Found: Bala (1976, Satyajit Ray) and an Extant Recordings List

Thursday, March 22, 2012
Only two documentaries are said to have been made on the legendary devadasi/Bharatanatyam dancer T. Balasaraswati (Sruti magazine).  The first was a 1962 recording titled Balasaraswati produced by Wesleyan University in the US, and the second was a 1976 documentary titled Bala directed by Satyajit Ray.

The Wesleyan recording appears to be available for purchase [Update: no longer locatable now] and short clips from it are on YouTube, but the Satyajit Ray documentary is as elusive as can be!  I don't think it's ever been commercially released, and only a few film studies programs and government archives seem to have copies which are unfortunately rarely screened.  As luck would have it, this week I found a copy of the rare documentary online.  Blocky artifacts due to apparent heavy compression made for a less-than-ideal viewing experience, so I cleaned up the video to make it as presentable as possible given the source.  I rarely post entire films, but I'm presenting this one for not only the educational value of discussing it here but also because it is an important archival recording of a critical figure in the history of India's classical dance traditions.  Ray himself apparently saw the film's "main value as archival" and he "put on film a rare performer for future generations to marvel at" (Robinson).

Here is the wonderful documentary; time markers of interest (if you watch the video on YouTube you can click on the times in the description and go straight to that point of the video): 2:07 - Bala demonstrating hand gestures 3:57 - Bala singing and performing abhinaya 7:00 - Bala speaking in English 8:29 - An elderly Uday Shankar speaking about Bala 9:58 - Bala's Krishna Ne Begane Baro dance by the ocean 18:58 - Bala's varnam dance with her musical ensemble.  (Note - A better version of Bala is now available on YouTube; please see my June 8 postI have not yet removed my version below in case others have linked to/embedded it). 

In the book Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, author Andrew Robinson describes how Satyajit Ray became interested in Balasaraswati and the original intent of the documentary:
“Satyajit first saw Balasaraswati, ‘the greatest Bharata Natyam dancer ever’ according to him, in Calcutta in 1935. He was fourteen – just falling under the sway of western classical music – and she was about seventeen. He immediately fell for her. [...] Ray was originally to have made his film [Bala] in 1966, when Bala was forty-eight. Something went wrong and he could not get started until 1976. He felt a twinge of regret at having missed recording her in her prime but consoled himself 'with the thought that Bala filmed at 58 was better than Bala not being filmed at all'."
While researching others' opinions about the documentary Bala, I found that many of them, while respecting the importance of the footage being recorded, felt shades of negativity.  Robinson says:
"What it somewhat lacks, apart from the whole-hearted cooperation of Balasaraswati herself (who was shy of speaking in English and unwilling to be drawn about her early life, when dancing was considered by polite society to be virtually synonymous with prostitution), is the total grasp of its subject that Ray brings to, say, Indian and western classical music. He admits that he did not seriously study Bharata Natyam until he came to make Bala. That is probably why, despite the many pleasures the film affords the sympathetic spectator, it also seems a little slack."
In the excellent article "Multiple Pleasures: Improvisation in Bharatanatyam," Avanthi Meduri notes that "Balasaraswati was particularly celebrated for her rendition of the padam known as Krishna Ne Begane Baro" which means "Krishna, hurry into my embrace" and is improvised with a fresh interpretation each time the phrase is repeated.  Meduri then discusses the padam's film version in Ray's documentary and takes issue with Ray's placement of the dance performance with a live ocean backdrop.  She asks, "Did the director situate Bala against this backdrop as a way to naturalize and essentialize the dance, to evoke notions of cosmic plenitude, timelessness, and infinitude? Or did he desire merely to spiritualize and idealize both the dancer and the dance?"  She feels that, regardless of Ray's good intentions, the performance falls flat because Bala is "separated from immediate engagement with her musical ensemble, which had always supported and accompanied her live performances."  Meduri then makes some very interesting points:
"In the Ray film, we behold not a confident but a distraught Bala, one trying to manage her fly-away hair and sari. We also behold a dancer valiantly trying to respond to musical cadences and word phrases emerging from an ensemble that she is unable to see or interact with. [...] There is a certain poetic poignancy to all this, because Bala spoke against mechanical, commodified performances of this kind that sever the integral links connecting the dancer with music […] What is preserved then in Ray’s documentary version and held as artistic treasure in the National Archives in India is a somewhat wooden presentation of the dance that had long secured international recognition for Balasaraswati.”
“Bharatanatyam, Bala used to say, ‘was divine as it is, and innately so.’ The dance did not require that it be placed within the backdrop of the Indian Ocean in order to be perceived as spiritual. If Satyajit Ray desired to underscore the spiritual values of Bharatanatyam, he could have achieved this by simply locating the dancer and the dance within the live sensuousness and materiality of her ensemble, the artistic context or locale that enables the process and phenomena of multiple improvisations described above.”
While I'm first and foremost simply ecstatic to be able to see recordings of Bala dancing, speaking, and living at her home, and that is quite enough to make me happy, if pressed for my opinion of her dancing I do, overall, feel disappointed, particularly in her pure dance segments.  While the quality of the dance could have been affected somewhat by the points made by Robinson and Meduri above, my impression is that Bala was not in her prime here (she was almost 60, after all) and I can only assume that her dancing during her younger years was more satisfying. Ray seemed to allude to that a bit when he said above that a "Bala filmed at 58 was better than Bala not being filmed at all."  But, again, the documentary's sheer archival pleasure it provides of a rare dancer is to be absolutely celebrated and can be celebrated alone.

