“A Radiant Aesthetic Force”

In celebration of Women’s History Month (March 2020), we recall with respect, awe, and affection the life and artistry of Thanjavur Balasaraswati (1918-1984). Not every organization has its patron saint, but Balasaraswati certainly was and remains such for the Center for World Music. The impact of the art of this great lady, once described by Dr. Narayana Menon as “perhaps the greatest Indian dancer of the past thousand years,” provided the original inspiration for Luise and Samuel Scripps to found and fund the American Society for Eastern Arts (ASEA) in 1963. The ASEA later became the Center for World Music.

Balasaraswati, studio portrait, Madras, 1934

Born in a family of musicians and dancers connected to the royal court of Thanjavur, Bala embodied a matriarchal lineage of artists that the family traced back to the 18th century, at least seven generations. Her grandmother, mother, and brothers were all renowned musicians. She was to play an important pivotal role in the revival of bharata natyam (classical temple dance) and its transformation into a stage art in modern India. Equally important, she became the leading ambassador of South Indian classical dance to the world, being invited during the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s for repeated tours and residencies in the United States, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere.

A great artist, greatest of all living bharata natyam dancers . . . one of the last surviving representatives of the authentic tradition in which dance is a deep-felt spiritual experience. (Indian Express, February 11, 1971)

A radiant aesthetic force . . . (Times of India, March 1972)

Balasaraswati, photo by Jan Steward

With her daughter Lakshmi and her ensemble of musicians, Balasaraswati enthralled professional dancers and musicians, students, and recital audiences during summer workshops organized by the American Society for Eastern Arts. These took place at Mills College in Oakland, California in the summers of 1965, 1966, and 1972, as well as in Bali, Indonesia in 1971. In 1974, Bala and her ensemble—along with K. V. Narayanaswamy and other senior South Indian musicians—figured prominently in the inaugural program of the Center for World Music, a summer session at the Center’s original location in Berkeley, California.

We remember an inspiring artistic giant, a woman that looms large in the history of world dance . . . and the history of the Center for World Music.

For Further Exploration

Knight, Douglas M. 2010. Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life. Wesleyan Univ. Press.

“Bala” (1976), a documentary by Satyajit Ray, the famed Bengali filmmaker.

Documentary by Aniruddha Knight, Balasaraswati’s grandson.