Arangetram: The Climb to The Stage

Tania Ahmed’s feet tap aggressively as she moves forward, her eyes wide and lips sealed. Her arms extend above her head, her nimble fingers cupped together like the hood of a cobra.
In a dance about the tale of the Indian deity Krishna, she is playing a serpent named Kaliya.

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Tania Ahmed, 23, grins as she playfully dances at the Triveni School of Dance in Brookline, MA on February 16, 2017. Ahmed is making a hood with her cupped hands to depict Kaliya, the serpent she is playing in her arangetram.

Ahmed will soon climb the stage for her Arangetram (Tamil for “ascending the stage”), a debut performance in Indian classical dance that will signify her transition from pupil to professional. Now 23, she has been practicing for this day since the age of seven, when her parents enrolled her at the Triveni School of Dance in Brookline, under the guidance of her guru, Neena Gulati.

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Tania Ahmed (right), watches her guru, Neena Gulati (left), 73, during a private practice session at the Triveni School of Dance in Brookline, MA on February 12, 2017.

Gulati instilled in her a love for dance, and the discipline it required. Even when Ahmed quit at age 14, overcome with the fear that dancing out the tales of Hindu deities conflicted with her Islamic beliefs, she never stopped practicing.

She gave up Gulati’s classes for 6 years, and began wearing a hijab of her own accord. But the severe anxiety and depression she developed during her college years left her feeling insecure; brought her back to dance in search of solace. “Dance just isn’t something I can ever give up, and Neena aunty was more than happy to have me come back.”

After she finally returned to class three years ago, Gulati introduced her to the woman destined to play Krishna to her Kaliya, Nirmala Lynch.

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Lynch, 45, also found her way back to dance three years ago, after a 13-year sabbatical rooted in her two young children and unstable marriages. “My first husband used to say things that would make me feel so horrible for doing it.”

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Nirmala Lynch, 45 (right foreground), takes a deep breath before practicing the “thali routine” that was part of her arangetram choreography. The routine involved standing on a brass plate and maneuvering it to the beat of the music. Lynch had been particularly struggling with it during this practice session with Tania Ahmed (background left) on February 21,2017 at the Triveni School of Dance in Brookline, MA.

“My kids were young and my husband was physically abusive. He took my identity, my dance, away from me. I didn’t feel like myself anymore, and so when he struck me in front of our son, I knew it was the last straw.”

But upon leaving him she only fell into another unstable relationship. “My second husband didn’t ever strike me, but he was just as mentally abusive.” The stress of her relationship took a toll on her mental and physical well-being, so much so that her body gave up. “Doctors said it was Stress Cardiomyopathy. The Japanese call it ‘sadness of the heart.’”

She had to be revived thrice. “The first thing I said once I was finally stable, was ‘why the fuck did you bring me back?’ I saw the light. I saw my mother, but she told me that I have to live on, for the people and things I love.” People like Gulati, and things like dancing.

“Neena aunty is my mentor. She’s someone I admire not only as a teacher, but as a mother, woman, and friend.”

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Neena Gulati, 73 (centre), stresses the step that Nirmala Lynch  (right foreground) must master during a practice session at the Triveni School of Dance  in Brookline, MA on March 1, 2017.

Gulati, 73, opened her school as non-profit organization in 1971, because she “wanted to promote the art, and ensure that love for it blossoms.” She differentiates herself from orthodox gurus, instructors who she feels can be too rigid in teaching the form. “I value passion and the desire to pursue this form more. That’s what I see in my dancers, like Tania and Nirmala.”

The passion of both dancers is evident in their excitement about playing the roles assigned by Gulati. Tania, 5’1 in height, is excited to play the giant serpent. She certainly towers over Nirmala, 4’9, who is content with playing Krishna in the myth.

The myth goes as follows: Kaliya was a giant poisonous serpent living in a river that passed through Krishna’s village. As expected of most poisonous serpents, Kaliya terrorized the villagers until the day he wrapped himself around a young Krishna, who’d fallen into the river while playing along its banks. Much to Kaliya’s surprise, Krishna’s body began to expand and grow; soon the young boy clambered onto Kaliya’s head, and performed a dance that subdued the snake.

