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The frill and fringe of ‘Bharatanatyam Entrée’

Shreema Upadhyaya with Guru and parents
Chithkala School

Amongst complex questions on existential identities and cultural ideologies is a city though thriving towards a corporeal future, yet restricted by a memoir of nostalgia. It is called Bangalore / Bengaluru. Right in the middle of such milieu are practitioners, preceptors, institutions, organizations, connoisseurs and families of the Indian classical arts who whilst claiming proud representation of legacy, yet struggle to relate to a changing tradition, who stuck in the rapid developmental immediacy of the present, yet don’t let go off an unyielding past! The city has its winner in the form of unflinching attitude of its inmates for pursuit of art – of extending, incorporating, accommodating or discarding but definitely pursuing!

An enduring testimony to such pursuit is almost a routine for all classical arts but is most commonly seen in Bharatanatyam (relative to other forms). This, in a conscious effort towards acquiring training and prolonged persistence (excluding a few) to accomplish a full length solo debut performance, in ideal effect, to cushion entry into professional field. As much as this is a long drawn process, it is definitely a combination of three principal happenings. An ignition which may come at different stages for a dancer, the student crawling into the ‘confidence box’ of his/her teacher and foresight of the student’s parents for the milestone to be a prospective investment – professionally and financially.

Given this, the ‘Arangetram’ / ‘Rangapraveha’, / ‘Padarpane’, / ‘Rangabhivandane’ / ‘Rangapooja’ can morph different perspectives, one of them from the eye of the makers themselves. The Kalaparva sought to document these inbound episodes with a post-arangetram feature of Shreema Upadhyaya disciple of Guru Praveen Kumar along with her parents Dr. Deeptha and Dr. Rajendra Upadhyaya.

Shreema Upadhyaya
Shreema comes across as a self-assured young professional with great clarity and focus. On quizzed of her conception of Rangapravesham she was evidently excited to say “That definitely goes back to my younger days when I watched other students prepare for and perform their Arangetrams. I was sure I wanted to be that ‘good’ one day! The yearning has also been cultivated by my teacher through many instances where he would particularly talk about what pieces I could have in my debut. The final crystallization and endorsement came about 6 months back”. While the possessing of a certain knack and innate talent become beneficial, it is only its combination with persistence that carry through towards intended achievements, and Shreema talks about setting high bars. “I am a little competitive and for this once in a lifetime event, I wanted to be the best, better than everything I had seen! Each of the Arangetrams that my sir had presented were of very high standard and now he had high expectations too! So yes, I guess it was a great challenge”.

A rather glaring aspect of the arts in India is the ever over emphasized mutual admiration cum reverence act touted by the Guru-teacher combo. As much as it would be construed as a controversial, bold statement, the intention here is far from contesting or even hurting sentiments. It is only to point that such emotions are best kept mutual and transmitted through achievement of high standards in performance rather! Along these lines, I could overtly see and admire a very decorous handling of their Guru-shishya relationship and work ethic between Praveen and Shreema. Shreema places her guru as a great mentor when she says “Praveen sir knew my strengths and weakness to the core and worked towards it. To give you specific examples, I am a small person, and can get tired easily. So he counselled me was to take off such mind blocks and rather gave me some challenging nritta to perform. Owing to this strategy, he gave me so much more work to do for which I had to channelize all my energy and left with no time to crib about limitations! He is a strong reason for my presenting a debut at the right time in life!”

Praveen on the other hand, in an equally refined tone talks about Shreema. “She came to me when she was 6yrs old. She has been one of those kids who always had a drive and great concentration right from the first class. With children at that age, it is quite a challenge to hold their attention in a span of an hour of class, but she has been a very attentive girl. Right from her first ten-minute dance till today she has always put in independent effort post my corrections on her. She is also academically a brilliant student. It was very nice to see her in class or take part in our shows, during her exams and yet score high in them. It’s been a joy sharing this art form with her. The only problem I find with her (rather most of the youngsters) is that they ‘don’t’ eat, drink. In fact many times their breakfast, milk, snacks happens at my place. Sometimes I blackmail them to eat or sometimes out of no choice or for their respect towards me they indulge in eating. I like to add here, that she derives equal support and strength from wonderful parents. Both the mother and father are doing their best to help her excel both academically and artistically.

