Hema Rajagopalan trains dancers to be divine.
Centuries-old Indian traditions are sustained even today in contemporary Chicagoland. Starting this week, Bharatanatyam dance guru Hema Rajagopalan presents four of her disciples in their official debut performances, called arangetrams.
Unlike American dance recitals, in which wobbly grade-schoolers are presented in sequined froufrous for cute effect and general adoration, an arangetram is a ritual with a spiritual purpose. “The art is for the soul’s evolution,” says Rajagopalan, explaining that in Tamil, arangam means the stage, and etram means to ascend. The word is a metaphor not only for taking a dancer’s few steps up to the performance platform, but also for the dancer’s development.
What in a local ballet or hip-hop studio might be called a teacher-student relationship is, in Rajagopalan’s Natya Dance Theatre school (offering classes through studios in Chicago, Lombard and Wilmette), a guru-disciple bond. “Traditionally, when a guru accepts a student, they tie a thread around each other’s wrist,” Rajagopalan says. “We call it a sankalpa. You take a decision, the guru and the disciple, to work together.”
Many Bharatanatyam students begin study when they are five or six years old. “The movement needs perfection,” Rajagopalan says. The students whose debuts are upcoming—Avani Miriyala, Ambika Murali, Vidya Govind and Vidya Visvabharathy—have been studying the form for 11 to 13 years.
After years of training, the guru decides the student is ready for the responsibility of performance. “The guru has developed this being to take an audience to a spiritual level,” Rajagopalan says. “We have a ritual in India where we offer things into the fire; the fire becomes a conduit to the divine. Our dance performance is considered to be like this,” she says.
For their arangetrams, each dancer will perform a margam, a full-length performance with a ritual beginning and ending. “The musicians are coming from India,” says Rajagopalan, who in her role as guru, plays cymbals and chants rhythmic syllables to accompany the dancing. There will also be sung vocals, bamboo flute, violin and mridangam (double-headed drum). Each margam ends with the dancer praying for the well-being of everyone present.
“It used to be easier [to achieve the high level needed for an arangetram],” Rajagopalan says. “These high-school kids have so many activities now. I have to compete with [their] academics. I go beyond my call; I work very hard so they are able to get to that point.”
Natya Dance Theatre presents arangetrams in various venues and locations, Saturday 15 through August 23; as well as a performance of Rajagopalan’s choreographic work August 19 and 20 in Millennium Park.