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Gulati says that the maturity and mutual understanding of the dancing duo will bring them success during what is traditionally the solo custom of the Arangetram. Ahmed and Lynch decided to dance together in August 2016 with Gulati’s blessing, and the two have been dancing together ever since.

When they’re not in practice, Ahmed babysits for a Wellesley family, and Lynch barbers at the Supercuts in Newton. Ahmed’s job allows her the flexibility to schedule practices that fit Lynch’s work schedule.

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Tania Ahmed (centre), teaches a young student how to do a step at the Triveni School of Dance in Brookline, MA on February 21, 2017. Traditionally, students do not get to teach others before an arangetram, but Neena Gulati, Ahmed’s guru, asked her to take over for another student teacher.
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Nirmala Lynch waves her arms in an excited manner after completing a haircut for a client at the Supercuts in Newton, MA on April 1, 2017. “People just come to me and by instinct I know what to do,” Lynch said. “The new clients are always pleasantly surprised with my cuts, and the old ones trust me. I give the people what they want. I don’t know what it is that allows me to do it, but I do.”

Outside of the dance studio, they communicate through impersonal e-mails. Inside, the dynamics shift.

Despite being two decades apart in age, their laughs share the familiarity of childhood friends, their gossiping resembling that of sisters. Each practice sees progress, noted by both between exhausted breaths and bites of energy bars.

“We’re looking so good now. I feel so much better,” Lynch tells Ahmed.

“Yeah, me too. We’re going to be great.”

Their two-hour performance will involve three classical dance forms from the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa- Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, and Odissi respectively.

The amalgam of the three combines speech, mime and pure dance to tell the tales of Hindu mythology.

In nervous yet excited anticipation of the event, both bring to their practices an open mind and open eyes. They offer critiques and compliments without hesitation; their relationship is a harmonious symbiosis highlighting each of their different strengths-  Ahmed’s effortless grace and Lynch’s captivating expressions.
“Tania is more crisp in her movements,” Gulati explains. “She’s got better form. Nirmala’s legs don’t have the same flexibility, so I work on improving that with her, while I continue pushing Tania to emote through her face.”

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Tania Ahmed practices her arangetram routine, and the expressions the dance demands, at the Triveni School of Dance in Brookline, MA on February 18, 2017. Her guru, Neena Gulati, had suggested that her expressions needed work.

As the number of days till the performance dwindles, the two show signs of fatigue, and experience body aches. Lynch can “feel it in the knees,” and Ahmed has cuts on her feet. But both dancers see their performance as an homage to their guru, and that keeps them determined.
“No amount of time would ever be enough,” Lynch tells Ahmed after a long Sunday spent practicing. Ahmed nods as she gulps, the water in her bottle making waves with the movement. “But we just have to make the most of the time we have, and make sure we do this right,” she responds.

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On Saturday, March 18, Lynch and Ahmed meet around 3 p.m. at the Wellesley College Chapel. It is the day of their performance. They spent the previous evening marking their spots on stage, testing the lights, and running through their pieces.

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Nirmala Lynch gets her make up done in preparation for her arangetram on March 18, 2017 at the Wellesley College Chapel in Wellesley, MA.
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Nirmala Lynch gestures toward flowers that are to be placed in her hair in accordance to Orissi customs on March 18, 2017 at the Wellesley College Chapel in Wellesley, MA.

As they run around organizing their ‘thank you’ notes and concluding speech last minute, the tension is palpable.  The hours fly by as their fellow dancers from Triveni fret over their hair, makeup, and costumes. Ahmed, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, snaps at some of them as she feels the tug in her hair that is being pulled into a tight bun, and feels the trickle of the alta, a red dye used to paint hands and feet, on her heel.

