Dance Company Ragamala Elevates Snakes and Ladders to Spiritual Heights
Celia Wren, The Washington Post
Nov 1, 2018
Hear the phrase “board-game-inspired movement” and you might think of a flourish with a chess piece, or a jubilant reach to place a Scrabble tile on a triple-word-score square. But the Ragamala Dance Company had more substantial physicality in mind for “Written in Water”: The sensory-rich, idea-steeped work, which will be performed at the Kennedy Center this weekend, reflects, in part, a historical Indian version of the game Snakes and Ladders.
“Written in Water,” choreographed by co-artistic directors (and mother and daughter) Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, riffs on the conceptual and philosophical framework of Paramapadam, an Indian game whose players risk serpentine plunges while trying to ascend to a board’s winning squares. Ranee and Aparna will be among the five dancers in the roughly hour-long work, which showcases the classical Indian dance style Bharatanatyam.
During “Written in Water,” illustrated-grid projections on the stage sometimes make the dancers appear to be pieces on a Paramapadam board. The illusion is infused with meaning, because the Indian snakes-and-ladders game — of which Paramapadam is one version — incorporates a morality-tale dynamic: The board’s upper squares symbolize spiritual enlightenment and union with the divine, while the lower squares correspond to vices and spiritual degradation. Ascending ladders and downward-propelling snakes provide shortcuts.
The Indian game has existed in various religious and regional variants over the centuries. The pastime traveled to England during the British Raj, eventually evolving to become the secular entertainment (a.k.a. Chutes and Ladders) many of us played as youngsters. (Before each “Written in Water” performance, you can play Paramapadam in the Kennedy Center atrium.)
Ranee Ramaswamy, who grew up in Chennai, in southern India, learned to play Paramapadam as a child. Raised in the Hindu tradition, she knew the game as a particularly popular diversion during religious festivals, with children and adults playing together. One version of the game board referenced the god Vishnu; another, the god Shiva. “Playing the game, we also learned about our own mythological stories,” Ranee said by phone from Minneapolis, where the dance company is based.
Aparna said that when she and her mother began mulling a dance based on Paramapadam, the idea seemed accessible and “rich with possibilities.” The game’s spiritual-journey framework made them think of other cultural lenses on mystical experience, such as a Hindu story about the churning of the cosmic ocean and the 12th-century Persian Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds,” about an avian search for an elusive monarch. Both narratives became additional thematic springboards for “Written in Water,” which exemplifies the Ragamala Dance practice of treating Bharatanatyam, in Aparna’s words, as an art form that is “alive and contemporary and growing.”
The resonance of “Conference of the Birds” prompted the Ramaswamys to contact Iraqi American jazz artist Amir ElSaffar, who, in addition to playing the trumpet and santur (a hammered dulcimer), is adept in Maqam, a classical vocal tradition that draws on musical traditions from Iraq’s neighbors, as well as traditions within Iraq. He wrote parts of the “Written in Water” score, and he leads an ensemble providing live accompaniment for “Written in Water” performances. (India-based composer Prema Ramamurthy composed other sections, consisting of southern Indian music.)
Folding Maqam and Persian literature into “Written in Water” might seem a bold move in an era leery of cultural appropriation. But Ranee Ramaswamy says the company took pains to make the work’s multicultural strands knowledgeable, respectful and “correct.”
Besides, she says, “cultures have some commonality. And if we hold on to that, we can make magic.”