Sacred Earth

The Hindu Review

Tribute to Mother Earth
George Pioustin, The Hindu
January 22, 2015
Original article


With the ever increasing number of aficionados crossing cultural and geographical boundaries, Bharatanatyam has gained international recognition.

Exploring this contemporary possibility are performers and choreographers such as Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, who are protégés and senior disciples of Alarmel Valli. As Indian dancers based in the U.S., their works reflect the rich heritage and deep philosophical roots of India amalgamated with the inquisitiveness and creative liberty of the United States.

Their initiative, Ragamala Dance Company, presented ‘Sacred Earth’ for Trinity Arts Festival of India at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. ‘Sacred Earth’ delved into the interconnectedness of man and Nature.

The repertoire started with Lakshmi Stuthi from Sri Suktam, a choreographic piece by Alarmel Valli. Inspired by the philosophy and art of Kolam, the artists blended dance and drawing kolam designs on stage.

The Sangam poets’ works which use Nature as a metaphor to identify emotions, were taken to craft the repertoire. Tevakulattur’s verses from Kurunthokai 3 describing paalai tinai were followed by Paranar’s mullai tinai from Kurunthokai 36, Venputhi’s neythal tinai from Kurunthokai 97, Milai Kanthan’s marutham tinai from Kurunthokai 196 and Sempulappeyanirar’s kurinji tinai from Kurunthokai 40 respectively. ‘Sacred Earth’ concluded with Prithvi Suktam from Atharva Veda.

The choreography was visually opulent and filled with zest. Perfectly synchronised movements, pointing out the conspicuous rigorous rehearsals deserved compliments.

Though the crisp geometric formations throughout the nritta segments were impressive, there was less space for abhinaya.

The voice-overs throughout the performance lacked clarity and created ambiguity amidst the background music.

The beauty of the Pandanallur bani was well delineated by the dancers clad in earthen shades of yellow, brown and green, aptly designed for the theme. Ragamala Dance Company comprises lead dancers and choreographers Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy along with Aswini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala. The orchestra had Ramya Kapadia on the vocal, Suchitra Sairam on the nattuvangam, Rajna Swaminathan on the mridangam and Anjana Swaminathan on the violin who gave melodic enrichment.


Ann Arbor News Review

Ragamala Dance casts an artful spell in Power Center performance
Susan Isaacs Nisbett, The Ann Arbos News
August 25, 2013
Original article


It is autumn for the 6 women dancers on stage, adorned in pleated silks of russet and gold, scarlet, olive and saffron. But there are flowers in their hair, and there is nothing autumnal about the hour-long “Sacred Earth,” presented by Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Wednesday at Power Center by the University Musical Society. On the contrary, it’s joy and serenity—the very opposite of fading light and waning days—that radiate from these exquisite dancers, trained and performing in the style of Indian classical dance known as bharatanatyam.

The dancers of Ragamala, directed by 2 of the 6, mother and daughter Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, who also choreographed “Sacred Earth,” dance with every fiber of their bodies, from the top down and to the tips of their fingers. Eyes dart, teeth flash, bells jangle at their ankles, feet and hands are tinted red to read all the more vividly.

They are pictures of grace and balance, centered and upright, but also supple in their movement. And they dance in harmony with, well “Sacred Earth,” revealed here through Tamil poetry, tribal Indian art and live music.

Bharatanatyam is traditionally a solo art, but in “Sacred Earth” the Ramaswamys artfully employ an ensemble—not just to echo and amplify the movements of soloists (the two of them plus Ashwini Ramaswamy and Tamara Nadel), but to mesmerize through unison movement and accumulation of gestures.

In the opening, the ensemble circles Ranee Ramaswamy, rice powder streaming from their outstretched hands as she crouches at their center, making a rice-powder design on the floor, an offering to Mother Earth. It would have been nice to see that pattern projected on the backdrop, but what is there instead—projections of chalked wall paintings commissioned from a Warli artist from western India, Anil Chaitya Vangad —seems the very incarnation of the dance’s theme of harmony between the elements of nature and all who inhabit it, human and animal.

Stick-figure humans spiral across the space in expanding arcs at the dance’s beginning. Trees of life spring up, monkeys climb them; rivers flow, fish swim; horses graze and are groomed; birds nest among grasses and whole villages materialize against smoke and mauve skies.

The dancers bring these pictures—and those of the poems, with their metaphors of love and nature—to life in narrative sections of the dance; the excellent musicians (Lalit Subramanian, Suchitra Sairam, Rajna Swaminathan and Anjna Swaminathan) contribute their voices with expressive melismatic singing, and with violin, tabla and cymbals. They follow and lead and call out the rhythms in the animated pure-dance sections that showcase the dancers’ technical skills.

Aparna Ramaswamy made a particularly strong impression with her vivacity and precision and musicality, but all the dancers—as befits a dance about harmony—worked together with a sort of luminous sympathy that was itself a meditation.

