Indian classical dance is rooted in Hindu philosophy and is believed to be among the oldest dance forms in the world. Mastering its complex facial expressions, movement, and understanding its spiritual and mythological ties is a lifelong learning experience. A student typically begins training in one of the classical styles at age four. At the culmination of her training nearly 10 years later, the student gives an arangetram, a public solo dance recital. In Bharatanatyam, the oldest dance style in this form, about 10 different dance compositions are performed. Preparing for this milestone is a feat for the dancer and her family.
Find a qualified dance teacher in the style of your choice to begin training. There are many styles besides Bharatanatyam to choose from, including Odissi, Mohini Attam, Kathakali, Kathak, and Kuchipudi. If an arangetram is a certain goal, ensure that the teacher plans to stay in the area because it is a 10-year commitment at the least.
Choose an auspicious day to offer fruits and flowers to your guru, or teacher, who accepts the offering in order to impart knowledge. It is a sacred bond that is meant to last a lifetime. Your guru will beat a wooden stick on a wooden block to which you stamp your first steps. You will learn adavus, or basic dance steps, in this initial stage of training, while perfecting posture and developing your muscles. The spiritual and mythological dimensions are continually reinforced, along with spatial and rhythmic qualities of the form.
Once you learn each dance, a rigorous training period ensues prior to your arangetram for you to practice and perfect the required compositions. Slowly add one dance at a time to daily practice to build your endurance. Every dance will be a mixture or single form of nritta, pure dance, or abhinaya, emotional expression. You will practice with musical and vocal accompaniment so that you and the musicians can get comfortable for the recital. Spend time understanding the meaning behind the dances. A true dancer can convey the meaning to the audience despite a possible language barrier.
Plan a dance rehearsal at the auditorium close to the date of your arangetram to familiarize yourself with the the stage and to set up proper lighting for each dance.
Book an auditorium for the arangetram once it is apparent that the completion of the dance training is imminent. The number of guests invited (and the cost of the event) mirror those of a wedding, so set aside enough money for the arangetram. Be sure to send invitations early to get a final head count and to have programs printed.
Plan a trip to India to buy the costume jewelry and traditional outfits for the performance. If this is not possible, have a relative do the shopping and ship them back. If the latter is done, send the measurements for the costume ahead of time. Costume changes are inevitable since an arangetram usually lasts between two and a half to three hours. Buy two to three outfits that are bold in color and different from each other.
On the day of the performance, arrive early to decorate the stage, lobby and reception area. Place a statue of a deity like Siva as Nataraja on a stand at the left of the stage to recreate a temple ambiance on stage. Decorate the stage with garlands of flowers and a backdrop of a deity or other artistic piece. Place programs on a table in the lobby so guests see this first. Add a special touch by setting up pictures of the dancer in her traditional costume and jewelry in the lobby. A dinner usually follows the performance, so arrange for a caterer.
Have friends act as emcees for the arangetram, reading descriptions of the dance compositions. Other dance students are typically chosen for this role since they are familiar with the dance terminology. There is a point in the program where the guru and musicians are honored, so allow time for this. Have gifts ready for the guru and musicians and those who were instrumental in the planning process.
Practice your facial expressions in the mirror. Watch footage of previous arangetrams to understand the process and glean tips on technique and expression. Stay hydrated between dances.
Joint problems and muscle strain are very common in dancers especially during the training for an arangetram.
- "Bharatanatyam"; Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan; 2002
Anjali Lakkaraj writes for various online publications, covering topics related to stitchery and health education. She holds a Master of Public Health from Emory University and is attending the University of Baltimore School of Law.