The news of Kamala Harris being Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s pick for vice president appeared on my Twitter feed before I saw it anywhere else. I felt elated. This was a woman I had followed through the Senate intelligence hearings, Supreme Court Justice confirmation hearings, and of course, my Twitter feed. I loved the icy cool she radiated, her measured tone, and incisive questions. Her race and identity were the last things on my mind. I assumed her name, Kamala, meant her parents were Indophiles.
A few months earlier, when Harris was a presidential candidate, the op-ed pieces I read spotlighted her Indian roots. I read them because I was curious. The pictures of her with her mom, aunt, and grandparents in Chennai warmed my heart. Those people were familiar. The sarees, paavadais, and pottus made her a part of my big, brown Tamizh family.
In the months since the COVID-19 lockdown happened, my daughters and I have taken to walking around our development in the evenings after the sun is at an angle. We walk and talk. Some days we talk about how the pandemic has impacted our lives. We talk about their paati, my mother, and how she is a COVID-19 survivor. We talk about school and how much they miss their friends. Then, there are days we talk about George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Last week, one of my daughters (“M”) and I walked by ourselves, my other two children off to play with others near our home. As we passed a neighbor’s home, M said, “They never play with us.” “They” meaning the desi kids in our neighborhood.
“Why Amma?” her voice trembled, as it does often these days. I chalk her emotional state to being in the throes of hormonal changes.
We talked about cliques and I told her that if she really wanted to be part of the group, she should walk up and ask to be included. She said something I didn’t pay much attention to. As we entered our home, she burst into tears.
“I asked them. They refused to include me,” she wailed.
I held my inconsolable daughter and probed gently. I found out this happened a few years ago. I was aghast, wondering what brought on the waterworks now. Even as I pondered that question, she confounded me further by declaring:
“I am desi, too! Why won’t they include me?”
Her question simmers in my head a week later. I don’t have the answers to why she won’t be included in the desi gang. I also don’t have the answers to what my child should identify as.
Two of my daughters are white. My husband, my youngest daughter, and I are brown, South Indian Tamils. We identify as desi, the collective term for anyone from the Indian subcontinent.
People are telling me Kamala shouldn’t say she’s black—she’s brown.
Man people love to simplify a person’s background into their small parameters.
When I saw Gill’s tweet, I couldn’t help but think of my daughter’s “I am desi, too” moment.
My twin daughters are part Tamil, British, French, German and Navajo. They are an amalgam of everything they own by birth and everything they imbibe by being raised in a desi home.
I think about my twins, who, when they are adults, will be viewed with suspicion when they claim their desi, Tamil roots. Their names, their accent, their appearance will slot them neatly into boxes where they fit partially, uncomfortably. Today, I answer my children’s “Am I Indian?” question in the affirmative. I am torn because I no longer know what it means to be Indian.
I am an Indian-American. I am Tamil. I am an Iyer with all the problematic parts of carrying that surname. I can no longer claim Indian citizenship, but my dil is desi. Today, the identity that resonates the most with me is that of an American suburban mom.
Harris identifies as Black and Indian, as she should. She decides what part of her identity resonates with her most at this moment in time. As she teamed up with Mindy Kaling and made dosas that made me cringe, she owned her Tamil, desi roots. I am sure the Jamaican part of her will be claimed by people who see and identify her that way.
Identity is just another tool to be used and disposed to fit agendas. Why are we so eager to slot people into boxes to claim and be claimed? We are all amalgams. We morph from day to day, owning and claiming parts of ourselves that propel us to the front at a given moment.
Can we let Senator Harris claim the parts of her identity on her own terms?
January 18, 2023January 18, 2023 9min readBy Arun S.
Neha Samdaria is the founder and CEO of Aam, a new type of fashion label. Aam’s mission is to change the way womxn with the hourglass and pear-shaped body types shop for clothing. The word Aam means ordinary in Hindi. The community consists predominantly of womxn of colour with naturally curvier hips. Aam has a low return rate of 3%. The team at Aam has built sizing charts and tested them over a 10-month period. The clothing was made with sustainable materials in ethical factories. If you are struggling to find clothes that fit appropriately check out Aam today. Continue reading to learn more about Neha Samadria’s company Aam!
