In Harris Theater debut, Ragamala Dance shows the metaphor and mythology in a board game — and is pure fun to watch.
Lauren Warnecke, Chicago Tribune
January 12, 2019
Founded in 1992, the Twin Cities-based Ragamala Dance Company made its Harris Theater debut Friday with the company’s 25th anniversary performance “Written in Water.” The hour-long work is a multi-disciplinary Bharatanatyam dance blending cultural traditions from India, Iraq and the United States, in an effort to explore the journey toward self-actualization.
The concept of the piece began with mother-daughter co-artistic directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy using Paramapadam, an ancient Indian board game, as a framework for moving about the stage. Paramapadam is considered the precursor to Snakes and Ladders (later marketed in the West by Milton Bradley as Chutes and Ladders), often played — as Ranee explained in Friday’s post-performance discussion — during religious fasts to teach Hindu mythology and distract from the discomforts of fasting.
In the game, players move their pieces across a board of 100 squares, gaining progress by ascending ladders, or losing ground if a player ends his or her turn on a snake. The metaphor is the journey toward spiritual ascension, with ladders representing the virtues and snakes serving as temptations and vice. Stunning projections form the squares of the game board on the Harris Theater stage — best viewed from further back in the house – while the dancers’ winding floor patterns were developed by playing hundreds of games of Paramapadam in which they were the life-sized pieces set on a game board.
It is due to the influence of daughter Aparna Ramaswamy that Ragamala Dance has more recently turned to ancient texts and philosophy to support its artistic work, and “Written in Water” is deeply layered with Hindu and Sufi allegories, namely the 12th century “Conference of the Birds,” and “Ksheerabthi Madanam,” from Hindu mythology. The latter, translating to “the churning of the seven seas,” aligns with the seven valleys traversed in “The Conference of the Birds.”
In each case, the pinnacle of these journeys is transcendence as one navigates one’s interactions with good and evil, with the hopes of consorting with the divine — further paralleled, though perhaps unintentionally, by the snakes and apples in the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or even Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Whimsical illustrations by cartoonist V. Keshav are projected onto a panel covering the quarter of the stage behind a group of five musicians, tracking with each of the “Conference’s” seven valleys, and it’s the music that really unpacks the congruencies between Indian, Iraqi and American traditions.
Sufi music originating from Persia is, to my knowledge, rarely heard in concert settings such as that of the Harris Theater — Chicago audiences may be more familiar with the sounds of India given the wide variety of Bharatanatyam presented on concert stages here. So what a treat that composers Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy have exquisitely, painstakingly layered Sufi musical modes with Carnatic music originating from Southern India (the birthplace of classical Bharatanatyam). ElSaffar and Ramaurthy took approximately three years to develop a score which blends musical traditions that could take a lifetime to fully comprehend.
Accompanying the five dancers, ElSaffar plays santur, a large dulcimer struck with hammers. He also sings, as does Preethy Mahesh, and Ramanathan Kalairasan plays violin. Additional Carnatic instrumentation includes Rohan Krishnamurthy on mridangam, a percussion instrument sounding similar to tabla, and rhythmic recitations called nattuvangam by Kasi Aysola. Further, to this fascinating combination of musical modes ElSaffar adds the distinctly American sound of trumpet, but improvises within Middle Eastern scales and chords. None of this brilliant melding of cultures feels forced or out of place, as how the evolution of today’s society brings cultures together to harmonize — literally and figuratively.
The dancing is more distinctly Bharatanatyam in look and feel, with the dancers’ movement so crisp and precise that even the tiniest flick of a finger is crystal clear from midway back at the Harris. As the matriarch, Ranee is often smartly placed at the center of the group, flanked by her daughters and dancers Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala.
It may or may not be an important observation that the cast is entirely female, while Keshav’s illustrations of the story are likely to be interpreted as masculine-oriented. I’ve often found the women’s roles in classical Bharatanatyam to be that of the doting wife, or the longing lover. Contemporary Indian dance, however, has sought to radically change this; by these five women dancing as the protagonists in these ancient stories, “Written in Water” feels satisfyingly akin to this trend.
And while even a surface-level understanding of “Written in Water’s” embedded intellectualism deepens one’s appreciation for it, coursework in Hindu and Sufi philosophy aren’t pre-requisites to enjoying this work. What I mean is: “Written in Water” is not so heady that it evades entertainment, and those of us with no knowledge at all about the cultural and philosophical nuances at play can simply sit back and take in a wholly magnificent piece of live art. Like watching a great film in a language you don’t speak, “Written in Water’s” music is toe-tapping, the context clues universal and the visual atmosphere intoxicating, no matter your background.