Arpan: An Offering 
- Arun Madangarli, Atlanta

May 25, 2006 

What do you do, when, snuggling between the warm blankets of western security and comforts you peek out only to be confronted with the grim face of abject poverty?  When you find that the simple things you blithely took for granted in your coddled childhood (drinking water, a roof over your head... even a proper school with a usable toilet) were considered to be luxuries by impoverished youngsters living half a world away?

Well, if you are 15-year-old Kanya Manoj you don’t just pull that blanket over your head and go back to sleep – you do something about it!

The story of 'Arpan: An Offering' began last summer, when Kanya Manoj took a trip to Chennai, in the South Indian state of Tamilnadu, with the intention of spending a few weeks with teachers at the renowned Kalakshetra school of Bharatanatyam to hone her skills as a Bharatanatyam dancer.  While at Chennai, she volunteered to talk about sanitation to a group of school children at a poor rural village lying in the outskirts of the town, under the aegis of the Rural Development Center, an organization that had as its core objective the raising of living standards in the utterly poor rural districts of Tamilnadu. The plight of the local school which lacked even a basic necessity such as a working, usable toilet appalled her and she conceived the idea of putting on a charity show organized in part and performed in its entirety by young children, to raise funds for the school. And in this venture, she had the greatest help she could have; the advice, guidance and support of her guru and mentor Savitha Vishwanathan, a distinguished Bharatanatyam dancer from the Kalakshetra School of Bharatanatyam (and the founder director of Nritya Sankalpa) who is well known to the art lovers of Atlanta through her performances, seminars, workshops and lectures in the domain of Bharatanatyam.

Once the idea took hold, Kanya, acting upon the advice of Savitha Vishwanathan, broached it to the senior students of Nritya Sankalpa. Their initial, cautious reception soon gave way to unbridled enthusiasm as they took upon themselves the exciting but arduous task of putting together a show! These students (Pooja and Poorna Rajeevan, Madhumita Govindarajan, Ahalya Prabhakar, Shivani Lalloo, Rohini Ramaswamy, and Maya Ramachandran, all of them ably led by Kanya Manoj) would go on to be the mainstay of 'Arpan.'  Their enthusiasm was contagious; soon all the students of Nritya Sankalpa, ranging from ages 6 to 17, were pulled into the orbit of ‘Arpan.’  And the children gave it all they had, with the boundless energy and selflessness that only they are capable of achieving.  

There followed a hectic three months, when different items were considered and discarded, new pieces choreographed, costumes and casting agonized over, seemingly endless practice sessions completed…until the much awaited-for moment finally arrived and the curtains rose on 'Arpan' on April 8, 2006 at Meadow Creek High School in Norcross.

It was clear from the outset that 'Arpan: An Offering' was set to chart a dramatically different course.  Before the commencement of the official program, two short videos (both done by amateurs) were shown; one that portrayed life in Vengal in a way that mere words could never paint, and the other, a heart warming collage of scenes from the very first day of preparation and planning.
The performance, which included all the components of the traditional Bharatanatyam margam (repertoire) such as the alarippu, jatiswaram, varnam, padam and javali, had several items that deviated from the normal routine of such recitals.  The item 'Korvai' for instance, was unusual in that Korvais (which are sequences or combinations of various adavus) are generally performed as part of the Jatiswaram. But in this piece, choreographed by the senior students of Nritya Sankalpa, the group of Korvais was elaborated and expanded to present the numerous patterns in which the basic dance sequences can be combined, to create beautiful sequences. Twenty-two students of Nritya Sankalpa participated in this item, in four Korvais, each determined by the level of training of the participating students. Then there were the Kurathiattom (a folk dance), Vaishnava Janato (a bhajan by the legendary Gujarati singer Narsi Mehta) and Ghoomar (a Rajasthani folk dance). Vaishnava Janato, performed by Paulomi Pandit was in particular an apt choice for inclusion in 'Arpan.' For, in this simple and moving bhajan by the poet-saint Narsi Mehta, the devotee sings the praises of the 'Vaishnava' - one who "feels the suffering of others and who helps the needy," a description that does perfect justice to the efforts of the students of Nritya Sankalpa.

Another unique item was the Billie Holiday hit "Love me or Leave me" which served as a perfect illustration of the universality of art. The mudras and hastas (hand gestures) of Bharatanatyam and the abhinaya of Kanya Manoj struck up a perfect, seamless dialog with the strains of this Harlem Jazz.  A very innovative and enchanting piece indeed!   

The piece-de-resistance of the performance was 'Arpanam,' an item that captured in vivid little vignettes the entire sequence of events that culminated in the staging of 'Arpan: An Offering.' Set to fusion music composed by Ganesh, Kumaresh and Tariq Qureshi, the dance commences with a mother narrating the story of a poor rural school to her child. Moved by the plight of these students, young children living on the other side of the world put on a charity show, to raise money for simple necessities needed by the rural school.

The concluding piece of the evening's performance was the 'Samarpanam,' a slokam composed by Dr. Hariharan, rendered by Subhashini Krishnamurthy, and performed by Savitha Vishwanathan and Paulomi Pandit.  Here, the dancers are "...dedicating this offering to God, the embodiment of compassion, for the prosperity and happiness of fellow human beings, for the consciousness to help others" - the very essence of the efforts behind Arpan.

All in all, Arpan was an incredible offering, both aesthetically (to the audience in Atlanta) and in terms of the funds raised, materially (to the students of Vengal school).  Let us hope that the beacon of hope lit here spreads its light far, and for long... 

Arun Madangarli is a control engineer based in Atlanta, Georgia and interested in all facets of Indian classical arts.