A question I was regularly asked at one time was:”So, you are a Tamilian. You must have learnt classical music and Bharatanatyam, right?” It was a question which always succeeded in irritating me, for I had nothing to do with either music or dance, despite being a Tamilian. Yes, my mom had, true to tradition, tried to get me interested in music. I had endured the classes for a year, and soon after, telling my mom that the classes intruded into my reading time, had refused to go anymore. She would have loved to send me to Bharatanatyam classes, but that was something I had no interest in even trying! Having two left feet, I stayed away from dance of all kinds, and she soon gave up, leaving me to my literary pursuits. Living in a place where there were hardly any cultural events, and even fewer related to our South Indian background, I grew up blissfully ignorant of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. Then, I got married and shifted to a predominantly South Indian neighbourhood – one which could actually be called a miniature Madras, complete with temple and all! Here were more people surprised that I wasn’t remotely interested in the classical arts, except as a spectator, all the more so since my sister-in-law herself was an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer! Years passed and I began enjoying Bharatanatyam performances, now that I was actually attending more of them, and besides, my sister joined the dancing brigade too. However, I still maintained my distance, being just remotely interested in the performance and the talent of the dancers. All that changed when my sister-in-law asked me for help in translating some documents for her Masters degree in the dance, and I discovered what a wealth of history and literature was available behind the ancient dance form. I began reading my sister-in-law’s books, eager to learn more about those who had shaped the dance and brought it to the form in which it is known today.
Among the many dancers I read about, one name stood out – Balasaraswati. She was said to be the first to perform the dance outside south India, but I was intrigued even more when I read an article which mentioned that she often sang as she danced! And then, a couple of weeks back, I saw that the book ‘Balasaraswati – Her Art and Life’ was up for review on Blogadda. I had been a part of the Blogadda Book Review programme for quite a while, but I had yet to receive a book for reviewing, so it was with some indifference that I applied for this one, thinking that I had nothing to lose. Besides, I was leaving for Samhith’s thread ceremony, and didn’t really have time to do a review! Imagine my surprise when I got a mail from them, saying that I had been among the lucky ones chosen!! For a while, I wondered if I should refuse, since I hardly had time to read such a book and review it in the short time I had, but then the temptation proved too strong, and I agreed! So here at last (though a bit belated) is the review of ‘Balasaraswati – Her Art and Life’, by Douglas M. Knight, Jr.