In the first half of the 20th century South Indian temple dance underwent a remarkable transformation from a low-caste activity to a national art form—from nautch to bharatanāṭyam. This transformation was nurtured by the Indian nationalist movement, which was deeply rooted in European Orientalism and Victorian morality.
The earlier dance repertoire focused on amorous relationships between a nayaki (female devotee) and nayaka (male deity), the latter often identified as the earthy, sensual, and sometimes philandering Krishna or Murugan. For the newer repertoire, a more suitable nayaka was Shiva as Naṭarāja—resonant with spiritual detatchment and masculine power, an ideal model for both revivers of dance and Indian nationalist politicians.
The Western-educated philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy groomed Naṭarāja for this role and brought him to the attention of artists including Rukmini Devi Arundale, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn. Arundale, in particular, moved Naṭarāja to center stage, both as an independent force and as one heavily conditioned by a set of people and ideas.
“Rukmini Devi and I noticed a girl watching, day after day, from the window, the dance classes we were teaching in the Mirror Cottage in the Theosophical Society where Kalakshetra was then situated. The child did this invariably on her way back home from The Besant Theosophical High School.”
“Rukmini Devi—Athai—called the child inside and asked her: ‘Would you like to dance?’ The child’s joy knew no bounds and she readily tried to repeat the dance she had been viewing. Athai immediately arranged for her, Krishnaveni, to join Kalakshetra as a part-time student.”
Lakshmanan went on to become “a danseuse of exceptional talent, versatility, and genius. Indeed, a very rare combination of stage presence and presentation! Devoted and totally dedicated to her career, which balances both teaching and performing. Krishnaveni is God’s beautiful gift to the magic world of dance.”
Quoted from “Krishnaveni of Kalakshetra” (Sruti 241 [October 2004] 19–22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2004-34001.)
Today would have been Lakshmanan’s 80th birthday! Below, rare footage of her in performance.
T. Balasaraswati (1918–84), a dancer and musician from southern India, became recognized worldwide as one of the great performing artists of the twentieth century. In India she was a legend in her own time, acclaimed before she was 30 years old as the greatest living dancer of traditional bharatanāṭyam.
Balasaraswati was a passionate revolutionary, an entirely modern artist whose impact was proclaimed by some of the most prominent figures in contemporary dance in India and the West. Her art and life defined the heart of a tradition, and her life story offers an extraordinary view of the enigmatic matrilineal devadāsī community and traditional artistic practice from which modern South Indian dance styles have emerged.
This according to Balasaraswati: Her art and life by Douglas M. Knight (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010).
Today is Balasaraswati’s 100th birthday! Below, a 30-minute film about her by Satyajit Ray.
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