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Vol. XXIX No. 11, September 16-30, 2019
August 2019 has been a merciless month, claiming the lives of outstanding individuals from different walks of life in quick succession. We had barely begun to recover from the death of music director Khayyam, when we were shattered by the passing of another brilliant artist whose impact on dance aesthetics and standards spanned six decades. Veteran Bharatanatyam guru C.K. Balagopalan succumbed to a cardiac arrest at his Chennai home days just eleven 11 days before his eightieth birthday on 4th September. He was teaching till the very end. In fact, he was actively rehearsing to perform Kalidasa’s Kumara Sambhavam at Kalakshetra’s forthcoming December Art Festival.
“Balan Anna” was a dancer and dance teacher I’ve admired ever since I first saw him on stage some 45 years ago. It was at what is now called the Rukmini Arangam inside Kalakshetra. It was an open-air theatre at that time, where you sat under the moonlit sky and watched the magic wrought by Balagopalan and his dedicated band of colleagues unified by their devotion to their art, Kalakshetra and their ‘Athai’ Rukmini Devi Arundale.
Balagopalan was a magician on stage, mesmerising succeeding generations of audiences in a wide variety of roles. A tiny little man, thin as a reed, dressed in a simple white shirt or jibba and veshti, he looked mild and unprepossessing in real life, though the mischief in his eyes often hinted at hidden depths. Once on stage, he assumed a veritable viswarupa, whether he was playing Hanuman, Krishna, Sakuni or Bharata. Of all these varied parts, Hanuman was his favourite character. He once said, “My fortunes changed dramatically once I started playing Hanuman. Anjaneya’s grace led to many people helping me start my own dance school after retirement from Kalakshetra.” Onlookers forgot his small frame as he brought the monkey god to life magnificently. It was Balagopalan’s unshakeable faith and devotion that helped him to cause the involuntary suspension of disbelief in the rasika to whom he appeared larger than life, a veritable giant. With his expressive eyes and mobile face honed by his Kathakali training under his first asan Chandu Panikkar, he stole the hearts of Kalakshetra’s sophisticated rasikas in a phenomenal range of roles including Lakshmana, Bharata, Ravana as the kapata sanyasi, Kannappar (one of his most poignant presentations) and Maha Vishnu.
A scouting mission by Kathakali asan Chandu Panikkar at the behest of Rukmini Devi brought him and his friend VP Dhananjayan from Kerala to Kalakshetra. Balagopalan preferred football to books during his early years at Kalakshetra, and as he progressed as a dancer, Bharatanatyam to Kathakali. Panikkar’s main pupils were Balagopalan, Dhananjayan and Kunhiraman. They would each be a towering figure in the institution in the years to come. Dhananjayan and Kunhiraman left Kalakshetra for other pastures while Balan and a younger star pupil, Janardanan, stayed back till their retirement. Balagopalan never forgot to thank his many gurus from Asan and Rukmini Devi to other, younger teachers like NS Jayalakshmi, Pushpa Shankar, Adyar Lakshman, Vasantha, and the perfectionist Sarada Hoffman. S. Sarada, fondly known as Periya Sarada Teacher, was a major influence on all the students.
Balagopalan had the honour of seeing his biography published in his lifetime. It was written by one of his disciples Eliza Louis, a nun who presently teaches Bharatanatyam in Paris, France. Titled Leap of Faith, Mesmeric Hanuman of Kalakshetra, it has a literally and metaphorically apt picture of the artist as an airborne Anjaneya. A painstaking and moving tribute from a devoted sishya and believer of another faith, the book was released on Balagopalan’s 79th birthday. It is a true symbol of the eclecticism that inspired the founder of Kalakshetra and her followers.
His wife Leela gives us a glimpse into Balagopalan’s personality, with particular reference to his occasionally short fuse. “If you are patient at the time of his outbursts, he’ll just surrender to you later.” Their children Pranesh and Prithvija trained to be dancers under their father’s watchful eye. The talented Prithvija continues to pursue a career performing and teaching Bharatanatyam with great commitment. Pranesh is involved in filmmaking and recently worked as the assistant director in Puducherry-based Kirubhakaran Kaarthikeyan’s maiden feature film His Father’s Voice, in which Balagopalan played the role of Janaka in a brief but poignant enactment from the Ramayana.
Balagopalan’s refined abhinaya easily set him apart from most dancers of his time. His iconic interpretation of the role of Hanuman was the crowning glory of his career. Rukmini Devi said of him that the small man could “fill the stage with his presence and make everything else seem puny.” I watched him once injure himself seriously during one of his breathtaking entries leaping and flying as Rama’s lieutenant, only to resume dancing after receiving some first aid and medical attention from Sydney-based Dr. P. Janardanan, who happened to be in the audience. He was confined to bed for months afterwards. Typically, Balagopalan blamed himself for the relative lack of rigour in his usual pujas in the run-up to that production.
His biographer said, “All through his growing years, and even today in his seventies, he has not lost the wonder and inquisitive nature of a child.” He loved nature and animals, and even reared a squirrel and a mongoose as a boy. He once rode a donkey on the beach with disastrous results, as his lifelong friend Dhananjayan remembers.
“Balan Anna’s” lifetime commitment to his art reminded me of these words of George Bernard Shaw: “Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got hold of for the moment; and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.»