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My First Czech Arangetram: Musings
- Dr. Joyce Paul Siamak
e-mail: joycekpaul@gmail.com

July 18, 2019

When you are a young teacher aiming for your first arangetram, you fret about things big and small. You want everything to be just perfect. You are nervous and excited at the same time. You look for a seasoned orchestra that can add brilliance to your event and be your support system. Your first student. Your first work of art nurtured in a different body. Your shishya is your baby irrespective of age. They are a painting that you created one stroke at a time, rinsing and repeating until every stroke and every hue is perfect.

While this was not my first arangetram, I wanted each stroke to be as perfect, for the painting to be as fulfilling!  I had been working on my Czech student, Stepanka's arangetram for almost two years. We must have scheduled dates at least 6 times and then for some inexplicable reasons ended up not being able to pull it off. Mostly, it felt like the dates and the artists would all come together and then without warning slipped through our hands. Often the reasons were beyond our control or would be something as simple as one of us dropping the ball in responding to a text or not seeing an email which in turn became a cascade of events that somehow "prevented" the arangetram from happening.

One day, as we sat morosely wondering if we would ever be able to pull this show together, Stepanka thought about her family in the Czech Republic and wished aloud for them to be here in Seattle. "I wish they could come and see me dance. But it is physically hard for my parents and close to impossible for me to fly the entire extended family and friends over."

It is at that time it struck me to think of organizing the show in Prague. My eyes lit up as I looked excitedly at Stepanka and said, "Why don't we do the arangetram in Prague?"

She stared at me unbelievingly and said, "Really? In Prague? We can do that?"

"Of course", I said. "Why not? People do arangetrams in India just so their family can attend. Why can't we do that in Prague?"

"Who will come to watch? There are so few Indians in Prague and even fewer dance lovers."

"Your family and friends will be there. And that is who we are doing this for!" said I, still bubbling with excitement about the thought of bringing Bharatanatyam to a place where there is paucity.

"But how will we get musicians in Prague? Will we have to fly them from India? That's going to be super expensive. I can't afford that", Stepanka said, losing enthusiasm at what seemed like an unfeasible idea.

"Well, I'm pretty sure there are dancers and musicians all over Europe. Perhaps someone would be willing to fly to Prague? I have dancer friends in London, let me check. Who knows? No harm in investigating. We have already tried scheduling it multiple times here in Seattle and something or the other has not worked out." said I, rather optimistically.
Photos: Dr. Joyce Paul Siamak

And so it was on March 29, 2019. I landed in Prague the week before, flush with excitement. My senior from my guru Leela Samson's class in Delhi, Anusha Subramanyam, had very kindly introduced me to musicians in EU - The dancer and nattuvanar from Washington, vocalist and flautist from London and mridangist from Germany. What a veritable gang! We had it all - missed buses, wrong trains, missing tickets, lost wallets, hunting for studios, sleeping 4 hours a day, not knowing what I am buying at the grocery store, google translate sapping my battery power... What an experience! I quickly learnt how to thank people (děkuji), wish Stepanka's parents "Dobré ráno" and say cheers with "Na zdrahvi."

We had already lost time with the Christmas holidays and the 3-week snow storm in Seattle. Neither of us was able to venture out in the heavy snow let alone get together to choreograph and practice. Plus, my studio was being remodeled and totally unusable. So it was thanks to the ISKCON folks that we drove in the cold, through the snow and sleet to practice for this very precious day. Now I wish I had taken a picture of us all wrapped up in woolies, caps, gloves and ear muffs dancing Sriranjini varnam on a cold floor in a room with no heating. I have to say though; it boded well for my choreographic juices! I thoroughly enjoyed choreographing the Dwijawanti padam "Tarunee nyaan" and the surutti padam "Indendu Vachitivira".

As I danced each little bit and taught Stepanka the choreography, she quipped, "I don't know what it is but your choreography is flowing super easily and I don't have to make an effort to memorize it. It is just falling into place. Usually I have such a hard time remembering other pieces but these just flow as though it's in a language I know!" I was so tempted to dance them which I did at my comeback performance at Penn State's Happy Valley Festival a week after the arangetram.

Knowing the local language, having a home and a car plus the infrastructure to execute is something one takes for granted. Organizing an arangetram in a country where none of what I listed is at my fingertips is a whole different ball game altogether. Never am I going to take my home advantage lightly. Ever! My poor shishya had to practice, communicate on my behalf and the orchestra, as well as take care of so many other tasks many of which I could not help with because it either required the knowledge of Czech or the ability to travel and get things done. I wished for an instant download of spoken Czech to my temporal lobe!

Our orchestra members were young and upcoming artists, sprightly, accommodative and good natured. That made the whole experience so much more enjoyable. A call out of gratitude to mridangist Prasanth Pranavanathan, flautist Praveen Prathapan and vocalist Swati Seshadri.

A few weeks before I left, I made a call to the Ambassador of India and invited her to honour us with her presence. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from her promptly. She was so extremely kind to consent right away. Huge thanks to H.E. Narinder Chauhan for coming and gracing the occasion. Another joy for us was the presence of the only long standing Bharatanatyam teacher in Czech Republic, Rasa Bihari. What she said at the end of the show filled me with pride and joy and also quietened my heart a bit. Had no one really done an arangetram here before with live musicians? I was blown by the value and impact that all of our hard work had actually resulted in. What seemed like a project management struggle with localization issues turned out to be the first event of its kind. And as Rasa Bihari said, it leads the way to more opportunities and for more dancers to even think of having live musicians as an option for their shows.

I stood with a glazed look as I heard her words, slowly realizing the unintended impact of the show. "I would like to express my great joy at being here for this wonderful arangetram - first ever in Czech Republic. I am very happy that Stepanka has reached a milestone in the life of a dancer which is a wonderful thing and a starting point for her. It is very seldom chance here in the Czech Republic to get a live orchestra even though sometimes we may have some Bharatanatyam dancers but due to financial reasons or other reasons, we can't just have real live orchestra. So mostly what we see is recorded music. But we all know that live music is what makes the performance complete. It carried me to India - when I was studying there or when I go, and I always attend as many performances as I can. I felt transported in time and space." Her words settled in amidst the applause, and our surprised countenance. I don't think I parsed the impact of it until much later.

As the show neared its end, a stream of students came on to the stage, tears in their eyes, voices gushing with excitement, as they did their pranams, animatedly talked about how much they had learnt and how excited they were to see a dance show with live orchestra. I took joy in the glaze of their eyes, took energy from their prancing pranas and silently thanked the universe for placing me right there, right then. It was the perfect place to be and the perfect role to play - impacting a slew of dancers who had hope and excitement about dancing to the music.

The first ever arangetram in Prague, and that too with live music! With much gratitude to all the energies that came together to make this a first of its kind event only to be followed by more and even better shows by local dancers.

Dr. Joyce Paul Siamak holds a PhD in the Anthropology of performance. She is trained in Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam with brief stints in Odissi, Ballet, Jazz and Modern. She has taught and performed for the last three decades. She runs Arpan in Redmond, WA. She has recently launched SCARF - Socially Conscious Artists Foundation - and her next production on mental health called "mUrChati" is slated for fall of 2020. (www.arpanarts.org)






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