Practice. Prepare. Perform.: Bharatnatyam dancers spend years of preparation on culminating performance

Sophomore Sahana Sivan poses in her Arangetram attire.

Megan Lee | The Chronicle

Fighting through stress-induced fevers and Advanced Placement (AP) tests, Bharatanatyam dancers showcase years of practice at their Arangetrams.

Students of classical Indian dance, such as Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi or Kathak, perform an intricate routine to demonstrate their extensive knowledge of the art form to their friends and family. This performance, sometimes hours long, is called an Arangetram.

A Bharatanatyam dancer is put through highly intensive training to learn rhythms that eventually lead to a sequence of steps that are performed at their Arangetram. Students spend five to ten years with a guru or teacher learning to perfect this art.

Senior Tanisha Senthil started her journey to her Arangetram about eight years ago. For her first few years of studying Bharatanatyam, she was taught a series of steps that would act as a foundation for more varied and advanced steps. Senthil said her childhood was filled with the stories that she would learn to tell through dance.

“My entire life kind of revolved around the fact that my Arangetram was coming up,” Senthil said. “It was really nerve-wracking because this was my first time dancing in front of about five hundred people.”

In addition to the nerves that accompany performing intricate steps in front of a large crowd, Senthil also had to balance studying for rigorous courses with her love of dance. Senthil’s Arangetram coincided with the week of her AP exams, but instead of giving up, she used the stress to motivate herself. Senthil said that although the stress was present, she didn’t let it stop her from pushing through the process.  

“It was a stressful time because I had just had a few AP exams too,” Senthil said. “And then the day of [my Arangetram], I got a stress-induced fever, which wasn’t great, but I [managed] to dance through it.”

For her friends and family, the experience was bittersweet because they knew that her Arangetrum signaled the end of her Bharatanatyam journey. Senthil’s mother, especially, pushed Senthil to pursue dance when she was young. Senthil said after spending fifteen to twenty hours a week practicing dance, the payoff was worth it.

“I sacrificed a lot to be able to go dance, so [I] finally had the opportunity to showcase what I’ve been doing all this time [through my Arangetram],” Senthil said. “Getting all those standing ovations and receiving such [praise] from my teacher was just such a rewarding experience.” 

Now that she has completed her Arangetram, Senthil has the opportunity to continue her passion for dance by teaching others. Senthil said her Arangetram not only exhibited her mastery of Bharatanatyam but officially qualified her to teach others the art she had spent so long mastering.

“When I graduated from Bharatanatyam, the biggest reward for me was having the opportunity to teach,” Senthil said. “[Now that] I learned everything in Bharatanatyam and I’ve officially graduated, I can actually start teaching because I’m qualified to be a Bharatanatyam guru.” 

While Senthil appreciates the opportunity to teach following her Arangetram, other students find joy in the artistic aspect. For junior Nithilaa Ramachandhran, who just recently had her Arangetram on August 27th, 2022, dance had become a creative outlet for her. In the weeks leading up to her Arangetram, Ramachandhran had practiced for five hours on Sundays. These rehearsals would last longer depending on what was being worked on and were accompanied by a live band that would be playing at her performance.  

“You have to re-synchronize with those musicians, and like, every time the music goes faster or slower, you have to adapt to it,” Ramachandhran said. “So it’s difficult but also what makes it cool.”

As in all types of dance, music becomes the basis for every movement. The ability to tell a story through movement allows for different dancers to tell their own version. Ramachandran explains that being able to feel the music is a big part of her passion for dance.

“Having a bit of creative liberty in how to express myself using facial expressions is a big part of dance,” Ramachandhran said. “[The music] gives me the ability to tell a story through dance and connect with the audience.”

In addition to allowing the dancer to express themselves and their passion, Arangetram is a way to bring people together. As sophomore Sahana Sivan enters her second year of high school, she is also preparing for her Arangetram in less than two weeks.

“It’s stressful at times because you’re preparing 10 dances and you have to memorize all of them,” Sivan said. “You have to give it your all, and it’s a lot especially when you’re trying to juggle other activities, sports, and homework.

Sivan explains that there are moments when the balance between school, dance and her social life can be hard to find. Practicing takes up a lot of her time and being able to keep everything straight is a challenge. However, Sivan said she has not gone through this experience alone. Her friends, who have already experienced their Arangetram, are providing a huge comfort to her, especially in the weeks leading up to hers. 

“I’m the last one and so it’s nice to know that there are also other people doing it,” Sivan said. “It’s easier to share the experience with [my friends] who are very supportive.” 

Along with her friends, Sivan has the support of her family behind her. When her mother was younger, she did not have the opportunity to have an Arangetram, so this is a huge deal for their family. Sivan said that her family’s support, not just financially, but also in pushing her to continue with her passion gave her the strength to push through the stress. 

“I feel like I’m not just doing this for myself, but I’m doing this for a lot of people,” Sivan said. “I know my parents have put a lot of effort into making this happen, [so] I made it happen. I can go out and say ‘I’ve done my art.’”

Photo contributed by Sahana Sivan