Satyajit Ray’s “Bala”: Lesser work of a master filmmaker?
When a colossus in the field of cinema crosses paths with a colossus in the field of dance, it makes for a historically significant moment. And so it was in 1976 that the worlds of Satyajit Ray and Tanjore Balasaraswati briefly came together, when the former was commissioned by the NCPA and the Government of Tamil Nadu to make a documentary film, Bala, on the latter.
The film, at little over half hour in length, offers a peek into the craft of one of the most acclaimed Bharatanatyam exponents ever. For the most part, Ray is a bystander who is interested in objectively recording the world of the dancer rather than defining it in subjective ways for the viewer. (The notable exception to this approach is discussed in this piece.) With his rich, baritone voice he is the physically absent narrator who looks out of the window at the world beyond to create snapshots of Bala for the sake of posterity.
Speaking of documentary style, Ray’s work is closer to Direct Cinema than it is to the related, yet subtly different, Cinema Vérité (literally “Cinema truth”)—where both styles aim to capture and present reality as it is, though it can be pointed out that any such presentation is necessarily a representation because the filmmaker’s subjectivity is inescapable. So, then, there are no spontaneous, unfiltered truths that can be captured by the camera—everything in the film is staged, and what the audience sees is shaped by the sensibility of the filmmaker.
Apart from certain technical differences between the two styles, Direct Cinema and Cinema Vérité can be distinguished from each other by the level of the viewer’s consciousness of the filmmaker’s presence in the documentation of reality—in Direct Cinema, where interviews and narration are sparingly used, the filmmaker recedes more into the background and actively tries to minimize, as much as possible, his or her ideological considerations; on the other hand, in Cinema Vérité, the filmmaker steps more into the foreground, determined to cull out the truth or the essence by probing into the workings of the subject’s inner world—with this probing reflective of the filmmaker highlighting certain themes over others, thus shaping the trajectory of the narrative.
Bala opens with images of South Indian temple ‘gopurams’ (or towers) and temple sculptures as Ray traces the historical roots of the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam to Bharatamuni’s ‘Natyashastra’, that seminal work from the 4th century B.C on theatre and related arts. Ray’s introduction is a useful starting point, almost a primer, for the uninitiated viewer on the basics of this dance form, before he or she can move on to appreciating its complexities and subtleties. The concept of ‘mudra’ or hand gesture is explained, and we see how meaning is created out of Bala’s demonstration of the peacock mudra and its variations.
Ray then goes back in time to sketch, in sepia-tinted hues, Bala’s generations-old family ties with dance and music, and places Bharatanatyam in its original socio-cultural context of the temple where it flourished, when temple dancers or ‘devadasis’ were patronized by Indian royalty. With the onset of colonial rule and the disappearance of royal patronage, the devadasis lost their means of livelihood and came to be seen as morally reprehensible beings who were a disgrace to so-called respectable society. Both devadasis and their art came to be sullied.
When, in 1920, a two-year-old Bala decided that she wanted to be a dancer and not a singer, her encouraging mother boldly decided to disregard the mores of the time. At this point, we see Bala speak for the first time, in rather hesitant English, about her pupil days under her guru, Kandappa Pillai. Then, music and dance historian Dr. V. Raghavan comments on Bala’s dance and draws special attention to her younger days. Later, dance maestro Uday Shankar who played a crucial role in Bala’s rise to national fame—conveyed by images of old newspaper clips—recalls how exceptional he found her dance to be.
Now comes the part where Ray does more than just document the world of the dancer: he presents it in a definitive, steadfast way for the viewer. After his use of the Direct Cinema technique in filming his subject so far, Ray suddenly takes a detour—in what can be called a poetic (or cinematic) license—when he decides to frame Bala’s dance to the ‘Krishna nee begane baaro’ song in the background of the ocean, for which he has drawn flak from dancer and academic Avanthi Meduri who writes that the “ocean backdrop is so imposing in its magnificence that it manages to effectively subsume, efface, and abstract the quotidian details involved in the rendering of the padam,” which she defines as a “lyrical, poetic, melodic composition sung in a leisurely manner” (Albright and Gere, 2003, pp. 141-150). Indeed, the mighty ocean gobbles up all the nuances and intricacies of Bala’s rendering of the padam, something that is undoubtedly discomfiting to the discerning ‘rasika’ (or aesthete). Ray’s “deep admiration of the subject” (in Andrew Robinson’s words, 1992, p. 274) is, perhaps, to be blamed for this.
The fact that Ray chooses the ocean—an embodiment of the imperishable that is sure to inspire awe even in the most prosaic of minds—as the context for Bala’s performance gives away Ray’s unconcealed awe for Bala’s artistry, an artistry which, for him, is just as boundless as the waves of the ocean, waves that—as the camera shows—dance in and out perennially. This is the one scene in the documentary where what the audience sees is explicitly shaped by Ray’s sensibility, with his littoral interpretation of the inner world of Bala’s art suddenly bursting forth onto the screen. Direct Cinema briefly gives way to a kind of Cinema Vérité here in that the audience is more conscious of Ray’s invisible presence, which instills one particular view of Bala and her art, both cast in the mould of eternity.
Towards the end of the padam, the sweep of the ocean gives way to the sweep of Bala’s worldwide recognition. Music and dance scholar Dr. V. K. Narayana Menon speaks of the “Indian year” that was 1963 at the Festival of Arts in Edinburgh with other greats such as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and M. S. Subbulakshmi. Bala had “eight solo recitals,” with the reception “rapturous.” This leads to the bit about Bala’s appeal bringing her teaching assignments in American universities and more honors back home. Then the camera captures a few candid moments in the day-to-day life of Bala: at home in Madras, she sits on the floor weaving a flower garland, with a reclining cane chair visible in the background; she plays a game of dice seated on a mat (or ‘paay’ as it is called in Tamil); she enjoys a quiet meal at the dining table with her family; later, she teaches her daughter Lakshmi.
The final segment—a major chunk lasting nearly 14 minutes, which is roughly one half of the film—begins with Bala getting ready for a stage performance of a pada varnam (the pièce de résistance of a Bharatanatyam recital), which is a ‘raagamaalika’ (garland of raagaas) based mainly on the Carnatic Bhairavi. As she ties her anklets last, “the same pair, which Bala wore for her debut more than fifty years ago,” the context is the stage—modern Bharatanatyam’s terra firma—with the accompanying musicians to one side and this is certainly a far cry from the earlier context of the ocean. The backdrop of the stage is undoubtedly more conducive to the viewer’s getting a grip on the dancer’s use of abhinaya or expression, and the essential unity of the three elements of Bharatanatyam—’bhava’ (emotion), ‘raaga’ (melody) and ‘taala’ (rhythm). This time, it seems, the camera is content with capturing the performance without imposing any specific meanings on it. Bala’s conclusion of her recital is the conclusion of the film, and the viewer is left with the final image of Bala’s salutation to her audience.
My experience of Bala: The film distinctly leaves the viewer with wanting for more. Despite my dissatisfaction with the treatment of the subject, which, I felt, demanded a deeper engagement with the multiple elements that constitute Bharatanatyam, it was thoroughly gratifying to see the legend come alive onscreen. And this etching of Bala on celluloid is what posterity will thank Ray for. His evocation of Bala—ocean or no ocean—is a testament to her genius, and what the film offers is just a very small sample of that genius.
Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The inner eye, Calcutta: Rupa & Co., 1992.
Avanthi Meduri, “Multiple pleasures: Improvisation in Bharatanatyam,” in Taken by surprise: A dance improvisation reader, Eds. Ann Cooper Albright and David Gere, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.