British Arangetrams is FIPA’s online oral history resource featuring an intriguing collection of thirty-five memories and experiences of Bharatanatyam dancers who have done their arangetrams. Apart from the introductory video, these unedited interviews by nine gurus and their students offer viewers a wonderful opportunity to hear these stories unfold with direct integrity.
Although the interviewees are mostly South Asians who are resident in the UK, interviewees have come from a wide cross-section of ages and ethnicities.
The memories were collected with the comfort of interviewees in mind, not always under ideal recording conditions and may contain technical flaws. We hope that these will not detract viewers from enjoying the content of the material.
This project is in partnership with Kadam, and the interviews are also available in their online Pulse Magazine www.pulseconnects.com
British Arangetrams was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
This collection has been made possible by the following gurus and their students who kindly gave their time to make this project possible and to whom we extend our deepest thanks.
ANUSHA SUBRAMANYAM www.beeja.com
Catherine Flood, Vaishnavee Sreeharan
GEETHA UPADHYAYA www.kalasangam.org
Abi Deivanayagam, Aditi Sivaramakrishnan, Ashika Kutti Vijay,
Bavya Makani, Torral Mistry
KIRAN RATNA www.indiadancewales.com
Megan Lloyd, Seeta Patel www.seetapatel.co.uk
Soumya Pandalai, Vibha Selvaratnam
NINA RAJARANI www.srishti.co.uk
Bhakti Raval, Seema Sodha
Rachel Saranka Gunaseelan,
Shrimathi Susanna www.indian-dance.co.uk
PRAKASH YADAGUDDE www.bhavan.net
Mayuri Boonham www.facebook.com/atmadance
PUSHKALA GOPAL www.facebook.com/people/Pushkala-Gopal/508360672
Hiten Mistry, Kasthuri Sathiyavarathan, Lavina Suthenthiran,
Natalie George, Shreenidhi Subramaniam
USHA RAGHAVAN www.usharaghavan.com
Ahalya Pushpanjah, Gayathrie Jayanthan, Jayashree Sundaresan,
Meena & Ritu Raj
The Great British Arangetram
Written by Ash Mukherjee www.ashmukherjee.com
Meaning and origin
Arangetram is the debut on-stage performance of a Bharatanatyam student. It is a Tamil word. Arangu meaning Stage and Etram meaning to enter or to ascend.
The Telegu language equivalent is Ranga Pravesham, where Ranga means stage and Pravesham means to enter. This would happen on completion of at least seven years of intensive training by the dedicated dance student. Texts from the golden age of Tamil literature and poetry known during the Sangam Age such as the Silappadikaram and Tolkappiyam give indication to a variety of dance customs in practice at the time. It is a quarry of knowledge of ancient Tamil culture, society and its practices, in which the arts of music and dance were extremely developed and played a key role. The Silappadikaram is of particular importance, since one of its main characters, the courtesan Madhavi, is a highly proficient dancer. The custom of Arangetram is mentioned in this, by Prince Ilango Adigal. In the chapter Arangetrukaadai or the chapter of ascending the stage, the poet describes the coming of age concert of the then twelve-year old dance incumbent Madhavi. The following is an interpretation of that passage.
