RAGAMALA IN TIMES OF INDIA

Giving Bharatanatyam a Global Stage
Arpita Bose, Times of India
January 4, 2015
Original article

Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy have been working to promote awareness on the traditional dance form in the US for two decades.

There are many artists credited with putting Bharatana tyam on the global map, but the work of Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy stands out. The mother and daughter have been spreading awareness about the traditional art form in the US, carving a niche on the cultural scene there, with Ranee being appointed member of the National Council on Arts by US President Barack Obama in 2013.

Tapping into the cultural melting pot that is America, the two, through their dance company Ragamala, have been performing and educating people about Bharatanatyam for the past 22 years.“The definition of `American' is not one ethnic kind of culture; the immigrants are very much part of what it is to be American. The art forms that each of the communities bring contribute to that culture, and as we see it, Bharatanatyam too is part of it,“ says Aparna, who will be performing with her group at Krishna Gana Sabha on Saturday.

The seamless partnership of the mother and daughter started in 1984, when Alarmel Valli performed in Minnesota. Awestruck by her performance, they asked her to be their guru.Thus began the annual tryst with Chennai where the family would come down for four months to train. Though Ranee had quit dancing at 17, when she got married and left Chennai for the US, dance was her passion and her elder daughter shared it.They became companions while attending Valli's classes, exchanging notes and practising till they got every movement right. Later, her younger daughter Ashwini joined the team.

True to its cross-cultural quality , the group comprises Ranee, her daughters and two Americans who have been part of the group for more than a decade.The strong classical tutelage meant the Ramaswamys stuck to the traditional approach to Bharatanatyam, but since they were aware of the needs of the foreign audience they created a sub-genre, combining a contemporary Western aesthetic with an Indian ethos. Through the years they have collaborated with a poet, jazz musician, a group from Indonesia and are exploring visual media in their new production `Sacred Earth'.

“Non-Indians today are sensitive to the dance form.They want to go beyond the technicalities and delve into its history and nuances. To give them a fresh perspective, we are packaging it in a way they can appreciate and understand. `Sacred Earth' deals with topical issues of sustainability and conservation of nature, subjects which were always in the Indian consciousness,“ says Ranee.

`Sacred Earth' uses the visual arts of kolam and Warli painting, which people practise every day to find their link with the divine.

“Both, done with rice flour, show the harmony and balance with the natural elements. It also stands for the ephemeral quality of life. As the textual base, we have used Sangam poetry which brings to life natural landscapes representing human emotions. It is a love story about humans and nature,“ says Aparna, who has used Carnatic music for the piece but interwoven it with the English translation.