Trends: An arangetram is no mean feat. It means gruelling work for the student, but it also means a huge bank balance for the parent. With all the ostentation that comes with arangetram, are we gradually weaning dance away from its core? Has the art form become a preserve of the rich?

An analogy that is popularly employed to describe an arangetram today is that of a wedding. In fact, the resemblance between the two ceremonies, at least in the manner in which they are conducted today, is uncanny. For instance, if one were to consider some of the common characteristics, both an arangetram and a wedding today, often need a big budget, a year of planning, an auditorium to stage the final event, elaborate and often expensive jewellery and saris, lavish invitation cards and detailed photo shoots. Moreover, many arangetram functions have now begun serving dinner too.

 “Materially, parents are in a position and are willing today to spend a lot for their child’s arangetram. To add to that things have become very expensive these days. So, what happens in the economy affects art as well,” says Minal Prabhu, Artistic Director, Mudrika Foundation for Indian Performing Arts.

 However, do these ancillary aspects interfere with the basic component of an arangetram which is the dance itself? “To be honest, sometimes it does happen that all the hype and glamour surrounding the costumes, jewellery and auditorium dominate the event over the dance performance itself. But there are good dancers who ensure that the dance recital is of a certain standard. I would say that the ratio between the two is 50-50,” says Kiran Subramanyam, Director, Rasika Academy of Performing Arts.

 Sandhya Subramanyam, who is also the Director of the same institution, feels that current arangetrams have borrowed the idea of extravagance from the West: “In America, arangetrams are a lavish affair with a student changing three costumes during the course of the recital and dinner being served along with multiple snack breaks etc. Overall, what it becomes is a vulgar display of money. Unfortunately, this trend has reached India as well.”

 The arangetram has also acquired the status of a brand which adds to the costs. Dancers say that an arangetram is twice the cost of a regular solo performance, sometimes more. Musicians, for instance, charge a different amount for an arangetram when compared to a simple solo performance. More often than not, they are accused of charging the lion’s share of the cost but dancers feel that it is only fair that the musicians are paid adequately. “Sometimes, parents attempt to bargain with the musicians to cut costs. This, I feel, is not right. When they are willing to spend a huge sum on the auditorium and brochures etc, why compromise when it comes to musicians who are the ones that actually make the performance happen. The payment should always be proportional. I don’t think they are avaricious. They are just feeding off the system,” says Sumitra Nitin, Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music exponent.  Sandhya feels that it is in fact understandable to pay the musicians a little more for an arangetram: “Musicians do not alter their work because of the money they get. Their monetary expectations are justified to a certain extent because they have to work a little bit more to support an amateur dancer who may or may not know how to adjust to the musicians in her first performance. So, the musicians may have to make up for lapses, if any.”

 However, there are also cases where the musicians barely get their due despite their contribution to an expensive arangetram. “The practice that is very common these days is what is called a package deal. Some teachers take a fixed sum of money from the parents and take on the responsibility of distributing it among the lighting technicians, musicians, costumes, make-up etc. Sometimes, musicians are not paid their due and parents do not even know that because they trust the teacher to be the middleman,” says Mahesh Swamy, who plays the flute.

Mahesh acknowledges that classical dance has become a rich man’s art form that makes it difficult for students from all backgrounds to pursue a career in it. “Dance is no longer confined to mere institutions. It has become an industry today. Everyone wishes to make money off it. Once, I suggested that as musicians, we will dedicate three days in a year to perform for economically-weak dancers free of cost. That idea, however, did not materialise. Artists need to come together to make such ideas possible,” he says.

 Despite the plush and profligate trends, dance teachers offer solutions to counter the heavy costs of an arangetram. “It always depends on the teacher. The teacher needs to consult the parent and understand their budget. The entire event can be planned with a modest budget as well,” says Praveen Kumar, who runs the Chithkala School of Dance. Kiran and Sandhya feel that parents that cannot afford an arangetram could also raise money for it through other means: “We meet with the parents and if it happens that they are not in a position to fund it entirely and are still keen on conducting an arangetram, we suggest advertising and finding sponsors. This has worked for some parents.”

 “But why spend so much at all?” asks Dr. Maya Rao, Director, Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography. “I don’t believe in the idea of an arangetram. Instead, I advocate three simple solo performances, done at a low cost over a period of time in three different locations. That way, you will cut costs, ensure that more people get to see your dance and at the same time, have your debut on stage,” she says. Lamenting the fact that Kathak in Bangalore has also taken to the idea of an arangetram, she says that Bharatanatyam has influenced other dance forms and brought about the trend of doing an arangetram among other dances as well. “They say that organizations expect you to perform an arangetram in order to be able to perform in sabhas. But it could be a solo performance too? Why does it have to be an arangetram? The costs double when one hears that it is an arangetram,” she says.

Then the question beckons, why do the arangetram at all? “During that one year when the child is preparing for an arangetram, he or she struggles to achieve perfection. The dancer also develops stamina, becomes focused and often the process to an arangetram can be a life-changing experience for the child. The child, might then decide whether he or she wants to keep this for life,” opines Sumitra.

Ultimately, Arangetram or not, dancers unanimously agree that good dancing is the only necessary and desirable ingredient to a good performance. “I do not insist on an arangetram from my students. But if they wish to do one, I will put them on stage, only if they are good dancers,” says Minal.