I have known Neeraja since we were both little kids, awkwardly learning adavus in Ranjani Auntie’s basement. It has been a pleasure getting to know her over the years and watching her grow into a wonderful person, and dancer. Attending her Bharatanatyam Arangetram on July 10th at Tufts University was a treat and brought back many fond memories. For those who are not familiar with classical dance, Bharatanatyam is an elegant dance form whose origins can be traced back through centuries of India’s heritage. And, an Arangetram is a celebration of this art. It is a two thousand year old tradition, literally meaning “ascending the stage for the first time”. An Arangetram is a very important experience for a dancer and I am proud to see Neeraja add this to her list of accomplishments.
Neeraja Deshpande is a rising sophomore at Arlington High School in Massachusetts. She has been learning Bharatanatyam under Guru Ranjani Saigal since she was six years old. Over the past ten years, Neeraja has also keenly pursued a number of interests including crocheting, art, music, and acting. In addition to these many activities, she has a passion for volunteering and is a Youth Leader for the non-profit organization Ekal Vidyalaya. Ekal raises funds for one-teacher schools that provide important access to education for children in the rural villages of India. Neeraja humbly dedicated her Arangetram to Ekal and encouraged guests to donate instead of bringing gifts.
The Tufts Auditorium was charmingly decorated and the digital backdrop created a feeling of awe as the musicians started the event with a prayer. On the Nattuvangam was Guru Smt. Ranjani Saigal, Vocals by Shri. Kumardas, on the Mridangam - Shri. Venkata Krishnamoorthy, Flute by Shri. Pathanjali Chittoor Kumaresan and violinist, Shri. Ganesh Kumar. The musicians played each song in such a way that brought the dances to life. The Arangetram Margam, or repertoire, began with a beautiful Pushpanjali ‘offering of flowers’ which was continued with a Marathi Abhang in praise of Lord Ganesha. Elegantly and delicately, she danced on ‘Mamavathu Sri Saraswathi’, a piece dedicated to Goddess Saraswati, who adorns the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. She holds the Veena in her tender hands and her words are purer than the snow on the Himalayas. She is worshipped by the kings and emperors and fulfills every desire of the good people. This item is in Ragam Hindolam and set to Adi Talam, composed by Mysore Vasudevachar. Neeraja’s rendition of the piece felt like a rendezvous with Saraswati herself.
One of the main highlights from Neeraja’s performance included the Varnam, which is the most complicated piece of a Bharatanatyam repertoire. It combines nritta (pure dance), with abhinaya (expression) to tell a story. Her Varnam, composed by Dr. Balamurali Krishna, is dedicated to Devi, the Divine mother who provides happiness. Neeraja performed this with great poise and passion. I particularly enjoyed the story of Abhirami Bhattar, where a devotee of Devi is so captivated by his prayers and portrays nothing but love to her. Neeraja also depicted the nine emotions, demonstrating her expertise with expressions. The creative use of stage lighting further highlighted the whole experience, making it truly divine.
Another favorite piece in this Arangetram was composed by Mysore Vasudevachar and dedicated to Lord Rama, where the poet seeks His protection. Lord Rama is an incarnation of Vasudeva, who saved Gajendra from the grasp of a crocodile. The poet asks Lord Rama to remove his sorrows. The choreography in this item was beautiful and Neeraja danced with much feeling, showing the pain and relief as depicted in the story.
While all the dances performed by Neeraja showcased the maturity she has achieved in Bharatnatyam, I will describe yet another cute and refreshing one. She was playful and charming, as she danced to Vrindavani Venu, in Ragam Bhimpalasi and Adi Talam, composed by Saint Bhanu Dasa. In this Marathi Abhang, the poet describes the beautiful music of Lord Krishna. He says when the flute is playing in Vridanvan, the animals forget to graze. The prey and the predator forget their animosity and come together in great joy as Lord Krishna dances with bells on his feet.
Neeraja concluded the Mangalam with ‘vande-maataram’. She truly deserved the standing ovation at the end of her three hour Arangetram. She has flourished both as a dancer and a much nicer human being. Congratulations to Neeraja, her parents Chitra and Vithal Deshpande, and her Guru, Ranjani Saigal. I wish her the best in life and I hope she continues to perform, all while using this ancient dance form for a good cause.