“After dedicating an age (seven years) to the dance, Madhavi, the young temple dancer prepares for her premiere before the King. The proscenium stage is adorned with heavily embroidered gauze curtains, pearls and other jewels. It is lit by a solitary but large, brass oil lamp with five flickering flames, casting long, sinuous and dancing shadows at the front. A bamboo rod is sanctified in holy water from a brass pot and garlands of jasmines are coiled around it while a crimson umbrella with embroidered green parrots protect it from the elements, with mirrors for eyes, sparkling when it caught the light. A ceremonious procession brings it into the theatre to take its commanding place on stage. The air is heavy with anticipation and the scent of sandalwood incense while the temple quartet of cymbals, drums, flute and Nadaswaram (Wooden Indian Bass Clarinet) begin the overture. The curtains are pulled back slowly, almost teasing the audience, to the dying strains of the orchestra to reveal the entrance of a tender, shy yet luminous girl resplendent in scarlet and gold, unaccompanied and unchaperoned but for the musicians at the side of the proscenium. She lifts up her shy and heavily kohled eyes and fixes the audience with one terrified stare and strikes a singular heel to the sound of the drum and the clipped rhythmical utterances of her Guru. She then literally surrenders herself to her fate by bowing deeply and scattering rose petals at the feet of the auspicious elephant headed Ganesha and then to Nataraja the Lord of the Dance and begins the task of inviting the King and the audience. As she rises from the bow, a small but significant change has already taken place. She has offered herself to the dance, formally, in public. This new but authentic zeal leaves her calm and yet drives her through the Margam or pathway of dance upon demanding dance that highlights and challenges her focus, musicality, stamina and ability to bring to the audience the everlasting Truths from the Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas. By the time she takes her curtain call, it’s not a girl but a girl-woman that does so. This rather public catharsis and transformation before the very eyes of the audience so impresses the King, that he decorates her with a garland of leaves, presents her with the auspicious number of 1008 gold coins and offers her the title of talaikol or Étoile/principal dancer.”
This is an arangetram, a rite of passage, a sacred initiation. This is the ideal of an arangetram.
Arangetrams in England
This project charts the phenomenal journey of a little known and quaint Indian ritual from its ancient temple village customs and rituals to the modern day South Asian dance practice and at times the paradoxical concerns it raises in the community centres and theatres of the UK, in Hounslow, Wembley, Tooting, Croydon, Leicester, and in Scotland and Wales.
In an age of very public super sweet sixteen birthday parties televised one channels such as Channel 4, Viva, E4 etc, even communions and weddings being recorded for television programmes such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, the Great British Arangetram is a celebration. A bit like Quinceneras, Sweet 16’s Birthdays, Bar Mitzvah’s or being formally introduced as a debutante during ball season. In the UK there are several celebrations for teenagers, and the South Asian community has come to adopt the Arangetram as their own celebration for their children.
The British Arangetram is not just about dance, and the dancer’s journey and it’s momentous milestone. It is about acculturation.
A young girl’s efforts to be a dancer is publicly rewarded by her proud parents in a coming of age event that is in keeping with Indian tradition and Indianness, motivated by 21st Century British customs and goals.
The pros and cons of the 21st Century British Arangetram
As with any event or practice there comes pros and cons, praise and criticism. The first concern naturally behind any production whatever its scale is always, budget. This is a universal factor and the Arangetram is no different.
Depending on the budget of the parents a suitable Arangatram is arranged, much like a wedding. It could be a very simple affair with a few elders at a local temple or on grand stages replete with elaborate temple like murals, large guest lists, guests of honour and entire orchestras flown in from the sub continent, ending with four course buffet meals with gold engraved invitation cards that say ‘carriages promptly at 12pm.’
This has prompted concerned dance teachers to say that the true meaning of the Arangetram tradition is being lost, much like the true meaning of Christmas can be lost amongst all the extravagant presents, endless sherry and mince pies!
The parents who are usually the proud sponsors of such an arangetram may decide that this will be a luxurious event and that no expense will be spared. In these modern and uncertain times when daughters choose when and to whom to get married, that is if they do decide to get married at all, it is the parent’s way of expressing their love for her. It is a time for one’s family and friends to acknowledge the hard work and dedication that has gone into learning the dance. And after all, she is learning about Indian culture, getting fit and toned in the process, and learning an ancient and grand art form that is constantly being reinvented. She is not being spoilt with BMW’s and Rolexes like the children on My Super Sixteen Birthday on E4!
Also it is up to the parents how grand or simple the arangetrams can be, just like a wedding. In these frugal times, there are many parents struggling to give their girl a grand arangetram while some parents are going for the simpler model of a streamlined arangetram, one more reflective of our time.
An arangetram held in the UK can cost anywhere between ten to fifteen thousand British pounds or more, including the hire of the theatre plus insurance fees, musician fees including their travel, food and accommodation expenses, private lessons for the dancer in preparation for the arangetram, fees for the dance teacher for organising and consultation, wardrobe, invitation cards, catering and various other miscellaneous expenses. On some occasions, Arangetrams are outsourced by British South Asians, actually being held in India, to get more value for money.
