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Learning Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam is an art form with considerable depth and scope. One can devote a lifetime to becoming expert at it. It is rare that students in the West have such time to dedicate to learning the arts, especially outside a university setting. While itís possible to learn about Bharatanatyam at some universities, their curricula arenít designed to create dancers. Rangashree aims to create dancers.

The first section of this page describes the progression of a Bharatanatyam dance student at Rangashree. Developing dancers go through various stages or milestones, which are

This section will help you understand what to expect at these stages, and show you how far you can go.

This second section of this page describes how to get the most out of your training. We'll look at the traditional approach to training a Bharatanatyam dancer, and see what can be done to fill the gaps in today's environment in the U.S. Some key aspects are

This will give you an idea of our approach to Bharatanatyam training, and what we consider important.

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Progression

This will be a brief overview of the different stages in the development of a dancer, as approached at Rangashree. It's not a complete description of the training curriculum. It's just to give an idea of what a student can expect at various stages.

Training for Bharatanatyam can begin after a child is five years old. Any adult with the requisite physical flexibility and stamina can take it up too. Let's see what follows.

Beginners or Children

The early stages of training involve learning the basic steps, called adavus, and movements of the dance. These elements are the building blocks for subsequent, more advanced, sequences of dance. The exercises condition the body for the unique postures of Bharatanatyam. They also develop the student's sense of rhythm. Having a fit and flexible physique allows a student to learn quickly; otherwise the fitness and flexibility will have to be developed over time.

Students also learn eye movements, which are done in synchronization with body movements in the dance.

At this stage, students also learn the names of hand gestures called hastas, which are an important feature of Bharatanatyam. They comprise the descriptive language of the dance. Students also learn about the history of Bharatanatyam, the musical instruments used, and other related topics.

Beginning students of Bharatanatyam also learn folk dances. The folk dances are group dances, and complement the classical training, which is for solo dancing at this stage. They teach the students coordination with other dancers. They also let students get a taste of performing on stage.

Intermediates

At the intermediate stage, students learn more advanced steps and complicated patterns of movement. They also learn the names of facial expressions, which are a distinctive feature of Bharatanatyam.

The students begin learning some basic dance compositions. The choreography is simple, and there isn't much expressive content. Examples of these items are the alarippu and jatiswaram. These items may be performed on stage at student shows and Rangashree's annual function.

Folk dance training continues, and includes more complex choreography. By performing folk dances at different occasions during the year, students get comfortable about being on stage.

Advanced Students

These students learn the remaining dance compositions that make up the repertoire of a full Bharatanatyam recital. Although they may only learn a single instance of some types of items, the repertoire covers all the features of the dance. It includes rhythmic dance, emotional expression, and variety. The items they practice include the shabdam, varnam, padam, kirtanam, ashtapadi, javali, tillana, and shlokam.

Advanced students perform Bharatanatyam on stage at various times during the year, to gain experience. They are in preparation for the arangetram, which marks their coming of age as dancers. They need to develop proficiency in all aspects of the dance.

Folk dance training and performing continues, since it's good experience (and fun).

The Arangetram

This milestone in the career of a Bharatanatyam dancer is often misunderstood as the graduation event that ends the training of the dancer. It is actually a beginning of the dancer's career as a performer, and there's no end to the training afterwards. The word arangetram translates as climbing onto (etram) the stage (arangam).

The arangetram is marked by a solo recital by the new dancer, attended by the teacher, mentors, and family elders. It's up to the dancer as to how large a function it is, and who else attends. The trend in recent years to extravagant arangetram functions is unfortunate, since the lavish arrangements often distract attention from the dance performance. The real point of the arangetram is for the dancer to deliver his or her first full solo performance, and receive the blessings of the teacher and other elders for a fruitful dance career. There have been top dancers in Bharatanatyam whose arangetram performances were attended by only a handful of people.

By the time of the arangetram, the dancer will have learned all the elements of the dance, and demonstrates this knowledge and ability in the arangetram recital.

Post Arangetram Students

After the arangetram, the dancer can mature and develop further as a performer. More compositions can be learned, expanding the repertoire that the dancer can perform. By performing regularly, the dancer becomes aware of his or her strengths and weaknesses, and can work with the teacher to improve the weak areas, as well as to choreograph items that capitalize on the strong areas.

Note that dancers who studied elsewhere and completed the arangetram may still have basic elements to learn to complete their training.

A seasoned performer can venture into choreographing new items. A teacher can be helpful in this process, bringing experience of what works and what doesn't.

Experienced dancers can also begin teaching others. It's a good way to solidify one's own skills.

Experts Doing Further Study

A dancer who has completed all the training that one teacher can offer, who has gained experience performing, and perhaps has even started teaching, can benefit from further studies. Working with other artists can provide fresh ideas and perspectives. Training under other teachers can broaden the dancer's skills or add specific new abilities. If it hasn't happened already by this stage, the dancer may also benefit from traveling to India or practicing there for some time.

