Arangetram: Performance or Party?

A bit about the context within which I have written this paper. I am a Bharatanatyam dancer, and have studied the form, since my childhood in India. I performed my own Arangetram in London last year. I am currently involved in a Leverhulme funded research project based at the University of Surrey-Roehampton looking at South Asian dance in Britain. The project director is Dr Andr'e Grau, the senior researcher, Dr Alessandra Iyer, and I am the main field researcher. This paper arises out of part of the research conducted for this project.  

Magdalene Gorringe by Sophie Coudray
Arangetram, Social Conventions
and Artistic Endeavor


For those not familiar with the term, 'Arangetram' is the name given within the South Indian dance tradition Bharatanatyam to a dancer's debut performance. The word comes from two Tamil words: Arangam and Erru, which together mean 'to ascend the stage'. There are equivalents for the other classical Indian dance traditions - for example, the rangapravesh for Kathak or arangmanchpravesh for Odissi, but the practice is most established and most popular in connection with bharatanatyam. This dance tradition will therefore provide the focus of the paper.   

Within Bharatanatyam, or to be more precise, within the dance traditions that developed in to Bharatanatyam, the practice of Arangetram is long established. The Tamil text the Cilappatikaram, which can be dated to the 2nd or 3rd centuries CE follows the adventures of the young dancer, Matavi, and includes a whole chapter devoted to the Arangerrukatai, or the story of her Arangetram. From this text and other sources, we get a picture of the importance of such a performance in presenting a newly trained dancer to her patron the king. As has been well documented by Saskia Kersenboom, Leslie Orr and others , for centuries the dance form that fed in to present day Bharatanatyam was practiced as a temple, then a court art form known asdasi attamsadir and chinna melam among other names. In the context of this devadasi tradition, a formalized introduction of a new dancer served the dual purpose of introducing a dancer and allowing others to assess her quality, and while the kings still acted as patrons, of reaffirming the link between temple and court. As with other dance performances, it was also an occasion to attract potential patrons in addition to the king. The performance had therefore a very important economic as well as artistic role.  

The Arangetram continued to have this joint significance of formal initiation in to artistic practice, which was also an initiation in to a livelihood, until the mid-twentieth century. With the suppression of dasi attam in the 1930s, and its subsequent emergence as Bharatanatyam, the whole social context of the form changed. The dance was practiced no longer in a temple, but in a theatre; it was performed no longer by an appointed group of professional dancers, from the low Melakkara jati, but by the wealthy middle class, most often Brahmins. The Arangetram continued, but they were no longer essential to the economic well being of the dancer, as the new dancer tended to come from a class that was not dependent on dance for an income. The focus of the Arangetram therefore became entirely artistic - an occasion when both new dancer, and her teacher could be judged for their standards. 

Removed of economic constraints, the Arangetram has developed into a performance notably free of the restraints attendant on the necessity to attract audiences or patrons. The audience for an Arangetram is ready made, as the performance is traditionally free, and a large part of the audience inevitably consists of friends and relatives of the artist involved. There is no pressure to fulfill any funding requirements, as Arangetram tend to be self-financed. There is no issue as to what to perform as since the 19th century, all Arangetrams have followed the standard format for a BN performance - the margam or repertoire devised by the Tanjore quartet. For many practitioners both in India and in the Diaspora, there is not even the consideration of needing to impress potential programmers or funders as the majority of those performing Arangetrams will not depend on the dance form for their livelihood. As with the Arangetram, subsequent performances are likely to be self-funded. The importance of the occasion, then, comes from the desire to make an artistically impressive debut, even if one's future is not dependent on it. 

In this context, the audience, no longer required as prospective patrons, gains the more demanding role of acting as public examination board. As a senior dance teacher commented in a recent debate on the subject, the role of the discerning audience for an Arangetram is crucial. The Arangetram is an exceptional performance, one that more than any other in a dancer's life represents a joint performance between teacher and student. The Arangetram effectively states that the young dancer is now not merely an amateur, but a budding professional, and the audience must decide whether this status has indeed been reached, and in doing so pass judgment both on the dancer and on the guru. When performing to an audience of connoisseurs, teachers and critics, there is the real danger of failing the performance. Valli Subbiah interviewed about her Arangetram from Kalakshetra felt that had she made a mess of that first performance, she would not have been given a second chance. 