The ‘Package’ Issue:
The very fact that the above ‘package deals’ or models exist rather like a holiday, cruise or a watch, and the fact that parents can chose which model to go for can be rather trying to some practitioners of the dance form who approach it from a more traditional and purist perspective. However the flip side of the argument is that this much abhorred package deal does bring in much needed employment to the arts, from the teachers to musicians and costume designers etc.
It also creates more audiences for an ancient art form. Relatives and family members who have never been to a dance performance in their lives are dragged to an arangetram. Sometimes it has an adverse effect, the worse that may happen is the spectator will be bored and may not relate to the dance theatre being depicted on stage, but if the dancer is able to produce true Rasa or flavour she may be able to reach out to him beyond the barriers of time, geographical and cultural context and evoke true feeling in him, feelings that are universal and for everyone and not just felt exclusively by an artist. A fan of the dance form has then been created for life, who will in turn tell his friends and bring in more audiences for future performances.
Is an Arangetrams a mere excuse to obtain a cultural identity
Depending on the general outlook of the dance student, her teacher and parents, the study of Bharatanatyam can be merely a way to retain and joyfully express their cultural identity. Depending on the student, the practice could be a means to another end. That of receiving spiritual enlightenment by its constant practice and performance.
How important is the understanding of Indian culture for an arangetram?
Sometimes the student is sent off to India for a month or more to absorb themselves in intensive training, so they can get a real flavour of the sub continent and its people so as to portray the dance pieces accurately. This is generally done to avoid the harsh but often repeated criticism of ‘You can teach a girl Indian dance, but you cannot teach her Indianness.’
But having said that, some young students of Bharatanatyam with non South Asian heritage, namely Polish, American or British, who have never even been to the sub continent have given startlingly accurate portrayals of mature Indian Nayikas (heroines) in their Arangetrams.
Also the very technique, be it Nritta (pure dance) or Natya (dance theatre) has evolved out of temple dance practice. Some of the most basic positions originate from the most everyday temple dance practice. For example how the temple dancers held their necklaces in order to show which temple or king they were assigned to, or what they wore in their hair. Although along with the British arangetram even the dance technique itself is being reinvented here in the UK. One hand is in modernity while keeping the other firmly rooted in tradition, a testament to the underlying strength that still exists in the classicism of this ancient dance form. This just proves that although the form is ancient, it certainly does not have to be archaic.
A mere qualification or a time for spiritual introspection
Just like an art degree does not an artist make, an arangetram does not immediately make a temple dancer, who is at once artist, athlete, priest, story teller and entertainer. It’s very practice, however minimal it may be, never fails to leave a mark on the dance student. Some teachers say that even if one of their students has grasped the true meaning of at least one of the nine dances that are in preparation of the arangetram, then all the effort has been quite worth it. In these modern and competitive times, teachers may feel the pressure to produce unique and outstanding students. Some teachers in the UK like Ms Pushkala Gopal, featured in this dvd, offer their students an experience of a facet of the traditional Guru Kula system of staying at the home of the teacher, so as to be in a constant state of learning and dance, especially immediately before the Arangetram. Ms Gopal goes on to mention that this is a time where the students may discover for themselves that the demands and rigours placed on the body and mind needs solitude, introspection and a return to a more Vedic way of life, a diet of small vegetarian meals throughout the day, deep sleep and yogic meditation.
The end of the learning process or just the beginning?
After going through such a process it is the choice of the dance student if she wants this lifestyle, or if she chooses to walk away from it all after the arangetram and never dances another step in her life.
Some teachers maintain that even if she does not, if she can always apply this sort of spiritual discipline in whatever she chooses to do, she will always yield positive results in all her endeavours. If she does chose to pursue a legitimate career in dance, and you will be pleased to find that a sizeable percentage do, then this disciplined process is a perfect model to be honed and mastered into a way of life. If we were to draw an academic metaphor for the process of an arangetram, the time before the arangetram is the research and preparation period and the arangetram itself is the dissertation. The older the dancer grows, the more experience she gathers in her private and public or stage life, the more she learns to balance the two and allows both streams to nurture and feed into each other. The dissertation will then turn into a thesis, the thesis into a paper and so on and so forth.
