Tuesday, August 4, 2009


This past weekend has provided an exquisite experience, that of seeing my niece, Shivani, ascend the stage: she had her Bharatnatyam Arangetram (literally, "ascending the stage" or graduating with a diploma in this dance form). What impressed me the most is a 16 year old's ability to use an ancient art form to tell immortal stories.

Like me, Shivani too, is a first generation immigrant, but unlike me, she immigrated as a young child, and so describes herself as being more American Indian than Indian American, a distinction of a few but important degrees. Essentially, this means that the language she is most comfortable with is American English, though she does choose our mother tongue, Gujarati, for choice circumstances when no translations would suffice. I know she has been taking French as a second language in school for the past few years as well. Also, since Sanskrit and its derivatives are the languages of Bharatnatyam, Shivani would have imbibed the basic structure and vocabulary of these languages too, during her decade long training in the dance form. So her multi-lingual abilities are not new to me.

However, this dance form works through more than syntax and vocabulary; it appeals to the language of the very soul of a culture, thriving and alive for millenia. Its practitioners and enthusiasts, especially those young like Shivani, have learned more than a dance form brought alive from temple walls; they have learned a certain designation in the Universe to keep them from feeling lost, fragmented, displaced, or afloat; they have learned articulation of the highest kind that includes the body, the intellect, and the spirit. The language is the language of the immediate experience, described and catalogued in Natya Shastra, a language that demands absolute perfection of gesture, economy of movement, unrelenting grace from the performer, and active participation from the audience.

I must confess to reservations I had about this project before attending this evening. However, I can think of no better way to celebrate a girl's initiation into adulthood. This evening has taken at least a decade of preparation and changed everyone involved, Shivani most of all.

Shivani and her girl friends think it no great matter to weave two-hour Gordian knots in their hair to accommodate and balance head pieces and braids of designs centuries old; they swap programs to compare costumes whose fashion hasn't changed for around a thousand years; they are familiar with heavy, ancient patterns of jewelry that is worn in unusual places, like the sun and moon on each side of their hair parting, or the intricately curved ear pieces hung from strands of pearls curled around their temples; they paint each others' feet with red markers to emulate decorations described in texts that date from around 2nd Century B.C.A. Moreover,these ornaments are not just cold pieces of metal either; the significance of the bells or ghunghroo, for example, is not lost upon the teenagers who have willingly forgone afternoons at the mall and movies with friends while they dedicated the time to learn an art form their community brought along as their most precious cargo when they decided to establish a home far away from their birth-land.

This experience is more meaningful in an immigrant's world, since it involves not just the particular ethnicity, but also invites the larger community, the local slice of the global village. Shivani's Arangetram enthralled audience members of several ethnicities and backgrounds. Two of Shivani's friends who spoke to the audience about her confessed they had never been to an Arangetram before, or even knew what one was! They were not alone, of course, as many of the audience members enthusiastically exclaimed to me after the performance.

Such an event, then, inevitably enriches us all by reaching across limitations of geography and chronology, by invoking the ubiquitous stories that define us and introducing our friends to them.

Undoubtedly, this 2 hour performance very clearly illustrated one of the most attractive faces of the immigrant identity; it presented a wonderful reflection of an identity that constantly and eternally re-defines, forges, discovers, and resurrects itself and I am honored and humbled to have been a part of this celebration.


  1. i agree 100%! i, too, am honored to have been included in such an event. not many people have the good fortune of witnessing or, like me, being closely tied in with, such a colorful cultural celebration as this was. Go Shivani! [:

  2. I have almost no understanding of dance and still I was very impressed. It was a great experience, one that would pave the way for Shivani to take on even greater undertakings in life.

  3. i am so grateful to you guys for visiting! thanks.
    and i concur with your comments.

  4. What a great post! I learned so much--thanks for sharing this window into your cultures!

  5. Thanks for visiting, Kristin! glad you enjoyed it.