By Suchitra Sairam
Based on my email inbox over the last several months, it is clearly Bharatanatyam Arangetram season in the United States (and perhaps in other places in the Indian diaspora around the world). Countless invitations from excited parents of young aspirants, with links to beautifully crafted websites to boot. But my first question when I see the photographs included – is their dancing going to be as meticulously crafted as the invitation and website? Is the responsibility of the artistic tradition they have been bequeathed understood as much as the dinner menu? Is the attention to selection of items in the maargam and the music done with as much interest as the selection of costume colors and jewelry? Do they actually want to be doing this, and do they actually view this as a new launching point in their journey rather than a completion?
The postures and expressions in the photos speak volumes on all of these questions – and then I go down the dark rabbit hole of the “why Arangetrams” conversation.
At the outset, I have to say – I am not anti-Arangetram at all. There is a distinct beauty to this tradition, a formal debut presenting a dancer as a qualified performer with an artistic future ahead. That first moment when a dancer enters the stage, to that moment when that dancer touches their guru’s nattuvangam talam and does namaskaram to appreciate blessings for the past and to request them for the future; all filled with promise. It takes a lot of courage for a dancer, regardless of age, to get up on stage and perform a full-length concert. It’s a humbling experience, and a great responsibility, to lead a student through that process – one I hope to continue, eager to do justice to the process and the work.
But what has happened to our responsibility to the art, and to the blood, sweat and tears all of the great artists who came before us?
What has happened to the journey?
Why does this continue to be a “checklist” item for a college application?
I ask myself – why do young dancers and their parents (and sometimes their teachers) think that just because you have learned Bharatanatyam for 8 or 10 or 12 years that you are owed an Arangetram? Why are artistic, physical and emotional readiness, and mental commitment not always given their respective due?
I ask myself – does every student of ballet, Western voice, violin or piano do a full-fledged solo concert? Unequivocally, no. Only those who have truly shown a level of achievement and expertise, and are committed to taking their art onward and upward, present solo concerts. Bharatanatyam students who also study one of these mentioned art forms, or something similar, would NEVER dream of doing a half-baked job with a solo debut concert in that field – so why does it continue to happen in Bharatanatyam?
I ask myself – why does this matter? Why does my blood pressure go up when I go down this rabbit hole? Because I care… about the art, about doing justice to my gurus’ teaching and work, the role I play in teaching, about my students, about what we are saying about our own work ethic and care about our art and culture in the larger communities in which we live. And yes, my blood pressure goes up because I have opinions about the topic, and not all will agree with my thoughts – that is perfectly ok. But, shouldn’t all of us in these roles be asking these questions?
I do feel we should always give encouragement to any young artist who does their Arangetram – it takes a great deal of fortitude to prepare and get up on stage to perform for 2+ hours as a soloist. I also feel strongly that we must separate this encouragement of the person from objectively viewing and constructively critiquing their art. Part of the training as an artist should include being able to take constructive, honest feedback to not only recognize and appreciate what was good, but acknowledge and commit to improving that which needs work. Flowery platitudes before or after the fact don’t help anyone involved.
I was scolded by someone sitting near me (a stranger, mind you) at an Arangetram I attended recently that I didn’t join in giving a standing ovation to the young dancer. I thought standing ovations were given by choice, not expected. I also thought we were supposed to outgrow peer pressure, groupthink and mindlessly following the herd at some point in our lives.
As a teacher, I thought I was pretty stingy about allowing students to do their Arangetrams, but find myself getting stingier about Arangetrams with each passing year. I want to ensure that my students and, equally important, their parents, are able to understand the values I aspire to bring to this milestone, and the responsibility we have to the art, to my gurus and their gurus, and to ourselves.
Even with 20-ish years of teaching experience and eight Arangetrams behind me, I keep asking myself – what is “Arangetram ready?” I’m still learning and understanding what this is and what this means. Looking back and reflecting objectively, there is no doubt in my mind that some of my students could have used more time prior to their Arangetrams to enhance their skills and presentation, even though every last one of them made great strides in their respective journeys. But I’m trying to take those observations as learning experiences to shape the future – no regrets about the past.
In the meantime, the 2018 “Arangetram Season” in the U.S. will come to a close in the coming weeks – and news of the 2019 “Arangetram Season” will start rolling in. Will it be “Wash – Rinse – Repeat”?