SAN RAMON -- The universal messages of love, good and evil, and devotion steeped in the centuries-old traditions and beliefs of the Indian culture and Hindu beliefs came alive in a recent performance by local graduates of the Vrindavan Dance Academy in San Ramon.
Amid the elaborate custom-designed costumes, sparkling jewels, and live vocal and orchestra accompaniment and after more than five years of intense training and rehearsals, Madhu Katragadda, of San Ramon, and Vidya Subramanian, of Dublin, performed an arangetram, a two-hour graduation performance at the Dougherty Valley Performing Arts Center.
An arangetram is literally "aranga," which means raised stage, and "etram," which means climbing and represents the years of training and immense stamina required to achieve this level.
Wives, mothers and professionals in software engineering and finance respectively, Katragadda and Subramanian performed a Bharat Natyam dance called "Seetha's Abduction" to an audience of more than 300.
Katragadda and Subramanian have studied this dance art form for more than five years and rehearsed several times a week to perfect their technique and level of ability to dance Bharat Natyam, a classical Indian dance known for it grace, purity, tenderness and sculpturesque poses.
"The dance tradition was developed to articulate the stories and ideas from Indian philosophy," said guru Dr. Bindu S. Shankar. The philosophy and teachings are "abstract and difficult to understand," she adds. Bharat Natyam "brings to life and tells the stories from Indian mythology about good and evil by bringing gods and goddesses to the stage to teach these ancient traditions. The cultural art forms of dance as well as paintings and sculpture are used to teach.
Shankar founded Vrindavan Dance Academy in San Ramon in 2005 and trains students of all ages, Indian and non-Indian, in the technique, theory and performance of Bharat Natyam. Shankar was trained at the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai, where she performed her arangetram. She holds a doctorate in Indian Art History from Ohio State University and for the past 20 years has given recitals, lecture demonstrations and received numerous awards in addition to sponsoring artists, organizing community events and supporting upcoming dancers.
In addition to the storytelling and graceful dance movements in Bharat Natyam are the traditional costumes and jewelry. The handmade Indian silk costume designs are deeply symbolic and are grand and elaborate with brilliant colors and traditional patterns. Bought in India and hand-tailored for the dancers, the costume designs are inspired by mythological sculptures from Indian temples, says Bindu. The ornate jewelry worn for the dance is called "temple jewelry" and, again, is inspired by sculptures in the temples and used only for dance performances. Also, the music accompaniment comes from the Carnatic style of South India with instruments including the drum, long pipe horn, flute, violin and veena, a stringed instrument associated with the Hindu goddess of the arts.
Katragadda and Subramanian began dancing when they were children and returned to dance as adults. They met at the dance school, and their friendship has blossomed over the years as their entire families have become friends.
"I like the whole experience of dance and have always been interested in it," says Subramanian. "It (Bharat Natyam) is my passion of choice" and a good avenue of expression, she adds. "I lose all my inhibitions through dance and a different person takes over. That's the fulfilling part."
Bharat Natyam is a "stress reliever" and good physical exercise says Katragadda and requires endurance and stamina. "We try to become someone else and try to tell a story through movement and expression," says Katragadda. "There is a satisfaction about doing that."
Learning this particularly challenging art form "is one way in which we connect to our roots," explains Subramanian, who says she hopes her 11-year-old daughter is "influenced by the passion she sees. She has an 8-year-old son, also.
Katragadda, a mother of 6 and 9-year-old sons, says dancing Bharat Natyam is a way "to teach them about the culture through this art form." With more than 90 students at her San Ramon dance school on Ryan Industrial Court, Bindu says that connecting to the culture offers a sense of pride.
"This is a 2,000-year-old refined and sophisticated art form that is immensely popular in the U.S.," she says and is a way to connect the younger generation with their culture when sometimes the only connection to India that the younger generation has is "nebulous and only through family." Bindu says she hopes audiences "feel they have participated with the dance," and feel the passion, love and devotion expressed" in addition to admiring the physical form of the dance.
"There is a magnetic quality to the dance," she adds. She hopes the audience feels a spiritual awakening as well.
The arangetram, says Shankar, means the dancers "have reached a certain level of competence. It is not the end of the journey." Both dancers say they will continue with advanced classes and perhaps even assist with teaching as well as stay connected.
"My hope is to build a bridge between the east and west (through dance)," says Bindu and she says she hopes "non-Indians come and check it out." "If yoga is so easily embraced by the Western culture, then so can this dance form," she adds. "Come with an open mind, and come and explore it," she says.
Free arangetram performances will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday, featuring Karbi Choudhury, and at 4 p.m. Nov. 23, featuring Minu Rao and Swarna Rao at the Dougherty Valley Performing Arts Center, 10550 Albion Road in San Ramon. Visit www.vrindavanacademy.com or call 925-858-6551 for details on dance classes and performances.
To link to a video of the dance, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yG5TEkxTsI&feature=youtube