Rare Video of Devadasis Gauri Ammal and Balasaraswati

Sunday, March 18, 2012
While chatting with an online friend about the history of devadasis and other topics related to this blog, my friend pointed out that the website of the Asia Society had a video containing a rare clip of devadasi Mylapore Gowri Ammal dancing.  The video was Douglas Knight's presentation at the June 2010 Asia Society-hosted launch of his book, Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life.  As I watched, I was completely astonished to discover that not only did it have an almost 3-minute video of Gauri Ammal's abhinaya (!) but also it contained two separate clips (with nearly 13-minutes of collective dance footage) of the legendary devadasi T. Balasaraswati.

Here is the stunning video with the dance segments notated above.  The first two dances have no sound and Mr. Knight reads excerpts from his book in the background. (Here's the original video link if needed.)

 12:02-16:00 - Balasaraswathi dancing on stage
 18:13-20:54 - Mylapore Gowri Ammal
 22:34-34:09 - Balasaraswathi performing an alapana starting at 23:25 and then dancing to Krishna Nee Begane Baro starting at 25:17 (according to Sangeetha's blog).

What rare, full-length videos!  I'm under the impression that the Gowri Ammal clip is incredibly rare and probably the only available video of her in existence.  She was the noted devadasi who taught perhaps the two biggest names in the revival of Bharatanatyam, T. Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi.  I've read a lot of references to her abhinaya, and I think this clip is a great demonstration of her reputed skills. The two T. Balasaraswati clips are apparently part of the three available recordings made of her dance according to Ragothaman Yennamalli in his review of Knight's book.  Ragothaman names the third recording, a recording of Bala's "Krishna Nee Begane Baro" filmed on the Mahabalipuram beach, as part of Satyajit Ray's film Bala

But I think there might be a fourth recording.  It's the one that I featured in my Devadasi-Like Dances in Classic South Indian Films post and that's viewable on YouTube in black and white and color.  I think it's taken from the DVD "Balasaraswati's Krishna Ni."  Balasaraswati is in a completely different costume than the other three dances which makes me think it's a different recording.  It's hard to say for sure; maybe Ragothaman, who I think is the same Ragothaman that's posted a few comments on this blog recently, will weigh in. :)

Other than the incredible dance footage, I was struck by the very white, middle-aged appearance of Douglas Knight!  I remember noticing the nonIndian name authoring the Balasaraswati book but didn't look into it much until now.  It turns out that Knight was the late Balasaraswati's son-in-law through marriage to her only child Lakshmi.  The couple had a son, Aniruddha Knight, who is still keeping up the dance tradition of his grandmother today.

Last, I see that the rare clips in the above video have been incorporated into a short documentary on T. Balasaraswati produced by her grandson Aniruddha Knight, which is interesting in its heavy emphasis on western reactions to Bala's dance.  I also see two very short clips that don't appear to be clearly part of any of the above-mentioned four recordings; one is of her in a red and white colored costume and the other of her teaching her daughter Lakshmi. Here is the video:

I'm so happy that these rare dances were brought to my attention! How wonderful to be able to get some additional glimpses at what some devadasis might have danced like.


  1. Hi Minai,
    Humbling to see my name popping up in your blog. Yes, I am the same Ragothaman who commented on your blog, wrote the review in narthaki and shared the video in Sangeetha's blog. Ok, I think I have bragged enough.
    1. As you say the black and white video is most probably the fourth and probably not recorded by Satyajit Ray. I think (I haven't seen to tell with full confidence) it is from this archive (http://www.centerforworldmusic.org/schools/three.html#Bala).The one shot by Satyajit Ray showed her daily routine and interactions with her family members as well (according to an interview of Yamini Krishnamoorthy that I read recently.)
    2. Yes, when I saw the book release video in the asiatic society website (before I wrote the review) I was spellbound by seeing the only available video of Gowri Ammal. It is sad that we never bothered to document artist's lives and their art, like the way they do in the west.
    3. The documentary by her grandson shows some videos that I have not seen before. They are new!! (you know what I mean by new). Also the rendition of Krishna Nee Begane Baro I hope and I surely think it is in HER voice. The only video where her voice can be heard is in this (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_x22PPVAEk) after 0:59 secs.
    4. I think the video of teaching her daughter Lakshmi is most probably from the Satyajit Ray's video.
    5. If you get a chance to see Aniruddha Knight's performance, sure make it! It is worth a trip to find (indirectly though) the way Balasaraswathi used to dance. (Click on Program: http://aniruddhaknight.com/flash.swf)

    PS: If you are able to get hold of the documentary, please let me know. I have a small speculation that it might be out of print!

    1. Raghu – The humbling is all mine! I have some exciting news for you- I’ve found video of Ray's Bala documentary, and having watched the whole thing I can confirm that the clip of her in the red and white costume and the clip of her teaching her daughter Lakshmi are both from the Satyajit Ray documentary. Everything I’ve read so far has said that there were two documentaries done on her- one was Ray’s, and the other was filmed in 1962 at Wesleyan University in the US. I think you’re right that the black and white clip is most likely from the Wesleyan one, and I think the one of her in the yellow sari and white blouse is also from that same Wesleyan doc – neither of those dances appear in Ray’s documentary. Stay tuned – I’ll have a post up soon on the Ray doc and you can see it in all its glory (there are completely new dances in it along with life footage and lots of pictures, footage of Bala speaking, etc!!).

  2. Hi Minai,
    You are one very lucky girl to find Satyajit Ray's documentary "Bala". AND YOU WATCHED IT ENTIRELY!!! (I am very very surprised!!!) Are you telling me that you will put the entire documentary up? (ok, now I am jumping out of my seat) I will be super duper excited to see that. If this is true, my only worry is that someone (you know whom I am referring to) would object to it and take it down :( I hope nothing like that happens. Were you able to get hold of the Wesleyan docu? If it is still in print, I would like to get a copy too. :)
    So eagerly waiting for your next writeup....


    PS: Is it possible for you to send me a hard copy of the Ray's docu? I will not circulate it. :)

  3. Raghu - This response is a little late since I've already posted about the doc, but yeppers, I sure watched the whole thing! OMG! ;) The rest of your questions were answered in the doc post or by virtue of it being on YouTube. :)


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