Classical Indian dance forms such as Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dance have become very popular in recent years, largely because of the growing influence of the prosperous Indian diaspora in the in the West, especially in the United States, Australia and the UK.
Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dance are today considered to be the purest artistic symbolization of the Indian identity, and of the 5,000 year old culture and heritage of the ancient land. These dance forms are practiced and performed by hundreds of thousands of girls and young women in India and abroad.
Dance Arangetram is the most important performance that a young Bharatnatyam or Kuchipudi dancer would make in her dancing career. Arangetram is a Tamil term that is used to refer to a young dancer’s debut performance. It is derived from the Tamil words, Arangam and Erru, which mean “to ascend the stage”.
All dance forms in India have their own version of Arangetram. A debut performance by a Kathak dancer is called as a rangapravesh, while that of an Odissi dancer is called as an arangmanchpravesh.
Dance Arangetram has become so important these days that elaborate ceremonies are organized by the parents of the young dancer around the performance of this event.
Within Bharatnatyam, the tradition of Arangetram finds its first reference in the historic Tamil text, Cilappatikaram, which dates back to the 2nd century CE. The text follows the life and times of a young dancer of that time, Matavi and describes her Arangetram in detail.
Scholars such as Saskia Kersenboom and Leslie Orr have discussed the historical significance of Bharatnatyam and Arangetram in detail, in the context of the old devadasi system (which was subsequently banned).
Back in those days, Arangetram was a formal system of introducing a dancer to her royal patrons, to asses her quality and to establish a connection between the temple, where she was trained and the court, where she would be favored with monetary benefits and other incentives.
Later, in the first half of the 20th century, the Arangetram was performed by professional dancers in theatres, where they would be judged by a live audience comprising of Brahmins and other members of the privileged upper class. This performance held an economic significance for the dancers as it could make or break their career in dance.
Since the 1970s and 1980s, when the Indian diaspora spread to the United States and Europe, the Arangetram was still performed, but for different reasons. It was performed by young women who practiced the Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi dance as a hobby and to maintain their ties with the Indian culture– not because they had any interest in becoming professional dancers.
Like Bat Mitzvah, a religious “coming of age” ceremony for Jewish girls, the Dance Arangetram became a part of growing up for girls of Indian origin. The audience for the performance is comprised of friends and family and not by the paying public. So the dance is performed in a friendly and encouraging environment, and there is no pressure as such as to perform.
This is unlike performing before an audience of dance teachers, connoisseurs, teachers and critics, where there is a real chance of the dancer being unable to impress and failing in her first performance.
Following the end of the dance, the dance teacher or the guru is honored for their role in training the young dancer. Most young dancers perform a solo margam and display the full extent of their Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi repertoire during the debut dance. For many, it is the most wonderful experience of their life, something they would treasure forever.