13.10.18 – less than a month ago, I completed my arangetram. An arangetram is a dance graduation of sorts, a big solo concert where I performed 8 dance pieces for 3 hours. I did my arangetram for the South Indian classical dance form, Bharatanatyam. It’s one of the most popular classical dance forms in India, and a lot of dancers perform similar solo debut concerts.
It’s hard to put a number on how many hours I spent on dance this year, because aside from learning each dance and rehearsing them repeatedly, I spent many hours of my time researching the history of the dance. Not many dances have clear documented origins in 2nd Century CE, and it is an incredible honour to be able to learn such an ancient art. Of course, the art isn’t exactly as it was back then, like everything in India the influences of colonisation shaped it in immeasurable ways (mostly not positive). An art which was practiced by Devadasis, dancers who dedicated themselves to the Lord of a temple, was painted as a dance performed by courtesans or harlots, and already declining interest plummeted with this public shaming of the art.
Prominent artists and professionals and emergence of the independence movement saw resurgence in the art form, with suppression laws being questioned. The prominent Rukmini Devi Arundale and Balasaraswati championed the cause of Bharatanatyam and expanded it to become a mainstream dance form, but this came with a streamlining of the art. Rukmini Devi de-sexualised the art form, which was originally quite erotic because Hindu traditions didn’t shy away from an emotion as deeply ingrained in the human condition as love. But being of high prestige, Rukmini Devi had to modify the dance to be in line with her societal status when establishing her dance academy, Kalakshetra.
Today the dance ranges from being strictly ‘devoid of vulgarity’, to explicitly showcasing all the emotions Devadasis originally spoke about. I am a representative of the Kalakshetra style, and can trace my parampara (tradition/lineage) directly to Rukmini Devi, but I also tell stories of love and eroticism in my performance.
As a representative of the art form, I carry an inexplicable feeling that many young people coming from a rich culture share. The feeling that I am responsible for extending and continuing my culture, that without my active promotion of that culture, I will be doing my home country a disservice. I don’t say this because it’s a burden, but because it’s something that isn’t spoken about often enough.
To be clear, a lot of my migrant peers don’t care about actively promoting their culture, or don’t feel the need to do so. And that’s fine, because not everyone has to care. But for those who do care, and who anguish about how to do it right, I’m right there with you. I already don’t know much, I’ve failed to retain knowledge about particular prayers or traditions, and I fear because centuries of tradition could be lost in years of neglect. It’s not my fault exclusively, neither is it my families fault for not force feeding me information, it’s a systematic issue and not enough time is spent talking about it.
I’ve been incredibly privileged physically, mentally, and financially to be able to complete an arangetram. I’ve also been privileged to learn about so much history through my guru and through literary research. But it is my responsibility to bring that privilege to fruition and give thanks to art which has given me so much richness in my life. I don’t have a dramatic conclusion to this post, but it is partially an explanation as to why I speak about dance so much, and why I take so much pride in dance.
I’m not sure what I will do to promote my culture, but I do know that I’ll keep dancing in future. It’s probably the least I can do.