What were your personal struggles with shopping for clothing that fit and how did these experiences inspire you to start a company?
I have what you would call a “pear shaped” body, meaning my hips and thighs are wider than my upper half. I’m 1-2 sizes bigger on the bottom than on the top and for years, I’ve struggled to find clothes – especially pants – that fit me correctly. Too tight on the hips? Size up. Too loose on the waist? Wear a belt. My entire life, I felt alone in my struggle. Eventually, the pant shopping experience became so unpleasant that I started avoiding them entirely – choosing to opt for dresses, skirts and stretchy leggings instead.
When I arrived at Stanford Business School in 2016, I learned that I was far from alone in my experience. 1 in 4 American women – predominantly women of color – shared my struggles. And when I dug deeper to understand why, I uncovered the bias-riddled foundation of size charts in the United States. When I learned that the fit issue was systemic and rooted in bad data, I felt inspired to do something.
You’ve had a range of experiences working in consulting, marketing, as well as completing an MBA program. How have these range of experiences helped you start a company?
On a practical level, acquiring a range of skills helps with the various hats you have to wear as a CEO. On a daily basis, I am a strategist, marketer, fulfiller, accountant and designer. But the biggest thing I feel I’ve gained is an approach to tackling new problems. One of the toughest things about being a solo Founder is that the buck stops with you. You have to have faith that even if a problem is brand new and well outside your area of expertise, you’ll be able to forge a path forward. My life before Aam gave me a lot of practice in that.
Have you faced adversity as a newcomer in this space?
The biggest adversity we’ve faced is in marketing and sales. As a bootstrapped e-commerce business with no outside investment, it’s been tough to compete with large retailers with big marketing budgets. How do you get noticed as a small brand? Through trial and error we’ve found success in niche influencers who are excited by the problem we’re solving and are keen to support, in-person markets and events, and organic, word of mouth referral. We’re also beginning to partner with marketplaces and small retailers, to expand our brand reach.
Who are some mentors and leaders you look up to and what characteristics do they possess that you sought to emulate while starting your own company?
My biggest mentors are bootstrapped entrepreneurs who built up their businesses brick by brick. My father is one such example, and I have a handful of folks in my circle who have done the same. I find their grit and scrappiness inspiring; most of them don’t have a professional degree and gained their business acumen on the field.
I also admire kind and supportive leaders; team culture is one of the most difficult things to nail, and you have to be intentional from the beginning. I had a wonderful boss at my first job out of college. He knew how to nurture the strengths of his direct reports and wasn’t afraid to task them with challenging, meaningful work. Crucially, he was always there as our safety net in case we had questions or needed help along the way. I’ve tried to build the same type of ethos within Aam.
Do you see Aam as a strong contender in the fashion industry helping a wide variety of individuals?
I do! We’re one of the only brands catering to pear and hourglass shapes, perhaps because the fit issue is so fundamental and expensive to fix (see Q7). But beyond this, we’re one of the only brands that focuses on fit – period. The entire industry – from runways to fast fashion brands – is focused largely on design, when poor fit is actually the #1 driver of returns. Aam’s return rate is just 3%, vs. an e-commerce industry standard of ~30%. We can make the industry more customer-centric and less wasteful by investing in the early steps of proper sizing and fit testing.
In terms of helping a “wide variety” of individuals, Aam is a niche brand that is committed to helping the 1 in 4 women with curvy hips and thighs. I don’t plan to expand to other shapes at this time because I believe that in order to add value, you can’t be all things to all people. Our community has been underserved for almost 100 years and we’re here for them.
What made you decide to name the company Aam?
“Aam” means “ordinary” in Hindi, my native tongue. The company’s approach to design – starting with the consumer, and designing entirely for her – runs counter to the industry. My goal with this business is to make this consumer-centric approach to design more “ordinary,” giving power back to the women who wear our clothes, and elevating their voices on a global stage.
What is the process of rethinking fit standards?
Modern size charts are based largely off of a 1939 study that surveyed 15,000 women across the U.S. This study was flawed for several reasons including: 1) it relied on bust measurements, assuming women are proportional throughout and 2) it excluded women who were not Caucasian from the final results, thereby underrepresenting body shapes that are more commonly found among women of color.
