by Bala Nathan  

November, 2001

Towards the end of summer, after a whirlwind season of witnessing high-quality Bharatanatyam Arangetrams by girls, it was refreshing to see a boy perform his solo debut (Arangetram or Rangapravesham) in the Washington metro area.  Ashwin Subramanian gave his first two-hour solo recital on Saturday, Aug. 18th at Rockville Civic Center’s F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater in Maryland.   Traditionally, the arangetram signifies the first time that a dancer “ascends the stage” as a soloist for a full-length performance of a full “margam” or repertoire of dances ranging from Alarippu to Tillana.   We know that the dance form that fed in to present day Bharatanatyam was practiced as a temple, then a court art form known as dasi attam or sadir.   

The importance of such a performance in the olden days was to formally introduce and present a newly trained dancer to the patron the king (reaffirming the link between temple and court) and also allowing others to assess the quality.  Today’s scenario is however different - it is performed no longer by an appointed group of professional dancers, from the low Melakkara jati, but by the wealthy middle class, most often Brahmins and of late, both in India and in the Diaspora, there are several non-Hindus taking to this art seriously.  Now, there is not even the necessity to impress potential programmers or funders as the majority of those performing Arangetrams will not depend on the dance form for their livelihood. As with the Arangetram, subsequent performances are likely to be self-funded. The importance of the occasion, then, comes from the desire to make an artistically impressive debut, even if one's future is not dependent on it. The guru is publicly acknowledged for all the hard work in training the dancer; the dancer is introduced and judged, critically, but not too harshly, as after all it is a first performance.  

Children of Indian origin brought up in the US are constantly exposed to western peer and culture. Under such circumstances, it is a rare treat to see boys take up dancing.  In this context, it was inspirational to see a male solo Bharatanatyam Arangetram.  The striking aspects of Ashwin’s recital were his straight body lines, stamina level, dynamic jumps, strong footwork as well as convincing expression. What stood out most was the melodious vocal music provided by Indira Krishnamoorthy and Geetha Navanithan with Jayamangala Krishnamoorthy’s exceptionally energetic mridangam and Sandhya’s mellifluous violin accompaniment.   The music provided the necessary boost and motivation for the dancer. 

Ashwin was trained by his mother Shobha Subramanian who conducted the recital, which included carefully selected dances suitable for male dancers.  After beginning with a pushpanjali and sloka in praise of Ganesha followed by the rare nine-beat sankeerna chapu Alarippu as a warm-up number (composed by Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar), he performed a standard jatiswaram in Ragamalika.  The highlight of the performance was the centerpiece “Varnam” in praise of Lord Krishna based on the Sri Krishna ashtothara Namavali describing the Lord’s appearance, attributes and antics for which the colorful and coordinated choreography was done by Kiran Subramanyam of Bangalore.  In this piece, the dancer skillfully portrayed the birth of Krishna, conquest of Kaliya, playful exchanges with the gopis and the eternal Bhagavadgita.  The second half included 3 abhinaya pieces – a padam describing the wedding procession of Lord Kartikeya (composed by the dancer’s grandmother Rajalakshmi Krishnan), the popular Swathi Tirunal composition “Shankara srigiri” dedicated to Lord Shiva and a light Bharathiar song portraying a lovelorn hero wooing his beloved.  The performance concluded with a dazzling, double Tillana, an experimental choreography by Shobha Subramanian in two contrasting ragas and talas in an alternating fashion.   Ashwin has attended summer dance workshops under the world renowned dancing couple Dhananjayans and the Kirans of India. 

Ashwin’s four grandparents jointly presented him with the plaque on behalf of the school and the dancer’s father P.K. Subramanian offered the Vote of Thanks, while the teacher-mother spoke about the expectations and challenges of training one’s own child.  Perfect light and sound effects, combined with charming narration by the MC for the evening, Shoba Sharma, rounded off with delicious food from Arathi/Aditi restaurant completed the picture perfect houseful recital which was attended by Swami Dheerananda of Chinmaya Mission (who kindly spoke a few words), senior officials from the World Bank, several leading local dancers and elite public from all segments of the community.