INTERVIEW WITH ASHWINI RAMASWAMY - AALAAP MAGAZINE

The Do-ers: Celebrating Women Who Do
Aalaap Magazine
A bi-monthly Indian performing arts magazine, with perspectives and point of views on specific subjects by artists and connoisseurs from across the world. 
March 12, 2015
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Do you remember your first day at work? Tell us what you were thinking, how your day went by, and what was running through your mind when you got home that evening?

I have an interesting situation, where my work and family life are interconnected. The Ragamala Dance Company was formed by my mother and sister, Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, when I was 12, and I danced with the company throughout my school years. I took a break after university to work in publicity at Penguin Books in New York City. Later, in 2007 I began working at Ragamala (Dance Company) as the Publicity and Marketing Director as well as a company dancer. So I can’t recall an exact first day because Bharatanatyam has been part of my daily life since I was a young child. But I will say that the administrative side is a constant learning curve — the ways to promote and create visibility for a dance company are always changing. My background was in book publicity, so I use the skills I developed working on books, and adapted them to the field of dance.

What is your typical day like, in office?

No such thing! Every day is different — between the company’s busy touring schedule, meetings, shifting rehearsal schedules (we like to maintain a balance of individual practice and group practice), and teaching, I find that virtually no two days are the same. But on a typical day that we are not on tour, the group or I would practice for two to three hours in the morning, and then I usually do my office work like managing our website, creating emails to send out to our audiences, contacting press about upcoming tours and events etc. After lunch, I may have a meeting or I might continue with office work. I might end the day teaching a dance class, maybe from 5.30-6.30pm. Of course, as dance artistes, we must also find time to read inspiring texts and poetry, listen to music, and develop our physicality and stamina by going to yoga or pilates classes.

?What are the pros and cons of working with the family? Do you think you can take more liberties here than you would have, at another job?A lot of people tell us that they could never work with their family, but I think it works in this situation for a couple of reasons — first, we don’t really know any other way of existing; as I mentioned before, dance has been a part of our lives for over 30 years now, the love for it is in our blood. The strength of that bond, and the passion we have for our art makes it natural that we want to work together to bring our vision to life. Secondly, I think being from India is a major factor; our culture values the importance of family, so we are used to being surrounded by family members. That is not the case in the US, where personal space and independence are highly prioritised. I think people in India understand our way of working more than people in America! The cons are standard, sometimes it is difficult to separate the personal from the professional, and of course we bicker since we are around each other so often. But in the large scheme of things we work very well together. There are definitely more liberties here than at other jobs! We can seamlessly segue from a conversation about Bhakti poetry to recipe suggestions to shopping tips. And Aparna has twin boys and we love it when she brings them to work!

What have been your greatest learnings from the Ragamala Dance Company?

A strong work ethic; I have seen first-hand how hard work and dedication create success. Ragamala is the most successful Indian company in the US, and we perform at very prestigious theaters. We are programmed alongside some very famous modern dance companies, which is a huge step forward for a culturally based form. That is all due to the dogged determination of Ranee and Aparna.

Who is your role-model at work?

You can probably guess this, but both Ranee and Aparna are my role-models at work. They learn about staying true to one’s vision, aiming for the highest levels of artistry, and extreme commitment from our Guru, the legendary Smt Alarmél Valli. They imbue these practices into every aspect of their work, and I deeply respect that. 

Working in the arts isn’t exactly easy, right? How have you learnt to work around it? Can you share an anecdote or two with us?

You have to learn to be resourceful, because because the arts can be very fickle. One day there might be too many performances, and the next there may be none. Or there can be funding cuts at any time. All our staff knows how to stretch a budget, plan for potential pitfalls, and use our time wisely. I won’t mention any names, but many years ago we had a company manager who badly mishandled company funds, including omitting to paying payroll taxes. It is possible that she also embezzled money. It took time, patience, and help from wonderful volunteers, but everything was eventually sorted out and now we are stronger than ever. Our business manager is very cautious and runs a tight ship. You don’t want to ever forget to submit a receipt or you’re in trouble!

What is it like to curate and present Indian arts in a foreign country? Can you share a couple of your special experiences?

As I mentioned, this has been an ongoing process (Ragamala is now in its 23rd year as a company). It has taken an extraordinary amount of time to reach a point where people outside of India can approach Bharatanatyam and other classical arts without exoticizing or labeling them as ancient forms that are related to the past. Now that there are artistes in the diaspora like Ranee and Aparna who continue to create work that speaks to a wide cross section of people, Western audiences are much more familiar with Indian arts and are open to experiencing them in their purest forms. I can’t pinpoint one particular experience, but I love it when someone comes up to us and conveys that even though they didn’t understand the words of the music or the specificity of the gestures, they felt a connection to the art, and to us. When someone understands the universality of our art form and they want to see more, we have done our job. It is very satisfying to see the bhava and rasa concepts come to life within a non-Indian audience.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

Every year, actually every month, I strive to be a better dancer than the previous month. So in five years I hope to have grown and changed a lot as an artiste. I plan to continue going back to India to learn from Smt Alarmél Valli; every time I am around her I learn to be a better artiste. I am also interested in choreography, and have ideas for my own work. So in five years my goal would be to have presented at least two full evenings of original choreography. If there is one significant change/contribution that you’d like to make to the person/ organisation/institution you work for, what would it be? Ranee and Aparna are the visionaries behind Ragamala; my dream is to someday create work alongside them, and add my own vision to our company. I know that they would be very proud if we became a choreographic trio. I think that would be a very rare and exciting transformation for the company.