Bharatanātyam arangetram of Breanna and Samantha Pooran – Awe inspiring excellence

Journey and contemplation over, we arrived at the main hall, which was transformed into a mini-Mandir with flowers adoring feet of Lord Ganesha, Nataraja, Krishna and other deities. We paused to pay homage and seek blessings. Walking through the decorated corridor, we gazed at spectacular pictures of the dancers and their Guru Srimati Padma Thiagaram that were prominently displayed. 

Bharatanātyam arangetram of Breanna and Samantha Pooran – Awe inspiring excellence

The Bharatanātyam arangetram of Breanna and Samantha Pooran was held on the summer evening of Saturday July 20, 2019 at the Jo Ann Magistro Performing Arts Center in East Brunswick, New Jersey. As Lalita (my wife) and I drove to the event, desperately trying to avoid traffic hurdles to get there on time, we silently contemplated our own daughter’s Bharatanātyam arangetram in 2010. Having gone through the experience, we are fully aware of the pounding heart beats and stress, especially as the clock inexorably ticks to start time. 

Journey and contemplation over, we arrived at the main hall, which was transformed into a mini-Mandir with flowers adoring feet of Lord Ganesha, Nataraja, Krishna and other deities. We paused to pay homage and seek blessings. Walking through the decorated corridor, we gazed at spectacular pictures of the dancers and their Guru Srimati Padma Thiagaram that were prominently displayed. 

Arangetram is a Tamil word. It comes from Arangu and etram and literally means “ascending the stage”. In effect, it is the deekshant samaroop or graduation ceremony of the Bharatanātyam dancer, but it is also a test for the sishya (student) and the guru (teacher) as the guru’s knowledge and the sishya’s talent are on display for all to witness. After nine years of training under eminent Guru Padma Thiagaram, twin sisters Breanna and Samantha were about to ascend for a performance that was almost a decade in the making. It was the 54th arangetram of Guru Padma Thiagaram who teaches the Kalakshetra style at her school, the Abhinaya School of Bharatanātyam.

Bharata-Nāṭyam is an ancient dance form that originated in the the Nāṭya Śāstra, a Sanskrit text on the performing arts, including dance, music and literary traditions. Nātya is a Sanskrit word for "dance". The compound word Bharatanātyam thus connotes a dance form which the dancer harmoniously expresses bhava (feelings, emotions), rāga (melody), and tāla (rhythm). The dance traditionally depicts stories narrated in Hindu texts. 

The lighting and sound system synchronized, the curtain opened, and Breanna and Samantha emerged on stage for Pushpānjali, the first item in the performance. The rendition was “jhum jhum” in ragam Hindolam and Adi tālam. They bowed down and surrendered themselves to Lord Ganesha, and also bowed down to the feet of their Aja and Ajie (only grandparents alive), mother and father, dance guru, and audience. It was a touching display of humility and grace as vocalist Sri Jamaneesk K. Nair sang the glories of how Ganesha got the name Ekadantham (the one with one tusk) by destroying the demon Gajamukha.

The live orchestra included: Nattuvangam by Padma Thiagram, Vocal by Sri Jamaneesk K. Nair, Mridangam by Sri Anil Padinjare Veedu, Violn by Sri Ajitkumar K. Raveendran Nair and Flute by Sri Surya Narayana Krishna Iyer. All the musicians, except Padma ji came from India for the event.

The second item performed by Breanna and Samantha was Jathiswarā, a more complex piece than the previous items. In this piece the jathis (rhythmic sequences) are set to swarās (musical notes), which in this case was rāgam Mohanam and Rupakam tālam. The performance comprises amazing postures in which sections of the jathis are repeated in combinations of increasing complexity. The beauty, grace and synchrony of movements made the technical aspects of the dance seemed effortless, a tangible demonstration of the dancing skills of the sisters. They have arrived at the pinnacle of their long years of training.

