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Doing the Rite Thing

A teenager's lavish coming-of-age ceremony is also a grueling test of physical endurance. After eight years of training, she makes her parents proud.



By Puja Lalmalani

Vrinda Pai has a list of almost 100 items to pack for her daughter's big day. There's the fan for Priya to cool herself in the dressing room. And the towel to wipe off sweat. The bobby pins, sewing kit, flowers, false hair, and bells for her ankles. From costume changes to makeup to Arctic Shatter PowerAde, Vrinda's got it covered.

Priya has been studying the south Indian classical dance form bharata natyam with Hema Rajagopalan for eight years. In all that time, Vrinda has never missed an arangatrem. Now the time has come for her own daughter to give this once-in-a-lifetime solo performance.

Generally lasting two hours, the dancer's debut is matched in ceremony only by weddings and funerals. The arduous training process and performance itself constitute a "severe test, a test that you can apply to any situation in life," says Rajagopalan, respectfully addressed as "Hema Aunty" by her students. "You cannot lose heart, and you should not have an attachment to the result." What makes this test different from many others is that success or failure is revealed onstage under spotlights.

If Vrinda's lucky, the trip from Munster, Indiana, to Rajagopalan's home in Oak Brook takes only an hour and 45 minutes. But if Vrinda hits heavy traffic, the trek (which she's made at least once weekly over the years) can take up to a half hour longer. Priya, 18, is the middle daughter and the first to present her arangatrem. She started learning when she was 4 and her older sister, Kavitha, was 6. Their sister Shobha, now 13, also takes class.

The only interruption to their years of training came in 1994, when the Pais moved to Malaysia so that Priya's father, Vipin, an engineering professor at Indiana University, could teach there. The girls packed their audiotapes of dance music and continued their lessons with the occasional bharata natyam teacher, but they missed Rajagopalan's style. When the family returned to the United States after a few years, Kavitha became involved in other activities, but Priya was eager to get back to dance, and Shobha was ready to begin learning.

Vrinda, a thin, youthful woman of 47, studied bharata natyam as a girl but wasn't allowed to continue past the age of 12. In the small town of Hubli in Karnataka, India, she studied with a man because there were no female teachers. "My father was not crazy about that," she says. "He didn't like that a man should be touching a grown-up girl [while correcting technique], but he never explained that to me. He just told my mother, 'Tell her, she'll understand later in life.'"

Vrinda's daughters learn from a woman--but even if they didn't, Vrinda says, "Living in this country, I've learned to look at things with an open mind." She believes her daughters would come to her if they felt uncomfortable with a teacher, male or female. But back in India "we couldn't question adults--that's the discipline we had."

Stepping into the Rajagopalan home is as familiar as walking into my own house. It's been two years since I've been here; it's been that long since I've danced.

"Tai di di tai, tai tai di di tai, tai tai tai di di tai": the syllables of Rajagopalan's singing are a language of their own. Hema Aunty's voice climbs up the stairs from the basement studio, into the back hallway of her home. I take off my shoes, as I have so many times before, and place them next to many other pairs.

I walk down the same stairs a generation of dancers has descended, to the studio where Rajagopalan passes on this art form deeply rooted in Hindu religion, mythology, and philosophy. Only in the last couple hundred years has bharata natyam been performed in the theater rather than the temple. The form is said to have been created 3,000 years ago to mend a society in a state of immorality, irreligion, and chaos. Rajagopalan explains that, in Hindu mythology, Lord Vishnu asked Lord Brahma to create something to bring the people together and teach them morality. The result was the Natyaveda, the Hindu scriptures or four vedas. An evolved soul, Bharata, then translated the Natyaveda into laymen's terms, calling the work the Natyashastra, a manual explaining the art of acting, hand gestures and their meanings, and how to reveal emotion through performance. Bharata presented his first play to Lord Shiva, who remarked that though the production was educational and enlightening, it lacked entertainment value. Lord Shiva taught Bharata how to dance, both the vigorous "pure" dance and the more graceful expressional dance, and Bharata added a chapter to the Natyashastra, the foundation for bharata natyam.

