The Puberty Ceremony

Yes, you read it right. This blog is titled The Puberty Ceremony. All my Tamil friends will know exactly what I am going to be talking about; but for my non-Tamil friends, let me explain.

In the Tamil culture, when a girl has her first period, it is celebrated greatly. All the relatives are informed of it, regardless of whether they are male or female. Families come over to the house to meet the girl. She is presented with gifts. She is given special types of food. She wears a saree for the first time. The priest is also called to the house to conduct rituals to bless the girl with happiness and fertility.

Why?!…I hear you thinking. Well this whole ritual or celebration, whichever you want to call it, dates back  centuries ago. According to the Tamil culture, the purpose of the ‘puberty ceremony’ was for the girl’s family to show to the rest of the community that their daughter was now ready for marriage: her period marks her fertility and her ability to produce children, which was considered the main role of the girl/woman in marriage centuries ago. Now, however, social views have changed so much that every young girl and boy questions the purpose of such a ceremony, which according to them holds very little value and has very little meaning.

Yes, my parents held a puberty ceremony for me as well. Retrospectively, I can be certain that it was a very awkward experience indeed. First part of the ceremony involved me wearing a ‘pattu’ skirt and blouse (traditional Tamil attire, girls wear for cultural/religious occasions); I had to sit down holding betel leaves in both my hands, whilst aunts and uncles stylishly dabbed some cold milk and grass on my head – reasons for which I honestly do not know. Then I was asked to sit in bath tub filled with dirty water; one by one, my aunts and uncles stood in a queue and took it in turns to pour some of this dirty water onto my head – reasons for which, again, I do not know. After this, I was asked to get changed into a half saree and sit in front of a priest whilst he chanted a series of mantras about being blessed with good health and fertility. The final part of the ceremony involved me standing in front of 150 or so family members whilst aunties came in pairs and ‘blessed’ me with trays of various food items – again, reasons for which I still do not know.

What I find most baffling is that there is so much to these rituals, and I can be certain that each element of it is very significant. However, whenever I asked my parents or my aunts and uncles, they seem to have no clue, hence I do not have any idea either. So here comes my first question, why conduct such rituals or get children to sit through such rituals when the parents know very little themselves. What I find even more entertaining is the fact ‘puberty ceremonies’ nowadays, are so grand and elaborate; some families take months of planning and spend heap loads of money for a ceremony which they do not fully understand the real meaning of themselves.

So at a time when I was feeling very sceptical about the purpose of such ceremonies, my friend posted a Buzzfeed article onto our Whatsapp group about how ‘period parties’ are actually becoming a thing amongst loads of families from different cultural groups. It made me look at such celebrations with a very different angle. The reasons for such popularity is apparently because it enables a girl to feel proud of menstruation. Since reading that I came to realise that I am not against the idea of a puberty ceremony; especially in this day and age, because it actually encourages girls to be more open about their periods and gives them more freedom in that sense. It also enables boys to be just as aware about these important issues associated with the woman’s body, which is crucial.

What does however frustrate me is when such rituals are conducted to prove a point to other families by using the excuse of ‘Oh it’s a huge part of our culture’. Well, if it is such a huge part of our culture, why is it that 10 years on, since my own ceremony, I still have no clue about the true meaning behind all those rituals?

Food for thought!

Be Mindful

I am a bookworm. I always have been and by the looks of it, I always will be.

I have enjoyed reading all kinds of fiction books, with a particular love for genres such as romance and adventure. However, over the past 6 months, my taste in books has changed quite drastically.

As I have mentioned in my previous blog about ‘Spirituality and the Arts’, my views about life have changed a lot. I have become more of a spiritual thinker. However, at the beginning of last year, although I was going around claiming that I was becoming spiritual, I came to realise that I did not actually understand what it meant. Therefore, I put my ignorance to the side and starting engaging in spiritual texts more and more – all of which have brought me to write this blog.

Reading books about spiritual thinking, awakening and mindfulness can be quite intense and deep. To fully understand the meaning behind each text, I could not merely read it and take it at face value. I had to analyse, interpret and question it. Only then would I have been able to apply it to my own life and gain the courage to make changes: changes which should not only be beneficial to me, but also to those around me.

A few months into my true discovery of what spiritual thinking and living was all about, a friend of mine gifted me ‘The Pocket Book of Mindfulness’ for my birthday last September. When she gave it to me, she said that she hoped each quote made me think deeper about spirituality and life. Therefore, this blog post is going to do exactly that by looking at my three favourite quotes.

