Balasaraswati, in an undated photograph, excelled in the art of “abhinaya” (carrying emotion toward the audience) in the classical Indian dance form Bharata Natyam. (Photograph from Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Archives, Becket, Massachusetts.)
Balasaraswati (1918-1984) was a native of Madras and personified the Tanjore interpretation of bharata natyam, a classical dance style from South India. At her debut as a seven-year-old, she was admired for pure technique and facility with abhinaya or expressive mime, attributes that continued to be praised throughout her lifetime. Balasaraswati was the seventh generation in her family to be associated with classical dance and music. She was trained initially by the eminent Kundappa Pillai who, with his brothers, codified a training system for dancers. An affinity for mesmerizing audiences made Balasaraswati a veritable ambassador for bharata natyam outside India, appearing first in 1961 in Tokyo, launching her earliest North American tour in 1962 at Jacob's Pillow, and performing at the Edinburgh Festival in the following year. As a teacher and artist in residence, she was associated with several American universities and with the Balasaraswati School of Music and Dance in Berkeley. At home in India, she received many awards, including the title Exemplary Golden Lotus, usually received by outstanding statesmen and scholars.