Mother and daughter or daughter and mother?
- Aniruddha Knight
July 26, 2016
Mother, daughter, guru, disciple, friend, caretaker - a vast complex web that defined the enigma of a relationship between Balasaraswati and Lakshmi. In Balamma’s youth, her mother Jayammal played the role of manager, accompanist, mother, and guru. Through a very rocky relationship, they were the two pillars that defined what we call “dance music” (the actual method of singing for dance) today. In Balamma’s latter part of her career, particularly from the early 1960s, Lakshmi played the essential role of maintaining and pushing Balamma’s career. From ensuring the financial stability of the family to redesigning of her costume, Lakshmi was pivotal in making sure Balamma’s career moved forward in a world that was unfamiliar and unappealing to Balamma. Until Balamma’s last breath, Lakshmi was her caretaker. Balamma’s battles with cancer, diabetes, rheumatic fever and heart disease were battles that were equally fought by my mother as her own. As Balamma aged, the line between who was mother and who was daughter had blurred even further. Even 15 years after Balamma’s passing, my mother got so used to cooking and eating without salt (Balamma’s heart disease) that she would constantly forget to add salt in our meals at home!
My mother used to tell me quite often, “All these people say I started my career so late - they don’t know that all I did was watch Bala and her art all the time - I was in awe of her.” Today, the idea of learning is a conventional set time which one dedicates. In a familial artistic practice the process of learning relies much on observation and absorption (and of course “classes”) of the art. Lakshmi was Balamma’s protégé - she became the undeniable torchbearer of her tradition. My mother would say that her classes would happen on a whim, any time of day, anywhere. Many times Balamma would catch Lakshmi off guard by introducing a new item to the dance repertoire a day before a performance. I guess that was the way my mother learned over 100 padams from her mother.
For Lakshmi it was never a battle to become Balamma. That catfight was left to Balamma’s disciples! It was the love of her art and to continue a practice that no matter how much was passed on through talented disciples, could only survive if passed on within the family. Why? It is the bane of learning from such a great artist such as Balasaraswati to be protective of the nostalgia of the artist’s art; the need to relive it over and over again. There becomes a need to either isolate or self-gratify oneself as a mirror image of whom we idolize and near worship. The familial practice cannot afford such leeway, as its onus is the challenge to survive, find its new path, change, evolve and pass on to the next. No sentiment allowed - the art demands it. My greatest gratitude to my mother for giving me her art, so that I may make it mine, so that the next may make it theirs.
Aniruddha Knight is the grandson of the legendary dancer T. Balasaraswati and is the first male dancer in nine generations of one of India’s great professional artistic families. Aniruddha founded the Balasaraswati Institute of Performing Arts in Chennai in memory of his grandmother’s life and art where he imparts dance education to students from underprivileged backgrounds.
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