The third dance item was the Sabdham set to rāga malikai and misrachāpu tālam. The devotional theme portrayed important events in Rāmāyana, and the dancers demonstrated their mastery of abhinaya or expressions. It was an amazing summary of the entire Ramāyana in which the sisters used dance to express actions of different characters in the epic. Right at the beginning of this sequence of dance events, Breanna and Samantha masterfully demonstrated how Sita, daughter of Rāja Janaka came to marry Rāma, who won at the swayamvar contest. Rāja Janaka invited marriage proposals for his daughter but set the condition that any king who wanted to marry Sita must lift the bow and string it. The divine bow, which was placed in the swayamvar was given to King Janaka by Parshurāma as a gift Lord Shiva. Hearing this, many Kings including Rāvana came forward and tried to lift the bow with a single hand. Yhey all failed. However, after taking the blessing of Sage Vishwāmitra, Rāma not only lifted the bow and strung it, but broke it in two. That aspect was beautifully expressed in the matching abhinaya of Breanna. Sita, the young Princess then garlands Rāma and chooses him as her husband. That angered Rāvana who wanted revenge. As the events in the Ramayana unflods and after the marriage of Sita-Rāma, Sri Rāma, together with Sita and Laxshmana were exiled. It was in exile that Surpanakha, the sister of Rāvana had part of her nose sliced off because of her advances to Rāma. Sita would then get abducted by Rāvana and Hanuman searches and finds Sita. Samatha’s abhinaya depicting Hanuman and Breanna’s as Sita, were wonderful to behold, soul searching and emotional. It thrills the heart to know that young Hindu girls are so talented, generous and love their culture. The packed auditorium was silence but broke into loud applause as scenes ended. I have never seen a single sabdham depicting the entire Rāmāyana, and it was divine indeed to witness the clarity, grace and beauty of that dance portrayal.

Next, the sisters then performed the Varnam, the most elaborate and demanding dance in a Bharatanātyam arangetram. Ninne, the composition selected was set to Atana rāgam and Adi tālam. The piece contains many complex steps and expressions. It was the centerpiece event that tests endurance, complex rhythmic patterns and the ability to express emotions facially. In the first part of the varnam, Breanna and Samantha depicted the story of Gajendra Moksham narrated in the Srimad Bhagavatām. On a very hot sunny day Gajendra, the thirsty elephant king, went to a lake to drink water. His thirst quenched, Gajendra playfully began to use his tusk to spray water to the other elephant in his herd. Suddenly, Gajendra was attacked by a powerful crocodile that dragged him into the water. Gajendra’s attempts to free his leg from the jaws of the crocodile failed.  It was then that the elephant King prayed to Lord Vishnu to save him. His prayer was answered and as Vishnu approached in his Garuda Vahana, Gajendra plucked a lotus flower from the pond with his tusk and offered it to the Lord, unmindful of his own terrible pain. Vishnu took no time to swirl His discus in the direction of the crocodile, which severed its head. Gajendra totally humbled, bowed at the feet of Lord Vishnu in deep gratitude. The sequence of events dramatically and masterfully expressed in dance to the appreciative applause of the audience.

The second part of the varnam demonstrated the bond of affection between Yashoda and Krishna (Vishnu avatāram).  It consisted of short stories of Bala-Krishna (baby Krishna) and his miraculous feats later in his life. The sisters exquisitely portrayed Lord Krishna’s transition from childhood to adulthood.

After the intermission, Breanna performed a solo to a delightful Annamacharya composition, Mudhu Gare Yashoda set in rāgam Kurinji and Adi tālam. In this Telugu composition, Krishna during His various leelas is compared to precious gems. Muddu gaare Yashodaa mungita muthyamu veedu, diddaraani mahimala Devaki suthudu - He is the pearl of the courtyard of Yashoda, whom she showers with love; He is the son of Devaki, his greatness unmatched. Mother Yasoda kisses the Bala Krishna (mudhu gare Yashoda) and he is submerged in her devotion, just like pearls submerged in a tub (mungidi mutyamu). He shines like a ruby (maanikyam), and when he destroys Kamsa the demon, he is strong as a diamond (Vajram). He is like hessonite (gomedhika) when he carries the Govardhana mountain, and like yellow sapphire (pushyaraga) when he dances on the head of kaalinga, the serpent king. Breanna depicted the changing scenes with ease, grace and deep emotions of a seasoned expert. 

