Interview with Aparna Ramaswamy - The Chicago Tribune

Mother and daughter pair jazz with Indian dance
Laura Molzahn, The Chicago Tribune
April 7, 2015
Original article


"We are partners in everything," says Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance Company with her mother, Ranee Ramaswamy. "We each have our own strengths, but everything we do comes from a dialogue."

Their collaboration began officially in 1992, when Ranee founded Ragamala, an innovative Minneapolis-based Indian dance company, and made her teenage daughter co-artistic director.

But they were working and studying together much earlier, says daughter Aparna, who believes their different personalities balance each other out: "My mother is high-energy, full of ideas, a broad thinker. I'm more deliberate: I like to go deep, so I'm more cautious. If we were in rehearsal and had an argument, she would storm out, and I'd be the one to ask her to come back, even at 8 or 10."

Over the years, Ragamala has leveraged that talent for collaboration in pieces that featured a flamenco dancer and opera music, for example. In 2013, with award-winning jazz composer-saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, the company began to create "Song of the Jasmine" (2014), which will have its Chicago debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art with five dancers, including Ranee, Aparna and younger daughter Ashwini.

Mahanthappa joins them onstage on sax, along with four other musicians playing electric guitar and Indian flute, percussion and violin.

Mahanthappa has studied traditional Indian Carnatic music, he says, but not in depth. The "Jasmine" score is jazz — with "big chunks" of improvisation built in. The choreographers have done the same, expanding the usual improvisations of Bharatanatyam.

Both Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music are rooted in Hindu religious poetry and take decades to master; both are revered, and carefully preserved, in Indian culture.

And what Ragamala performs is traditional Bharatanatyam, period. But collaborators have taken the company far afield in other ways. In 1991, Ranee set a piece to Robert Bly's translations of 16th-century Indian poet Mirabai.

"I was very scared," she says. "At that time, no one danced Indian dance to poems in English." So she added an Indian singer to the mix, "to justify what I was doing, so I was dancing to Indian words too."

Though Ranee studied Bharatanatyam from an early age, "I was only trained to be married," she says, "so I'd have an added qualification with Indian dance."

She stopped dancing when she wed, at 17, then took it up again after a lapse of several years. "I'm not a very assertive person," she says. "But I wanted to do that so badly that I choreographed myself from whatever I could remember."

Ranee started studying again, then taught, then began choreographing and performing. When Aparna was 8, mother and daughter took workshops at the University of Minnesota taught by renowned Indian dancer Alarmel Valli, venerated for her mastery of Pandanallur, one of three schools of Bharatanatyam.

"When we took that class," Ranee says, "Aparna was the one who absorbed everything. Valli said, 'You're like a computer!'" She became their guru, inviting Aparna and Ranee to train with her in India.

"From then on," Aparna says, "we went to India four months a year." Back home in Minnesota, the two toiled together to absorb Valli's teachings, knowing that she wouldn't take them back if they returned and had regressed.

"We would work tirelessly, every day," says Aparna. "We were correcting each other, working together. Then, when we went back (to India), it was a very vigorous study, 10 hours a day, every day."

In "Jasmine," Aparna wanted to collaborate with Mahanthappa on a thematic level.

"My mother and I wanted to work with the idea of the sacred and the sensual, something that's very clear to me in jazz and Indian music," says Aparna. "There's no separation between the two."

As their text, they chose "Sacred Sayings of the Goddess," a poem of 143 verses by 10th-century female mystic Andal, whose longing to unite with Lord Vishnu has struck some conservative Hindus as overly erotic.

But no verses are heard or embodied in "Jasmine." Instead, mother and daughter chose just a few lines of poetry to "inspire the work," Aparna says. "There's no spoken text, no sung lyric. The ideas are brought out, in five sections, in the music and dance."

Mahanthappa says the challenge was to "conjure this emotion and imagery with wordless melody and choreography." That's "a big deal, a big stretch," he adds, in the universe of Indian music and dance.