Thursday, January 27, 2005


Posted by: arjunaweeping

Back at the Music Academy, we soon find ourselves the guests of honour - I must say, so far the Chettinad hospitality has been outstanding!

Not only is this performance free (as are all Arangetram), but there are free snacks before, and everyone seems to want to, as the only Westerners in the audience, fetch us food. Les indulges despite his recent Thali - apparently he missed a few meals on the way here from Mysore rather than risk train food and has a few meals to catch up to. I am stuffed and politely refuse, pointing to Ganesh's belly under my shirt.

What we didn't realise at that time, and have since discovered, is that an Arangetram (pron. arran-gay-trum) is a sort of coming of age ceremony for young Bharatanatyam dancers. It is their debut performance (Arangam = stage, Etram = performance), but also more like a First Communion in Catholic communities or its equivalents in other societies.

We enter the auditorium, nice and cool from air-conditioning, and very soon the lights dim and the music begins. More snack offers, we soon find out this is the family of the two dancers offering us their hospitality. But the music immediately catches me in the chest - my skin goosebumps and a heady feeling fills me. This is only my second experience of classical Indian music but it has always been the same -I have no explanation of this other than to say that the power of the sound they create is something I have never experienced elsewhere (except perhaps in chanting).

Then the dancers begin and I am transfixed - to attempt to describe this would be foolish. They move with such grace and power, intricate hand mudras, rhythmic footwork, the outstanding expressions of the dancer's face combined with movements of their big white eyes. You quite simply have to see this to understand how wonderful it is, no description will do it justice.

A young Tamil boy sidles up and sits down beside Les, casting over a few glances before plucking up the courage to start practising his English on us. What are our names, our addresses, will we be his friend?

One of the girls' grandfathers sits beside me and, chest swelling, tells me about his grand-daughter. She is only 13 years old, and has been studying Bharatanayam for 5 years, the other girl for 7. He asks where I come from, and tells me of his days in Birmingham working at the eye clinic there.

He leaves and is replaced by a family, parents with two girls and a boy. A young girl, Biaka, sits next to me and it is my turn to give English practice. Next they offer us white paper napkins and ask, "Autograph, please?!" I laugh and me and Mr. Spielberg duly oblige.

And all the time there is music and dance -watching the dancers remind me of the quote that Les's website is based upon:

"At the stillpoint of the turning world
there the dance is.
And without the point
that stillpoint
there would be no dance
and there is only the dance."
--T.S. Eliot

Only the dance.

First two dancers, then one. Then both again. Moving at the same time, then one rests, her lungs heaving from the effort. Then together, then the other stops. Feet stomping, twisting, whirling, their anklet bells ringing, hands flourishing, arms sweeping, they bowing to the sun then rise up again. A single-leg balance. A costume change to stunning white outfits.

I am gobsmacked at the intricacy of these moves, their outstanding memories to even remember these postures, their precise yet unmechanical control in execution.

Finally it is over, and an award ceremony begins. There are film stars there, and the BJP leader of the Tamil Legislative Assembly, to honour their effort, and their parents, and (most of all) their guru.

Their speeches and stand-up comedy routines are in Tamil, so, almost 3 hours after we arrive we discretely leave. Senses wide open.