Bharata Natyam Arangetram of 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.
Aanika was presented in her dance debut by her teacher Smt. Anandini Chandra Sekhar, the youngest daughter and disciple of ‘Bharata Kala Shrestha’ Guru Smt. Sudha Chandra Sekhar. This is only the 2nd Arangetram presentation by Anandini’s Vidyanjali Dance School of New England, based in Newton, Massachusetts, but it was the 120th Arangetram of Vidyanjali’s parent school Hindu Temple Rhythms (HTR), which Guru Sudha Aunty, as she is fondly known, has presided over since its inception in 1958. HTR is an umbrella organization for numerous dance schools including centers in Florida, North Carolina and Maryland, in addition to Massachusetts.
The audience was warmly welcomed into the theatre by Aanika’s parents Namita and Vinay Seth Mohta who spoke at length about the significance of art as a way of preserving our culture but also the importance of legacy and carrying on traditions. Namita was a Bharata Natyam dancer herself who completed her Arangetram under the late great Padmini Ramachandran, and therefore Aanika carried on her mother’s legacy of dance as a second generation artist. In much the same way, Aanika’s teacher Anandini is also a second-generation artist, carrying on her mother’s lifetime of dedication to the dance art. Emcee Malini Sarma, also an HTR alumni who runs Sri Devi School of Dance in the Baltimore area, welcomed the audience and emphasized how 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 of the evening.
From there Anandini Chandra Sekhar took over the microphone for the evening, introducing the Invocation song which would be followed by Aanika’s first item of the evening. The orchestra, expertly conducted by Guru Sudha Aunty on nattuvangam (finger cymbals), began with a soulful rendering of shlokas in the ragam Arabhi, sung in turn by Sudha Aunty, Anandini and vocalist Krithika Rajkumar. Krithika then invoked the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha in the prayer song ‘Abhishta Varadha’ in ragam Hamsadhwani, a composition of Saint Thyagaraja. As the song trailed into instrumental strains by Krishnan Parameshwaran on violin and Sachit Kurup on flute, Aanika made her sparkling entry to the stage. After taking her ‘namaskaaram’ or ‘thattikumbudum’ in rhythm with the precision drumming of mridangist Mahalingam Santhanakrishnan, Aanika performed the traditional Kavuthwams choreographed by the Gurus of Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir (Guru Sudha Aunty’s teachers in India). These ancient poems were originally performed in flag-hoisting ceremonies at temples, but the were carefully researched and brought to the stage by Sudha Aunty’s guru, the late Bharata Vidwan Kuppiah Pillai. Having Aanika perform items that were made popular by Sudha Aunty in the 1950s was a special moment indeed. The Ganapati Kavuthwam was in ragam Hamsadhwani, Karthikeya Kavuthwam was in Shanmukhapriya and the Natesha Kavuthwam in Devamanohari.
This was followed by a traditional Alarippu in the 7-beat rhythm called Misram and sung in ragam Nattai, and then the Bhairavi Jathiswaram in thalam Thisra Ekam. Anandini noted that she specifically taught Aanika this Jathiswaram because she herself had performed it in her own Arangetram back in 1994. 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 items of the evening. In place of the traditional Sabdam, Aanika performed the bhajan ‘Sri Ramachandra Kripalu Bhajamana’ composed by poet Tulsidas and sung in Yaman Kalyan. As she depicted various episodes from the Hindu epic ‘The Ramayana’, Anandini narrated the stories following her actions in English for the audience. Thus, 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 stories such as the bow-lifting scene at Princess Sita’s swayamvara and the abduction of Sita from the forest during their 14 year exile. The audience rang out in cheers at the wedding of Prince Rama and Sita and at Rama’s defeat of the evil ten-headed demon king Ravana.
To end the first half of the performance, Aanika presented the longest and most difficult item in her repertoire - the Varnam. ‘Sakhiye Inda Velayil’ in ragam Ananda Bhairavi was chosen for Aanika to showcase her nritta skills in the concise jathis and to challenge her ‘abhinaya’ or expression skills in playing the role of a lovelorn girl pleading with her friend to stop teasing her and go and bring her beloved to her. Beautifully choreographed by the Gurus of Sri Rajarajeshwari and taught to Aanika in its pure form, untouched, this item had hallmark elements of the Thanjavur style of Bharata Natyam.
After the intermission the audience was enthralled by in stitches from a humorous, yet touching, speech by Aanika’s aunt and uncle Nidhi and Jay Patel . Following that was a series of musical interludes by Shri Krishnan Parameswaran on violin, and a beautiful rendition of ‘Ulagam Ellam Kaakum’ sung by Krithika Rajkumar which was composed by HTR’s own lyricist Gopal Venkatraman. Krithika engaged the crowd by explaining that the song was unique not only because it changed ragams in each verse (called Ragamalika), but also because the thalam (rhythm pattern), basham (language) and deivam (deity that it was praising) also changed.
The second half of the program commenced with the lilting song ‘Main Nahin Maakhan Khayo’ in ragam Maand, in which Aanika did extended storytelling once again, this time showing young Krishna insisting to his mother Yashoda that he did not steal butter. Once again 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 Nataraja padam ‘Natanam Aadinaar’ in ragam Vasantha. Another item taught to Sudha Aunty by the Gurus of Sri Rajarajeshwari and passed down to Anandini and then to Aanika in its pristine form, this item showcased Aanika’s clean and graceful style in the adavus and her mastery of the various difficult Nataraja poses with one leg lifted across the body.
The final item of the repertoire was the Thillana in ragam Kaanada, thalam Thisram, which Anandini shared was Sudha Aunty’s own Arangetram Thillana which made it even more special. The Gurus of Sri Rajarajeshwari had choreographed this item to beautifully show the complexity of thalams and how the movements can fit to it in different patterns. Aanika began with the traditional attami followed by Mei Adavus which require masterful control of the body movement. She then did a complex panchanadai combination, which carries the dancer through each of the five rhythm patterns - 9 beats (Sankeernam), 5 beats (Kandam), 7 beats (Misram), 3 beats (Thisram) and finally 4 beats (Chatusram). The highlight was the korappu, in which Aanika did a call and response segment between the nattuvangam and sollukattu (spoken syllables) given by Sudha Aunty and Anandini, and her footwork matched with the mridangam. This was met with thunderous applause and cheers from the audience when she completed the complicated pattern 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 beautiful trained singer but also a Bharata Natyam dancer herself, and had her initial training and Arangetram under Guru Sudha Chandra Sekhar as well and grew up very close to the Chandra Sekhar family. She was HTR’s 50th Arangetram back in 2004, and it was such a beautiful experience to see her come back for its 120th as vocalist. The audience also got to watch the mother-daughter duo of Guru Sudha Aunty and Anandini perform together on nattuvangam and jathi recitation, which showed tradition being passed along to the next generation in front of their eyes.
The program closed with the Thyagaraja Mangalam - “Pavamana Suthudu Pattu” in Sourashtram, which carried into Madhyamavati for Aanika final bows and ‘namaskaaram’. Aanika was praised by her teacher for being such a “calm and dependable” student, and it showed in her measured grace and confident manner on stage.
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. She lives in Newton with her parents and two younger brothers, Ayaan and Vihaan. We hope that Aanika’s dancing will continue to flourish and wish her a beautiful journey going forward!
Photos by Naga Gandham Photography