Food for thought
As if a sheer coincidence, Shreema also talked about the ‘eating chapter’ with her Guru and very willing shared a photo, evidencing this lighter side of the learning process. However she is quick to point out the strict disciplines that were coupled with these moments – of juggling between exams and new pieces for the arangetram, of stressing and de-stressing owing to limited time and handling the spotlight and stage all alone for the first time. “It was both a very welcoming and intimidating atmosphere, where I was working with musicians I had interacted before. Watching them moderate to amplify my style of dancing was very humbling for me and created joy for an audience who acknowledged it.”

Shreema’s parents obliged to be a part of this feature, despite their busy schedules. The Kalaparva gets them to introduce themselves. “Myself Dr.Deeptha, I’m a medical professional with an MBBS and post-graduation in yoga. I’m attached with a research group who do clinical research in yoga and other alternative medicine. Dr. Rajendra is a radiologist by profession, and has their own diagnostic Centre along with a group of doctors. This is on the professional end. I was trained in Bharatanatyam art form at a young age and my parents were great rasikas of dance and all classical music forms. And Rajendra’s parents too were music enthusiasts.”

So according to her parents, the initiation into dance was very natural devoid of any pressures to give that ‘Extracurricular-cum- cultural’ upbringing or living their dream through their daughter. “I feel that the present scenario of classical arts is encouraging, with many of them taking to learn some or the other classical form. Not only at a very young age because of their parents but also so many professionals taking this art path for various reasons including stress management. Initiating Shreema into this classical dance form was a very natural decision as we had seen her dance more than walk as a child!! She had shown natural flair for dance and had impeccable sense of rhythm and music as a child. When we first put her into a dance class there were no other thoughts in us regarding extra-curricular activities or any other ideas. It was only to channelize her in born talent in a right way and harness it in the right channel.”

I contest Praveen further to this and come back to where I started this article on. In an exceedingly contemporary cultural scenario in India, specially Bangalore, where and why do you place the value and importance of Rangapravesha? Especially when it is no longer a ‘debut’ performance with the dancer having been exposed to varied platforms and experiences. To which Praveen has this to say “Agreed that now-a-days arangetrams are no longer debut performances for a dancer, because they would have already been exposed to varied platforms like competitions, school anniversaries, group programmes etc., yet I would give a thumbs up for arangetrams for those students who plan to take dance determinedly. Because any dancer would be used to dancing a solo of maximum 15 minutes in a competition or if you take an hour’s show it is always in a group, so arangetram is in fact a big test for a student to hold on to themselves for 2hrs apart from engaging themselves and the audience. I have personally seen great transformation towards a confident persona in my students who have done arangetram while executing themselves on stage and off it. It also becomes a journey to learn and a wholesome experience to involve in how a performance is planned, executed with not just by one member but with group of people like musicians, technicians, parents, friends and others.

Music ensemble

While on the lines of working on a large scale for a solo debut, I exquisitely question what then is the teacher’s criteria for presenting a student. According to Praveen “My first criteria would be whether the student is serious about ‘art’, when I say serious, I am not referring to attending class regularly. For me if they intend to continue for long time, have the passion towards art, that is when I speak to parents /student to know their level of fervor for arangetram. Over a period of time, as a teacher, I can very distinctly differentiate between those who are serious and the rest and decide accordingly. Unless I find that drive in a student, I don’t encourage arangetram, I have openly said ‘no’ to some students also”.

Seldom does one find any other discipline in India where building personal relationships is weighed on par with adhering to disciplines. And in this expanse of learning and sharing culture, the crucial role-players are families from where stems the upbringing and values that manifest in one’s ideology of art.

Shreema is very happy to have the most supportive parents and feels she could not have asked for more. “Since my mother danced in her childhood, planning for my arangetram was an inevitable aspect during all walks of life. For example, if we went to a saree store, she would leer on ideas of what would be the best pick for the ‘D-Day’! It has been a dream for her and she put in a lot of personalized effort into many aspects like making customized jewelry for the second half of the repertoire and being tech savvy about choosing the best options for any department. Having said that, I must add that she has never been pushy about anything, always giving me the space to make choices and encourage from the hind. Also, I have a highly charged up family of grandparents, uncles and aunts and a very avidly supportive younger sibling who would pep me up to work harder!”

