Balasaraswati vs Rukmini Arundale: The grand bharata natyam controversy

An historic concert. Two great divas. And a controversy about the soul of bharata natyam. Here's the story of what happened on stage and backstage in a 1945 concert with Rukmini Devi Arundale and Balasaraswati.

hidden November 20, 2011 08:46:38 IST

by Douglas M. Knight

Editor’s Note: Balasaraswati is often called a revolutionary among bharata natyam dancers. A new biography by her son-in-law explores her amazing fifty year career’s ups and downs.  Bala and her famous contemporary Rukmini Devi Arundale disagreed on something very fundamental – the depiction of Sringara rasa  in dance. In 1945 those differences played out on a national stage in a now legendary concert. Douglas M. Knight includes that story in his biography – Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life. (Tranquebar Press). Here is an excerpt.

Bala’s outspoken criticism of carnality in Sringara rasa as presented by some traditional dancers had been a matter of public record by the 1930s. During the 1940s she expressed parallel objections to puritanism and the shift away from the heart of the traditional practice. "If Balasaraswati objected to the carnality in Sringara of most dasi dancers, she was equally against puritanical and artistically impoverished Brahmanical dance. She could easily distinguish puritanism from purity, and poetic love from plebian lust," commented Ra Ganapati in an interview. And indeed, Sringara padams had the predominant share of her repertoire. Although many of Bala’s most successful pieces — pieces that were identified with her during her career, such as "Krishna ni Begane Baro," "Varugalamo," "Mukti Alikkum," "Ka Va Va," and several Tamil hymns — were non-Sringara pieces, their presence in her repertoire did not indicate a rejection of Sringara rasa. These pieces simply represented Bala’s artistic scope and the breadth offered by bharata natyam as one of India’s traditional dance and music forms.

The Sringara Rasa Controversy

A long-standing controversy between Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi Arundale was to play out on a national stage in January 1945. Rukmini Devi did not avoid Sringara rasa pieces entirely, but her emphasis was on non-Sringara songs. These songs, their proponents argued, reflected a more philosophical voice that was more classical and dignified. But Bala’s belief was that some musicians and dancers preferred non-Sringara pieces because they had small repertoires of padams. Bala would say, "There is nothing in the bank."...

New Delhi, 1970. Marilyn Silverstone/Magnum Photos, New York

The All India Dance Festival in Bombay in January 1945 was the scene of another of the five great concerts in Balasaraswati’s career — a concert that also was emblematic of the Sringara rasa controversy between Bala and Rukmini Devi Arundale...

The festival opened with a recital of bharata natyam by Rukmini Devi, who was the predominant performer throughout. There were fourteen programs over six nights, each night of performance lasting five or six hours. The festival included some of the major names in hereditary dance and music, including Achchan Maharaj, whom Bala had admired in Calcutta in 1934; Shambhu Maharaj, his brother, whom Bala had seen and admired in Benaras in 1936; Ali Akbar Khan, a sarodist who was also in Calcutta; and Vilayat Khan, who was a sitarist from a famous family lineage. Oddly, with the exception of Balasaraswati, who was given a full program, each of these hereditary artists (who would become internationally famous in time) were granted short slots of time to perform, each sharing part of an evening with as many as six other performers of lesser distinction...

In the festival souvenir program, Rukmini Devi’s prominent positioning is evident. She presented the inaugural performance, and her biographical profile appeared in the notes immediately after the descriptions of the various ìclassicalî dance forms. "Srimati Rukmini Devi," the profile began, "has regenerated this art and rescued it from degradation and virtual extinction and restored it to its pristine beauty, by permeating it with religious and devotional spirit. She has succeeded in dramatizing it with appropriate music and costumes, and has rescued it from all monopolies, especially as regards teaching and conducting." The notes go on to acknowledge Rukmini Devi’s musicians by name. In contrast, the program notes included no profile or introduction of Balasaraswati, and mentioned none of the musicians in her ensemble.

Rukmini Devi’s reference to ìmonopoliesî was perhaps directed toward the nattuvanar teachers at Kalakshetra, from whom she had successfully wrested control of teaching and the conducting of concerts, which she then placed in the hands of nonhereditary teachers of music and dance, including herself. But whoever the intended target, the reference was an insult to anyone from the professional community, and Balasaraswati’s family represented another "monopoly,"the repertoire of bharata natyam.

