Most Indians would be familiar with the practice of Bharathanatyam and the concept of Arangetram. In recent years the burgeoning growth of Arangetram events in the UK is incredible. Attending many such events, prompted me to investigate this intriguing subject a little deeper to understand the credibility and the relevance of this practice in today’s world.
BHARATHANATYAM is one of the oldest among the classical dance forms of India originating from the southern state of Tamil Nadu. This ancient classical form is over 2000 years old. Its basic principles and ideals have remained practically unchanged although its repertoire and forms of presentation have been changing from time to time to suit changing conditions and concepts of artistry.
ARANGETRAM is the debut performance of a student presented by the Guru to a public audience. Although the practice of Arangetram has been in existence for centuries, it became a norm and more popular in India during the 60’s and 70’s. This practice is taken more seriously among the diasporic communities all over the world.
In the UK, there is a constant flow of immigrant population both from India and Srilanka. This necessitates access to Bharathanatyam and other performing arts as the parents find it a good way to keep up with their roots. And therefore a constant influx of young people learning is inevitable. The Asian community in the UK views the practice of the “debut performance” as an important event equivalent to achieving an academic degree at the university.
The objective of the student is to reach a standard worthy of exhibiting his or her abilities and the objective of the teacher is to prepare the student to reach that level. In the process, the teachers hand over to the students the heritage of classical Indian dance that they themselves obtained from their respective guru. Depending on the ability of students, the time taken to reach the stage of an Arangetram would vary. Both the dancer and the teacher are judged (not severely) for their standard.
The Arangetram is an exceptional performance. Every student is aware of the high degree of challenge they are facing. It is not just getting through the three hours of the evening, but the fear of failing while performing to an audience of connoisseurs, critics and peers which poses as a greater challenge. It is the debut performance and there would not be a second chance if the student made a mess of it on this occasion. It is a miraculous transformation that the young dancer experiences once the exaggerated make up is applied and they are clad in the rich gold costume. This instant glamour brings about a certain confidence and faith mixed with nervousness, anxiety, and a thrilling sense. This concoction of emotions in the young dancer is the most exciting and unforgettable experience at the threshold of the Arangetram.
An American student currently pursuing her training in the UK describes her Arangetram experience as, “the actual preparation was gruelling but so wonderful…It challenged me to be easier on myself and not get so frustrated when I was having an “off” day with dance”.
One British Asian student described her Arangetram experience as “a form of meditation which made her realize how seriously she took her dance”. Despite the enthusiasm that the present generation has for dance, she is not sure if Bharathanatyam has a great future in UK as she feels that the young Asian population seem to be more interested in the westernised style of Bollywood dancing. Another student explains, her experience as being scared on the actual day that she cried and felt she was going to let everyone down. Looking back, she says she cannot believe that she did it!
Although one can marvel at the ritualistic idea, of performing the Arangetram with all the attention it deserves, its current practice in the UK raises questions about its relevance, its need and its place in the social context. The nature of Arangetram has changed as a result of where, Bharathanatyam and the dancer is placed in the society today. In the 1930’s and 1940’s the students could study dance with a career objective in mind with assurances of economic stability and therefore investing in the expensive affair of Arangetram, had some incentive and purpose to the practice.
But the career prospect, as a solo Bharathanatyam dancer today is very unpromising. Despite the fact that Bharathanatyam is recognised as a prominent dance form, it does not guarantee any consistent financial security to a professional dancer. Although there is great interest and passion for Bharathanatyam, the vast majority of the students tend to treat Bharathanatyam as a rich hobby. Their goal is to perform an Arangetram, and then the interest seems to dwindle. The students then, perhaps, move on to choose a more lucrative profession such as medicine or computer science.