 

‘Most of us take for granted that time flies, meaning that it passes too quickly. But in the mindful state, time doesn’t really pass at all. There is only a single instant of time that keeps renewing itself over and over with infinite variety.’ (Deepak Chopra)

Time never fails to baffle me. Being the ardent Doctor Who fan that I am, time is a concept which I have always tried to decipher but failed miserably. We, as human beings, have tried to define time in numerous ways: numbers, equations, dimensions. I have truthfully tried my best to understand it, but it does just go beyond me. Nonetheless, if there is one thing I am certain of, it is the here and now. This exact moment is the one which counts.

We are living in a world which is so driven by the future. For example, as a student, I am forced to think in a way that is all about passing exams and getting through university. Yes of course this is crucial – I mean how else would I get my degree?! At the same time however, it becomes easy to forget to enjoy that journey. Yes university has been stressful so far and I can guarantee that it will be stressful if I have the current mind-set that I do. I have realised that every time I begin to stress about the burden of exams, I need to take a moment to breathe and look at what I am studying at this point in time. Take it in and appreciate how fortunate I am to be studying the content that I am. This way, I will love studying and revising that much more. This love and passion for my education is what will get me through my last two years of university (hopefully!): all of which begins now.

So what is the Time? It is the Now.

 

‘The thoughts we choose to think are the tools we use to paint the canvas of our lives.’ (Louise Hay)

If your thoughts are positive, your life is positive. If your thoughts are negative, your life is negative. It is that simple.

I have come across and heard of many individuals whose whole lives are unfortunately defined by jealousy, anger and lies. I have experienced all these traits which have made my life extremely difficult. That moment, I recognised these negative traits of mine and started making changes. It was after these changes that I began to notice how my mind started to fill with nothing less than positivity.

I realised that the positive energy I was putting into my life was exactly what life was giving back to me – happiness in every single shape and form. I did still face many difficulties, and even now, I am facing several difficulties – but it is all in the mind. Positive thinking will hardly ever cloud your judgement; if anything, it will make you think clearer and deal with difficulties in a manner which will ultimately benefit everyone.

 

‘In a true you-and-I relationship we are present mindfully, non-intrusively, we are present with things in nature. We do not tell a birch tree it should be more like an elm. We face it with no agenda, only an appreciation…’ (David Richo)

Expectations can be the cause of many problems. This, I believe, is particularly the case in relationships – whatever kind it may be: familial, friendships, romantic or work-place.

The most beautiful thing about every individual is the fact that they are different. I have come to cherish the fact that I am different, I am unique, I am me. I will never let anyone’s expectations change the person I have grown to become. Therefore, when I look at someone I appreciate them for their individuality. If it does not fit with my way of thinking, then fine. I keep my distance. Never do I want to be a person who robs another of that element which makes them the person they are.

I feel that expectations arise from our nature to compare ourselves and our relationships to those around us. The moment you start comparing an individual to another, you are indirectly telling them that they are not good enough and that is worst thing anyone could do to another.

Love an individual for who they are and not who you want them to be. That is the purest and truest forms of love.

 

Our minds are unbelievably powerful. The moment we learn to unlock this element of us, we learn to appreciate every little aspect of life. We lead happier, stress-free lives and we radiate that same energy to everyone around us and we start attracting individuals who radiate that same energy as us. Therefore, those around us become that much more important to us and we value their presence in our lives so much more.

Be Mindful. Be Happy. Be you.

A New Venture – @PraveenaUK

It was common belief amongst most people that I enjoyed dancing a lot hence I took part in several dance shows and competitions. This was not enough for me. I wanted everyone to realise dance for me is more than just a hobby, a workout or a social activity. I see it as a culture, language and religion of its own. I find it an extremely powerful tool to communicate with. Every movement should convey an emotion. Every stance should have a reason for existing. Additionally, I wanted dance to give me a professional standing in the same way my education currently is.

This motivation is what pushed me to want to take it a step further and showcase my passion for dance to a wider audience. I was very scared to set up a public Instagram account. The thought of everyone being able to view my work scared me. I felt quite comfortable and safe just being where I was with regards to dance, even though deep down I knew I wanted to do more with it. I knew that with a public account solely for dance anyone and everyone can view my work and critique it. That scared me a lot. However, it was at that point that I realised that as an artist, if I cannot take feedback well then what is the point of me even calling myself one. I toughened myself and told myself that any good comments should be taken to my heart and any feedback should be taken to my brain. This way I would feel driven to push myself, and stay focused about what exactly I wanted to achieve with dance. And with this drive was born PraveenaUK.