At Aam, we’ve rebuilt a fresh dataset of 314 women across the U.S. who have pear and hourglass shapes, and are using this dataset to inform all of our collections. By fixing bad data, we’re addressing the root cause of poor fit and rethinking fit standards.
Where do you feel the fashion industry can improve?
There are big opportunities for improvement in supply chain, fit and inclusion.
On the supply chain side, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to ethics and sustainability. There are great auditing standards out there (SEDEX, OEKO-TEX, GOTS, for example), but only a small percentage of factories are certified. In 2021, as I was building out my supply chain in India, I visited factories that spanned the full gamut, from regularly-audited, responsible manufacturers to those who enforced 14+ hour daily shifts and refused even chairs for their workers to sit on. Brands are engaging in conversations about diversity and inclusion but it’s often on the consumer side; few are willing to be as transparent when it comes to their supply chains, where women of color are disproportionately exploited. As consumers, one easy thing we can all do is check the Ethics & Sustainability page of the brands we love. Do they talk about certified factories, third party audits and following sustainability standards? If not, we have the power to ask – why?
I’ve shared a bit above about the issues surrounding fit – it is the single biggest driver of returns, an issue that has been plaguing retailers for decades. It’s costly, harms the environment and (in the long term) hurts your brand. I believe that investing in better upstream processes – improved size charts and more rigorous fit testing – will lead to huge improvements down the line.
And finally, inclusion. One of my pet peeves is seeing brands design styles that are clearly intended for straight shapes and small sizes and then scale them up to mid and plus sizes claiming that they now design “for all bodies.” Putting ill-fitted pieces on models of different shapes and sizes doesn’t mean you understand or care about that customer. We should be asking ourselves – what does this customer really want? How is this garment going to make her feel? How can we design FOR her, first and foremost? This is being inclusive in a real way.
As a CEO of a company what is your daily routine?
My day starts the night prior, when I write down my priorities for the upcoming day. I use this great planner by Kindred Braverly that helps break down my activities into bite size segments. I’m not a morning person and part of my team is based in India (with a flipped schedule), so I usually start my date late around 9am.
First, I workout, so I can feel like I’ve accomplished something early in the day. Then, I grab breakfast, coffee and start work around 10:30. I start with the highest priority items on my list, which can range anywhere from sales and marketing to strategic planning and design. I work in 1hr increments with 10-15 mins of break in between. During these breaks, I’ll step outside, hydrate or crank up some music and just free dance. I try to get away from a screen, so I can return to my work with fresh eyes.
I then have a hard stop from 7-9pm to spend time with my husband, and then I’ll usually squeeze in an additional hour or two of work with my India team, before heading to bed.
Early in my Founder journey, I started tracking productivity patterns during my week. For example, I’m usually less productive on Mondays than I am later in the week. So I try to schedule more interesting, strategic work early in the week in order to stay motivated. I also work a half day on Sundays, to take some of the pressure off of the following week.
As there are many companies interested in fast fashion, how does your company differ in terms of sustainable materials and ethical factories?
Responsible production is one of our brand pillars, so we think about it in each step of the process. All of our suppliers must be third-party certified for ethical working conditions from one of the leading, global certification programs (more info here).
Additionally, we use sustainable fabrics in all of our collections. For example, we work with organic cotton (vs. regular cotton), which saves water and is made without toxic pesticides. We work with new fabrics, like lyocell, that can emulate the handfeel and durability of less sustainable fibers without the environmental footprint. In our most recent collection, we introduced premium deadstock wool, which is fabric that was produced in excess by brands and would have otherwise gone to waste. We also ensure that all of our dyes are free of Azo compounds (several of which are carcinogenic) via rigorous testing.
On the production side, we rely on a combination of third-party audits as well as personal, first-party checks. I’ve spent days in each of our factories, observing the working conditions and interacting with the team.
On the packaging side, we spent a great deal of time thinking about how to recycle and reuse. Each Aam pant comes inside a reusable cotton cover, inspired by the beautiful saree covers you see in southern India. This cotton cover is placed inside a fully recyclable box, with a simple packing slip and card. There’s no excess paper, bubble wrap, or cardboard.