Women initially performed the dance, but as time went on men also began to dance it. When bharata natyam started moving from the temple to the stage, the function of the dance remained the same: to elevate the dancer and the audience to a higher level of spiritual consciousness. Though learning bharata natyam is physically challenging because of its vast, intricate vocabulary of hand gestures, complicated rhythms and footwork, and precisely choreographed neck, eye, chin, and waist movements, the most difficult aspect, Rajagopalan says, is the mental and emotional preparation: "Is the dancer capable of inspiring those spiritual feelings in the audience?" The final arangatrem item, the pure-dance tillana, requires great physical endurance and grace, and the 40- to 50-minute varnam is traditionally considered the arangatrem's piece de resistance because the accompaniment is sung slowly and the dancer must portray the lovelorn heroine's "myriad of emotions." But in Rajagopalan's mind the most difficult piece is the padam, based entirely on subtle expression.

Rajagopalan sits against one wall on a cushioned mat. Scattered around her are dance notes, tapes, books, a tape recorder, and a telephone. She hits a wooden stick against a block to keep time with Priya's footwork: "Taka dimi, taka dimi, tadingatom."

Twelve years ago, when I started learning bharata natyam, these rhythms were foreign to me. Now they're not only familiar but comforting. An American-born Indian, I thought of dance class as similar to soccer or piano lessons. Most of us started young, between the ages of six and nine. Our moms gave up a chunk of their weekends, driving us to the Edgewood Montessori School in Lombard, where hour-long group classes were given. (Classes are also held at the Bock Park District in Schaumburg and at Saint Alphonsus in Chicago.) Parents would pass the time watching the class, reading, or taking notes for us to review at home.

It took a couple years to learn the basic steps. The group class had 10 or 12 students, almost all girls of Indian descent. Over the years students would come and go, but some were regulars, and we eventually learned full dance pieces. We grew up together, encouraging and teaching one another as well as competing for attention and praise. When we turned 16 and got drivers' licenses, we drove ourselves to class and back. We started taking private lessons with Hema Aunty, we performed together, and one by one girls started giving their arangatrems.

At six or seven or ten, we were too young to understand the role of the bharata natyam dancer. We thought we were just learning steps, like our American friends taking ballet. We knew our dances depicted Hindu stories but had little understanding of the teachings embedded in the lyrics and our characters: coping with the illusion of a material world, longing for salvation, detaching from the results of our work, and understanding our dharma, or duty.

Hema Rajagopalan has spent 25 years teaching and building the Natya Dance Theatre. She started with just a few students in her Lombard home. As the school expanded, she moved her classes to the Edgewood Montessori School and has been teaching there on weekends ever since. At any one time she has about 150 active students, and altogether 900 girls, some from as far away as India and Poland, have passed through her school. She's watched her students grow from young children to adults, even teaching some of their kids.

Her basement studio is the size of a three-car garage, with a sprung wooden floor. The walls are lined with plaques recognizing Rajagopalan's achievements: Master Teacher Award from the city of Chicago, Master Teacher Award from the Asian American Heritage Council, and choreography awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, among other institutions. There are photos of the Natya Dance Theatre at Ravinia a few years ago, and pictures of Rajagopalan in various dance poses. She was in her 40s then, but in full costume and makeup she looks like one of the young women in the Natya Dance Theatre. The most commanding element in the studio is a life-size statue of Lord Nataraja, the Hindu god of dance.

For rehearsal Priya is dressed in a traditional cotton salvar kameez--loose pants and a knee-length top--with a chunni (long scarf) tied across her chest and around her waist. Her hair is pulled back tightly and perfectly parted in the middle. A few bars into the rhythmic, rigorous tillana she hesitates, then stops. Rajagopalan and the vocalist stop singing. The mridangist (drummer) and flautist--the musicians who've traveled from India to provide live music for Priya's arangatrem--stop playing.