Only two individuals knew about this before I started it up and those two were the ones who identified the potential in my dance as more than just being about something I share for personal fulfilment. They believed that everyone should see it and appreciate the work I was doing. Therefore, I can imagine that it must have been a bit of a shock for my family and friends when I did start it up because for them it must have been like it came out of nowhere. No actually, PraveenaUK was born from months of contemplation about what I can actually do with dance other than choreograph, perform and teach.

My thoughts about starting up a blog came to me around a month after I had created my public profile. Why? Because I felt that uploading dance covers alone was not enough. I did not feel like I was making a difference to anyone’s way of thinking about dance. Therefore one evening I sat down with a cup of tea and started writing everything I had on my mind about my relationship with dance, and there it all began. It is important for me say at this point that I will not be blogging about dance alone. No. I will blog about anything which makes me think. However, my drive to build my dance portfolio is what initially got me into it, so I will be blogging about dance quite a lot.

PraveenaUK is about my current journey as a dancer. For me, it is more than just about uploading videos of me dancing; I want my blogs about dance to be just as important. Through videos I can showcase that I can dance. Through writing I can showcase why I am a dancer and what dance means to me. The combination of videos and writing is what is making me fulfil my aim of wanting to show people how empowering the arts actually are. I am working on building a side of me which I was scared to explore. Now that I have begun that journey I feel a lot more at peace with myself. And most importantly I feel driven to carry on.

Therefore on that note, I would like to remind you that if you have a desire to do something new and different. Do it. Do not be scared. If it is successful, brilliant. If it is not so, then no worries; it is an opportunity for you to learn. That is what this journey called Life is about.

#TamilGirlBecomesPunjabi

I was born and brought up in a town where I lived 5 minutes away from the local Gurdwara, my school hosted charity week events such as ‘Strictly Come Bhangra’ and it was a norm to hear Bhangra music being blasted by car drivers and local corner shops.

Yes, basically, I grew up being constantly exposed to the vibrant Punjabi culture.

Bhangra was everyone’s favourite. When it came to school shows, Bhangra would be the chosen dance style to start and end the show. Little did I appreciate the dance style at the time. University changed that for me completely.

During my first year of university, I decided to join the Bhangra Society. I wanted to see what the hype was all about. I feel extremely proud and honoured to say that my first ever dance experience of Bhangra is what has brought me here today – a dancer who wants to try new things, push boundaries of dance and ultimately love it!

I would describe Punjabis as a very strong group of people with a positive community spirit. They represent a cultural group whom are very proud of their origins. By spending the past two and half years immersed in their culture, I have realised the importance of appreciating and being proud of my own Tamil culture to ensure I positively represent Tamil arts.

During my training for The Bhangra Showdown 2016 competition, I realised that me being on the team means that I have a responsibility to represent that culture in the best way possible. I learnt that Bhangra dancers’ biggest asset was the love and passion they showed towards their culture. For me to achieve that, I had to understand their values to the best of my ability.

It was then that I knew that without an appreciation of culture, dance is merely a string of non-expressive steps. Being a great dancer is not about your technique but about the passion you have for it. That passion comes from not only falling in love with the dance style itself, but the history and culture behind it. It is not only about the 5 to 10 minutes of dancing you do on stage, but the knowledge you acquire through the journey of getting to that stage.

#TamilGirlBecomesPunjabi is my very own hashtag which means a lot to me. Don’t take it quite literally! I am honestly too Tamil to ever ‘become Punjabi’. This hashtag of mine represents the importance of discovering yourself as an individual, which ultimately creates an impact on everything that you do. I have decided to be ‘Punjabi’ in the way that I represent my own Tamil-ness through my dance. I have become more appreciative and proud of my roots, just like my Punjabi friends are of theirs, and I love myself for it.

So finally, if there is one thing I would say to all artists out there whether you are a dancer, a singer, a musician or an actor – take time to look at its roots. This enables you to respect, love and live the arts.

Spirituality and the Arts

A very special individual gifted me The Laws of the Spirit World, by Khorshed Bhavnagri, for my birthday a few months ago. Since summer this year my outlook on life has changed a lot. I have started looking at everything with more of a spiritual eye.

Why all of a sudden you may ask? No, it was not all of a sudden at all. Over the past years, with events that have taken place in my life, the struggles I have been through, I started asking the question, why me? Why does everything have to happen to me?

One person, who has now become one of my dearest friends, once told me 3 years ago that ‘Everything happens for a reason’. This marked the beginning of my spiritual awakening. I started coming to terms with my struggles and realised that everything that I have been through since I was a child has been core to my self-improvement. I was able to understand why I went through each of the difficulties that I did, and honestly, I am ever so grateful for it.