I’m proud of where we are in terms of ethics and sustainability – and I think we can still do better!
We would love to hear some testimonials from previous customers.
“I have paid hundreds of dollars for ‘custom fit pants’ from various brands, and none of them fit quite as well as this pant did straight out of the box.” – The Flex Waist Pant, Size S
“This pant is amazing!! It is so lightweight and breathable… the material is so soft and silky, it feels like you’re wearing PJs but they look like elegant chic work/business pants.” – The Wide Leg Pant, Size M
“Never have I ever been able to easily pull a pair of pants over my thighs. I have ALWAYS had to jump to pull my pants up comfortably. These pants are amazing.” – The Crop Pant, Size L
“I can tell these are Aam pants instantly from how they taper at the waist. No other pants do that.” – The Limited Edition Wool Wide Leg Pant, Size S
Where do you see the company expanding in terms of different types of clothing offered?
I see bottoms as the biggest area of need, so we’ll first expand to other types of bottoms or clothes with bottoms: skirts, dresses, jumpsuits, potentially underwear and swim. Then, we’ll start expanding into other categories.
What is the toughest part of running your own company?
Staying motivated and showing up every day – even the bad days. As a Founder, there’s no one to answer to, no fixed schedule, and progress can sometimes feel very slow. There are weeks where I feel frustrated because I keep missing targets. Other weeks, we get a string of wins. It’s important to detach myself from both types of outcomes (wins and losses) and take neither very personally. This helps me commit instead to the process and just focus on the next small step forward.
But, easier said than done!
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I’ve read Brown Girl Magazine for years and am so honored to be featured. I hope folks reading this feel inspired to tackle whatever problem – small or large – that they understand innately. Personal experience is a powerful motivator and difficult for others to replicate.
February 2, 2023February 11, 2023 7min readBy Arun S.
Kevin Wu, previously known as KevJumba, is an American YouTuber, from Houston, Texas, with more than 2.68 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 323 million views. His content consists of vlogs, social commentary, musical parodies and more. Wu also streams on Twitch and has released original music as well as freestyles. His most popular YouTube video is titled “Nice Guys” with Ryan Higa. Wu has also worked with many individuals including A-Trak, Chester See, David Choi, Globetrotters, Iyaz, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Lin, Ryan Higa, Wong Fu Productions, and more. He has also appeared in movies such as “Hang Loose,” “Revenge of the Green Dragons,” “Man Up,” and more. Wu is one of the first original YouTubers gaining popularity in 2008 and even had another channel, titled JumbaFund, now known as Team Jumba. Continue reading to learn more about Kevin Wu’s journey!
We really enjoyed the project ‘Underneath the Lights.’ On the track “WHY U IN LA” the lyrics, “Don’t know who I might be, it might surprise me. I could be a hypebeast, That’s nothing like me, It’s so enticing.” How do you feel this speaks to the idea of self-discovery? What have you learned about yourself, diving back into making content?
I love that song we did. The artist who sang those lyrics his name is Zooty. I really provided the energy and direction for the musical piece, but I give credit to my producer Jonum and Zooty credit for the lyrics. Both guys are a slightly different generation, gen-Z, whereas I grew up as a millennial. I find that I left a lot on the table when I left YouTube at 23, so when I work with gen-Z I have so much that I want to give. Coming back to YouTube this time around, it’s all about self-reliance. Coming from movies and television, you have to depend on people to get a better product. But with YouTube, I’m going back to my roots and putting my wit and effort into every part of the process again (writing, directing, performing, producing, editing). I want the result to be authenticity and a homegrown feeling.
When you started your YouTube channel you were known for your vlogs and social commentary. How do you feel about the new age of content creation — where content is in surplus but individuals aren’t feeling the content?
It’s hard to say whether or not individuals are or aren’t feeling content — the taste is just so wide now. It’s like living in Los Angeles; food is very competitive, and when picking a restaurant you have every ethnic variety and even fusion foods. I imagine opening a restaurant in LA to be very competitive and the attention to detail in what you make has to be authentic or hit a certain demographic. I feel on the Internet, YouTube does a decent job of catering to your sensibilities, the so-called algorithm. However, the personal connection you get with content creators has somewhat been shifted, and now it’s become more interest-based (ie gaming, how-to, music, politics, etc.)
