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N. Laurel sisters master ancient spiritual art form

THROUGH THEIR shared love of dance, sisters Maansi and Raadha Raswant have found a way to connect with the spiritual and cultural roots of their ancestors in the midst of their typical teen-age American lives.

After a decade of studying a classical Indian dance style called Bharatha Natyam, the North Laurel sisters invited friends and family to a late-summer graduation performance Sunday at Smith Theatre at Howard Community College in Columbia.

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The arangetram, or graduation, was a traditional celebration of mastering an art form precious to their culture. "It feels that much more special because it's my heritage, and it's so ancient," said Maansi, 18.

Bharatha Natyam is a mixture of Hindu temple dances and Indian folktales, dating back 2,000 years. Through the dances, the teens learned about the gods and goddesses who are part of their religion. For Raadha, 15, Bharatha Natyam made learning about Hinduism more fun.

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Both sisters started dancing when they were about 3 years old. Maansi couldn't resist the music that she heard at a relative's wedding. Raadha jumped onto stage upon seeing her sister dance at a festival at their temple.

At first, their mother taught them Indian folk dancing at home. Later, they settled into studying the classical dancing that is typical of southern India and trained at the Jayamangala School of Dance and Music in Greenbelt, under the tutelage of Shobha Subramanian. In recent years, they have performed at festivals and multicultural performances around Washington, including at the Kennedy Center and the Watergate Hotel. Dancing lessons were squeezed into numerous other extracurricular activities that they enjoy.

Raadha, a sophomore at Reservoir High School, plays the flute and is in the color guard for the marching band. As a freshman, she played on the girls basketball team in the winter and ran track in the spring. She also began assisting Subramanian with a class of younger students.

Maansi, who graduated from Atholton High School in the spring, designed costumes for the school's drama department, competed on the math team and worked on the literary magazine. She also led Atholton's student multicultural club. Last school year, she coordinated the first multicultural show for high school students throughout Howard County. She is a freshman at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is majoring in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in neuroscience.

For their arangetram, Maansi and Raadha performed nine dances together and did one solo each. They wore silk garments - Maansi wore turquoise and red and Raadha donned purple and white - that were trimmed in gold. Bands of gold circled their waists and heads. Golden earrings and nose rings flashed in the spotlight as they moved to rhythmic beats of the Indian drums and exotic melodies on the violin. Anklet bells jingled with each step of the more than 100 footwork patterns, as the sisters stamped their bare feet, heel to toe.

With tiny circles of red painted on their fingertips and palms, their hands twisted so rapidly that they resembled the fluttering fans in royal courts of long ago. Bharatha Natyam has 28 basic single hand gestures, each with a technical name and meaning.

The songs were written in Sanskrit (an archaic language of India), Tamil (a southern Indian dialect), Hindi and one contemporary piece in English. Bharatha Natyam is made up of two kinds of dances, known as pure and expressive. Pure dance captures the aesthetic pleasure of the music. Expressive dance tells stories, often of the interplay between the Hindu gods and their human worshippers.

The dances show the nine human sentiments of love, valor, sadness, surprise, laughter, anger, fear, disgust and peace, and rely heavily on head and eyebrow movements. Intense concentration was required. Breaking it for just a moment meant the loss of the sisters' fascinating synchronization.

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Raadha and Maansi danced for two hours, catching their breath for moments between dances as the narrator, an aunt, explained the meanings of the songs. One 10-minute intermission granted them a slight rest, especially because it followed a 25-minute varnum, a centerpiece selection showcasing all of Bharatha Natyam's elements. That dance alone seemed to require the stamina of a world-class athlete.

"Your whole spirit is in it," said Subramanian, who also sang the songs, with her mother. "It's not just a performance, but an experience."

More than 200 people attended the event, with relatives traveling from California and Texas. Teachers, friends and teammates from their schools mingled with the cousins, aunts and uncles dressed in colorful saris and embroidered Punjabi-styled pants and tunics.

After the performance, the guests were invited to a buffet dinner. With musicians and singers, a lighting and sound technician, makeup, caterers, decorations and professionally printed multicolored invitations, the elaborate plans rivaled the details and coordination required for a traditional wedding.

"Everything but the groom and the in-laws," quipped the girls' mother, Sangeeta Raswant.

"It's good practice," Raadha said, laughing.


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