Dance is one of my passions, and like most passions do, it tends to sweep me away. I used to think it was the thrill of performing on the stage that drew me to dance. After all, the limelight is exhilarating. The sound of fervent applause sets fire to my veins and widens the smile on my face. It adds a spring to my step. My costume ripples and spreads, like a peacock’s tail in the monsoon gale. But after some deliberation, it struck me that it is the little things about this art form that draw me towards it. Bharatanatyam – or any dance form – is not simply the seamless glove that is presented before the audience. In picking apart the seams there is a beauty, and these less-appreciated parts are what bring a dancer’s soul to life, whether on the stage or in the studio. In particular, there is an art to the hours leading up to one of the most important moments in a dancer’s life – her arangetram, when she ascends the stage for the first time as a solo performer.


There is a simplicity involved in dance, which is often masked by the long hours of makeup and the intricacies of the Bharatanatyam costume. But even the hours spent in makeup application are precious to a dancer. They make the actual art of dancing come alive. First, comes the pancake foundation. Then, the blusher. Applied properly, they lend a glow to the dancer’s face, a glow only enhanced by the dancer’s pride in her dance. Next, the eyeshadow. Thick swathes of forest green, teal, and purplish-grey balance the earthy tones of the natural eyelid. Atop the blend of colours is applied the eyeliner. Luxurious and long strokes enhance the shape and expressivity of the eyes, the feature most important in emoting abhinaya, or expression. A red dot, the bindi, is placed directly in the centre of the forehead, between the eyebrows, and tiny white lines are drawn with a steady hand to radiate outward from this red core. It centres the dancer, makes her centralise her power and her concentration in preparation of the dance. Alta, that crimson powder, is used to delicately rouge the fingertips and outline the dancer’s slender feet; this enhances the power of her mudras and taalam, and draws the audience’s attention to the meticulous detail that she has laced into every beat of the dance.


Next, the draping of the Bharatanatyam costume. Five pieces of shimmering silk cloth are brought before the dancer – the pant with its pleats and hooks, the blouse, the angavastram, the seat, and the fan. They are worn in this order, a ritual of sorts for the dancer. Over the waist is tied a golden Lakshmi belt, shining in the bright lights and drawing attention to the slender body of the dancer. The costume defines the dancer in many ways: in the way it wraps around the body, in the way it catches the light and gleams in shades of gold. Golds and deep pinks and reds and blues and greens, these are the swirling colours of the stage. The dancer paints the stage and the minds of the audience with the brilliance of her garment. In the art of draping, in every safety pin, there is an echo of steadiness, of a dedication towards the art form. This manifests on the stage as the dancer, attired in silks, takes her place.

Once the dress is secured, the dancer bends to tie on her ghungroos, or ankle bells. These bells are secured on rows of strings, with nearly one hundred bells wrapped around each delicate ankle. The weight is comforting, and the chham chham of the bells reminds the dancer of her impending transcendence. Tying the bells requires concentration; too tight, and her circulation will be cut off, too loose, and the bells will slither to the floor at the first adavu. If the bells overlap one another, they will gouge into her soft skin, leaving behind scars to mark her forgetfulness. She must give each bell its due space for them to function as a seamless unit. When she takes a step, the chiming sound sends a thrill into her heart. She is now ready to ascend the stage.

The stage is adorned with flowers, the idol of Lord Shiva, the Lord of Dance, and Lord Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles, gracing one side of the platform. On the other side sits her guru, her hands holding the brass nattuvangam, her lips forming a graceful smile. She nods slightly at the dancer, who takes her salutation. She salutes the Lord, her audience, and the stage, and asks them for their blessings. This brings energy into her bones and muscles, floods her soul with the will to perform this dance of fire. Her fingertips press lightly against her eyes as she prays, grounding her senses, uniting her body, mind, and soul.


And then she loses herself to her dance.



2 thoughts on “The Dance of Fire

  1. hey! is that you performing? i really loved the look and this is really intriguing! like the artform! i’ve never seen one, but i’ll! loved reading you!


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