How do you feel the original algorithm has changed, and what do you miss most about that time?
I don’t remember talking about algorithms back in 2010 to 2012. People watched their favorite Youtubers because their homepage included their subscriptions first and foremost, and then if your subscriptions hadn’t posted anything new, you would typically check the most popular page. Then trending became a thing and now you have algorithms generating your timeline based on a bunch of data. I think it’s forced creators to think externally and hanging onto identities i.e. what are my interests? Am I a gamer? Am I a streamer?
We parodied your music video for “Nice Guys” for our orchestra music camp skit back in high school. If Chester, Ryan, and you, had to recreate “Nice Guys” today, would you focus on the concept of self-love for the current generation? We also really loved “Shed a Tear.”
I definitely think self-love would be a very nice theme. Recreating it would be nice, actually. I think it’s hard to get three people to all be in the same room again, especially after leading different lives. But “Nice Guys” was something special for each one of us, and Chester See deserves a lot of credit because of his musical talent. It’s made me realize today the impact of music. I really enjoy the expression of music because it forces you to be more artistic, versus just saying what’s on your mind. Like poetry, or hearing harmonies.
You’ve worked with many individuals and groups in the past including, A-Trak, Chester See, David Choi, Globetrotters, Iyaz, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Lin, Ryan Higa, Wong Fu Productions, and more. If you could create content with any group of individuals who would be your dream collaborators?
At this stage in my life, I really enjoy coming back and rekindling those creative connections and checking in with previous friends or acquaintances. Doing a video with Ryan Higa, Jeremy Lin, Chester See, David Choi, Wong Fu, Jamie Chung, those would all be very fun. But the first step would be to just see how they’re doing. So that’s the closest thing to a best case scenario for me. I’m not trying to force any collaborations at the moment (haha!). Unless it’s convenient.
As an NBA fan you expressed you would like to talk more about basketball on Ryan’s “Off the Pill Podcast.” How do you feel watching sports and has playing sports helped you become more in tune with yourself?
After going through a lot of physical adversity after my car accident, reconnecting with sports has been really helpful. I played basketball for a while and I’d like to get back into soccer. I wanted to talk about basketball on Ryan’s podcast because I was still dipping my toes into Internet content/social media and didn’t want to talk too much about myself at the time.
As a content creator how do you balance not letting validation get to your head and authentically connecting with your audience?
We all seek validation. It’s innate, but it’s about where you seek it. Nowadays I remember to validate myself first, by starting with my mind and body. After a while, you can get a sense of when you need validation versus being totally unconscious of it. Sometimes that sense of validation is important, so we know to check in with our parents, or see if a friend needs positive feedback. To connect with the audience, that’s like number five in my priority list (haha!). Having an audience can be scary; you definitely want to be in tune with yourself first.
How do you deal with comments consisting of “I miss the old KevJumba?”
As live streaming has become a new form of content now, how have you enjoyed live streaming on Twitch for the Head In The Clouds Festival both in 2021 and 2022? We really enjoyed seeing Ylona Garcia sing “Nice Guys!”
It’s fun, I enjoy live streaming and I really appreciate 88rising and Amazon Music for inviting me both years to be the host for their livestream.
What was the decision behind putting your family in your videos?
I put my Dad in my videos accidentally; we were on a ski trip. I think people responded really positively in the comments, and then I just sat down had a conversation with him on camera, and it became a hit. After that he just became his own character. I think I tend to come alive more when I am interacting with someone on camera.
We really liked seeing you upload videos to Team Jumba. Is the mission still to donate earnings to a charity that viewers suggest?
At the moment, no. The Supply, which was the charity I donated to before, has since shut down. I also don’t make much money on YouTube anymore, since I was inactive on my channel for a while, so that format from 2009 will be difficult to replicate.
We really enjoyed the ‘KevJumba and Zooty Extended Play,’ specifically the track “With You in the Clouds” featuring fuslie. How has Valorant inspired your music as well as other forms of content creation?
The album was really experimental. I find the personal connections I made in gaming to be the most enlivening. “With You in the Clouds” was inspired by TenZ and, since he’s such a legendary figure in the pro FPS community, we had to do a worthy tribute. I think paying tribute to the things you like is a really great way to think about content creation.