These days, the Arangetram is a booming business. The parents of the student probably view this event as the one and only chance to show off their children’s talent to their friends and well wishers, in a social event such as the Arangetram. They are only too happy to be extremely generous and lavish in their presentation. Compared to a regular performance the musicians are amply rewarded and paid three times the fees. In addition, gifts such as gold jewellery or high technology gadgets such as music system or a computer are given to the dance teachers and musicians. My participation in many Arangetram events both as an spectator sometimes and as chief guest, gives me an insight in to the scenario. The situation is quite extreme in Britain. Even an average Arangetram includes, glossy brochures with photographs of the student in various costumes, different stages growing up with the art form, receiving blessings from the Guru and other respectable acquaintances, written messages from family living abroad, and so on, and this indulgence seems endless. The performing stage is ornately decorated with fresh flowers, including jasmine imported from India. The evening does not finish until snacks and meals are served. The dancer has at least six costume changes and needless to say that they are all silk, tailor-made in India. Sometimes the chief guest is an actress or a political /religious leader brought from India, whose travel and accommodation is all paid for. In a recent case, a payment of £1,500 was made to a celebrity for his role as a “Guest of Honour” in an Arangetram. My informant of this news is a reputed musician who often performs in Arangetrams. He also informed me of a family, believed to have repainted the entire theatre to their liking for their daughter’s Arangetram. Another Arangetram included a stretch limousine ride for the teacher, musicians and the girls who were performing that evening. The average expenditure for an Arangetram is estimated around 30,000 pounds. Is there really a need for such indulgence? One could argue that it is the parent’s choice to celebrate their children’s achievement as they choose. But the problem is, in all this extravagance, in some cases, the very reason for the Arangetram and its artistic role is lost. However, there are Arangetrams that are performed in a simple manner. Some of them choose a temple as their venue and the announcement of the Arangetram goes in the temple newsletter. This helps cut cost considerably. As it is an open invitation, people attending a service at the temple tend to join the audience to witness the Arangetram. To stress the point again, Arangetram is an initiation to continue with the learning process and not a termination of the learning phase.
Rather than look for the basic principles of the art form, the subtle Abhinaya (mime), the nuances and sense of musicality and rhythm in the young dancer, there has been a major shift in the role of the audience too, who have no choice but to look for enormous display of their family wealth and status. However, the community’s support in such events is astounding, where people would take responsibility to take care of the catering arrangements, ushering guests and invitees to their seats and so on. Another noticeable fact is that the theatre is house full in an Arangetram event compared to a ticketed performance, (be it a prima donna or a celebrity performing).
This translates as both positive and negative gesture. Whilst the community support is crucial, it also encourages promoting an event however good or bad it is. Arangetram does not seem to be an initiation in to the artistic world, but an introduction to a new trend, which is only uncertain of its destination.
QUALITY OF ARANGETRAM
Whilst, Arangetram is an important practice within the Indian culture of Bharathanatyam practice, its extravagance certainly diverts the focus and aim of the practice and results in poor quality to meet the demands of parents and schools (Tamil schools in particular) that are keen to promote their establishment. There are
approximately fifty Tamil schools in London alone, each conducting a minimum of two or three Arangetrams in a year. It has almost become mandatory for the parents to send their children especially girls to learn Bharathanatyam, enough to acquire a passable ability to perform. This accords a desirable qualification in the marriage market too. Families who are keen to follow the arranged marriage system tend to include talents in performing arts as a finishing school achievement.
The trend in UK to have an Arangetram is usually between September and November. Intense preparations and practice takes place for about four to five months. The entire summer holidays is dedicated towards bracing for the Arangetram. Despite such efforts there are Arangetrams that are of very poor quality. Perhaps it is peer pressure of keeping up with the Joneses that contribute to the poor quality of Arangetram. Teachers who offer package deals of anywhere between six months to two years to train for Arangetram are easily available for people who are in a great hurry to tick their checklist that they have planned for their children to achieve and accomplish. The other contributing factors are inadequate subject knowledge of the teacher, treating Bharathanatyam as a mere entertainment value by all people concerned, lack of responsibility as a community as a whole, the pressing time factor of having to complete it before GCSE, elders in the family eager to perform the event at the earliest and drawing inspiration from watching other Arangetrams with a competitive attitude and rushing in to a hasty debut performance. It can be so disheartening to view such irresponsible practices at the cost of genuine art, money and time. The simulated Arangetram gives the student a false sense of expertise and knowledge. The data collected of the above mentioned facts is a sharing from musicians and artists that I work with on a regular basis. However, there are British Asian dance students who have continued with dancing and are eminent teachers themselves now. They have established successful dance schools and receive funding from Arts councils to carry on with their artistic endeavours.
