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March 7, 2006 > Arangetram: Beginning or End?

Arangetram: Beginning or End?

by Mekala Raman and Praveena Raman

Dharmyam yashasyam aayushyam ;hitham buddhi vivardhanam
lokopadesha jananam; naatyam ethadh bhavishyathi
na thath gnanam na thath shilpam; na saa vidhya na saa kalaa
naasau yogo na thath karma; naatye asmin yanna drshyathe
Natya Shastra, 400 B.C.

Duty, fame, long life, prosperity, growth of intelligence, worldly wisdom generating, this dance will stay. There is no other knowledge, no other sculpture, no other learning, no other art, not even yoga or action that is not found in dance.

Arangetram, which literally means ascending the stage, in Tamil, marks both an end and a beginning in the margam or path of Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance from South India. It is the graduation from learning the essentials of the dance form and the beginning of the path towards the dancer's artistic maturity.

After about 10-12 years of intense training, the guru or teacher decides when the disciple is ready both physically and emotionally to be presented to the public with a 2 1/2 hour solo Bharatanatyam performance marking the graduation or Arangetram. According to Bharatanatyam exponent Indumathy Ganesh, Artistic Director of Nrithyollasa Dance Academy, "Bharatanatyam is a physically demanding dance and parents have to make sure that students practice to build stamina both physically and mentally so that they are able to perform their Arangetram."

This South Indian classical dance traces its theory back to the Natya Shastra, a dramatic treatise written in 400 B.C. It consists of three basic elements - Nritta (Rhythm), Nritya (expression through the use of hand gestures and body movements) and Natya (dramatazition). The name Bharatanatyam has within it Bha for Bhava or abhinaya for expression, Ra for raga or melody and Ta for tala or rhythm. This is a stylized dance with intricate rhythmic footwork where the mudras (hand position), abhinaya (facial expressions) and padams (narrative dances) form the basis of a performance.

The characteristic feature of Bharatanatyam is the division of the body into three parts, head, bust and torso. The dance is accompanied by music, usually a live orchestra consisting of a singer, mrindangam (drum) player, violinist and the Nattuvangam. Bharatanatyam is in essence a dedicatory dance that is considered a divine art form as it originated in the Temples of South India.

According to the Natya Shastra there are eleven aspects that are integral parts of the classical dance and drama - "Rasabhavabhinayaha Dharmivritti Pravrittamaha Siddhi swaraha tatatodhyam ganam rangascha sangrahad" - Rasa or aesthetic pleasure; Bhava or the expression of emotion that creates rasa in the audience; Abhinaya which is expression or enactment; Dharmi or modes of presentation; Lokadharmi or representation in a natural day to day way of life; Vritti or styles of rendering; Pravritti or identification of people through regional variations; Siddhi or success of the play or dance; Swara or musical notes; Athodya or musical instruments; Gana or meaningful words in a time measure; and Rangam or theatre. The dancer wears a colorful dance costume, jewelry, flowers, make-up and bells on her/his feet

The Dancer's Journey
Khantaanyat Lambayat Geetam; Hastana Artha Pradakshayat
Chakshubhyam Darshayat Bhavom; Padabhyam Tala Acherait

Keep the song in your throat; Let your hands bring out the meaning
Your glance should be full of expression; While your feet maintain the rhythm

Abhinaya Dharpana, 3rd century A.D.

When Bharatanatyam dancers begin their training, they have a dream to strive towards the initial achievement that is the Arangetram. When I [Mekala] embarked on my journey at six, I was no different. As I practiced stamping my feet as hard as I could, ignoring the uncomfortable burning in my thighs, I watched the older girls gracefully executing these basic steps with ease, combining them with more difficult patterns. These dancers instilled in me the drive to practice harder so that I could emulate their strength and passion in my own Arangetram, many years down the road.

The key posture of this dance form requires the upper part of the body to be erect, the legs bent halfway down with the knees spread out, and the feet turned out. My learning started with the Adavus, or the initial steps. The first adavus include thattadavu, naatadavu, maraditha, kuthuttumetti, and sharakaladavu. Thattadavu is a set of adavus in which the dancer holds both arms straight out (airplane style) and stands in the semi-plie position alternately stamping the right and left foot. This is the basic stance for the dancer and builds a sense of rhythm, balance, and posture necessary throughout the dancing career.

As the dancer progresses through the adavus, more complex arm and leg movements are added, eventually ending with movement instead of just staying in one spot. The next level after adavus is the alarippu, a combination of adavus put together to form a dance. It introduces new ideas, including the shaking of the head at the neck called atami. After the alarippu, the dancer moves on to the Pushpanjali, a traditional short opening piece for a program. Then the dancer learns the Jatiswaram, a much longer collection of adavus than the alarippu.

The next step is to learn pieces called Padams, which are devotional pieces full of passages in which the dancer is portraying a story. There is minimum footwork and much expression. The Thillana, a fast paced pure dance, ends the performance. Finally, the dancer learns the varnam, an extremely lengthy collection of passages with adavus (called jatis) and passages of expression. These pieces generally range from 30-45 minutes and are done halfway through a program.

Once a dancer has learned these pieces, she/he is ready to begin training for the Arangetram. "The student should be able to portray the spiritual emotion and be able to elevate the audience to the level where they identify themselves with the dancer," says guru Indumathy Ganesh. At that stage they are truly ready to perform their Arangetram.

I began training approximately six months before my performance, practicing my adavus continuously to get a taste for how much stamina I would need. Over the next few months, I learned the eight items that would make up my Arangetram and practiced not only having the strength but also portraying the ease and grace of other girls that had danced before me.

Mekala Raman, disciple of Indumathy Ganesh, Artisitc Director of Nrithyollasa Dance Academy, Fremont, will be performing her Arangetram on March 11th at Ohlone College. She will be accompanied by leading Bay Area musicians Asha Ramesh, N. Narayanan and Shanti Narayanan.

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