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Aruna Sairam was mesmerised by Balasaraswati

Posted on 09/02/2018 in The Hindu

  • Aruna realised that Bala’s involvement and the willingness to take her team along caused magic on stage

    The year was 1969. My first memories of the inimitable Balamma are from the cherished ones I hold as a member of the audience at Patkar Hall, Mumbai. If it were the big corporate patrons such as Babubhai Raja on the one side, on the other side, it was an equally august art crowd (the who’s who in the music and dance world) — the unforgettable Hindustani maestro Amir Khan, Hirabai Barodekar and Mukund Goswami to name a few. It seemed to me that the value of the audience was what we say in Tamil, ‘Onru, oru lakshathukku samanam’ (one is equal to a lakh). A very impressive audience by all standards.

    The big event was organised to honour Balamma and a huge purse was awarded. My parents were chiefly involved in the felicitation function. and my father felt that it was not enough to recognise and showcase art, but it was equally important to support the artiste.

    When the curtain went up, I remember seeing her in a traditional sari with minimum jewellery. The first thing she did was to make eye contact with members in the orchestra — Gnanasundaram and Narasimhulu on the vocals, T. Vishwanathan (Vishwa) on the flute and Kuppuswami Mudaliar (Kuppanna) on the mridangam. There was a certain casualness, until she began to tap her feet. Once she did, there was a sudden transformation and something akin to magic happened on stage. I later understood as I studied her, that it was her involvement, understanding and willingness to take the team along that resulted in the magic which kept recurring at every single performance. She never failed to surprise her audience and she never ever disappointed them as well.

    That evening, Balamma performed her famous ‘Mohamana,’ the Bhairavi varnam (I will sing this varnam for my concert with Dominique Vellard), a shabdam in Ragamalika, her brilliant ‘Krishna Nee Begane Baro,’ a Pantuvarali padam, ‘Niddrayil...soppanathil.’ I will never be able to say whether it was her music that moved me more or it was her abhinaya — all I do remember is I was transfixed and was in awe of her.

    My parents were die-hard fans of the arts — music and dance. I shall always be grateful for the kind of exposure they gave me as a young child. When the show ended, my mother enveloped Balamma in a warm embrace, her eyes moist after such a moving performance. Bala told her: “Rajamma, enakku romba pasikkaradhu. Nee un veettile, enakku pidicha pongal-gotsu pannidu. Nan Ippo Varen” (Rajamma, I’m hungry and coming to your house for pongal-gotsu, which I love). Immediately, Amir Khansaab who was closeby piped up: “ Bala, if you are going, I am coming too!”

    Meeting of maestros

    While my mother was getting food ready in the kitchen, more food for the soul was being served in the drawing room by our guests — there was an outpouring of music. Bala sang ‘Krishna Karnamrutham’ slokas. Amir Khan started singing and Bala danced. That night, I experienced the Raasleela. My strongest memory of music and dance goes back to that beautiful night when I saw pure love between two art forms. Nothing else mattered. When we finally ate, it was 2 a.m., but it didn’t matter at all.

    Balamma’s grandmother Dhanammal was initially not in favour of Bala learning dance, but Bala had been taken in by Mylapore Gauri Ammal. She would imitate her, much to the dislike of her grandmother. Slowly she relented when she realised that the girl was keen. Her mother Jayammal saw to it that she had teachers teaching Bala languages, Sanskrit slokas, Tamil and Telugu literature. I now realise that it is this learning that made Bala render ‘Subrahmanya Bhujangam’ with such perfect diction.

    A second incident I remember of Bala is the shared memory of the love for Krishna. The puja room in my parents’ home was graced by Krishna and Radha. My mother woke up her Krishna to her rendering of ‘Jaago Bansi Vaare.’ Balamma told us that her aunt Kamakshi Amma would wake her up each morning and tell her: “Will you not come here to sing and dance and awaken your Krishna?” It is no wonder then that she performed ‘Krishna Nee Begane’ the way she did. It was her love for Krishna that probably gave that extra zest to her performance. Or it could be simply my bias for Krishna!

    I also have vivid memories of Bala’s sanchari, ‘Vaari mudindha kuzhal.’ Just three words — what we call niraval in music is performed as sanchari in dance — what unbelievable creativity! I recall, as she used her hands for abhinaya, she played around with the three words with such mastery that she established the mother-daughter relationship at one point, between two sakhis at another, and what was totally amazing was the way in which she sang kalpanaswaras to illustrate the hastabhinaya to remove the sikkal (tangles) in the hair. That kind of genius never ceases to inspire me. I realise that it is therefore not surprising that she was the first (and perhaps so far the only one) dancer to receive the highest honour in music too — Sangita Kalanidhi.

    Though I was very young then, I realised in my later years, that Balamma was able to transcend the barriers of religion, region and always had her own loyal fan following. She inspired artistes not only from within the country but the world over. It is said that Martha Graham came to Chennai, was scheduled to watch Bala’s specially commissioned performance for a few minutes, but ended up watching it for over two hours. That is what true art is all about. And that is what legends are made of.


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