Dr. Deeptha endorses further, of the event being a highly emotional and personal affair. “To be frank, the journey of making her Rangabhivandane has been a memorable one. With a true ‘Guru’ like Sri P Praveen Kumar it has been very smooth sailing experience. He has been the main inspiration and guiding light in this whole journey of dance and now her debut performance. Help came from all ends, our younger daughter took up the responsibility of designing the card, and so on. The music ensemble was just too amazing. We were blessed to get such great artists on board and working with them was so easy and an experience in itself. Their humility and their knowledge are what we were amazed with and truly bowled over. The whole group of musicians, make-up artists, costume maker, lighting technicians and the auditorium staff all were truly lovely to work with.”

Make-up by Kanakaraj
Classical arts have always seen dichotomies in talent v/s financial capacity and hereditary influence in creating opportunities for both the well and not-so-well deserved! I question Praveen on specifically the arangetram encompassing daisy parameters of talent, financial status, and grandeur and sometimes talent being equally, (if not less) important to financial capacity in presenting a student. He says “The parameters for these aspects always depend on teacher. Agreed now-a-days ‘arangetram’ are like a big affair. But when I decide for an arangetram, I ask what is the budget the parent is looking into, and based on that conduct the event. Even my musicians, technicians have always co-operated in this issue and have never spoken of low remunerations or for that matter any dissatisfaction. In fact I always try to subsidize the cost by not spending large amounts on grand invites, stage décor etc. Well, as for talent as I already mentioned, my criteria are in place”. While the Upadhyayas feel that need of an arangetram is purely subjective and are individual and collective decisions of the student, parents and the guru.

I make a specific address to the parents to create a dialogue towards increasingly growing competition for excellence in traditional professions viz medicine, engineering and other sciences. Given this I ask how do they see this relationship between academia and art? How do these two streams work independently and interdependently? How, why and when according to them should a youngster like their daughter strike a balance?
“Yes, there is an increase in the competitive scenario regarding the academic field. Classical art form training in itself is a complete therapy to harness your right and the left brain to a perfect balance. Balancing act becomes your very nature with such training. Children with some training in Indian classical art forms excel in academics too as there is already a lot of discipline, focus inculcated with the former training. In fact, this has been our observation with both our daughters into dance and music. They have effortlessly excelled in academics too. I remember Shreema attending her dance classes and program practices even through her 10th board exams and scoring 98.5%.”

Shreema is in agreement while saying that she has been equally focused on academics and dance and rather she finds academics easier than dance. For example, all through school and junior college, though being out of class on occasion of cultural assignments, she could catch up quite well and feels that there is always more to life than just academics. As she aims to ascend to the professional strata in dance, she also dreams of taking to civil services and becoming a diplomat one day, quite confident of making both these inquiries very much possible.

Her guru is well on the same page with her. “Learning is a never ending process, as one keeps learning, one grows. It is like any other profession, where there should be effort to keep themselves updated with their knowledge be it performing or theoretical. In fact, whenever there is a good dance recital in city, I tell all my students to go watch. Watching is a great learning and Shreema generally never misses any shows if I mention in particular. I keep telling her that two decades down the lane, I would like to see her name in the list of dancers who have contributed to our art form. I really wish to see Shreema in a long carrying dance career, hoping that my name is still carried in her bio data!”

Dr.Deeptha and Dr. Rajendra Upadhaya are their humble selves to admit this as a beginning of a journey for them and shy off from giving suggestions to parents stepping on the journey to and of an arangetram. “But, yes, there is a need to connect the children to one or the other form of Indian classical art forms as they are the only source of connecting with your soul at any or all points in life. Only these initiations can bring out the true self. And along with this they get bonus of discipline, focus, humility, group attitude etc.

A solo debut performance mostly in the Bharatanatyam genre today comes under the critical lens through arguments that favour it as a traditional observance and those that oft tout the event as an over accentuated, dramatically embellished and financially draining exercise. While substantiations are equally weighed on both sides, The Kalaparva’s intention through this conversation is to leverage a discussion on the importance that the current generation of young learners, parents and extended families and preceptors levy on consistent pursuit of arts, albeit in varied and sometimes diluted forms, but try best not to succumb and forego them completely.