My Bharatanatyam Arangetram: My Coming of age, but for Dance

Bharatanatyam
[All photos courtesy of Ankita Jain.]

July 22, 2017: A day that celebrated years of my passion for dance. A reflection of the hard work, tears, laughs, sweat, and dedication I have had towards Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance form, all portrayed in one day. My arangetram, a Bharatanatyam recital, was performed as a duet with my sister. This recital is a test of your dedication to Bharatanatyam, and with the discipline and blessings of my teacher and family, I was able to accomplish what I thought was just a dream. This debut is like a coming-of-age celebration, but for dance. The recital is a three-hour showcase of core dances. Bharatanatyam is not just an intricate dance, but also an echo of my culture. It tells the story of my ancestors through the portrayals of religion and life’s daily struggles that come to fruition by dancing.

Bharatanatyam

When I first started dancing, I used to keep this part of my life secret from all of my friends at school who would not understand the importance of this dance as an embrace of my native country. I felt so different from the rest of my white classmates. I would often ask my mom, “Why can’t I just take ballet and jazz lessons instead?” My mom would always explain to me how one day I would appreciate this dance and realize the value of this discipline. Of course, she was completely right. Twelve years later, Bharatanatyam has become a platform to express not only my emotions but also the centuries of history originating in India.

Now a little over a year since my arangetram, I have learned not only to embrace my culture but to celebrate it. I am no longer shy to tell my peers of my greatest accomplishment, explaining to them what the extraordinary day was all about. It is no longer a secret part of my life, but one that defines a large part of my core. It taught me that no auspicious work should be done without the blessings of your parents and guru. I remember moments where my dance guru would explain the epic stories to me and tell me of the devotion and strength of the deities. I realized then that there is so much history involved in these dances. The more I learned about the religious stories I was portraying through dance, the more I gained an understanding of the movements and essence I had to capture to tell the story. I embody the compassion and confidence of Shiva, the love and strength of Parvati, the devotion of Ganesh and the divinity of Namokar Mantra as I dance.

Preparing for my arangetram helped me embrace my Indian culture not only by understanding the religious epics recited from generation to generation but also by listening to the music and wearing the intricate dresses, transforming myself into a devi. I start and end with a series of steps that pay tribute and respect to the ground I dance on. Each beat of the tabla, an Indian drum, and chime of the bells articulates the beat my sister and I dance on. As I tie my ghungroos, or string of bells, around my feet, I get ready to resonate the sound of music through my body with each strike of my feet. Through each piece of jewelry we wear and pose we create, we embody a powerful goddess. This is the confidence that I try and take with me outside of dance. This journey is an involved and rather important part of me.

It got harder to continue learning Bharatanatyam when I went away to college, but every break I went home, I took hours-long classes with my teacher. I knew this recital was something I was going to accomplish because I’ve had dreams of it since I started learning at the age of 10.

This journey taught me that my sister is, and always will be, my number dance partner. Our sisterhood was stronger than I imagined, and years of dancing together have synchronized our steps and our movements. After training together now, we realize how natural it has become for the two of us to synchronize not only our dance steps but also our thoughts. Dancing together has created this bond between us brings us closer every day.

Bharatanatyam

Learning Bharatanatyam from a young age was one of the best passions I have ever developed thanks to my parents and my dance teacher. I am grateful for my culture that sets me apart, and for dance to be a way to tell religious folklore. I am grateful for this dance that taught me strength, and grace. The passage to my Bharatanatyam recital taught me so much about myself, created stronger bonds with my sister, my dance teacher, and the rest of my family and conveyed so much of my Indian culture. My journey with dance most definitely does not stop here as I continue to learn new forms and challenge myself.


The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here
By Ankita Jain

Ankita Jain is a recent college graduate with a degree in Biology now working in healthcare. She resides in Long … Read more ›

The Poetry Film Breaking Genres and National Borders

“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.

This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.