How to preserve the essence of the arangetram while reinventing it for the more globalised 21st Century?
One of the most joyous attributes of British arangetrams is the fact that it has inspired dancers to re-evaluate their cultural identity. They have managed to carve a niche as South Asian yet quintessentially British dancers. There are dancers in Britain who are slowly realising that this wonderful dance form is a tool to reveal the art through the artist.
Work is being slowly but surely created and presented that is South Asian dance but with a British or European sensibility, thus keeping this ancient dance tradition alive and thriving. In order to do this, dancers are realising the importance of learning the history, evolution and reason behind every move, step, practice of temple dance so they can then use it to create work that speaks not only to India but to the rest of the world. This is making the ancient art form relevant and exciting to British audiences and is slowly being discovered by the mainstream media.
Above all some British dancers, on completion of their arangetrams are being inspired to actively seek out teaching careers by teaching children, teenagers, young and mature adults in schools, colleges, community centres and even in prisons. So everything that they have been taught before the arangetram, the discipline, dance technique, cultural context and narrative, are becoming legitimate tools of their trade as they learn to give and inspire the next generation of south Asian dancers.
When the dance legend and Guru, Pandit Ram Gopal ji presented his dance performance to Mahatma Gandhi, the Mahatma asked him what it all meant and then freely admitted that he did not quite get all the meaning and stories through the subtle nuances and innumerable, swiftly changing gestures present in Indian classical dance. He then asked Pandit Ram Gopal if he would kindly translate what the true meaning of the lyric was.
From this simple request came the birth of the pioneering spirit of Pandit Ram Gopal to make Indian dance, its culture, practice and rituals relevant and exciting to audiences who did not know it. The Arangetram is one such ritual. A ritual that presents not just an entire selection of dances, but a possible prelude to a lifestyle. One that asks a dancer in accordance to the sacred treatise of Indian dance, the Natya Veda, to bring the everlasting truths to all mankind.
Britain is a cultural melting pot. Not unlike the Indian sub continent in its ability to adopt and give foreign rituals its own unique flavour.
In a programme on British Television from 1980, on Kalakshetra, the National Academy of Bharatanatyam in Chennai, its founder Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale who is considered to be one of the most important revivalist of Bharatnatyam is asked if she has any concerns regarding her successor and the future of Bharatanatyam and its rituals. Her reply is this:
“I’ve given them all the opportunities. Let’s hope they will take it. It does not mean they will copy exactly what I do, because I did not copy anybody. So they need not copy me either. As long as what is created is something true and beautiful, that’s all that matters.”
The British Arangetram will be just that. British but with South Asian roots. Whether it is packaged as a grandiose event or as a very simple ceremony will not matter. As long as the dancer finds that fleeting moment on stage like the young Madhavi in Silappadikaram, where her immediate fear turns into artistic zeal as she surrenders herself to her forthcoming artistic journey and formally gets to offer her dance to the audience. That dance could be in little temple in south India or a grand theatre in central London.
If that dance is truthful that’s all that really matters.
A Typical Arangetram Programme
Pushpanjali is the opening invocation meaning ‘an offering of flowers’ where the dancer seeks the blessings of God and offers respects to the Supreme Being, gurus, musicians and audience.
The Tamil word ‘alar’ means ‘to blossom’. Alarippu means ‘flowering’. It serves as a prelude to the programme when the artistry of the dancer unfolds through nritta (pure dance movements).
Swaras (sung musical syllables) are repeated and interlaced with different rhythmic patterns of tala (rhythm) and jatis (rhythmic dance patterns).
Shabdam is four lines or short stanzas of poetry and frequently the first expressional dance using abhinaya (mime and facial expression).
The crowning piece in Bharatanatyam, varnam means colour and combines rhythm with melody. It displays a wide range of emotions, combining nritta and abhinaya in equal measure, blending bhava (feeling), raga (melody) and tala (rhythm).
In this fully expressional item, the vocalist repeats passages on which the dancer elaborates subtleties of layered meanings.
The lively climax of the arangetram, this exuberance of rhythm and pure dance integrates sculptured poses.
The ending prayer when the dancer pays final respects to God, gurus, musicians and audience.