Tracking Extant Recordings of Bala

Having now seen Ray's documentary and having also just seen the DVD "Krishna Ni," here is a list of what I understand to be all the existing recordings of Bala's dance with some screencaps to make sense of it all! :)

 Bala (1976, Satyajit Ray)

As mentioned above, contains all of the dances pictured:

"Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life" Book Launch Presentation

This is the video I posted about a few days back.  During Douglas Knight's presentation he shows three video clips: a sepia-toned dance of Bala, footage of Mylapore Gauri Ammal, and the recording/documentary Balasaraswati produced by Wesleyan in 1962 with Bala in a yellow sari.  I identified the Wesleyan documentary as such because the title "Balasaraswati" is displayed at one point.  Knight's presentation cuts off the end credits of the Balasaraswati documentary, but they can be seen in the Balasaraswati's Krishna Ni DVD described next.

Krishna Ni (2006, DVD)

This DVD combines two existent recordings; first the recording/documentary Balasaraswati produced by Wesleyan in 1962 (viewable in Knight's presentation above and in a shortened black and white clip on YouTube) and second the documentary on Balasaraswati produced by her grandson Aniruddha Knight that he posted on YouTube (see next listing for more details).  The Wesleyan documentary is the same one shown in Knight's presentation above, but the DVD shows the end credits that Knight cut off.

 T. Balasaraswati (2006, Aniruddha Knight) 

 Aniruddha posted this documentary on his YouTube channel and it is the same video that forms the second half of the "Krishna Ni" DVD above.  While it contains a bunch of short dance clips from Ray's Bala documentary and the Balasaraswati Wesleyan documentary, it most excitingly contains a few clips from a performance of Bala in a red and gold sari that are not found in any other sources here.  Aniruddha also posted a brief, black and white version of the dance on his channel (and someone else posted a brief color version too) where he identifies the dance as "T. Balasaraswati dancing Deva Devanum Shabdham Taken by Samuel Scripps 1976".  His documentary also has a few photos that I haven't seen elsewhere.


  1. I am so totally re-blogging this.
    Thanks a lot. You made my day.


  3. Happy to have made your day Ragothaman. And thank you for the repost and careful attention!

  4. This is a good find . Apart from the fact that Balasaraswati dances like she's a hunchback, the film is important for historical reasons.

    Satyajit ray is out of his depth in the film as well, but he often waded into areas where he sounded like the amateur he was , and got thoroughly criticized. I guess it's a latitude you afford to renascence men that they can be amateurs on many subjects they are talking about , if only because they bring their cleansing vision to analyze and contextualize the subject at hand in a fresh way...

    Still I wonder if I would have paid much attention to this doc(Bala) if Satyajit ray 's name had not been attached to it.

    Thanks again , minai , for finding it.

    1. Hehe! A hunchback! I wouldn't go that far, but I would agree that much of her dancing (especially the ending dance) left a canyon of things to be desired. Interesting point re: Ray- didn't realize he apparently did that fairly often. I assumed he was perfection personified from what I've read... :D

    2. Ah Ray had his lacunae. His comedy films were somewhat crudely made (goopy is delightful but amateurish) , as he grew older he started making made for TV dramas. His grasp of politics was somewhat....well meaning ? and his documentary films were passable at best. He did have strengths which he played to very well(originality and a solid visual narrative structure gave his films more certainty than they really had..but then Ray never professed to be perfection personified. OTHERS put him on a pedestal.

  5. Thanks so much for posting this. I had been looking for a copy of this film for years! And now it's on You Tube! I'm re-posting this to Sacred Space.

    1. Isabel - I feel very happy being able to bring this film to light, especially after hearing from so many people that they've been seeking this film for a long time, just like you.

  6. Thanks for sharing this rare work of art ! I am sharing this with my family who are very involved in music and dance. My dad sings (he is studying singing after a 30+ year engineering career) and my mother teaches dance.

    1. Hello Sayan - I'm happy to see that not only yourself but your family is enjoying the rare video! Thanks for stopping by. :)

  7. the work you're doing is wwwwwwoowwwonnnderfulll!! Neeraj Sahay, SRFTI, kolkata

    1. Neeraj Sahay - I'm delighted to see your comment, especially because you are apparently associated with the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in India! I'm happy that news of Bala's availability is reaching the institutions who would be most interested. I assume you also saw my later post on June 8 regarding an even better quality print of Bala posted by the Imagine India Film Festival folks. I have kept my version online in order to not break links and such, and I just made an edit to this post to point people in the direction of the better version. Thank you again for your comment.

  8. As an elderly Tamil Brahmin man, I retained faith in some nebulous confabulation of Balasarawati as not entirely ugly and elephantine.
    I was wrong. Bala's abhinay was disgusting- bibhatsa bhava- because she was ugly, muscular and utterly graceless.
    By contrast, any rope dancer of 12- whether at the time of Mohenjo Daro or the Sillapadikaram or now EXCEEDS THIS CREDENTIAlZED PIECE OF CHAUVINIST BRAHMINIST CULTURAL HISTORY to the same exact degree that my words exceed your understanding.


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