Dancing in the Family Business

He is tall, slim, and strikingly long limbed. Dressed in jewel-colored silk tunics and antique ornaments that are family heirlooms, he looks more like a handsome young maharaja than a traditional South Indian dancer. But at 27, Aniruddha Knight is the ninth generation heir of a 200-year-old family of professional dancers and musicians from Chennai, India. He is also half American. His father, Douglas Knight, married into this artistically rich family when he studied classical drumming on a South Indian mridangam at Wesleyan University, where Aniruddha's late grandmother--T. Balasaraswati, India's prima danseuse--and her two musician brothers had taught since 1962. This spring, Knight is touring the Northeast with his six-member musical ensemble (including his father) and new works in a program entitled "From the Heart of a Tradition."

That tradition is bharat natyam, one of India's six major--and distinct--classical dance styles. It is taught to every middle-class girl in India and now, with immigrant teachers and establishment of dance schools across suburban America, it is vigorously practiced by Indians and Americans alike. However, the version that Knight dances is stylistically unique. It originated as a temple offering performed by young women who were dedicated to serving God by retelling ancient Hindu myths through music and dance in the temple courtyard. It was art in the service of religion, an act of worship, not popular entertainment. Eventually, some of the dancers were inducted by local princely families into becoming court performers. A stigma attached to the professional dancer that only disappeared when dance was recognized as a national art form at the time of India's independence in 1947, when the patronage of all dancers and musicians was taken over and sanctified by the secular government.

It was in this climate that Balasaraswati was recognized as the greatest Indian dancer of all time. Dance for Knight, as for his grandmother, is spontaneous, not rehearsed as the music is: as the ensemble sings a composition, he improvises movements; he follows the music, even joins in. He takes the lead, giving his accompanists a cue to move to the next line of text. In short, there is constant communication between dancer and the accompanists. The star of the show is first the music, then the dancer, who still uses the old compositions handed down as prayer, a love song to God. As Bala describes it, the aim is to create joy through beauty--a transporting ecstatic experience that is shared by dancer and audience through melody, rhythm and mime. Done right, the dancer could transport the audience through a near out-of-body experience into a rapturous state.

Knight's mother, Lakshmi, Balasaraswati's only child and longtime vocal accompanist, died of cancer in 2001. A highly trained singer, she did not learn to dance until late in life when she realized that this rare art would die out if she did not carry on the tradition. She became Balasarasati's principal pupil and, before Aniruddha was born, was a well-known dancer accompanied onstage by her mother who sang for her in an ironic role reversal. Lakshmi and Douglas raised the infant Ani in their idyllic New Jersey home on the wooded banks of a river, surrounded by music at all times: his father played the mridangam, his mother sang and danced in her puja room (a shrine devoted to the family gods). She taught a few handpicked American students: India's ancient arts were traditionally taught within the family, not to outsiders dropping in for an occasional lesson. Learning was through constant osmosis, an absorption of culture in the guru's home. "It is second nature to me," Knight says. "My mother performed onstage when she was seven months pregnant with me."

Knight is fluent in Tamil, his mother's language, and spends half a year in India, performing and learning from aunts and cousins who had worked with his mother. He has established a school and an archive of family history in Chennai. (The Smithsonian boasts an archive of Bala's performances, too.) It houses all the records of his grandmother's performances. "The pride of place is held by my great great grandmother's veena [a stringed instrument like a sitar]," he says. "She played it all her life, it's what she valued most. It's 175 years old, we revere it." Then he proudly recounts: "She was the first woman to play publicly, she composed thousands of pieces of music and played them for stalwarts in the profession. She changed South Indian music." Thinking back to these latest four generations of women whose mantle has fallen upon him, he feels blessed. Of his dual Indo-American heritage--when he's not in India, he's performing in such prestigious U.S. venues as Jacob's Pillow in Massachusetts and New York's Asia Society--he says: "It's isolating to identify with two cultures, it creates a split personality. I can never be just one or the other, it's a heartwrenching lonely process. But then, what I have, many don't have." Any regrets? "Yes, I lost my mother who was my friend and my teacher at a critical age. I miss her."

Critics invariably (and unfairly) compare Knight with his illustrious grandmother--at the peak of her career, after she had mastered her famed abhinaya (mime). But Knight is still young, and if his mastery of gesture, rhythm and movement is any indication, that fine abhinaya will come with maturity. What he has first to plumb is the full power of his strong masculinity, for which there is no precedent, as there are no male dancers in his ancestry. In the meantime, audiences are mesmerized by the beauty of his clean and precise movements. That he sings while he dances, anchors him firmly in the Balasaraswati tradition.