Arangetram Tradition Finds New Home
28 September 2011
Lucinda Al-Zoghbi puts forward the case for enriching students’ dance experience through a solo performance in a professional setting in addition to formal examinations
Picture the scene: you began learning your favourite dance style as a small child, and now, as a young adult, you’re approaching the more advanced levels. The ISTD examinations have been a benchmark for you to aspire to but now that you’ve reached the end, that’s it. But what if there was a way for you to celebrate this huge achievement, with a performance in full costume with live music to all your friends and family? Well, in one particular dance style that very opportunity is possible.
In the South Indian classical dance form, Bharatanatyam, a dancer’s achievements are celebrated through a debut performance, which is known as the arangetram. This tradition, which has the aura of a ceremony, is widely practised in India and is being followed all over the world, including in the UK. Every year up to a hundred such events take place in theatres and community halls in cities around the country.
The preparation for the arangetram starts with the teacher signalling to the student that s/he has reached a level of competency in dance technique and is ready to embark on the accelerated learning necessary to perform a full solo repertoire to live accompaniment in a professional performance setting. All aspects of the performance must be considered in order to show the student’s understanding of the dance form. As well as learning and arranging their dance sequences, a student will carefully select traditional costume and jewellery which they will wear for the performance.
The arangetram is a unique experience that arises once in a Bharatanatyam dancer’s training. However, the learning doesn’t stop there. If a dancer wishes to continue dancing, then the arangetram acts as a gateway for the dancer to deepen their drive and passion.
Students from all dance backgrounds can benefit from the skills that the arangetram aims to develop: a strong work ethic, hard work and dedication. It also builds upon moral attributes, such as sincerity and loyalty, which benefit all aspects of life. Most importantly, the arangetram emphasises the importance of a professional learning environment, regardless of whether or not the student will become a performer. The skills acquired through the arangetram are transferrable to other lines of work outside of the performing arts.
Highlighting the continuance of the arangetram tradition in the UK, a recent Heritage Lottery funded exhibition on the subject was mounted in Luton by FIPA (Foundation for Performing Arts) and Kadam – two organisations that seek to promote the role of South Asian arts nationally. The project conducted interviews of 35 gurus (mentors) and their students who share their memories and experiences of training for their arangetrams. A film of the interviews was created and makes for fascinating viewing on www.fipa.org.uk.
In 1999, the ISTD added two South Asian dance forms, Bharatanatyam and Kathak, to its already wide spectrum of dance genres and in 2001 formal examinations began to take place in the UK, later spreading to other parts of the world. The syllabi range from Primary, Grades 1 to 6 as well as Vocational Grades that have proved popular in Europe, North America as well as further afield in India, Pakistan and Australasia. Despite their different approaches – ISTD examinations and the arangetram performance – there are many similarities between these two training systems. Both recognise the skills of a dancer and accredit proficiency in the chosen dance style. In the case of the ISTD, students develop their technique through the structure of an internationally recognised syllabus which results in differing levels of examination. Whilst, in the traditional training of Bharatanatyam via the arangetram route, dancers celebrate their development from student to artist by preparing for this debut solo performance.
These two training systems lead their students through an enriching learning experience by implementing intensive training and contextual study which, as a result, allows them to embody their chosen dance form to its full potential. If the two systems were to sit side by side, the work of the ISTD and the arangetram could project their artistic aims and objectives to the wider dance community raising the status of both the formal exam and the achievement of the arangetram. In fact, the ISTD’s Bharatanatyam syllabus has been written, keeping in mind that at the end of Grade 6, the student would be at the right place to embark on the intensive training programme that would lead to an arangetram performance. So, bringing together the ISTD training programme with the arangetram route is a perfect marriage between tradition and the sensibilities of modern training methods.
Lucinda Al-Zoghbi, author of this article and Editorial Assistant at Pulse Magazine (www.pulseconnects.com)