The arangetram conundrum

Musings The dance debut is a completion of sorts, but it is equally a beginning. However, it has taken a completely different meaning these days

Afew years ago, I attended a Bharatanatyam arangetram (debut) of a nine year old. As I watched her perform an explicit padam, depicting a love-lorn nayika pining for her lover who has left her for another woman, I couldn't help but feel a little perturbed. While her stamina, memory and confidence were commendable, one couldn't help but wonder if she couldn't have waited a few years to complete her arangetram. At least till she could somewhat understand and relate to the abhinaya pieces that she was performing.

It naturally led to further questioning about what an arangetram means these days. An arangetram, in my view, is symbolic of reaching a level of technical understanding and emotional maturity to become able to begin a professional career in dance. It is a completion of sorts, but it is equally a beginning. And finally, it is the celebration of a young dancer's commitment to dance. Today, arangetrams have come to have a totally different meaning in some instances.

Taking the example of this talented nine-year-old, one may wonder whether her guru had given her enough time to really reach that level of understanding and maturity. Reaching this level requires constant dedication and consistent hard work over a long period of time. Learning the adavus itself takes a year or more. I believe the margam (repertoire) itself was designed such that by the time you are able to learn a varnam or a padam, you are at least old enough to understand what these dance pieces depict and portray. By the age of nine, a thorough training for a few years would result in the learning of an alarippu, perhaps a jatiswaram, but an entire margam betrays an unnecessary hurry to be done with the arangetram and in many senses, disregards the very purpose of it.

An arangetram is also misinterpreted as a graduation. Many students of dance train for several years and become capable of having their arangetrams. Upon completing them, they stop dancing. These students of dance see the arangetram as a completion of their education in dance and an end to their experience of it. Like how they graduated from school and never went back, they graduated from dance and never go back to it. It is an accomplishment, like a degree certificate that eventually lies forgotten in a file somewhere. This, too, is a corruption of the meaning and significance of an arangetram. Yes, it is a completion of one kind of dance education, and it is an accomplishment, but much more significantly, it is the beginning of many more kinds of learning and education in dance. It is symbolic of the start of a career in dance. To stop dancing after completing an arangetram, is arguably a waste of much time, effort and dedication in the years prior to it and once again, defeats the significance of an arangetram.

Another bizarre twist that the arangetram has undergone is the glitter and glamour with which they are expected to take place. Today it boasts of the socio-economic status of the family, somewhat like how an Indian wedding often becomes - gifts are exchanged, large monetary transactions happen, a lavish dinner is served for the entire audience. Sadly, wealth is also exploited. A dancer attending my Bharatanatyam workshop in London revealed that before her arangetram, her family was expected to provide an expensive silk sari along with money as guru-dakshana, the musicians were to be flown from Chennai (the student was then in Australia) and accommodated at the family's expense. Her family, thinking this is how arangetrams are, paid off debts for years. She felt so guilty she wanted to stop dancing.

In all these instances, the purpose, meaning and significance of an arangetram is completely lost. Perhaps we need to re-examine why arangetrams are done, and whether we are staying true to the essence of it.

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