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Bala: An experience that cannot be captured

Bala: An experience that cannot be captured
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They say you don’t get to choose your parents. I believe it’s the same with a Guru. If you’re lucky, the Guru you deserve is given to you by the...

They say you don’t get to choose your parents. I believe it’s the same with a Guru. If you’re lucky, the Guru you deserve is given to you by the universe, serendipitously. An 85-year-old, highly well-read, well-travelled, sophisticated, charming woman is a rare combination to find, in a time like today, in a city like Hyderabad, to a girl my age and my background.

I have known Hema Aunty (Hemamalini Arni) from the age of 6. It is through her that I get glimpses of the grandeur of the yesteryears. One beautiful chapter in those yesteryears is that of the legendary dancer, T Balasaraswati.

Who is this Balasaraswati and why is everyone so crazy about her? This was roughly my reaction the first time I heard about her. Like any other member of this generation, I quickly googled the name. A Wikipedia page and a few grainy YouTube videos later, I understood she was a Bharatanatyam dancer from the early 19th century and was known for Abhinaya or expressions.

But I was young dancer and only knew Bharatanatyam in its modern form of today. If I didn’t see a sleek young diva, dashing across the stage with agility, executing every movement to perfection, sporting an almost inhuman amount of strength, stamina and perfection, I would not believe the dancer was worth all that appreciation. The videos I saw of Balasaraswati were mostly of a middle-aged lady with raw expressions and rustic movements. Even her costume was all different.

In numerous videos, her admirers would reminisce how her dance gave a spiritual experience to her audience. She seemed to have brought characters to life. Her every micro-expression was natural and tender. All this is fine, but where is her “aramandi”, I would wonder. (Aramandi is a half-sitting position, an extremely challenging stance for dancers, which takes years of practice to master).

In between our practice, Hema aunty would angrily stop us and complain how our expressions did not look natural. She would sit up in her chair, gather her strength, fighting a slight quiver in her body owing to her age, sing unhurriedly and demonstrate a small bit – a young “gopika”, giggling at the sight of Krishna, her shoulders shaking with a muffled laughter. Her 85-year-old countenance would transform into that of a teen’s, oozing with heat and raw passion. A hopeless attempt to hide her feelings while Krishna sends her heart into a tizzy.

At the end of the demonstration, we all would find ourselves adrift with strange emotions. We’d snap back to our practice, carrying the remnants of the magic that aunty had just spun and try to channel that into their own dancing.

In those little moments, I came to realise that there was something intangible about what we experienced. This cannot be captured in videos. In those moments, I realised that this is what they were all saying about Balasaraswati.

I began to imagine and reconstruct what it must have meant to be in the audience of a Balasaraswati show. I imagined old-school musicians, sharing the camaraderie of years of performances, enjoying themselves with spontaneous creations on stage. I imagined a rustic dancer, casually walking onto the stage, taking her time to get into the mood, singing along with her musicians if need be. I imagined her immersed in her art and never for a minute bothering if the audience understood her.

And I slowly began to comprehend what those videos were trying to capture. Without context, it is impossible to understand the magic of Balasaraswati. It is our misfortune that we are born in a time where artistes like that have ceased to exist. But I am happy that I get glimpses of Bala amma through my Guru. She says Balasaraswati was original and spontaneous. She would demonstrate a “padam” in 3 or 4 different ways to a 12-year-old Hema Aunty. In the next class, she would ask her to try something on her own, based on what she understood. That was such a genius way of teaching.

In today’s times, where everything is mass produced including dancers, this lesson of individuality and originality is a valuable one. Originality doesn’t come in one day! But I suppose it is better to be your own work-in-progress that a completed and perfected copy of someone else. It was this spirit that I wanted to celebrate on May 13, 2018, on her 100th birth anniversary at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan auditorium in Hyderabad.

I saw my Guru look up at me from the audience and bless me. I hope Bala amma too, from up in the heavens, looked down upon me warmly and sent across a blessing or two.

By: Kiranmayee Madupu
The writer is a Bharatanatyam dancer and Director of Hema Arangam Cultural Society.

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