Leaping onto the stage in purple and blue silks, Anika Kavalla, from Abington, danced to the demanding beat of Hindu music for nearly three hours. Last October, the 16-year-old made her debut in front of 200 guests at Abington High School, where she is a student. Her performance highlighted aspects of history and dance in India and ended with a vegetarian feast. It was her professional diploma in the art of Bharatanatyam – classical Hindu dance – which she had been practicing daily since the age of 6.
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At the private event, her close non-Indian friends wore traditional Indian clothing (lehenga) in green, yellow, pink and blue. Wanting them to feel part of her culture, Anika said, “I lent them my dresses and taught them how to tie them, and they were thrilled. It is important to teach others about my culture.
The word “arangetrum” means first performance, which was Anika’s debut on stage. Unlike typical diplomas from dance programs, arrangetram is not automatic, nor is it a common rite of passage. The teacher decides when the student is ready, if at all. Anika’s dance guru, Hemalatha Vaidyanaythan, of Seattle, felt the time was right after 11 years of practice and study, much of it over Skype, and later, over Zoom.
Four world-class singers and musicians came from out of state to create Carnatic music, the fast and mesmerizing South Indian melodies on fiddle, drums and cymbals that Anika danced to. Just like professional ballet, stamina and athleticism are required in Hindu classical dance. It takes years to master even the subtle hand gestures and eye movements essential to telling Hindu mythology through dance.
Anika’s 72-year-old grandmother came from India and had to self-isolate in Dubai for two weeks to comply with pandemic protocols. Fortunately, Suvarnakala Yedla arrived two days before her granddaughter’s show.
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“Even when she was in India, I called her every day after school and she would wait until 1am in India to talk to me,” Anika said.
It was a year ahead, complicated arrangements made by his father Raju Kavalla, an engineer at Boston Scientific.
“It was like planning an Indian wedding,” Kavalla said with a laugh.
When his daughter was 5, he enrolled her in ballet, Indian dance and piano lessons so she could try different things, and at 6 Anika chose Bharantanatyam. “You could see the joy in her eyes. It was a treat to watch even when she was starting out and I was amazed at how easily she picked up the nuances,” he said.
For 11 years of study and practice, Anika would get up an hour before school to log on to Skype or Zoom to practice with her teacher. Anika could spend four to five hours a day training. It was often frustrating, tiring and inconvenient, but her father encouraged her, believing in her talent.
“My dad was a big part of me,” Anika said.
Over the years, her devotion to Indian dance took on more meaning.
“It’s like a prayer. In my case, I associate my dance with my religion, my way of paying homage to Hinduism. Dance became my therapy for what was going on in my life. It allowed me to focus,” said Anika.
Almost 17 years old, Anika is interested in pre-medicine and looking towards colleges. But she also gives Hindu dance lessons. Her first student is 8 years old and is learning through Zoom lessons from India. Although it’s best to start young, the process is open to everyone and you don’t have to be Indian to learn the art.
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“I have a Caucasian friend in Connecticut who takes it for her spirituality,” she said.
Diversity, educating others about her culture and appreciating her heritage are important to her, Anika said.
“I feel like I live in the middle of things, being Native American. Like the differences between my cousins in India and me here. I’m much more American, so I stick with the dance so I don’t lose my identity.
Interested in taking lessons? Email Anika Kavalla: [email protected]
Milton resident Suzette Martinez Standring writes Bright Side, a good news column with information about the South Shore and the people who live there. If you have an idea for a future column, contact her at [email protected] Also, visit www.readsuzette.com.
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