Although I had started thinking more and more spiritually, I was never really able to express it to anyone until this summer. I really got to know a person who has made me embrace my spiritual side so much and that person is the one who gave me the above book to read.

It is a very interesting book for sure with some interesting ideals about the so-called ‘Spirit World’. I do not know to what extent I believe in it at this point in time and I am not going to talk about that here. I want to use this space to talk about the spiritual reasoning behind the arts and talents that we as human beings possess and how important it is for us to embrace it to the fullest.

I thought I should approach it differently so what I have done is quoted two very fascinating aspects of the book, and will explore my thoughts about it, in relation to the dance aspects of my life.

  • ‘Gift. You are given a gift, a talent, to see how you use it – for light or darkness.’

I really love how talent is described as a gift. A gift to me signifies a blessing. For me, my ability to dance for example is a nothing less than a blessing from God. All of a sudden the way in which I look at dance has changed. I respect it so much more and I want to make sure that I can present it in the best way possible. It is the least I can do as a way of giving my offerings to God.

In the same way that dance makes me happier and lifts me up when I feel like I am falling, I believe any talent whether it be singing, painting, acting or writing has the power to do the same.

  • ‘Most people with talent focus on using it to earn money and fame, which is not your ultimate purpose. Create something that is a positive contribution to humanity. If you do have the good fortune of being famous, use that as a platform, to spread spiritual knowledge.’

This reminds me of the person who gave me this book to read in the first place, who has recently been using their fame and most importantly their talent to educate people about social issues which exist particularly in our cultural group. This person inspired me to use my ability to dance to do the same: Inspire and educate people; show them what dance can actually do to help one achieve happiness. As a result I started my venture of @praveenauk.

I am hardly famous to comment on what it means to be famous. However, I do want to point out that fame should never be used to define how talented or wise the person is. Yes, the individual is famous for a reason but then what happens to many individuals is that fame boosts their ego negatively and they start losing focus on why they became famous in the first place: that gift. As a result, they lose respect for the arts without them even realising it.

Ultimately fame should be used to help people, educate them, and show them that ‘happiness can be found even in the darkest of places, if only one remembers to turn on the light’ (Yes, I did just quote Dumbledore because this quote is actually brilliant!). Our talent is our light which will not only make us happy but should be used to make those around us happy.

What does this mean for me and dance?

I have always seen dance a mode of communication. I have started using it more and more as a way of expressing my emotions at the time. Now that I have read this book, I have acknowledged that with a spiritual mind-set the arts can be extremely empowering. This is what, not only me, but everyone should do. We should all collectively nurture our talents and then use it to educate our society through the power of arts and ultimately aim to improve humanity.

My Life Through Dance

My parents took me to my cousin’s dance show when I was five years old; seeing her seven-year old self twirling around in a two shade blue skirt and blouse to a classic 90s AR Rahman tune, ‘Chinna Chinna Mazhai Thuli’, was when I decided that I wanted to do the same.

I wanted to wear the same outfit and twirl around to the same song. I wanted to be taught by that same teacher who taught my cousin. So within a month, in line with Vijaya Dasami to mark the celebratory end of Navaratri, my parents took me to my first Bharathanatya dance lesson – and there began a journey which has changed my life forever.

I remember the first year being tedious – a small 5 year old girl, with an obvious waddling gait due to the excess fat around her thighs, was expected to sit in Aramandi (one of the stances in Bharathanatyam) and perform Thattadavu and Nattadavu perfectly (the beginning set of steps to be learnt in Bharathanatyam), without complaining about the worsening muscle pains which were creeping into her legs the longer she held that position.

Yes, it was a struggle. But I fought through because all I had in mind was that desire to dance in that blue skirt. What at the time felt like a distant dream within a year became a near reality. Following the completion of my Grade 1 dance exam seven months after I had started, my Guru (dance teacher) gave the opportunity to perform a simple yet fun folk piece to the ‘Ghanan Ghanan’ song from the Hindi movie Lagaan at a local dance show. I will never deny how incredible that opportunity was. As the youngest and smallest dancer in the group, I felt on top of the world when all eyes were on me – that ‘small girl at the front’. Yes it was amazing.

I remember asking my mum soon after whether I could go earlier to dance class just so I could watch the ‘big girls’ practice. I wanted to be them. I wanted to be the girl who could do all those complicated dances with so much ease. This yearning only grew further when my Guru told my parents to bring me to one of her students’ dance Arangetram (debut solo performance). I was around six or seven years at the time. I knew nothing about an Arangetram. All I remember is flicking through the girl’s Arangetram brochure repetitively, staring at all the postures she had held for the pictures, in her colourful costumes. I came back home and every day I would go into my parents’ room, close the door, and try and imitate those poses in front of the mirror. The number of times my mum walked in to find me in a lopsided posture which at the time I believed I had absolutely nailed! I basically wanted to learn to do those poses. I wanted to be on stage, and most importantly I wanted to have my own Arangetram.

