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Arangetram: Aanika Seth Mohta

Namita Mohta

Arangetram: Aanika Seth Mohta

A diverse mix of communities gathered together on the afternoon of September 24, 2022, to witness the Bharata Natyam Arangetram of 15 year-old Aanika Seth Mohta at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown, Massachusetts. 


Bharata Natyam is the oldest classical dance style of India, originating in the southern state of Tamil Nadu thousands of years ago. It is the most widely known and practiced dance art form in India, and uses the combination of pure movement as well as hand gestures and facial expressions to tell stories. In the South Asian diaspora, the practice of Bharata Natyam has become a way for families of Indian origin to share the culture, values and mythology of Hinduism with younger generations. After eight to ten years of training, students of Bharata Natyam can undergo preparations for their Arangetram, which literally means to ascend the stage. The Arangetram is not a graduation, but rather a debut, of an artist as a professional dancer. In presenting a student in their Arangetram, the teacher is indicating that they have instilled the essence of the art in the artist and are ready to present them to the world. Intense preparation for Arangetram starts one year before the performance, including the summer where Aanika trained for approximately 15-20 hours per week. In the weeks before the performance, there are full orchestra live rehearsals. 


Aanika was presented in her dance debut by her teacher Smt. Anandini Chandra Sekhar. This is the second Arangetram presentation by Anandini’s Vidyanjali Dance School of New England, based in Newton, Massachusetts. Vidyanjali was formed to share knowledge of and train young dancers in the art of Bharatanatyam. Director Anandini Chandra Sekhar has been trained in the art since the age of 2. 


Vidyanjali is a branch of Nritya Sudha's Hindu Temple Rhythms (HTR), established in 1958 to promote Indian Classical arts in North America. Hindu Temple Rhythms is under the direction of Anandini’s mother Guru Sudha Chandra Sekhar, who is still teaching and performing at the age of 82. Aanika’s Arangetram was the 120th for the school.  


At the performance, the audience of approximately 400 people from different part of Aanika’s life, was warmly welcomed into the theatre by Aanika’s parents Namita and Vinay Seth Mohta who spoke about the significance of the art as a way of preserving culture, but also the importance of legacy and passing on of tradition. Namita herself was a Bharata Natyam dancer who completed her Arangetram under the late great Padmini Ramachandran.  Aanika has carried on her mother’s legacy of dance as a second generation artist. In the same way, Aanika’s teacher, Anandini, is a second-generation artist, carrying on her mother’s lifetime of dedication to the dance. Emcee Malini Sarma, an HTR alumni who runs Sri Devi School of Dance in the Baltimore area, and flew in for the performance,  welcomed the audience and emphasized that three of the six members of the live orchestra for the performance were raised in the U.S. The second generation carrying on tradition was a special, and intentional, theme in the planning and execution of the event. 


The orchestra, mainly local artists (also an intentional choice), expertly conducted by Guru Sudha Aunty on nattuvangam (finger cymbals), began with a soulful prayer song. As the song trailed into instrumental strains, Aanika made her sparkling entry to the stage. After taking her namaskaaram, or offering of thanks to Mother Earth, in rhythm with the precise drumming of mridangist Mahalingam Santhanakrishnan, Aanika began the performance with an invocation dance called the Kavuthwams. 


This was followed by a traditional Alarippu in the 7-beat rhythm called Misram, and then the Bhairavi Jathiswaram in thalam Thisra Ekam (3 beats). Anandini specifically taught Aanika this Jathiswaram because she herself had performed it in her own Arangetram almost 30 years ago. From there Aanika left the realm of pure dance and engaged the audience in storytelling for her next item, which was one of the most popular dances of the evening. Aanika performed the devotional song Sri Ramachandra Kripalu Bhajamana composed by the poet Tulsidas. As she depicted various episodes from the Hindu epic The Ramayana, Anandini narrated the stories following her actions in English for the audience. In this way,  the audience, which included many people who had never seen Bharata Natyam before and were not familiar with Hindu mythology, were able to follow along with the stories.