How do you feel your childhood experiences in Houston, and playing soccer, have shaped you to chase your dreams of acting? How have you enjoyed acting in comparison to YouTube?
I love acting. It’s a wondrous lens at which to see your relationship with others. I find that in studying acting, you are often really studying the human experience or the mind. It’s like learning psychology but you are on your feet, or you are reading great theater. Playing soccer and growing up in Houston don’t really contribute directly to why I enjoy acting, but I very much enjoy coming from Houston and thriving in soccer. It made me commit to something and seeing how consistently “showing up” can really ground your childhood and prove to be valuable, later in life.
How do you feel we can uplift each other across the Asian diaspora and unify to create ripple effects of representation?
I think listening is probably the best thing you can do. Just genuinely hearing about something, or someone, helps you really invest in them during that time that you are there. So I think that’s probably the first step.
What made you go back to school and finish your degree at the University of Houston in Psychology?
No one reason in particular. I was also studying acting at the time back in 2017-2018 when I completed the degree, so it was just testing my limits and seeing what I could balance. I finished it online.
What are your upcoming plans?
Just experimenting on YouTube for now. Making videos with my own effort.
Your first video was uploaded back in 2007 and was titled ‘Backyard,’ where you are dancing to a song called “Watch Me” by Little Brother, off of the “The Minstrel Show.” We also really enjoyed your video with Ryan Higa titled “Best Crew vs Poreotics.” Are you still dancing these days?
Yes. The body does what the body wants.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
Nothing in particular. I try to let my mind flow when I answer questions. I may have jumped to conclusions before fully investing in some of the questions, so I apologize. If you are reading, I thank you for your time and patience. I also thank Brown Girl Magazine for putting together a vast array of questions that allow my mind to stretch and work out a bit. I hope you find a stronger connection to your own truths, and I hope I did not disturb those in any way. Regards.
Bharatanatyam is a traditional Indian dance form and the oldest classical dance tradition in India. Bharatanatyam, originally a dance performed by women in temples of Tamil Nadu, is often used to convey Hindu religious tales and devotions. It is taught by a teacher known as a guru. The dance costume resembles that of a South Indian bride and the dancer wears anklets, called ghungroos, to keep the rhythm while dancing to the music. While Bharatanatyam is still taught all over the world in the traditional way, the styles of teaching have changed over the years. For the last six years, my sister and I have been taught modernized styles of Bharatnatyam in the USA.
An Arangetram lasts approximately three hours and has nine, or in our case 10, dances in total. It begins with an introduction dance called a Mallari or Pushpanjali following the guru’s nattuvangam (rhythm kept using symbols). In the middle of the program is a Varnam — a centerpiece dance that lasts about 30 to 40 minutes. This dance tests the dancer’s endurance as well as their storytelling ability. The performance is concluded with a Thillana which is seen as the last glimpse into the dancer’s full capacity. The Thillana is followed by a Mangalam, the closing dance of the Arangetram.
My sister and I began learning Bharatanatyam in 2016 when we were nine years old. Despite our instant attachment to the art form, we were always daunted by the idea of having an Arangetram of our own. It would be challenging, mainly because we are twins, and our performance would have to be suitable for two people to perform side by side. We began preparing for this event in the summer of 2021. Our guru would make us run for the first half hour of class to build our stamina — much-needed for a three-hour repertoire. We would spend the next two and a half hours learning our repertoire. The first dance we learned together during this time was our Varnam. Learning this dance took a month and we spent a lot of time memorizing it. Our Varnam was dedicated to Lord Krishna, one of the many Hindu gods, known for his charm, wit, and being a master Guru whose philosophies were immortalized through the Gita — the Hindu Holy scripture.
An Arangetram is the on-stage debut of a traditional Bharatanatyam dancer following years of training and discipline under the able guidance of a guru. This is a milestone for young artists as it opens up the opportunity for solo performances, choreographing individual pieces, and instructing other dancers.
