Indian Classical

Satyajit Ray profiles the great Bharat Natyam dancer Balasaraswati in all her glory

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The 33 minute documentary gives an apt introduction to the Indian dance form and one of its most famous exponents.

In his nearly four-decade career, Satyajit Ray, one of Indian’s most famous and talented filmmakers, was very profilic as he wrote, composed, directed, drew and, in general, left a lasting legacy as an artist. Besides all-time classics, he directed a number documentaries on several subjects. One of these, Bala, co-produced by the National Centre for the Performing Arts and the Tamil Nadu government, introduces us to the great Bharat Natyam dancer, Balasaraswati.

The 33 minute documentary, narrated by Ray in his sonorous voice, familiarizes audiences with the dancer’s work. Balasaraswati, who was 59 at the time of filming, demonstrates the basics of Bharat Natyam and how some mudras can be turned to convey several words and meanings. Bala traces her ancestry back several generations to the mid-18th century. The family was all connected with the arts. Balasaraswati’s grandmother was an accomplished veena player and her mother was a singer who encouraged her daughter’s dancing from the age of seven.

The slightly faded colour film traces Balasaraswati’s rise to the top, while artistes like Uday Shankar called her a “personal genius of a dancer”. It was his acclolade that aided her fame across the country and later led to her travelling the world from Tokyo in Japan to Edinburgh in Scotland for sold-out shows.

Ray’s film also captures some candid moments of the great dancer, playing games with her daughter Lakshmi and eating a meal with her brothers, musicians T Ranganathan and T Viswanathan.

But it is the two dances that he records that hold the most attention. In one, Balasaraswati performs a padam to ‘Krishnani Begone Baro’ by the beach and the film ends with a varnam to the god Shiva which shows off all her grace and fluidity. Her energy and presence are simply mesmerizing in the latter and her mudras flawless as the genius never misses a beat, wearing the same ghungroos (anklets) she wore at her debut.

Watching Balasaraswati dance, one can only imagine how captivating it must have been to watch her perform live. Ray wisely turns the camera over to her dance and lets it do the talking for the finale.

Bala was screened as part of a special package on The Legacy of Satyajit Ray at the 16th Mumbai International Film Festival on 31 January 2020. The film is available for viewing online today at the Films Division website.

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