Next, it was Samantha’s turn to highlight her individual skills and she performed a most riveting and majestic dance glorifying Lord Shiva as Nataraja. The selected song, Bho Shambho Shiva Shambho Swayambho, Gangadhara Shankara Karunakara (Salutation to Shiva Shambho, the destroyer; Shiva Shankar with compassion carries Ganga) is a Sanskrit composition of Pujya Swami Dayanada Saraswati. In this item, Samantha’s dance was most intricate in terms of footwork, posture, and strength, and it generated tremendous applause from the audience. She radiated technical skills with ease and her joy of dance harmonized with the enthusiastic applause of the audience.

Both sisters, Breanna and Samantha, returned onto stage and performed a devotional piece, Sri Chakra Raja set to rāgamalikai and Adi tālam, a Sanskrit composition of Sage Agastya. Sri Chakra Raja simahsaneswari, Sri Lalithambikaye Bhuvaneswari (Mother Lalitha who is the goddess of universe sits on the throne of Sri Chakra), Agama Veda kala maya roopini, Akila charachara janani Narayani, Jnana vidhyeshwari , Raja Rajeswari (She is the embodiment of the Agamas, Vedas and arts; Narayani who is the mother of moving and non-moving beings; She is the Goddess of knowledge and Queen of all Queens). The dancers individual skills and their ability of complement each other with abhinaya and graceful movements enthralled the audience.

The final dance item was a Thillana set in rāgam Kundalavarali and Adi tālam, known as Kundalavarali. In this item, both sisters demonstrated their confidence and joy of Bharatanātyam dancing. The thillana is a dance with lively beats and quick tempos. It ended with a beautiful praise to Sri Krishna.

The program concluded with Mangalam by Breanna and Samantha, an auspicious salute to God, their Guru and the audience for making the performance a success. It was a soul-searching display of talent and humility. To the delight of the large contingent of Guyanese in the auditorium, the vocalist Sri Jamaneesh Nair rendered the familiar Hindustani Om Jai Jagadiish Hare in a mesmerizing melody set to Carnatic style accompanied by the Indian violin (Sri Ajitkumar), flute (Sri Suryanarayanan) and Mridangam (Sri Anil). The bhajan, Om Jai Jagadiish Hare, Swāmi Jai Jagadiish Hare, Bhakta Jano Ke Sankatt, Daas Janon Ke Sankatt, Kssann Me Duur Kare…(Om, Victory to You, Lord of the Universe, Swāmi, Victory to You, the Lord of the Universe, The difficulties of Your devotees, The difficulties of Your servants, You remove in an instant). 

The whole program was a powerful display of the richness of Hinduism expressed in dance events and clarion call to preserve of our ancient and rich Hindu cultural heritage. Dancers Breanna and Samantha and their parents have done their part. At end, the two sisters spoke jokingly of their long years of training and thanked all those who helped them along the way. They exuded with a sense of fulfillment. Their parents, family members, friends and Guru were delighted. Let’s wish them all the best from hereon.  

In case you raise eyebrows, I have known Breanna and Samantha since their childhood. Their father Sri Rishi Pooran ji and mother Srimati Sonia Pooran ji and I have been close friends for years.  Indeed, Rishi ji is more like a brother to me, and one of the kindest human beings I have known. His wife, Sonia ji (Bhoujie) is the same. They have made our whole community proud of their accomplishments. Breanna and Samantha join the rank of a small, but growing number of children of Guyanese parentage who have completed their Bharatanātyam arangetram. Congratulations to Breanna and Samantha, and I hope that both of you will pass on your knowledge to the next generation in the guru-shishyā paramparā tradition. That too is part of our culture.