Taking Bharatanatyam to the Americans
Naveena Vijayan, The New Indian Express
January 4, 2015
Original article

CHENNAI: For US-based bharathanatyam dancer mother-daughter duo Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, performing for a crowd of Americans, even those who have no idea about the Indian tradition, has never been difficult. The disciples of veteran dancer Alarmel Valli package their performance in a way that is understandable for a layman — with talks before and after, and visual projections weaved into the dance — while keeping the form, technique, vigour and aesthetics of the dance untouched.

The duo is in the city for the performance ‘Sacred Earth’, a production by the Ragamala Dance Company started by them 22 years ago, as part of the Margazhi season. While the dance production has been performed in over 30 venues in the US, this is the first time they are bringing it to India. “The concept of the dance is about connecting with the earth. While there is a lot of talk going on about going organic and local, we should realise that it has been a part of our culture forever. It is very important for us to show this to the people in the US,” says Aparna. She quotes examples of kolam, as a way of giving back to the earth, and the Warli paintings, a tribal art form, which conveys the unity between humans and nature.

“For this production, we have taken four landscapes from Sangam poetry, which talk about the idea of this harmonious relationship. While the verses would be in Tamil, we have English translations of it weaved in. We also had a Warli artist staying with us in Minneapolis for a month, translating the meaning of the verses into life-size paintings. The photographs of these paintings were projected in the background as part of the show,” says Aparna.

The whole process — right from the conception of the idea— took the team a year and a half.

“Our aim is to convey the depth and beauty of an art form like bharathanatyam in a way people can understand and grab, and realise how relevant it can be to the present times,” says Ranee.

While a lot of research including talking to US-based experts in Indian literature went into the production, in case of any hiccups in the techniques of dance, they had their guiding light their guru Alarmel Valli. “She has moulded and shaped me into what I am today. It has been a life-changing experience to be learning from her,” says Aparna, who started training under her when she was eight years old.

Ranee recalls, “It was in 1984, when we first saw her perform in Minneapolis. I was so blown away by her dance that I asked her if she could teach us both. Aparna was a kid and I was 30 then. She agreed, and since then, we have been visiting India for four months every year to observe and learn from her.”

Ragamala Dance Company will be performing Sacred Earth at 7 pm at Krishna Gana Sabha, today.