[Read Related: Poetry That Reflects the Fire Inside]

[Read Related: A Bengali Muslim Boy’s Poetic Journey Through Himself]

After So Long (English Translation)

Jae:
Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long

Dad:
Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
Kya karu?
(What should I do?)
Kaha jau?
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
Barso baad.
(After so long)

Simha:
I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long

Mom:
Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
Wahi dil,
(The same heart)
Baarso baad.
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)

[Read Related: How to Follow Your Heart, Even When it’s Hard]

Credits

Poem by Simha & Jae
Produced by Star Hopper Studios
Directed by Varsha Panikar
Cinematography and grading by Tanmay Chowdhary
Editing by Asawari Jagushte
Featuring Vaishakh Sudhakaran
Music Production by Simha
Hindi editing by Rama Garimella
Recited by Simha, Rama Garimella, Annaji Garimella
English Translation by Nhylar


The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Varsha Panikar

Varsha Panikar (they/he) is a filmmaker, writer and multi-disciplinary artist from India. They are the co-founder of Star Hopper, a … Read more ›

Op-Ed: Has Mindy Kaling Become a Scapegoat for the South Asian Diaspora?

Mindy Kaling

Over the past few weeks we’ve all seen Mindy Kaling shoulder the blame for misrepresenting the South Asian diaspora in her work. I want to expose us to the flip side. She’s not “Indian enough” for some in our communities and “not American enough” for mainstream television and media. But I don’t know a single South Asian living abroad who doesn’t feel this dissonance. We’re a generation born to parents who strived to stay connected to their homeland but knew they had to assimilate to survive. Many of us got lost in the mix. I definitely did. And from the looks of it, Kaling did too. 

I feel like I’ve oscillated between these two extremes all my life. I’ve had moments of code-switching — performing as a white version of myself, melting into the groups around me. And moments of being a “coconut” (or an “oreo” depending on where you come from) — suddenly donning an accent as if Hindi was my first language. It wasn’t conscious. It also wasn’t fully unconscious.  

It wasn’t until I watched Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” as a 35-year-old mother of two that I realized what teenage Ambika was up against. Still wearing tank tops in secret, while girls my age had moved on to the midriff-baring trend of the early 2000s. Not thinking it was okay to explore my sexuality. Not seeing that sometimes I knew what was better for me than my parents did. Not understanding that it was okay to expand my romantic interests beyond the few Indian boys I knew. And then I rewatched “The Mindy Project” while on maternity leave with my second kid. And I ate it up.

I rewound dialogue as Dr. Lahiri got engaged, left a man who lost his drive, fell in love with the unexpectedly handsome curmudgeon, got pregnant, learned to mother, and found a new version of herself. She addressed her pregnant body insecurities on-screen (in “What to Expect When You’re Expanding — brilliant!). She grappled with her ambitions in the face of motherhood. She owned who she was when most of us were taught not to. She dated outside of her race. Her audacity and levity gave me so much oomph at a time when I needed it the most.

Art comes from lived experience. And when individuals reflect their life back to the masses through art, it’s a tenuous balance. Comedians in particular have to toe a fine line between hyperbole and reality, having the paradoxical job of speaking the truth (the dark truth, often), and simultaneously making people laugh.

Comedian Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, when interviewed on NPR’s “Code Switch,” says: 

Even though I didn’t speak Spanish — my parents don’t speak Spanish — early in my career when I would portray my parents in a bit, they would have an accent. They would speak in broken English. Any time I would talk about my mom, it was like, ‘ay, mija.’ My mom doesn’t call me ‘mija.’ My mom will leave me a voice message and be like, ‘hey, girl!’ She talks like me. You know what I mean?

This is the inherent paradox that exists in Velma as well. Kaling, as she often does, takes her own experiences as a young Indian girl growing up against the backdrop of white America, and amplifies them. And now, Kaling is a grown, Indian woman whose career is evolving against the backdrop of an America, too.

Critics across different racial groups frequently talk about “the representation trap.” Even if a minority group is represented in a piece of art, literature, film, or television, the manifestation of that group is still filtered through the white gaze. In Ismail Muhammed’s New York Times piece “Can Black Literature Escape the Representation Trap,” he says: 

Our current problem isn’t an insufficient amount of Black representation in literature but a surfeit of it. And in many cases that means simply another marketing opportunity, a way to sell familiar images of Blackness to as broad an audience as possible.

The debate about whether minority artists properly represent their cohort is marred with capitalism and white supremacy. When so many industries are gate-kept by the typical, euro-centric, generationally rich man, is there really any way to be wholly true to our experience? 