By this point, the dancer is charting his or her own course as an artist. It is still important to continue to grow, and every new experience has the potential to inform the dancer's artistic expression. All avenues for expression are now open to the dancer - performing, composing, teaching, and perhaps even broadening the scope of the dance.

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Getting the Most Out of Your Training

The classical dances of India were maintained for centuries using a system of training that fit the culture of that time and place. Today, society is different, even in India. The old systems of training don't fit with modern lifestyles. Perhaps by being aware of some key aspects of the traditional approach to training, we can build on the opportunities that are available today.

Learning Environment

In India, traditional knowledge was passed from teachers to disciples using a system called the gurukul. The literal meaning of gurukul is "the guru's family". Students would live with the teacher for extended periods, during which they not only learned skills, but also imbibed the personal qualities or spirit of the guru. Thus they would practice their arts with the same intention as the guru. This system preserved the spirit of Indian arts and culture for millennia.

In the last few hundred years, the gurukul system has all but disappeared. Fortunately, at least in India, the idea that a student of classical arts must dedicate a major part of his or her life to properly learn the art does remain. This is seen most often with classical music. There are some examples from the world of dance, as well.

Kalakshetra, an institute of the fine arts in South India, takes a university-like approach that incorporates features of the gurukul system. Bharatanatyam students train daily for four years to be qualified as dancers, and some continue with post graduate studies, usually for two more years. In addition to dance lessons, they learn music and language as well as dance theory. Many students live on campus, even at a young age. They are immersed in the culture of the institution and in the arts. Junior students benefit from interaction with seniors, and all students benefit from regular exposure to performances and concerts.

In the West, the infrastructure exists for training students of classical performing arts, like ballet and music, to the professional level. There isn't one for the classical performing arts of India. It becomes the student's responsibility to continually seek out the experiences and instruction necessary to fully develop as an artist. This takes effort and dedication; many good dancers have succeeded with this approach.

Intensity of Training

Instead of training with a teacher daily for hours, Bharatanatyam students in the U.S. typically have a one hour class each week. This means that it takes longer for a student to become proficient, and that students must have the motivation to practice on their own between classes.

The time it takes to complete training depends on the intensity of the training. Using Kalakshetra as a reference point, it's five years of full-time training, or about 5,000 hours of dance class. That doesn't include the theory and music lessons, or time spent performing or rehearsing for performances. How many hours can you practice each week?

Because Bharatanatyam students in the U.S. have full-time school or work responsibilities, dance practice has to fit into the limited free time they have. This means it usually takes about ten years to mature into a performing artist. Not everyone needs to reach this level, or wants to go this far, but keep this fact in mind. Having realistic expectations will make your experience of learning Bharatanatyam more rewarding.

There are those who offer shorter training spans, and will put students on stage sooner, but with a loss in quality. This does a disservice to the students, because theyíll look bad on stage, and it discredits the art, because it wrongly gives the audience the impression that Indian classical dance is a sloppy and undeveloped art form.

Cultural Immersion

In Bharatanatyam, like other dance forms of India, there is a strong element of emotional expression. It also has a unique aesthetic form, expressed in the movements, postures, costumes, and make-up of the dancers. The themes of traditional dance items are based on Indian legends, characters, and values. Bharatanatyam uses classical Indian music, with its own melodic and rhythmic patterns. The lyrics are in various Indian languages, most often Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Kannada, and Hindi.

The more familiar you are with these aspects of Indian culture, the more natural Bharatanatyam will feel to you, and the more comfortable and effortless your performance will seem. It's easier to imbibe Indian culture in India, but fortunately there's a lot we can do, even in the U.S.

It helps to read Indian stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavatam, as well as stories about Shiva. These are major sources for many dance items. Stories of various saints often play a part in Bharatanatyam performances. Pay particular attention to the characters and their emotions. The emotion of bhakti, or devotion, is especially prominent in Indian culture. Lots of books are readily available, ranging from scholarly translations of original scriptures to the classic Amar Chitra Katha comic book series. You'll find some references in our Suggested Reading section.

Observe ancient Indian sculptures and paintings and notice the idealized forms that are considered beautiful. Many museums in the U.S. have good collections of Indian art, and plenty of books are available on this subject. The costume and make-up of a Bharatanatyam dancer emulates these forms. If youíre accustomed to them, you can relate to the appearance of a Bharatanatyam dancer as an ideal of beauty, rather than something that's strange and unfamiliar.

Learning Indian classical music will complement your dance training. Being able to feel the music will help you dance better. If you can learn an Indian language, so that you also understand, or at least get a sense of, the lyrics of the music, so much the better.

