Much ado about a debut

A simple and auspicious occasion has transformed into a lavish affair. Jagyaseni Chatterjee writes on arangetrams.

December 08, 2016 05:54 pm | Updated 09:06 pm IST

F or many it is the beginning of a career with possibilities; for some it marks an end to a childhood hobby, to which an achievement certificate adds weight; for others it is fulfilling a dream. Whatever the reason, arangetram is a major affair today, much cherished and celebrated not just in Chennai but across the world.

“Everybody does an arangetram now, irrespective of whether they want to take up dance as a profession or not. When I was training under the legendary guru Balaswaraswati, she focussed on the learning, not the arangetram and that’s how I was groomed,” says scholar and dancer, Nandini Ramani. “Many may not even be aware of the strenuous journey of a soloist,” she points out

Many institutions, offer arangetram packages. Upon admission, parents are informed about the future expenses and students are taken for special classes almost six months before their performance. Arangetram packages may range from about Rs. 3 lakhs-Rs. 5 lakhs or higher. Teachers also take a special fee for teaching specific pieces. For example, an alarippu might be Rs. 5,000 or a varnam up to Rs. 20,000.

“We need to abide by what the teachers say if we want our children to continue learning from the same teacher and also get recommended for other opportunities,” reveals a parent.

Some institutions have also started conducting arangetrams with recorded music, which means a student spends for the recording sessions, almost Rs. 2 lakh-Rs. 3 lakhs for the music alone. Then there are teachers who have teams for stage backdrop and event management. Sometimes, the backdrop cost can be as high as Rs. 50,000, even in towns such as Coimbatore and Tiruchi.

But why do parents spend so lavishly? “Peer pressure,” states Nandini. “They want to make it a landmark event in the child’s life,” she adds.

Jayanthi Subramaniam, a senior teacher and exponent, says, “Self gratification definitely.”

Today, even the worship of the bells or salangai poojai has become a pre-arangetram-like event. Research scholar and senior dancer Padma Subrahmanyam states, “I was wearing the bells of Padmini during my arangetram because it was my father’s wish. Salangai poojai was done by the guru t and was a private affair. It was more a ritual than a social activity. Today, it has become commercial.”

Talking about the past, veteran V. P. Dhananjayan says, “In our younger days it was a simple and auspicious occasion, where a student performed in front of a few scholars and connoisseurs. In Kalakshetra, the girls did not even have head jewels (Talaissaaman). There was no costume change and a single silk sari worked just fine. A minimum of eight years of intensive training both in natya and music with the study of literature and theory were the criteria for getting a full-fledged solo venture. Several appearances on stage in group productions preceded an arangetram or rangapravesham.”

Hundred is just a number for many Bharatanatyam teachers. But Binesh Mahadevan, teacher and choreographer, says, “I take care in teaching and selecting students for arangetram. Having done 138 arangetrams in a span of 24 years of my teaching career, I do not pressure the parents to do solo arangetrams, which are expensive. The students usually form small groups of three or four and share the expenses.”

Binesh mainly takes arangetram students for his group productions.

“There is no use planning an arangetram for a student who will not continue as a soloist,” says Jayanthi.

“I might have done 25-30 arangetrams in my 28 years of teaching. They can always perform in my group shows without an arangetram,” she adds.

“Our institute, Nrithyodaya, has not presented arangetrams by the dozen. In fact, we support the arangetrams of underprivileged children as it is a graduation of sorts,” informs Padma Subrahmanyam. “In the past, it was performed to let one know that the dancer was ready for the professional stage. Today, it is like a mini wedding.”

The concept is not new, according to Padma, a scholar. In the second century, when Ilango Adigal, introduces Madhavi, the dancer, in his epic ‘Silappadikaram,’ he gives a vivid description of the meaning, conduct and arangetram’s intricacies. Madhavi, who was initiated into dance when she was five years old, performed her arangetram at 12. Madhavi was adept in not just dance, but all allied arts.

So how did the current trend in arangetram begin? Who is responsible — teachers or parents?

According to Dhananjayan, “The NRIs in the U.S. and Canada started this trend and they have influenced their relatives in India. Everything is on a fast-track. So parents share the blame equally with the teachers.

Recommending a solution, he says, “The arangetram can be held in a temple or school, accompanied by junior musicians. The stage should be austere and one should cut down on elaborate brochures, dinners and gifts for guests.”

Is it too late to reverse the trend? “No”, says Padma Subrahmanyam. “It is not too late to reverse the trend. Although classical arts need to adapt to the demands of changing times, tradition must not be forgotten,” she observes.

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