no element of sringara in them. Devotional songs are, of course, necessary. However, sringara is the cardinal emotion, which gives the fullest scope for artistic improvisation, branching off continually, as it does, into the portrayal of innumerable moods full of newness and nuance.

If we approach Bharatanatyam with humility, learn it with dedication and practice it with devotion to God, sringara which brings out the great beauties of this dance can be portrayed with all the purity of the spirit. The flesh, which is considered to be an enemy of the spirit and the greatest obstacle to spiritual realization, has itself been made a vehicle of the divine in the discipline of the dance. Sringara thus is an instrument for uniting the dancer with Divinity. Since the dancer has universalized her experience, all that she goes through is also felt and experienced by the spectator.


Refined in the crucible of Alarippu and Jatiswaram, the dancer portrays the emotions of the musical text in the Sabdam in their pristine purity. In the Sabdam, emotions are withheld at the beginning; thereafter, when the dancer has clarified herself, they are released in a measured and disciplined manner. It is after, mastering this discipline that she dances the Varnam which is a living river that holds together movement and interpretation.

The composer of a Sabdam or a Varnam might have dedicated it to a prince or a noble man. But as far as the dancer is concerned, the hero can only be the King of Kings, the Lord of the wide world. It is impossible for her to dedicate her art, which has sanctified her body and has made her heart sacred, to a mere mortal. She can experience and communicate the sacred in what appears to be secular. After all, our composers have been steeped in the tradition of bhakti. While singing the praise of secular heroes, they begin to dwell on his devotion to Brihadeeshwara of Tanjavur or to Tyagesa of Tiruvarur or to Padmanabha of Tiruvanandapuram. The dancer, taking the cue, enters the realms of bhakti, enjoys the play and pranks of the deity concerned, and displays them in her abhinaya. The divine, so far mixed with the secular, now becomes explicit in the dance and impresses itself deep in the heart. Various rhythmic movements are intertwined with her abhinaya; this saves her from degenerating into the human, and keeps her fresh and pure in the yoga of the dance.


It is after passing through this ordeal of fire that the dancer fully qualifies herself to do abhinaya for the Padam. If she has dedicated herself to the art, there will be no carnal distortions in her interpretations of the padam. Steeped in art and beauty, which are pure spiritual states, she expresses the joy, which is at the basis of different moods and emotions. Such a dancer will feel no need to 'purify' any item in the traditional order of Bharatanatyam. Indeed, the effort to purify Bharatanatyam through the introduction of novel ideas is like putting a gloss on burnished gold or painting the lotus.

The inadequacies that are felt in this art arises from the inadequacies of the dancer herself. If Bharatanatyam is studied with devotion, dedication, patience, and thoroughness, its completeness in its traditional form will be crystal clear. The traditional sequence and structure of the recital secures and safeguards this completeness. There is, therefore, no need to purify perfection by amending, adding or subtracting any of the elements in the traditional order of the recital.

The traditional recital is a rich combination of diverse aesthetic and psychological elements, which produces complete enjoyment. To alter this arrangement because it is considered 'boring' is to destroy the integrity of aesthetic enjoyment.

Let those who create novel dance forms present them as separate performances; they need not make a hash of the Bharatanatyam recital by interpolations of novelties.

The Silappadikaram says, "Madhavi's dance master knew when only one hand had to be used and when both the hands had to be used, he also knew when the hands had to be used for exhibiting action and for graceful effect. Knowing as he did, he did not mix up the single-handed demonstrations with the double handed and vice versa, as also pure gesture with gesticulatory movement and vice versa. In the movements of the foot also he did not mix up the kuravai with the vari. He was such an expert."


The dancer can integrate herself with her discipline if she goes through the traditional sequence in one continuous flow without too much of an interval between one item and another; and the completeness of the recital in its entirety will assert itself. My personal opinion is that this concerted effort of the experiences of dancing, which needs mental concentration, is spoilt by frequent changes of costume.

Silappadikaram and Manimekalai list dance, music and the personal beauty of the dancer in that order. Yet, unfortunately the last and the least of them has come to the forefront at the present time. When so much importance is attached to the looks of the dancer, it is but natural that dancing is considered carnal and sringara vulgar. The truth is exactly the opposite; it is her dance and music alone that make a dancer beautiful.

Kalidasa describes Malavika standing tired and perspiring after her dance as the best of all her abhinaya. This is not just poetic conceit. Even when the collyrium gets smudged and the make-up is disturbed in the course of the dance, that itself is a tribute to the dancer's dedication. When the continuity of the dance in interrupted by costume changes, announcements and explanations the congealing of inner feelings becomes impossible and concentration is shattered.


The greatest blessing of Bharatanatyam is its ability to control the mind. Most of us are incapable of single-minded contemplation even when actions are abandoned. On the other hand, in Bharatanatyam actions are not avoided; there is much to do but it is the harmony of various actions that results in the concentration we seek. The burden of action is forgotten in the pleasant charm of the art. The feet keeping to time, hands expressing gesture, the eye following the hand, the ear listening to the master's music and the dancer's own singing - by harmonizing these five elements the mind achieves concentration and attains clarity in the very richness of participation. The inner feeling of the dancer is the sixth sense, which harmonizes these five mental and mechanical elements to create the experience and enjoyment of beauty. It is the spark, which gives the dancer her sense of spiritual freedom in the midst of the constraints and discipline of the dance. The yogi achieves serenity through concentration that comes from discipline. The dance brings together her feet, hands, eyes, ears and singing into fusion which transforms the serenity of the yogi into a torrent of beauty. The spectator, who is absorbed in intently watching this, has his mind freed of distractions and feels a great sense of clarity. In their shared involvement, the dancer and the spectator are both released from the weight of the worldly life and experience the divine joy of the art with a sense of total freedom.


To experience this rare rapture, a dancer has only to submit herself willingly to discipline. It will be difficult in the beginning to conform to the demands and discipline of the rhythm and melody and to the norms and codes of the tradition. But if she humbly submits to the greatness of this art, soon enough she will find joy in that discipline; she will realise that discipline makes her free in the joyful realm of the art. The greatest authorities of the dance have definitely recognized that it is the orthodoxy of traditional discipline, which gives the fullest freedom to the individual creativity of the dancer.

Young dancers who go in for novelties will find that their razzle-dazzle does not last long. On the hand, if they hold firm to the tradition, which like the Great Banyan strikes deep roots and spreads wide branches, they will gain for themselves and those who watch, the dignity and joy of Bharatanatyam. I come out with these submissions because of my anxiety that they should realise this. The young will recognize the greatness if they study it with intense participation, calmly without haste.


One has to begin early and learn it for many years to reach a devout understanding of the immense greatness of this art. Then comes the recognition of one's great good fortune in being chosen to practice this art. This recognition leads the dancer to surrender to her art. Such surrender makes her aware of the divinity and wholeness of Bharatanatyam. And the art will continue to flourish without the aid of new techniques which aim at 'purifying' or changes in dress, ornament, make-up and the interpolation of new items which seek to make it more 'complete'. This is my prayer.

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