Priya's charcoal-lined eyes look up, searching for the steps, then shift back and forth between Rajagopalan and the musicians. "You have to know because I won't know," says Rajagopalan, neither upset nor comforting. Vrinda watches with a worried look. Also dressed in a salvar kameez, she's videotaping the rehearsal. Tonight Priya will review her mistakes. Her younger sister, wearing jeans and a tank top, sunglasses hanging from her pocket, sits quietly next to her mother playing a Gameboy, glancing up occasionally to watch her sister. One day she too wants to give her arangatrem.

Priya walks over to her notebook, where she's recorded Rajagopalan's choreography in stick-figure drawings and translated the music's lyrics. Flipping through the pages she reviews her steps, then goes back to the dance. She finishes but with frequent mistakes, memory lapses, and missed rhythms. Though Priya struggles through the tillana, in truth she knows all eight items for her arangatrem, only a week away. Her mistakes reflect no lack of preparation--Rajagopalan sees this happen to her students all the time, and it's just nerves. "Some students are able to withstand the stress. But because many feel pressure and fear, they're not able to rehearse at the optimum level."

Priya's cotton kameez is wet with sweat, and Vrinda hands her a quart of PowerAde and a towel to wipe her face. Priya then sits cross-legged in front of Rajagopalan to review the anupallavi, or second verse, of the varnam. Rajagopalan shows her the proper facial expressions and explains the meaning of the verse, which praises Lord Shiva: "O greatest of all performers / Give us this dance of joy / Give us this dance of prosperity."

It's the last summer before Priya and her friends leave for college. But while her friends savor graduation, their summer freedom, and the biggest and best parties of high school, Priya has spent the last few months in Rajagopalan's basement, practicing, memorizing, reviewing steps, attending class.

She decided almost a year earlier that she wanted to do her arangatrem. After Rajagopalan approved her request, the planning began. Priya's private lessons continued once a week but were geared toward her performance. The more rigorous training period started early in the summer, with a high-carb diet and two-hour rehearsals twice a week in June, then four times a week in July.

Traditionally the arangatrem marks the end of the dancer's first stage of training. "It's like getting out of kindergarten," says Rajagopalan's daughter, Krithika, who teaches dance, performs professionally, and is executive director of Natya Dance Theatre. The performance "is a stepping stone to the next level of learning." But for Americans, Priya says, "it's more of an ending. We tend to move on to another goal, to another accomplishment. For me, it will be a completion--it'll be some kind of closure." The word itself comes from the Tamil language: arangam means "stage" and yatrem "ascending." The first written reference to the arangatrem can be found in the fifth-century Tamil play Silappadiharam.

In Rajagopalan's 25 years of teaching, she says, the only student to have pursued bharata natyam professionally has been her daughter. A few others perform off and on with the Natya Dance Theatre, which tours colleges, universities, and other venues nationwide. Others may take classes when they come home from college, with an occasional performance at their universities or on summer breaks. Many, however, never wear their bells again.

Anyone interested in pursuing the art faces several challenges. One of Rajagopalan's first students, Lara Jayshankar, gave her arangatrem at 13, back when Rajagopalan allowed students to give their debut performance at a younger age. Now 27, Jayshankar still takes classes with Rajagopalan and has also studied expressional bharata natyam at the University of Chicago. Her interest in the form sustains her studies, but she insists, "If I had it my way, I'd be performing." After the arangatrem, she says, the dancer must ask, "Where do you go? What do you do with it?"