By January, we had learned our entire repertoire and were starting to memorize it while adding expressions, poses, and building up our stamina, making them look effortless. Some dances were more difficult to memorize than others, particularly dances that were story-based. Because most Bharatanatyam dance music is in either Sanskrit or Tamil so we couldn’t understand the lyrics right away. Our guru helped us interpret the stories before teaching us the choreography making them easier to commit to memory. We also had help from our mother who listened to all our songs and gave us keywords that corresponded with our dance moves. Listening to dance music on the way to school, dance, or while getting ready for bed, became a part of our daily routine as it helped us internalize the rhythms.
Although a year seems like a long time to prepare for an event, the day of the Arangetram came before we knew it. The morning started off with family and friends coming to our house to help us transport decorations and essentials we would need backstage. We arrived at our venue — the Balaji temple in Bridgewater, New Jersey — and made our way to the green rooms. Our makeup artists assisted us with hair and makeup, which lasted four hours. During this time we were going through the dances in our heads and mentally preparing for the performance to come. Once we were dressed in costume, we headed for the stage pooja, a prayer session on the Arangetram stage with close friends and family, to invoke a successful performance. This was also the time when jitters started kicking in. It had just occurred to us that the performance we’d been preparing for our entire dance careers was about to happen and this was the only chance we had to show the audience our very best.
A person can only have one Arangetram in their lifetime, and this huge milestone comes with pressure given how special the performance is.
As the masters of ceremony were introducing our first number all I could do was stare at my sister standing in the other wing, and I knew we had the same thoughts going through our minds.
As we began dancing I felt almost a sense of relief because of how well we knew the dance. Every single dance was so ingrained in our muscle memory that it felt like second nature even in front of such a large audience. During the repertoire, we had two costume changes, with three costumes in total. Each costume change took 15 minutes while the audience was learning about SAMHAJ or listening to speeches from our friends and family. Backstage, our makeup artists and backstage moms were busy helping us change our costumes and jewelry, adjusting them to make sure nothing would move while dancing. We also had some of our fellow dance girls backstage giving us water and fruit as well as tightening our ghungroos so they wouldn’t fall off on stage.
Our Varnam was a huge success, resulting in a standing ovation from the audience. After the Varnam, we performed a slower dance called Ramabajanam, telling all the stories about Lord Ram, another Hindu god known for his chivalry and virtue. We decided to dedicate this dance to our parents since it was always their favorite to watch and listen to. My mom was heavily involved in helping us memorize this dance by telling us the stories so we wouldn’t forget the choreography. Right before the last dance, we acknowledged all of the people who helped us backstage and were presented with our graduation certificates. In order to give the audience a peek at the effort that went into the performance they were watching, we shared our experience with the audience as well as our guru’s message during this time. Our last dance surprised the audience, as our mother joined us on stage and danced with us. She always dreamt of being a dancer as a child but was never able to learn. Sharing one dance meant a lot to us, and watching it was very entertaining for the audience as well. After all the dances were over, all our guests proceeded to the banquet hall for dinner where we were able to greet all our guests and thank them for coming. When the night ended we were exhausted but still full of adrenaline.
Even though the tension that had built-up in my head over the last few months had now subsided, I was somewhat disappointed that the process had come to an end. I wouldn’t exactly call my Arangetram journey perfect or effortless, but I grew so much this past year as a dancer and as well as a person. The lessons I learned from dance about hard work and resilience will carry on with me for the rest of my life and for that I am forever grateful. The event itself brought so many people together such as my aunt and cousin, who came all the way from India to attend, as well as so many relatives that we hadn’t seen in years. Grandparents, as well as young children all gathered in the audience to watch a display of their culture, or for some audience members, learn a new one. Not only did we spread awareness for this beautiful art form, but we also raised awareness on mental health amongst South Asians — an issue we’re passionate about.
Along with our guru, we decided to leverage this event to create awareness for mental health amongst South Asians in the United States. We decided to advocate for SAMHAJ, a charity that provides education and support for South Asians affected by serious mental illnesses. In order to educate people about mental health, SAMHAJ offers workshops to social service organizations, schools, and mental health professionals as well as provides culturally competent mental health services by creating bilingual support groups. You can donate to SAMHAJ via this link.
Overall, this process has been immensely gratifying and I simply cannot wait to see what the future has in store for me with Bharatanatyam.