The Arangetram then is a performance that in order to be meaningful demands the equal involvement of teacher, performer and audience in the pursuit of artistic excellence. In this sense it is an event that symbolically unites the artistic community. The guru is publicly acknowledged for all the hard work in training the dancer; the dancer is introduced and judged, critically, but not too harshly, as after all it is a first performance. The dancer performs a first solo margam (or full Bharatanatyam repertoire) - and this can prove a significant boost to his or her confidence as a performer. One young dancer described her Arangetram as being 'the most wonderful night' of her life as she suddenly felt 'I can do it'.

With the explosion of interest in Bharatanatyam during the 1970s and 80s, in addition to the artistic role, Arangetrams have acquired a different significance, both within Asia, and even more markedly within the Asian Diaspora. Bharatanatyam, true to its name has, as Joan Erdman has commented, become the artistic representative of Indian-ness and of ancient heritage. Arangetrams as the distinguishing performance of Bharatanatyam have in turn become the symbol par excellence of ethnic heritage - arguably more popular in this role even than weddings.

As a result, Arangetrams are now big business. Performing an Arangetram, rather than a regular performance now typically means a hike in the fees paid to musicians. In addition, gifts must be purchased for both teacher and musicians, and anyone else involved, and quite often snacks are supplied to the audience. Within the Diaspora, especially in Britain and the States, the situation has reached extremes. In addition to the traditional dance repertoire, an average London Arangetram now has a number of other fixed ingredients. These include glossy brochures featuring color photographs of both teacher and student, the provision not only of snacks but of a whole evening meal, and speeches by prominent community figures including teachers, politicians and religious leaders. Arangetrams compare with weddings in terms of lavish display: one Arangetram I attended featured a huge Rangoli pattern at the hall entrance made entirely of flower petals. Another had life size photo images of the dancer to welcome guests.

Unsurprisingly, they have therefore become phenomenally expensive. It is quite normal to spend between 15 and 20 thousand pounds on one, and there are not infrequent cases of people spending 30,000 pounds and more. This is above the annual income of most people in Britain. At a recent conference we were told that in America young adults are offered the choice between an Arangetram and a new car. In fact some of the amounts spent would almost buy a house (if not in London!).

Well what's wrong with that? People can spend their money as they choose, and all the extravagance certainly helps to make the Arangetram a colorful and memorable affair. One would never dream of instructing people as to how to conduct their weddings, though you might raise your eyebrows at the expense, so why is it different with Arangetrams? The problem is that in the midst of this display, the artistic role of the performance is often lost. With the increasing importance of the Arangetram as, to quote Anita Ratnam, an initiation into a cultural practice, its role as an initiation into an artistic practice is forced to take a back seat. Rather than look for clean lines, convincing expressions and good rhythm, the audience now comes to see family values upheld, to witness and approve of the respectful bond between teacher and student, and to applaud the speeches that extol the values of hard work and of keeping in touch with one's roots. At my Arangetram, I was urged by the audience to bring my parents on stage and touch their feet. At another Arangetram, a section when the audience was most enthusiastic and animated was when the chief guest addressed them in the language of the dancer's community, Marathi. The mother of one young dancer attempted to convince me to bring my husband along with the promise of a good meal (the possibility that he might enjoy the dance did not come in to it). The role of the audience as responsible critic for a first performance has been superseded by the role of participant in a party that celebrates cultural identity The audience continues to judge the performance, and Arangetrams are still shaped very much in accordance with audience expectations. However, these expectations now have less to do with the inherent aesthetic quality of the performance and more to do with reaffirming a supposed cultural authenticity. Flaws like shuffling footwork and crooked body lines that would be censured in Madras or Colombo, in the Diaspora are noted but forgiven. Well the dance is not perfect, but after all the child is growing up in a foreign culture. At least the dance training has ensured some knowledge of Sanskrit and Tamil and has inculcated a more thorough understanding of the Dasavataram.

This conflict between art as striving for aesthetic excellence, and as representing and serving as a means to continue cultural values is, of course, not unique to Arangetrams, or even to South Asian dance performed in the Diaspora, though perhaps the conflict is particularly striking in this case. On the one hand the practice of Asian dance forms indisputably does provide a link to the culture from which they originate. On the other hand we can't expect these forms not to evolve in relation to their new environment. Yes Bharatanatyam can provide a way of keeping in touch with roots in India. But is this a good reason to study dance? And what does it do for the art form? One teacher I interviewed refuses to teach children whose parents ring up to request classes so that their offspring can get in touch with their culture, in that such an interest in the art form often ends with the event that states that such cultural education has been achieved - the Arangetram. The Arangetram, as every chief guest will reiterate is only a starting point. Yet so great is the pattern for young dancers to perform their Arangetram and stop, that people can say with genuine surprise, 'it's so good to see someone dancing after their Arangetram'. Another dance aficionado interviewed has abandoned them altogether, preferring to wait for the dancer's next performance, which will prove whether or not they are really committed to the form.

