Balasaraswati: Her art and life

The background

I did not know what I was getting into when I decided to review Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life by Douglas M. Knight Jr. (Tranquebar Press, 2011). All I was aware of at that time was the fact that I would be reading about a person I “knew”. Let me elaborate here.

Amma (my mother) grew up on a diet of classical music and dance. A student of Carnatic classical music, she was fortunate to watch many musicians and dancers perform, one of whom was Balasaraswati herself. Amma worshipped and idolised her as only a true rasika can. I started attending kacheris (music performances) and dance performances with Amma when I was 5. After each performance there would be a discussion on what we liked or did not like, and we would try sing the pieces we liked. If it was a dance performance that we had attended, the discussion would begin with the dance, then move on to the music, and finally to the inevitable mention of how Balasaraswati would have performed a particular dance item. By the time I was 6 or 7, I knew who Balasaraswati was, what her dance was like, and how she danced—all this without ever having seen her dance. But thanks to Amma’s vivid descriptions, and whenever Amma herself sang, I could and would imagine Balasaraswati dancing to them ! Such was her impact on me.

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