In the inaugural performance on January 18, Rukmini Devi performed a traditionally formatted concert, and she included compositions whose poetry made reference to human love, Sringara rasa pieces from the traditional repertoire. I asked Medha Yodh, who was at the concert (and who provided me with the concert program), how Rukmini Devi’s assertions about the unacceptability of Sringara rasa compositions for performance by respectable women could be reconciled with her inclusion of these pieces. Medha answered that Rukmini Devi’s point was that if you were respectable, then Sringara would itself become respectable, and that if you were not, then the performance of Sringara was not.

 An Empty Stage

The night of Balasaraswati’s concert on January 21, the evening program began with a dance drama designed, directed, and performed by Rukmini Devi and students from Kalakshetra. The piece was a reconstruction of a kuravanji, an opera-like form that had evolved in the Thanjavur court. The program notes described the performance: "This Kuravanji is based by Rukmini Devi on the style found by her in a Temple festival. In discovering and presenting it, her object is not merely to give a pleasant evening but to reveal an object of patriotic, historical, and cultural value, for what you see is not the ingenuity merely of an artist, but the soul of a people of long ago." Her sets were elaborate and beautifully executed. Mrs. A. R. Sundarajan, Balasaraswati’s singer (a student of T. Brinda and a member of one of Madras’s prominent families), recalled the event. "Just before Bala’s program Rukmini Devi gave a dance drama — elaborate scenery, coconut palms — it looked just like Bali —gorgeous — we waited to give our nine thirty concert."

It was well known that Bala’s presentation of concerts was austere and that she used no stage props at all. She did not use statuary on stage, an avoidance that included the newly ubiquitous statue of Nataraja, an

San Francisco, California 1974. Courtesy Jan Steward

image of the dancing Siva encircled by a cosmic flame that was placed on the stage by dancers of the reconstructed style. To the uninformed eye Balasaraswati’s staging would have appeared to be unsophisticated. New conventions such as brilliant and tailored costumes and elaborate staging and lighting were becoming an expression of the modernized style.

Bala had expected that she would perform on the same set that Rukmini Devi was using, because removing it would be a disruptive event in front of an audience of hundreds of Bombay’s wealthy and educated. And it was. At the conclusion of Rukmini Devi’s kuravanji, after the curtain was closed but clearly audibly, stagehands struck the set. The detritus that was left — nails, wood splinters, and large amounts of dirt — covered the stage. While the curtain was still closed, Jayammal insisted on being the one to sweep the floor.

When the curtain opened, Bala danced ‘on an empty stage. She remembered the concert as one of great vigor and triumph, as do others who were there. As Mrs. Sundarajan told it, ìWe thought they would leave some decor, but, within ten or fifteen minutes they removed everything! The stage was totally empty — not even a backdrop. I think this so upset Bala that she danced wonderfully — abhinaya, tirmanams — [everything] had such enormous energy. It was as if she decided to say, ‘I want to show art is not just stage trappings.’ And she proved her point. The audience was thrilled. Even with her typical, old-fashioned costume...

The Devadasi Act

During the rest of 1945 Bala was invited to give two more concerts, both private and in Madras. One took place in February and one in March; in one she performed only abhinaya. Twenty-one months later, at the end of 1946, Bala gave her single concert of the year at the fourth Tamil Isai Festival at St. Mary’s Hall in Madras. This was to be the last performance she was invited to give for almost three years, and her only concert in a period of almost five years.

On January 26, 1947, India celebrated its first Republic Day. Four months later, the Devadasi Act, originally introduced by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy in 1928, was passed in the Madras Legislative Council. The act declared unlawful ìthe performing of any dance by any woman in the precincts of any temple or religious institution or in any procession of a Hindu deity.î Bala later commented proudly and with respect that even after the passage of the legislation, Mylapore Gauri Ammal continued to dance in the sanctum sanctorum of Kapaaliswara Temple in Madras. Nevertheless, the hereditary art Bala had attempted to raise up in the eyes of the nation and of which she was so intensely proud had been overwhelmed. By the end of 1947, the defamation of the devadasi had been legislated, and it appeared that both the art and the artist had been banished and replaced.


Updated Date: November 20, 2011 09:05:23 IST

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