To end the first half of the performance, Aanika presented the longest and most difficult item in her repertoire - the Varnam. Sakhiye Inda Velayil was chosen for Aanika to showcase her pure dance skills in the concise rhythm patterns and to challenge her abhinaya or expression skills in playing the role of a love-striken girl pleading with her friend to stop teasing her and go and get her beloved. 


After the intermission the audience was enthralled by a humorous, yet touching, speech by Aanika’s aunt and uncle Nidhi Kumar and Jay Patel. Following that was a series of musical interludes by Shri Krishnan Parameswaran on violin, and a vocal performance by Krithika Rajkumar which was composed by Las Vegas-based lyricist Gopal Venkatraman. 


The second half of the 4 hour program commenced with the lilting song Main Nahin Maakhan Khayo,, in which Aanika performed extended storytelling once again, this time showing young Krishna insisting to his mother Yashoda that he did not steal butter. Anandini provided narration in English for the audience to follow along with Aanika’s actions. Aanika stole the audience’s hearts with this item, especially in the final moments when she turned back to the audience with an impish grin and admitted that yes, it had indeed been Krishna that stole the butter. The next item was the traditional dance Natanam Aadinaar which praises the dancing form of Lord Shiva called Nataraja. This item showcased Aanika’s clean and graceful style in the adavus and her mastery of the various difficult Nataraja poses.


The final item of the repertoire was the Thillana which shows the complexity of Indian Classical rhythms and how dance movements can fit to it in different patterns. The highlight was the korappu, in which Aanika did a call and response segment between the nattuvangam and sollukatu (spoken syllables) given by Sudha Aunty and Anandini, with her footwork matched with the mridangam. This was met with thunderous applause and cheers from the audience when she completed the complicated item with a confident smile.


The orchestra for the evening featured talented New England based artists, with Mahalingam Santhanakrishnan on mridangam, Krishnan Parameswaran on violin and 15-year-old Sachit Kurup on flute who was performing in his first Arangetram. Vocalist Krithika Rajkumar is not only a beautifully trained singer but also a Bharata Natyam dancer herself. The audience got to watch the mother-daughter duo of Guru Sudha Aunty and Anandini perform together, further demonstrating tradition actively being passed along. 


The program closed with the Mangalam or final prayer song which carried into Aanika’s final bows and namaskaaram. Aanika was praised by her teacher for being such a “calm and devoted” student, which showed in her grace and confidence on stage.


A young woman in the audience reacted, “Aanika is so beautiful, and powerful at the same time.”  An orchestra member described the overall event as one that “really reflected who the Mohtas are as a family and the value they place on the arts.” One of the photographers stated that it was one of the best Arangetrams he had been to.  


Aanika and her Gurus look forward to continued sharing of Bharta Natyam with the larger Boston community and carrying forward this tradition in the years to come. 

About Anika

Aanika first started learning dance at the age of 5 with the Triveni School in Brookline.  She has been studying with the Vidyanjali School for 7+ years now and regularly performs at community events and festivals to represent the school. Aanika is a sophomore in high school at BB&N in Cambridge. Her favorite subjects are history and Latin. She is involved in the Newton community as a volunteer with the Newton Youth Commission and intern at the Newton Community Farm.  She lives in Newton with her parents and two younger brothers, Ayaan and Vihaan. 


About the school: Vidyanjali offers beginner, intermediate and advanced study of Bharatanatyam. Students also have the opportunity to learn about various other classical dance and folk dance styles of India. While the focus is on learning, the Vidyanjali Dancers of New England often perform in the Greater Boston area for festivals and outreach programs. In 2019, the group was invited to present the very first Dance Saturdays performance for the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre in Cambridge, introducing the ballet and modern dance audiences to Classical Indian dance and all its various aspects.

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