"If you're not in the company, there's not much opportunity at all," says one dancer. This is a common complaint among Rajagopalan's students, who have a hard time finding post-arangatrem performance opportunities. Sonia Gurwara, a financial analyst who gave her arangatrem two years ago, after she'd graduated from college, feels that a professional dance career is a "nice dream." Though Gurwara has continued with lessons since her arangatrem, she says, "it's difficult as it is to become a dancer. But then, what's the market for a bharata natyam dancer?" She adds that initially her dad was very supportive. "But once you reach a certain age, it's like you should be doing more 'serious' things."

Rajagopalan's students are often the children of professionals--doctors, engineers, professors, and businessmen and -women. They value their Indian heritage, says Rajagopalan, but also hope their daughters establish careers and become dedicated wives and mothers. So the Indian community both encourages and limits her students' dancing. "You don't know how it affects me," she says. "It really does. My whole life has been this dance."

How much a family pays for an arangatrem varies, with some shelling out as much as $15,000. Expenses include the orchestra's week of rehearsals and performance itself and the dancer's rehearsals and classes leading up to the event. Then there are the costumes, jewelry, invitations, photographers, food, auditorium rental, and printed programs. The gurudakshana, or gift to the teacher, can range from a simple sari to thousands of dollars.

In America, where everything is bigger and better, the arangatrem has evolved into a bigger, better, and more conspicuous show of wealth. "It's become a finishing-school thing--it becomes this big to-do, a coming-out, as if [the arangatrem] were making [the dancer] appropriately bourgeois," Lara Jayshankar says. "It has come to show that your daughter is cultured and refined."

Rajagopalan feels similar concerns. Picking up a glossy invitation with color photos, she flips it open, then drops it on the table with a frown of distaste. "These fancy invitations with the color photos, feeding people, drinks..." She fears that the true significance of the arangatrem is diffused by that wealth. "Parents want to show off their daughters. 'My daughter is talented, religious, endowed with rich culture. We've groomed her for a job as a good citizen,'" she says. "It's a totally distorted perception of the arangatrem."

Students can be cynical too. "Arangatrems are basically bought," says Ahalya Satkunaratnam, who plans to give hers this summer. "Some of the girls aren't even the best candidates." Occasionally, because of interruptions to their studies or a lack of discipline and commitment, students don't have the skills to present the arangatrem but do so anyway. "I've seen some really poor ones," says Satkunaratnam, who believes this is the result of students and parents pressuring Rajagopalan into an arangatrem before the dancer is ready.

"A lot of people feel compelled to do an arangatrem because they're going to quit afterwards," Satkunaratnam says. That sounds a bit illogical given the time, energy, and money that go into these solo performances, yet it seems to be the case for many students. They can also feel pressured by time and circumstances, giving an arangatrem prematurely because they're going off to college, for example.

Rajagopalan has raised her standards since the early years, requiring students to be at least 15 with a minimum of seven years of training. She regrets that her students are "being crammed" and feels sorry for them. Ideally, she says, they "should do the arangatrem because they want to perform, not because they want colored photos in a brochure." She hopes students will see bharata natyam as a "means of understanding themselves and the life around them."

This understanding, she believes, is rooted in the dance. "You talk about the human soul yearning for God, detachment from the material world, the philosophies behind it--that this is a temporary life, and the mind should be detached from belongings, and happiness comes from within. A lot of people don't even think about these things, but dance gives an opportunity to [do that]." Embedded in bharata natyam are "themes of nonviolence, charity, empathy, sympathy, and the general well-being of communities." Sitting in her kitchen, Rajagopalan turns and looks out the patio door. "What is this life?" she asks. "The key to that is in this art form....Even the rhythm is the unfolding of so many things."

The Pais have given up a vacation to India this year so that Priya could perform her arangatrem. "Financially, we had to make a lot of adjustments," says Vrinda. "But it's a big step in her life, and she owes it to herself to see it through. For me, it's her heritage and culture too. I cling onto it."

The audience of 300 in the auditorium of Munster High School is packed with Indians--dance students, parents of dancers, the Pais' friends and family. There are a few Caucasian faces, high school teachers and classmates who've come to see the culmination of Priya's efforts.

