Bala: An Anniversary Tribute

This article, written soon after Balasaraswati passed away on 9 February a year ago, was received too late for inclusion in the March 1984 issue of SRUTI which was devoted to Bala. SRUTI is pleased to publish it now as an anniversary tribute. Balasaraswati belonged to the time-honoured and orthodox tradition of Bharatanatyam which prescribed that the artiste should draw attention away from herself and towards the art. T h e Abhinaya Darpana makes special mention of the need for the -artist to be inconspicuous. Her role is that of a narrator of incidents that happened to two other persons. She is a storyteller through symbols. The song in Todi beginning Thaye Yasodha furnishes a good example of the modern tendency for the artiste to intrude into the art. In the line He kissed me in the mouth as if he were my husband, I have seen many artists bunching their right palms and kissing themselves. This is an atrocious deviation from tradition and good taste. The correct representation of this moment of emotion is to keep the left palm open inwards and touch it with the bunched-up right palm, taking care to keep the palms as far away from one's self as possible.

Bala never made the mistake of suggesting that she was one of the two persons involved in the kissing! I have heard it said of that great danseuse of the previous generation, Tiruvalur Gnanam, that she was not good-looking by any standard, but that she enthralled the audience with the vibrant luminosity of her exposition. But Bala's was a sculptured face, and she had a bewitching smile that sun-lit the stage and she had the most eloquent eyes, that I have ever seen. They could twinkle like stars and open up like petals. While she had these natural endowments, she scorned any kind of make-up, falsely effulgent costume jewellery or rich dresses. An important aspect of her art was reticence. By this one means an economy of expression that was suggestive and not exhaustive. The economy had several facets. One was to limit the delineation to the highlights of the symbolic narration. It is not as if the audience is unaware of the meaning of what is being portrayed. The background musicians are intoning the words all the time, and all that the artiste has to do is to translate the meaning into the requisite representation. If the song says:

Alas, what will I do, my Lord Muruga has gone away, it is not necessary to show the symbols for all the words, but it is sufficient to show the mudra for Muruga and put on a woe-begone face. Bala was adept in this economy. One aspect of suggestion relates to a basic principle of classical dance. Indian abhinaya is emotion-oriented and not action-oriented. T h e song merely provides an opportunity for the artiste to manually explain the several states of mind evoked by a particular incident or circumstance. For instance take the line Manchi dinamu nede, maharajuga rammanave (Today is a good day, ask him to come with ease). The abhinaya for it is not just to show the symbols for a good day5 asking him to come royally, and the like, but to portray the several states of mind that are evoked by this invitation. (In any case, maharajuga does not mean 'like a king', but 'without hesitation'). After beseeching him to come, she makes herself ready to receive him.

She plaits her hair. Puts finishing touches to her toilet. Applies a little perfume behind the ears. Pinches her cheek. And thus goes through a variety of emotional reactions. Bala was particularly proficient in elaborating on these emotional states. The actions were purely indicative of these states of mind. There were two more aspects of artistic economy which distinguished her. Her suggestions were brief. And she never lingered on a gesture but passed on to the next. A raised eyebrow was a question. A compressed lip turned down at one corner was petulance or contempt. A wave of the hand was sufficient to show who cares, looking up meant a tower or a temple gopura. A slight bunching up of the sari meant water. And so on.

Where wealth of meaning inhered in a song, or even in a single line of it, she never allowed the abhinaya to sag by overindulging any single symbol (mudra), but there was a kaleidoscopic variation from one to another that showed the richness of her imagination. A good illustration of this gift is the line 'Jagadoddharakanamma' in the song Krishna nee begane baro which she made famous. After initially expressing wonder at the greatness of Lord Krishna so as to show the reaction of the devotee, that is, devotion through love (or anuraga and adbhuta) she proceeded to elaborate the details of the glory of the Lord, mainly through the pranks of the boy Krishna, and later on supplementing it with the important incidents in the other incarnations. One could easily be bored with such a long narration, but Bala redeemed it from dullness by her artistry as well as by swiftly moving from incident to incident. Her e the two economies, namely brevity of gestures and change from one theme to another combined to constitute the excellence of her performance. She was supported in maintaining these qualities by the songs that she chose for abhinaya.

