I started learning Bharatanatyam when I was seven years old. My mom forced me to begin studying the art form because she had learned it when she was young. She loved it and apparently, it was necessary that I did too.
Initially, I couldn’t understand how she developed this love. To me, dance was something I simply learned once a week. As a young child, I didn’t understand the significance to the steps that I was learning and I didn’t have any particular connection to the dance. I couldn’t grasp what about it fascinated so many people.
My experience with Bharatanatyam continued this way for about 9 more years. I went to class once a week at first, then twice a week as I moved up in levels. My study of the dance form grew from basic steps to more complex sequences. However, while my interest and enjoyment of the dance form admittedly increased over the years, it was never something that I felt truly connected to.
When I was sixteen, my mother began discussions about my arangetram. Growing up, I had understood that it was expected that I complete this milestone, just as she did, but it had always seemed far off. Suddenly it was very real. I was going to complete a two-hour solo performance of this seemingly distant dance form and it was going to happen within the next year.
Then preparations began and I was granted a transformed access to Bharatanatyam. I was now in charge of my dance experience. With this increased power, I began to develop a new relationship with Bharatanatyam. I was able to choose the pieces I was going to be presenting, personalizing the stories I was able to tell. Performing pieces that suited my personality allowed me to inject my own humor and abilities into my dance. Developing a different connection to each piece pushed me to consider them beyond just the dance movements. I needed to express what made my dancing different from everyone else’s. It was only then that I began to understand the fundamental difference between executing a piece and performing a piece. The minute corrections that go ignored in a general dance class become highlighted in an individualized arangetram rehearsal. I began to consider every movement I completed before doing a step. I had never before placed such an emphasis on the rotation of my wrists or the firmness of my fingers, yet corrections like these suddenly seemed like huge glaring errors. The personalization of Bharatanatyam that my arangetram enabled caused me to respect and care about my dancing in a way I had never done before.
Through my arangetram, I came to understand the various factors of a Bharatanatyam performance. I earned a whole new appreciation for the choreography process, realizing just how difficult it is to tailor dance moves to a dancer’s abilities. I had always been concerned with dancing the pieces but I never thought about the process that went into creating them. I watched as my guru studied the music, counting out beats and pauses in the rhythm, teaching me the math behind the art form. I was introduced to a deeper level of abhinaya, one that required me to conjure emotions I hadn’t yet experienced during my seventeen years of life. I learned how to tell stories using what I understood as Sahi’s (Sahasra Sambamoorthi, for those of you who don’t know her nickname) expansive mental dictionary of dance movements and gestures. I no longer identified a dance piece by its steps but through the story I was trying to tell. I came to understand my body through its specific talents and limitations. I witnessed the challenges that accompany customizing choreography, along with the creative solutions that Bharatanatyam allows. As we moved further into my arangetram process, I was exposed to the powers that an orchestra wields. I discovered how the combination of music and dance brings stories to life in a way that dancing alone simply cannot achieve. Because of my arangetram, I came to appreciate all of the factors that contributed to a Bharatanatyam performance, many of which I had never even considered.
Preparation for my arangetram also allowed me to learn from those dancing around me. I danced with students of all ages. When dancing with younger students, I was able to relearn and rethink the movements that I considered basic to dance. The children I danced with taught me the importance of keeping an open mind. Their excitement and fascination when learning new dance steps reminded me of just how lucky I was to be able to study a classical form of dance so intently. When dancing with older students, I realized the importance of refining my technique. The deeper study of dance that occurred with these groups demonstrated how much learning I still had to do. The lessons I was able to learn from my gurus (Sridhar Shanmugam and Sahasra Sambamoorthi) extended far beyond dance. They taught me the results of determination and hard work, along with the value of respect and discipline. As I spent more time with then, my reverence for their talents only increased. From them, I learned the meaning of true passion. Their unwavering support and patience demonstrated their love for Bharatanatyam.
My journey with this dance form has been a long one, and now, after my arangetram, I am certain it is not over. It has evolved from an activity I was forced into to a true part of my identity. From this process, I was able to make Bharatanatyam my own. I did not realize my appreciation for the dance until immediately after I had completed my arangetram, when still standing on stage I burst into tears. Overcome by emotion, I finally grasped what compelled others to truly love this dance form. Bharatanatyam has the power to transport both the dancer and the audience to another world. It has the ability to tell the most detailed of stories with just a few gestures. It is a dance form that is centuries old, yet never ceases to seem relevant. Through my extended practice of the dance, I was able to develop the capacity to truly feel the spirituality and mythology with every step I completed. My arangetram allowed me to establish a personal connection with Bharatanatyam. The relationship that I have built with Bharatanatyam is a direct result of my arangetram and something that I will always cherish.