I started focusing myself more and more on dance. My Guru to this day calls me one of her most dedicated students. I have to admit that this was not solely because of me, but because of my parents – my mother in particular who believed in my potential as a dancer and pushed me to reach great heights in dance.

You might be thinking right now, so did I ever manage to dance to ‘Chinna Chinna Mazhai Thuli’? Yes I did, after two years of starting dance lessons, my teacher taught me the routine and put me in a group to perform that song in front of a crowd of 400. I was eight at the time. I walked into my first ever dance lesson with a drive to dance to that particular song, and within two years I got that opportunity. It was then that I started believing in myself as a dancer. I started feeling more and more involved and special as a dancer. I realised that if I could achieve what you might consider to be an insignificant dream, with continued hard work and dedication I had the potential to really start pushing myself. And so with the satisfaction of performing to that song in particular, I took dance more seriously. (Unfortunately the blue skirts were out of fashion at the time I performed; we had a new set of more glamourous costumes, so I was not going to complain!).

Each year I progressed through the grades of Bharathanatyam, whilst also doing several shows where I performed Bharathanatyam, Tamil folk songs and more cinematic numbers. In 2005, when I was 11 years old, my Guru and my mother had a discussion about my arangetram. My Guru was very supportive indeed, but my mother felt I was too young at the time to do it. But they had both agreed that I should have one within the next 2 to 3 years and so they had decided that in 2008 I would be having my Arangetram. With that in mind, towards the end of 2005 I started training by undertaking private lessons. With approximately 3 years of private training, at the age of 14, I had completed my diploma in dance with a distinction and performed my Arangetram – September 2008.

Things started to change massively after this. Like any traditional Tamil family, my family wanted me to show more focus on my studies. Dance became less of priority for them. I had stopped dance lessons completely and sat at home studying – all so I can work towards getting into university – which I am always going to be grateful for however much I complained at the time. Nonetheless, it was during these years that I struggled the most. Having spent nearly all my life dancing, I struggled to cope with the fact that I was not allowed to anymore. I could not carry on that way, and I felt very incomplete. I discussed with my mother the possibility of me completing my Post Diploma in dance and she agreed. So I spent the year after my arangetram preparing my dissertation on ‘Navarasas’ (the nine moods in dance), and continued practising all the dance items I had learnt to date.

My experience of completing that Post Diploma examination was incredible. It made me realise how much of an impact dance has had on me, and particularly Bharathanatyam. It was one of the best examinations I had sat, and the feedback I got from the examiners was something I will always cherish – they said they saw a passion and fire in me for Bharathanatyam that they had never expected to see in a girl born and brought up in England.

However motivating these comments were, I also had my more academic ambitions which I had to focus on, so after that, Bharathanatyam merely became something I taught small children, on a weekly basis. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved teaching and it is something I will definitely do when I’m older but I never felt complete. I always knew something was missing. And that is when university happened!

I got into university and then I really started valuing and realising how much I enjoyed dance! I started appreciating the beauty and complexity of dance even more, having started new styles of dance – Bhangra, Gaana and Bollywood, through which I have had some incredible stage experiences. My relationship with dance during the first two years was somewhat fragmented. After nearly two years of very little dancing, I restarted dance quite abruptly. Intense amounts of classes and training, particularly in Bhangra, led me to suffering from a foot fracture which put me on crutches for nearly a month and stopped me from dancing for nearly 6 months. As a result, I was very apprehensive to start dancing again. But I slowly got back into it in second year with Gaana. In third year I pushed myself further by restarting Bhangra and Bharathanatyam and continued with Gaana. My love for all three dance forms only grew further and I slowly started dipping my feet into Bollywood.

I became my worst critique; I wanted to be a better dancer day-by-day. I am immersed into an environment where I am constantly surrounded by individuals who want to improve as dancers. I started realising that the only thing that keeps me going through the long days at university is the thought that I have dance rehearsals in the evening. Yes I have gradually over the past 4 years at university become a dance-a-holic. My friends call me crazy. Yes I am.

What I have most importantly learnt is that being a dancer, or any artist for that matter, is about being part of an on-going journey of learning and experimenting and creating new things. The arts are limitless – there is never an end-point. I have learnt that boundaries need to be pushed. We need to set newer targets with every piece we choreograph. That is the least respect which can be given to the arts such as dance.

Respect it. Love it. Live it.