Any song, or for that matter, any conversation can be made the subject matter of a dumb show of hand-movement. T h e tobacco-chewing gentry of the Tanjavur district and the Namboodiris of Kerala, especially the latter, could carry on a long and clear dialogue through gestures without uttering a single word. But it is not abhinaya. This automatically excludes merely informative and descriptive songs, and songs suitable only for concerts. T h e songs of Muthuswami Dikshitar are euologically descriptive of gods. Their richness is in the raga. So also are the songs of Tyagaraja, which are frankly devotional, autobiographical and didactic. It is the devotion of a man for a God, and the moods of a yearning saint. Her e one may digress to briefly state a few of the canons of abhinaya which have been handed down the ages.

The songs chosen for it are, firstly, confined to those which relate to the love of the woman for the man and not vice-versa; secondly, they deal with love in separation (vipralamba) and not in union (sambhoga); thirdly they are mainly concerned with sringara rasa or the emotion of love; fourthly the songs are rich in feeling, but meagre in words. All of these represent good taste and the potential for expansive representation. One excludes, . accordingly, practically all the concert kriti-s, including such songs as Tyagaraja's Sadhinchene which has crept-in by the backdoor, and even the now popular Natanam adinar, the former because of wordy recitation and the latter as being prosaically descriptive (like an almanac) and no more. The artiste has to run after the words all the time. Of all the rasa-s portrayed, sringara alone admits all the others and is thus eminently suited for abhinaya. Much of the eroticism of even the traditional songs is sought to be camouflaged by making the lover a God, but I doubt if any one attending a dance performance, or even the artiste, thinks of LordKrishna or Subrahmanya during the performance.

One atten'ds it to enjoy, not to worship. T h e repertoire of Bala consisted mainly of the songs that conformed to the canons enunciated above. In this selectivity, she was largely helped by the pada-s and javali-s that she learnt from her grandmother, the incomparable Veena Dhanammal. Perhaps she lapsed into heterodoxy very occasionally, but not as a rule. Although Balasaraswati was an adept in representing every rasa or dramatic emotion, her portrayal of scornful anger was unmatched in its perfection. Th e feelings of a woman betrayed are varied and poignant. But hers was not a moving picture of weak wailing and helplessness. On the other hand, it was the disdain of a princess who dismissed an unworthy being. Pada-s like Ini enna pechu irukkudu in the raga Sahana (Go away, what more is ther e to say; please go, go) and the padam in Suruti where also she asks the faithless lover to clear out (po, pora) brought out the full power of angry emotion and her gestures of dismissal were particularly fascinating. Another noteworthy abhinaya of hers was the indifference of one who was being maligned by rumours. Yarukkagilum bliayama, summa sollatum (Who is afraid? Let them say what they say!)

This is in the raga Begada, which was a favourite of hers. In the Suruti padam referred to above, she enhanced its beauty by singing it with different sangati-s or nuances. But one error she never committed. She knew that the hand gestures for singing and those for abhinaya were different and she never made the mistake of singing and dramatising at the same time. But one succeeded the other in graceful sequence. One of the major reasons why a dance performance by Balasaraswati excelled that of all others was the quality of the background music. I am not referring here so much to the nritya or the drill part of the performance. She was good in it but so are several others. I would like, however, to make a special reference to her rendering of the varna in the raga Kapi composed by late Ponniah Pillai. It had a special quality about it. But in the second part of the performance consisting of abhinaya, many fail because of the poor quality of the background music.

The male singer indulges in a dry growl and the lady singer, in order to follow the same sruti, . shrieks for all she is worth. In • Bala's performance, the background music in this part of the dance was provided by her mother Jayammal and her brother Viswanathan (an eminent flute player) and this endowed it with a quality which was unique. Indeed one may say that it was a musiccum-dance performance. It is not well-known that Bala herself was a great musician. She overwhelmed-the public by her talent in dancing, in abhinaya. And this overshadowed her qualities as a musician. She was not, however, a concert artiste. She was best in the midst of a small audience. With her rich contralto voice she could snake-charm her listeners into mute admiration. During her later days, she owed much to Amir Khan in the rendering of several of the Hindustani raga-s that have been absorbed in the southern tradition. Iivfact she personally told me that her rendering of Krishna nee begane baro owed much to Amir Khan.