[Read Related: ‘Late Night’ Review: Mindy Kaling & Nisha Ganatra Hilariously Expose Diversity Issues in Hollywood & Comedy]

Let’s not forget that many of us (or maybe all of us?) came up in a society that devalues women, and horrifically devalues people of color. Let’s not forget that the majority of executives across every field still don’t look like us (if by chance you’ve forgotten, read this piece by Ruchika Tulshyan). Let’s not forget that when people are introduced to something foreign and unknown to them, their default is to reject it (again, if you’ve forgotten, read about “the mere exposure effect” and racism).

I’m unsure how Kaling has inherited the immense responsibility of representing all of the South Asian American diaspora? And is then being criticized for her representation of it. Third-generation South Asians are very different from second-generation, who are very different from first-generation. Our identities and how we fit into American culture, mainstream media, and business, are still forming as we speak. We are not a monolith.

And plenty of men have done exactly what Kaling is being criticized for, without anywhere near the same level of criticism. All men I (hopefully, we) love.

Riz Ahmed has taken on roles in which his race isn’t the central focus. Hasan Minaj doesn’t get criticized when he uses stereotypical accents to represent South Asians or for using politics as a launch pad for his content. We don’t hate on Kumail Nanjiani when he suddenly gets a six-pack, even though he also once played a nerd. I loved when Aziz Ansari went to Italy to make pasta and didn’t make it Indian.

Why are we tearing down one of the only women in America who is working to showcase South Asian culture and people? Because she uses humor and caricature? Because she’s not putting herself in the mindset of the type of Indian person who has learned to thrive at the intersection of their upbringing and their environment? Newsflash: that person doesn’t exist! 

It’s not on Kaling to represent every dimension of this diaspora. She’s done her job.

I’m a proud, second-generation, Indian American woman, married to an Indian American man, with two Indian American children. I was nerdy just like Kaling. I had arm hair just like Devi. I pined after white boys in my teen years just like Bela from the HBO Max’s “Sex Lives of College Girls,” too. And Kaling is an absolute inspiration to me. 

I see a South Asian woman who chose to have children on her own. Whose career, post-children, skyrocketed. Who committed herself and her craft to tackle the most deep-rooted stigmas of South Asian culture — mental health, sex, and interracial relationships — while still honoring the way it manifested in her life. 

It’s now our job to get out into the world and dimensionalize our cohort. Show the world what us supposed “ABCDs” have grown up and done; who we’ve become and what we’ve accomplished. 

It’s what I’m trying to do. It’s what I’m trying to fight for when I’m told things like “maybe tone down the diversity angle in your writing, we don’t want publishers to think they’re just buying a diversity book.”

We still exist in a house of cards. Why are we kicking the building blocks of our own home?

I’ll leave you with this quote from Kaling herself: 

People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.

I hope this woman never gets discouraged. We need her in more ways than one.

 

The opinions expressed by the writer of this piece, and those providing comments thereon (collectively, the “Writers”), are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any of its employees, directors, officers, affiliates, or assigns (collectively, “BGM”). BGM is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Writers. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you have a complaint about this content, please email us at Staff@browngirlmagazine.com. This post is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Ambika Gautam Pai

Ambika Gautam Pai is the Chief Strategy Officer at full-service advertising agency Mekanism and a mom of two. She's a … Read more ›

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History — A Review of Sundance’s ‘Polite Society’

Polite Society

For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage. 

[Read Related: Poorna Jagannathan and Richa Moorjani of Netflix’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ on Womanhood, Racism, and Issues Generations of Desi Women Still Struggle With]

Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress. 

Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other. 

This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily. 

“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood. 

Polite Society
Director Nida Manzoor, cinematographer Ashley Connor and actor Priya Kansara on the set of their film “Polite Society.”

Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.

[Read Related: Ms. Marvel’s Iman Vellani and Mohan Kapur Talk Cultural Pride, Hollywood and Brown Representation]

It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions. 

“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April. 

Photo Credits: Focus Features LLC

By Nimarta Narang

Born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, Nimarta grew up devouring Hindi movies, coming-of-age novels and one too many psychology textbooks. … Read more ›