Ragamala Dance Company just celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, and now, in February, the dance troupe brings its show Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim to Seattle’s Meany Center for the Performing Arts.
Choreographed by Artistic Directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, who are also mother and daughter, along with Choreographic Associate Ashwini Ramaswamy, Fires of Varanasi is intended to inspire deep reflection. “The interconnectedness between life and death is central to Hindu thought,” Ranee said. “In Hinduism, death is not a final ending, but part of a cycle of birth-death-rebirth, until the soul is ready to ascend into ultimate salvation.”
Ranee says that she founded Ragamala Dance Company in Minneapolis thirty years ago in order to seek recognition for Indian dance and culture in the United States. “The work that I have been doing with Aparna for decades, and more recently with Ashwini, is vital because it transplants and nurtures a living history that we are forging outside of our Indian homeland,” Ranee shared. “Our lives as Americans and the home from which we migrated has been respectfully, artistically, and aesthetically intertwined in our work.”
The company’s name stems from their first production in 1992, called Ragamala: A Painting in Motion, where the word Ragamala means garland of melodies. “It was a multidisciplinary performance that was based on Ragamala paintings, which are illustrative paintings from North India,” Ranee recounted. “Every day in India, people string together garlands of flowers as offerings to the gods, hoping the deities will vanquish the darkness and fill their life with radiance and meaning.”
She asserts that Ragamala continues to represent the creative process of the dancers and choreographers. “Our work weaves together artistic and cultural practices from past generations to find new values within our current circumstances,” she said. “The garland represents a collaborative ethos that unites the synergies between people, forming a language that speaks across time and culture.”
In 2002, Aparna joined Ranee as co-Artistic Director. “She brought a bold new vision for what our culturally rooted work could be,” Ranee said of her daughter. “She mined the artistic, philosophical, and intellectual depths of our form, pushed each company member to hone their craft, and drove Ragamala to a level of excellence that inspired curators and commissioners nationwide to nurture our vision.”
Aparna reciprocates these views. “What I learned from my mother are my guiding values, to always approach your art with depth and discipline, and always communicate and advocate with truth,” Aparna said. “Ranee has always done that, and I have learned that from her.”
Through her work, Aparna explores what she deems to be the timeless resonance of ancient philosophies, mythologies, and folklore. “Ancient stories and beliefs form India’s spiritual and philosophical foundations, and they have a deep meaning and relevance that will outlast us all,” Aparna relayed. “Through the ages, human nature has not changed, but the way we shape our current narratives and circumstances around the threads of the past is fascinating to explore.”
More recently, Ranee’s daughter and Aparna’s sister Ashwini joined Ragamala to pursue her education as Choreographic Associate. “Growing up with these two incredibly strong role models was very inspirational as well as challenging,” Ashwini said. “As Choreographic Associate, I assist Ranee and Aparna on the creation and development of new work and observe their process so that I can learn more about their approach, assisting in research, writing, working through ideas, rehearsal scheduling, grant proposals, experimenting in the studio, communicating with presenting organizations, funders, donors, and more.”
Ashwini’s return to dance in 2007 followed a hiatus to explore other interests. “As long as I can remember, their mission has been to introduce new audiences to Bharatanatyam, expand its visibility, and make the form a part of the canon of American contemporary dance,” Ashwini said. “I realized how much I had learned through this art form, and how much more I could learn and give back by recommitting to my craft.”
In 2013, Ashwini also began creating her own choreography. “Like a phantom limb, my Indian ancestry lingers with me, informing my artistic work and daily interactions,” she said. “My upbringing in both India and the U.S. has encouraged an aesthetic perspective with a hybrid compass.”
Following Fires of Varanasi, Aparna and Ashwini plan to team up to choreograph a new piece. “I will be taking on the bulk of the choreographic work, and she will co-choreograph sections with me,” Aparna said. “This is the first time in our careers that we will be working together on such a project.”
But that’s not all, as the trio will collaborate on a larger work for 2024. “It is called Children of Dharma, and in it we explore what it is to be human,” Aparna said. “Drawing from the Indian epic, The Mahabharata, and finding parallels in Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, Picasso’s The Weeping Woman, and Gustav Mahler’s, Songs on the Death of Children, we create three characters, Love, Death and Time, through whom we see how moral virtues exists alongside of moral failing.”
Ranee is enthusiastic for these new works with her daughters. “All of our works are rooted in Indian spirituality, philosophy, and ritual,” she said. “we have always believed in our vision for this form, and will continue our steadfast commitment to sharing intercultural and immigrant narratives that evoke a universal sense of humanity.”
Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim runs from February 9 to 11 at the University of Washington Meany Center for the Performing Arts, University of Washington.