Bharatanatyam, the 2000 year old classical dance tradition from India, has been a lifelong love and creative practice for Ragamala Dance Company’s founder, Ranee Ramaswamy and her daughter, Aparna (co-artistic director, Ragamala). They, along with Ranee’s younger daughter Ashwini (Choreographic Associate, Ragamala) are shishyas (students) of acclaimed Bharatnatyam dancer and choreographer, Alarmel Valli (Padma Bhushan, Padmashri).
“I am still learning; I will always be a student. It was only during COVID that I realized what Abhinaya (expression) truly was”.
I spoke with Ranee in anticipation of Ragamala’s, Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim, opening in February at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts, Seattle. Excerpts of our conversation.
Savita Krishnamoorthy: Your arts practice is rooted in Bharatanatyam, the classical dance tradition from India. There is a distinct interdisciplinary lens in your approach where you are embedded in tradition but embrace an integration of Eastern and Western aesthetics, of the ancient and the contemporary. How has this shaped the vast body of work over the years?
Ranee Ramaswamy: Our interdisciplinary approach provides different entry points and access to our work. We have live music, we have visuals. For example, when we did Sacred Earth, we brought an indigenous Warli artist from India. We talked to him about Sangam poetry, he painted the five landscapes that we presented on stage, and we danced amidst those beautiful paintings. Sangam poetry is ancient, and it says that man and nature are one, and how humans and nature should be one. And it’s wonderful to collaborate with other artists, right? We did a work called Written in Water, which was all done on top of the Indian board game, Paramapadham, (the precursor to Snakes and Ladders). I asked Chennai (India) based artist V.
Keshav if he would paint this board game for us. We had the stories projected on the side [of the stage] and on the floor, and we would dance around it and not step on the paintings. We also layered this with Conference of the Birds, the Sufi text, where 30 birds are flying to search for their leaders across different landscapes.
We cannot do this without musical influences. We collaborated with Amir ElSaffar, a Muqam
singer from Iraq, living in New York, who sang with our Carnatic vocalist. Amir ElSaffar also
played the trumpet, and he brought this all together. In Fires of Varanasi, our lighting and sets are designed by Willy Cessa, who comes from France. We never dance on a white stage, but everything [here] is white, and the lights play an amazing role in making all the shadows and the [illusion of] water on stage. When you dance a story for an hour not everybody is going to focus on just the dance or just the music. However, it gives them an entry point to enjoy the evening.
SK: What are the stories and themes that you’ve explored in your work and how do they all interweave and connect?
RR: One thing that we always carry throughout our shows is spirituality. Everything is based on spirituality. We did a show called 1001 Buddhas: Journey of the Gods inspired by the Sanjusangendo temple in Kyoto, Japan. They have these 1,001 Buddhist figures, and the guardians of the Buddha were all Hindu gods – Shiva, Lakshmi, Garuda, [who] have become over the years, guardians of the Buddha. We don’t do dance dramas. [The subject] is explored through poetry and movement. We don’t explain stories. It’s all in the program notes.
SK: You are coming to Seattle in February for Fires of Varanasi. Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim, a site-specific show where the audience is encouraged to, “imagine a metaphorical crossing place that enters into the world of immortality, expanding upon the birth-death-rebirth continuum in Hindu thought to honor immigrant experiences of life and death in the diaspora”. I would love to get your insights about the conceptual vison for the show; a philosophical construct of Hindu thought and the divine intersecting with one’s lived life experiences.
RR: We are all immigrants. We all come with traditions and beliefs, whether it be birth, death, marriage. All this happened when my father passed away here. He was cremated in the US, but I knew what my dad wanted [because] he was steeped into his Hindu belief. And it made me think about that deep, belief system that we have in India about dying in Varanasi. The belief that if I go and die there, maybe my next birth can be better. So, my father’s ashes were taken [to Varanasi].
And I saw the fires, the funeral pyres, and simultaneously other celebrations going on. We have celebrated the spirituality of Varanasi, the spirituality of Ganges, which is liquid Shakti, where you don’t just sprinkle the water, you soak in it and show its mythological beginnings. What is the story of the Ganges? Where does the Ganges come from? We have told all these stories as we pass through the city of Varanasi, and we end in the center where Shiva resides.
Our ancestors imagined a world in which the five elements of the natural world connect with the five elements of the body to be obliterated in the sacred fire. We have tried to embody these habitual practices that stem from a mythic memory. We abstracted it and [incorporated] it into our performance. We want the audience to think about this idea of the transformation from life to death.
SK: You explain it so beautifully, about how important it was for you to have a site-specific show situated in Varanasi, where the past and the present mingle.
RR: Yes. Varanasi is a city where the past, present, and future co-mingle within a single space.
The residing deity of Varanasi is Shiva, and his dance transforms the desolation of the cremation ground into a wondrous experience of bhakti, devotion. This implies the principle of transcendence and a greater acceptance of the idea of death as inevitable in life. We dance through the city of Varanasi, a place where Kabir was born in a Muslim weaver family and wrote philosophical poems. Varanasi is near where Buddha preached his sermons in Sanchi. The city and our performance reflect all this.
SK: What do you hope the audience takes away with them when they come and see your performance?
RR: Bharatanatyam is a language where you can create anything, where choreographers take this amazing vocabulary to make their own poetry. You can see a beautiful dance style, the high quality of our work, the amount of collaborative effort, the visuals that we have created for the stage, the movements, and the deeply moving music. Every aspect [of our production] is deeply researched. I think people in Seattle will take back spirituality and love [for the dance] in their heart with them.
Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy’s Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim
February 9 – 11, 2023
Meany Center for the Performing Arts – Katharyn Alvord Gerlich Theater
email: [email protected]
For more info on Ragamala Dance Company: https://www.ragamaladance.org/