Naturally this situation has caused a lot of concern, not least among dance teachers, who often feel powerless to prevent the excesses of their students' parents in staging these events. The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London, where many of the Arangetrams take place has given up trying to impose limits on the expenditure as such constraints merely encourage the family to go elsewhere for their 'big splash' One teacher I interviewed who refused to countenance such extravagance next came across her erstwhile student doing an Arangetram with a group of musicians and anattuvanar flown in for the occasion from India. In Britain, there is a voice that says that Arangetrams should be scrapped, and that the newly instituted ISTD or Imperial Society for Training in Dance exams for South Asian dance should be used instead as a way to assess standards. There has even been a suggestion that the Arts Council steps in to regulate the performances.

Ultimately though, such dramatic measures will make no difference without a fundamental shift in how Bharatanatyam is perceived, both by Western and Asian audiences. In a culturally pluralist society, all audiences, both Western and Asian can choose to enjoy and encourage Bharatanatyam as an ethnic display rather than as a serious dance form. Of course all art forms reflect to some extent the culture in which they are born, which is why it is so difficult to unpack the distinctions between what is artistic and what is cultural and why culture and art are words that are so easily interchanged. In a sense art represents the distillation of what is best in a particular culture. However, art should not only represent, but should also transcend and challenge a culture. When it does not do this it can slip in to propaganda. This is a still more urgent danger when the culture represented is no longer the living, day to day practice, but, as with Arangetrams or with the performance presented by the theosophical society in the 'Eastern Arts tent', an idealized vision of a culture now left behind, which in fact no longer exists in India, if it ever did. The chief guest at the Arangetram waxes lyrical about Indian family values, to audience applause, supported by the comforting image of chaste Sita portrayed in one of the dances. The theosophical society audience admires the spiritual power of the ancient dance form. Meanwhile in India, women are deliberately performing in black, and using the inspiration of the devadasis to represent nayikas with an assertive sexuality of their own. Arangetrams in themselves are not the problem. However they become a problem when rather than serving as a means to explore and question the boundaries of a culture they become the vehicle for a particular group to express what a culture should be. And the mere fact of the expense of Arangetrams, as we have seen, ensures that this group is very exclusive. In this case, Arangetrams become more than performance and more than party, but a culturally specific form of conspicuous consumption used as a vehicle to propagate specific cultural ideals. If we are not careful, Arangetrams and all other performances held in this vein will join the ranks of Disney's 'world cultures' display, and the 'exotic east' brigade in presenting a vision of the art form that effectively confines and shackles it, and forbids its growth. 


More by :  Magdalen Gorringe

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Views: 4634      Comments: 4

Comment You've communicated these thoughts and ideas so well. What you say is so true and as a BN dancer myself, I pray that this rich art form does not take the course that you have warned about. It saddens me deeply to see the frivolousness with which our society today tends to classical art, specifically BN. It is tossed around superficially and we are in danger of the art form being lost

Thanks for your work in sharing your views. All the best to you.

Yours in dance,

14-Jun-2015 18:04 PM

Comment I have been invited to my co-worker's daughter's Arangetram. I am not Indian, have never seen the Bharatanatyam dance, so; I am really looking forward to seeing not only the dance form, but the tradition and customs surrounding this 'coming of age' for the Bharatanatyam dancer.

Can anyone tell me what are typical gifts and customs in congratulating the dancer on her graduation?

Thank you!

07-Aug-2014 15:51 PM

Comment Hi,

I am a dancer based in India and this is absolutely true for most arangetram performances here too. The focus is not the art form, but is a massive show of one's wealth and n less than a wedding. In fact, some parents use it as a tool to show how "eligible" their daughters are, in the "marriage market'...

02-May-2014 06:07 AM

Comment Extremely well written article.Congratulations on your Arangetram!!
I am at a phase where I am wondering whether it is a good idea to get my daughter aged 16 years should go in for an Arangetram at all , having completed her Junior level exam very successfully and preparing to take the senior exam next year as well.
Her dance teacher, is thankfully among those few gems who shuns public display of wealth and has advised me to conduct her Rangapravesam in a temple.
Just wanted to check with you if that too will be a 3 hour performance or is conducted during temple festivals and 'Navaratris' when there is a floating audience at temples and also has multiple students performing alternately.
Hopefully such a performance is also considered a merit certificate when it comes to having an edge over other students who may have excelled at a job interview along with my daughter.

09-Jun-2012 13:41 PM

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