Even in India, people have to make an effort to stay connected to their heritage, except perhaps in rural areas. Places like Kalakshetra are striving to keep alive a sense of beauty that is uniquely Indian, and to help people appreciate it for what it is. We're all so inundated with certain types of entertainment, like TV, movies, and popular music, that it becomes hard to enjoy something that's different.

Learning Dance Theory

In Kalakshetra, in addition to many hours of dance practice, students have daily classes in dance theory. Bharatanatyam is systematized and codified art form, derived from the Natya Shastra, an ancient scripture that describes all the aspects of the art. Many other treatises exist as well. A well rounded dancer can not only dance, but knows about the dance and what can be done with it.

When dance classes are once a week, there isn't much time for teaching theory. Serious students should study on their own, and can always ask questions after the dance class. It is possible to find courses at universities that cover Indian dance forms, although the exposure to Bharatanatyam theory may be indirect. Some dance theory books are listed in our Suggested Reading section.

For a dancer living in the West, it's beneficial to learn about other dance forms, including western ones, or even entirely different art forms like painting. Art appreciation classes will show you what to notice in these art forms. This provides another way of understanding Bharatanatyam, by comparing it to more familiar arts. You'll also learn what other people are trained to notice. With this knowledge, you'll be better prepared to help a western audience understand and appreciate Bharatanatyam, and to explain it in terms that are familiar to them.

Attitude of the Student

India has a tradition of respect for elders, and especially teachers. This attitude was a foundation of the gurukul system. These days such respect doesn't come automatically - we need reasons. It happens that there are some practical and compelling reasons for a open minded, humble, and respectful attitude in a Bharatanatyam student.

An open minded student, with respect for the teacher, and a willingness to follow the teachers instructions without analyzing or judging them, will absorb more during the class. With the limited time available for dance classes in the U.S., maximizing the transfer of knowledge is important. This isn't to say the student should blindly accept what he or she is told. It's fine to analyze what was taught, and question it, but after the lesson. Questioning what's being taught during the class, and comparing it to what one already knows, blocks the transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the student.

Bharatanatyam has subtleties and nuances that a student can't pick up by listening to the teacher's words. These qualities are transmitted through body language. The student needs to be humble enough to be willing to emulate the teacher's every movement. And to do so repeatedly and consistently. Any thought that the student knows better, will interfere with this process.

Finally, Bharatanatyam is powerful at expressing emotions, and subtle variations in them. For a mature dancer, it's a vehicle for self expression. It's also a double-edged sword, as what's inside the dancer will be revealed. Humility and respect towards the teacher, the tradition, and the art, come across in the performance. Devotion to the divine, or bhakti, is an ideal attitude for a Bharatanatyam dancer. These charateristics result in the disappearance of the dancer into what he or she is portraying on stage. The audience gets a direct experience of the theme of the dance item. On the other hand, pride and ego in the dancer give the audience the experience of watching a person dancing, and pretending to be something he or she isn't. Rather than sublime, it can be ridiculous.

Purpose of Training

Historically in India, the dance forms that were the precursors of Bharatanatyam were only practiced by full-time professional dancers. Dance had a ceremonial function as part of worship in temples. There were no part-time or casual students. Today, at places like Kalakshetra, the rigorous training filters out any students who arenít serious. Much importance is placed on the development of the personality of dancer, along with training in the techniques. Here in the U.S., the practical limits of the training tend to favor casual students, and serious students have to make an extra effort to develop their skills.

Bharatanatyam is a full fledged classical art; brief or casual explorations of it, while perfectly acceptable, will only reveal its surface. It takes a strong commitment from students and teachers to produce artists of a professional caliber. There are as many reasons for learning dance as there are dance students, and there aren't right or wrong reasons.

Rangashree offers the opportunity for complete training to be a proficient dancer. Within the scope of this process, students with varying interests can be accommodated. Some want some exposure to Indian culture, and nothing more. Others want the experience of performing on stage. A few have the desire and dedication to master the art of Bharatanatyam. There is considerable flexibility in what a student can pursue during his or her Bharatanatyam training.

It's worth giving some thought to why you're taking up Bharatanatyam, how deeply you want to pursue it, and how long you want to continue with it. It's also good to know your teacher's priorities. The learning process is most enjoyable when the student and teacher have similar values.

No matter what type of path a student takes with Rangashree, certain principles apply. These stem from our dedication to maintain the authenticity of the form of Bharatanatyam that we promote. This style, developed by the founder of Kalakshetra, embodies refinement and dignity, and emphasizes the spiritual aspect of Indian arts. In practical terms, these values mean we don't offer short cuts at the expense of artistic quality, or resort to vulgarity to appeal to the crowd. This doesnít mean that your experience will limited or constrained. By not opting for quick payoffs, we work harder and ultimately achieve a much richer experience.

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We hope this description has been useful, and made the process for developing as a Bharatanatyam dancer clearer. If you have any questions, or if you're interested in joining Rangashree for any part of this journey, please contact us.

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