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Tania Ahmed (right foreground) checks her make up during her pre-arangetram make up session on March 18, 2017 at the Wellesley College chapel in Wellesley, MA. Nirmala Lynch (left background) adjusts her head attire to ensure nothing falls off on stage.
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Tania Ahmed (centre) is helped by her mother (right) and peer (left) during back stage preparations for her arangetram performance on March 18, 2017 at the Wellesley College Chapel in Wellesley, MA. Ahmed was upset with the way her hand make up was turning out, and had asked for it to be wiped and re-done.

Lynch presents a calmer front. She lifts the top to the mini black strolley she rolled in, and her peers from Triveni gush over how well stocked and organized she is- with over 10 red sharpies (should the alta fail to dry effectively), multiple hair accessories, safety pins, and all her jewelry safely secured. She pulls out a banana and points it at Ahmed.  “Eat this. You need some Potassium.”

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Once they are fully dressed for stage, Ahmed and Lynch quickly rush to the prayer room, and shut the door behind them. They emerge two minutes later, and quietly ascend the stairs to the stage.

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Nirmala Lynch (left) and Tania Ahmed (right) exit the prayer room in the basement of the Wellesley College Chapel and head  toward the stage for their arangetram performance on March 18, 2017 in Wellesley, MA. Lynch is an American Christian of Indian origin, while Ahmed is an American Muslim whose family hails from Bangladesh. On stage, they worship Nataraja, the Indian deity of dance.

The performance is preceded by another prayer on stage, to Nataraja, the Indian God of dance. Gulati leads the prayer and lights the incense, guiding her disciples on how to worship the deity’s statue. As smoke rises from the incense, a tear rolls down Ahmed’s face. Lynch’s lips quiver as she holds back tears.

The dancers then take their positions. The music begins, and their bodies follow along. Months of training have made the sequences muscle memory. Each dancer is in sync, like the shadow of the other.

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Nirmala Lynch (left) and Tania Ahmed (right) play the parts of Krishna, the Indian deity, and Kaliya, a mythical poisonous serpent, respectively during their arangetram performance on March 18, 2017 at the Wellesley College Chapel in Wellesley, MA. In the background, a peer from Triveni School of Dance holds up a cloth symbolic of the river where the myth of Krishna and Kaliya is supposed to have originated.
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Tania Ahmed bows down as Nirmala Lynch’s foot rises above her during their arangetram performance on March 18, 2017 at the Wellesley College Chapel in Wellesley, MA. The step is symbolic of Lynch’s character Krishna’s victory over the serpent Kaliya that Ahmed is playing.
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Tania Ahmed dances on a “thali,” a brass plate, during her arangetram performance on March 18, 2017 at the Wellesley College Chapel in Wellesley, MA.

During the two intervals for costume changes, heavy breathing, lip biting, and brow wiping reveals their exhaustion. On-stage, neither deters from the charming smile, the curious eyebrow lift, the shocked gasp, and the myriad of other expressions that the dances demand.

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Tania Ahmed adjusts her nose ring, which she put on specifically for her solo during her arangetram performance on March 18, 2017 at the Wellesley College Chapel in Wellesley, MA.
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Tania Ahmed (centre) has her hair and outfit fixed by her mother (left foreground) and other peers (background) in between performances as Nirmala Lynch (right foreground) discusses performance details with her on March 18, 2017 at the Wellesley College Chapel in Wellesley, MA.

With the final step, there comes a new emotion- relief. For in the end, like Krishna’s conquering of Kaliya, Ahmed and Lynch conquered their Arangetram.

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Nirmala Lynch (left) and Tania Ahmed (right) exit the stage after their arangetram performance is over on on March 18, 2017 at the Wellesley College Chapel in Wellesley, MA.
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Nirmala Lynch (left) and Tania Ahmed (right) pose for a picture backstage after completing their arangetram, officially marking a transition from student to professional dancer, on March 18, 2017 at the Wellesley College Chapel in Wellesley, MA. Lynch plans to continue dancing by taking up teaching at the Triveni School of Dance in Brookline, MA. Ahmed plans to continue her dance education in India.

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