Parents choose dance as a way for giving their children a taste of their heritage. It is not just the technique that they learn. Given the history of Bharathanatyam and its religious base, they also learn, religion, mythology, epics, folklore, history, culture, customs, traditions, languages, music and so on. A positive aspect in this scenario is the social value, where the parents take the effort to reconcile their identification with their country of origin and their current position living in a foreign land.
RESPONSIBILITY OF THE STUDENT
There is a marked change in the way students see their responsibility as young dancers. The British Asian students in particular are extremely conscious of the effort
that the parents take in supporting their artistic journey. In some cases the rehearsals take place as early as 5am and the parent would drive the teacher, musicians and the student to the studio and back, so that the student can finish her/his practice and rush to school/college and make all ends meet efficiently. A couple of decades ago, the only responsibility that the student had was to concentrate on the dance and do her/his level best in the performance. But, now, the students write their own vote of thanks and deliver an emotional speech at the end of the performance to express their appreciation to people for all their in-put towards the event. Unfortunately, in most cases the motivation to continue the learning practice was not sustained as some students admitted that they were so exhausted after the Arangetram and that it was time to concentrate on furthering their academic qualification. However, there is hope to encourage students to continue with their dance practice. Art development agencies such as ‘Akademi’ (London) and ‘Sampad’ (Birmingham) organise events to encourage young students to participate and offer respectable platforms to display their talents. This has proved to be very successful in motivating the students not to give up dancing after their Arangetram.
ARANGETRAMS IN THE FUTURE
Following casual conversations that I have had with students meeting them at dance events I can authoritatively draw up a conclusion that a good percentage of students felt that the future of Bharathanatyam was bright. One of the ways to secure a bright future of Bharathanatyam would be to look at the current practice that the various schools and communities are following. Standardising teaching practice of south Asian dance in UK seems an absolute necessity in the current climate. The ISTD, (Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing) has formulated a syllabus, which caters to some needs. The six grade examinations offered cover an ample time scale for a student to consider a debut performance.
To improve further, there are Cultural Organisations that organises festivals and interactive workshops conducted by artists of high calibre. These artists are often invited to UK to conduct summer schools for the benefit of British Asian students. This is beneficial for teachers too as they are able to recharge their teaching techniques. There are choreographers and exponents of Bharathanatyam who have conducted experiments trying to modernise Bharathanatyam in the UK. There is an interest within the community both in India and UK to develop this idea. They have been successful too in their attempts. However, hybridisation and modernisation is only possible when expertise in the basic form is achieved.
This ‘Quality Control’ idea is bound to have some effect and raise the baseline for quality art. Other such initiatives for furthering standardisation will offer teachers a choice in approach and format. Further more, if independent teachers detach from working in isolation and get together to find a stronger voice to take ownership for the art form for securing its place in the future in a responsible and a progressive way, finding support and network might be easy.
In my view, Arangetram is a practice of immense and enduring value to the community, which will never be outdated, or decline from practice however low key or high profile one chooses to display. But understanding Arangetram for its true sense of the notion, as a sacred and ritualistic initiation ceremony is vital. If dance classes culminating in Arangetram is a tradition that the ethnic minority of Indian /Srilankan population wish to practice, then so be it. But making a life long commitment to learn the art form at a deeper level will give the Arangetram practice a well deserved dignity.
Geetha Sridhar a Bharathanatyam dancer and teacher is a London resident. She is a dance lecturer at Kingston University, and the head of dance department at London School of Carnatic Music. To contact, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org