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Throwing light on a magnificent tradition


Aniruddha Knight, Balasaraswati's grandson, is determined to share his legacy. The first step is the release of a DVD on December 18.

Photo: S.R. Raghunathan.

FAMILY OF ARTISTES: Balasaraswati.

``Sometimes I can't sleep at night thinking about my responsibility. I think I was born for this task," says Aniruddha Knight. This first male dancer in nine generations of recorded family history, referring to his determination to share his legacy with all seekers. Grandson of the legendary Bharatanatyam artiste Balasaraswati, grand nephew to T.Brinda and T.Viswanathan, Sangita Kalanidhi all, young Aniruddha was trained in the family's art and aesthetics by mother Lakshmi. Now his mission is to propagate the values of his magnificent tradition. ``There was a time when the December season saw eight family members preparing for concerts!" he smiles.

The release of ``Krishna Nee Begane" (December 18), the first DVD of its kind on Balasaraswati, is a step in this direction. This is the first of a series of CDs with family music — great grandmother Jayammal with Balamma, Balamma and brother Viswa, Viswa and niece Lakshmi... ``The combinations are many," he laughs. Ruefully he admits that of Dhanammal's daughters — Rajalakshmi, Lakshmiratnam, Kamakshi and Jayammal — recordings are available only of the last.

Unique exhibition

T. Viswanathan.

The Appa Rao Gallery hosts a unique exhibition of Balasaraswati's photographs (December 19-30) to mark the event. This includes five rare photographs from the Magnum Photo archives. Aniruddha explains, ``They were lost. Luckily, a few were discovered undamaged in their Paris archives." He has more projects to implement through his Balasaraswati Performing Arts Centre, supported by the Samuel Scripps Foundation. This will house Louise Scripps' huge collection of books, papers, articles and photographs on the history of dance and the Dhanammal school for researchers to access.

Scripps, Balamma's devoted disciple of 22 years, ``gave them to me when my mother died." Aunt Vegavauhini, daughter of T.Brinda, now the only torchbearer of the Dhanammal family besides octogenarian T.Mukta, will be in charge of training students.

``Our music is not for people in a rush. It's not an easy process. It's for patient students who want to be profound artistes." Eventually, Aniruddha hopes to establish the Institute as a meeting place for artistes from all parts of the world.

The Veena Dhanammal school is known for its hoarding of wealth. T.Viswanathan once refused to play ``Vemaru" (Kalyani) before a ``crowd" of 50 listeners! ``This is for two or three quiet people," he declared. When an admirer regretted that Brindamma was known only to a small circle, she shrugged, ``Not everyone is fortunate."

Lakshmi Knight (file pictures).

The family produced niche artistes, musicians' musicians. That is why, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu took her teenage daughter Subbulakshmi to be blessed by Dhanammal; or Carnatic musicians Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Musiri Subramania Iyer frequented Brindamma's recital and Balamma's dance; or the older M.S. became a moved rasika when she sang ``Niddhirayil" with Balasaraswati at home.

Tradition is often interpreted as deadwood. Aniruddha is keen to show how every practitioner of the Dhanammal bani had the freedom to be original. They sang together but sisters Brinda and Mukta each had her own sub-bani. Viswanathan brought his personality into flute magic. Balamma's singing had its own auditory abhinaya.

Their impeccable tradition attracted votaries from other worlds. During his Madras visits, Hindustani maestro Abdul Karim Khan refused to sing until Dhanammal arrived in a rickshaw. Vilayat Khan went into raptures over Jayammal's singing in his Calcutta haveli. Amir Khan and Siddheswari Devi were among fellow artistes touched by Balasaraswati's abhinaya. She herself called it ``visual music.'

Balasaraswati's name was the seventh, and the only Asian, in the list of 100 best artistes in the U.S., compiled by the Rockefeller and Carnegie Mellon Foundations. Says Aniruddha, ``India remembers Balasaraswati for her abhinaya. But the West knew less about the nuances of expression. It was amazed by her brilliant technique."

Anirudhha Knight.

``Not many people know that Balasaraswati influenced contemporary dance in the West," says Aniruddha. Martha Graham and Dame Margot Fonteyn were among her fans. When she danced at Jacob's Pillow dance festival, Ted Shawn went down on one knee and intoned, ``We are in the presence of greatness." Merce Cunningham applauded her sense of total theatre.

Will his ancestors approve of going public with all these zealously, jealously guarded family treasures?

``I know my family is proud," he replies. ``This pride is not about individual achievements but our grand tradition."

Weren't they wary of publicity? ``As someone who grew up in the U.S., I know the value of making information accessible. In today's context I think my mother too would approve of my sharing family history. How else can I banish misconceptions and misreadings? Make sure that people remember those fabulous artistes long gone?"

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