Priya is dressed in a traditional dance costume, navy blue silky material with a green border and gold embroidery. The short-sleeved, fitted blouse bares her midriff; a wide scarf runs diagonally across her chest and is tied at the waist. Her pants are tapered at the ankles and adorned with a wide gold metal belt. A smaller piece of fabric is wrapped around her waist, covering the seat of her pants. Priya takes the aramandi position--the Indian cousin to the plie--which shows off the beauty of her costume, especially the fan between her pants legs, which spreads like a peacock's feathers. Bangles adorn her wrists and bells her ankles, reiterating the rhythms of her dancing feet. Her highly stylized makeup emphasizes the eyes; it is through these "windows to the soul" that the tales of Hindu mythology come to life.

To the right is a small altar, a table set with a statue of Lord Nataraja and offerings of flowers, coconuts, and fruit. Before the start of the performance, a pooja (prayer ceremony) is conducted, asking for the Lord Nataraja's blessing. To the left sits the orchestra: the vocalist, mridangist, and flautist. Rajagopalan sits with them; she'll clap the nattuvangum (hand-sized cymbals) to conduct the others.

Priya begins with an invocatory piece, the pushpanjali, a sort of warm-up for both dancer and audience. Twenty minutes into the program, after a few more items, Priya begins the 45-minute varnam. Krithika Rajagopalan narrates: "Cupid is showering me with arrows / It kindles my love for you, Lord / The flower petals do not soothe my body / The cool wind does not soothe my body / Have you no compassion for me? / Please come and take my pain away." The woman's passion for her lover is a metaphor for the devotee's relationship to the Lord.

After the first hour there's a 15-minute intermission. The audience walks past a table piled high with gifts and heads to the cafeteria for coffee or cold drinks.

"Priya's doing such a good job," the crowd says.

"How are you? What are you doing now?" several people ask me. I've been out of this scene for two years, but not much has changed. The younger girls have grown a bit taller and seem more self-assured. There are some unfamiliar faces, but for the most part it's the same group of students and their mothers and sisters. All are well dressed in traditional saris or salvar kameezes. The older girls have their hair down and wear jewelry saved for special occasions.

For the second act, Priya wears two costumes, the first a deep sky blue trimmed with gold embroidery, the second cream with a black and gold border. This half of the program places a stronger emphasis on expressional dance, and Priya seems more comfortable and confident, completely involved with her characters.

Before the tillana there are several speeches. Priya's father thanks the audience, then Priya's mother. "'Mom's Taxi' has spent a lot of time on Illinois's about time they named one of them 'Vrinda Express,'" he says. Vipin introduces and thanks Rajagopalan and each musician while Priya bows to them and presents each with flowers, a fruit platter, and a monetary gift. Her father thanks Priya for her hard work, and she gives her parents flowers, falls to their feet, then rises and hugs them. Rajagopalan presents Priya with a certificate stating that on this day she's become a natya ratna, or dance jewel. Finally Priya speaks, thanking God, Hema Aunty, and the audience. "Seeing you watch and smile gives me a lot of strength to perform."

The tillana is filled with complicated footwork and graceful movements. Priya's eyes flirt with the audience, and she smiles throughout despite a few minor memory lapses. At the end, the audience applauds wildly. Priya then reappears for the mangalam, her curtain call. She bows to the Nataraja deity, then to Rajagopalan and the musicians. Her third bow is to the audience, who give her a standing ovation. She beams, then exits, and the curtain closes on her dance education.

Fried pakoras and spicy samosas with green chutney, packed in white Styrofoam boxes, are served after the two-and-a-half-hour performance. Priya's friends and classmates exchange hugs and congratulate her. Next week the group will congregate again to see a different student "ascend the stage." They'll be sure not to repeat the outfits they wore today, and they'll ask the same girls over again, "When are you doing yours?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/M. Rakalla/Robert Drea.

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