Classical Voice of North Carolina Review

ADF Presents Ragamala's Beautiful Sacred Earth
Kate Dobbs Ariail, Classical Voice of North Carolina
July 10, 2012
Original article


Ragamala, a South Indian Bharatanatyam dance company from Minneapolis, turns the Reynolds Theater stage into a mesmerizing village in Sacred Earth, for the company’s first American Dance Festival appearance. The six female dancers are accompanied by a four-person orchestra, which includes a rich-voiced Carnatic singer. The beautiful program will repeat on July 11 and 12.

Ragamala was founded 20 years ago by Ranee Ramaswamy (she and daughter Aparna are co-artistic directors and soloists; another daughter Ashwini is also a soloist), but the ancient forms of Bharatanatyam dance, with its expansive language of gesture and movement, developed in south India over centuries before the Indian diaspora cast it up in such an unlikely new home as Minnesota. Bharatanatyam can seem surprisingly modern, and here the production’s video backdrop component keeps us aware of the 21st century. Drawings in the Warli style by Anil Chaitya Vangad, white on dark grounds, are projected onto backdrops and sheer scrims. Motifs include trees of life, rivers, rice fields, and village rituals, all arranged with relaxed symmetry and many including circular or spiral patterning. Sacred Earth utilizes, and draws imagery from, Tamil Sangam poetry (300 BCE-300 CE). An English version of these fragments is conveniently provided in the program, and intermittently, the texts are spoken in English, as well as being sung in their original language, accompanied by nattuvangam, mridangam and violin. The rhythm is steady, rising and falling like breathing, and the dancers add high and low sounds to the mix with their gentle stamping and the shimmer of their ankle bells.

For many people from Western cultures, the way in to Indian classical dance is through color, and the glories of silk pleated, wrapped and draped over the dancers’ bodies. Certainly, those are important components of the spectacle. In Sacred Earth, each dancer wears a very similar costume, but each has her own color, ranging through the golden and red earth tones, with one the green of rivers and distant mountains. The rich silks are given even greater depth by the way their pleats and folds move and reflect the light differently from their taut expanses, and the colors are further augmented by the red-stained decorations of the bejeweled dancers’ feet, fingers and palms. Although the dancers are almost completely covered, their shapes are well-defined and smoothed into sensuous curves.

Sacred Earth begins with a long, pleasing ritual spreading of rice flour upon the earth. Kolam is a practice of women in southeastern India, who begin each day marking out a pale design, an offering to the Earth Mother, outside their doors. This stage version was designed by Ranee Ramaswamy. In it, five dancers quietly arrange their white flour drawings on the black stage floor, turning around them as they begin to spiral. In the center of their circle, a sixth dancer does the same, a wheel within a wheel. The designs eventually meld into circles within a circle, which becomes the dance ground.

As the dance develops, the storytelling strengths of Bharatanatyam become evident. Even if you’ve never seen any Indian classical dance, you will find some of the gestures immediately clear, and here the use of poetry and painting makes gesture interpretation generally easy (although I’m certain there are levels and levels beyond the easy one). As the evening goes on, this complex art’s many elements — music, rhythm, song, story, poem, prayer, gesture, motion, image, light, color — meld, like “Earth and pouring rain/Mingled/Beyond Parting.”

Twin Cities Daily Planet Review

Ragamala's multimedia "Sacred Earth" draws from ancient art forms
Sheila Regan, Twin Cities Daily Planet
September 21, 2011
Original article


This weekend Ragamala Dance takes the stage at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts with a gorgeous collage of Indian folk art customs, Ancient Indian poetry, a live South Indian orchestra, and fantastic dancing. The multimedia show incorporates two ritualistic forms of visual art traditionally practiced by women in different parts of India explores the sacredness of nature and is a visual feast.

The two forms of visual art that are used in the show include Warli paintings by Warli folk artist Anil Chaitya Vangad and a stage covered with kolams, created by the dancers themselves.

Ragamala’s Co-Artistic Director Ranee Ramaswamy, who was awarded the 2011 McKnight Distinguished Artist award this year, was born in South India, and first learned to draw kolams when she was a child, when her mother taught her how to draw them on the kitchen floor. “It teaches you patience,” she says of the practice. “What you are learning is concentration.”

Kolams are made each day, first thing in the morning outside of a person’s home, Ramaswamy says. Made with rice flour, the designs offer a welcome and invoke a sacred space, and are eaten away throughout the day by birds and insects. The ephemeral nature of the artwork symbolizes that “things of beauty don’t last forever,” Ramaswamy says. The drawings are celebratory, and in some way announce what is happening inside the house. When no kolam appears outside of the house, Ramaswamy says, that means there has been a death in the family, or the woman of the house is having her period.

In the show, the dancers ritually spread rice flour across the stage. As they dance, they spread the powder across the stage, and it becomes at matted palette onto which Jeff Bartlett’s lights create beautiful effects. They also draw Kolams directly onto the the stage, so that the floor itself becomes a work of art. 

The other visual art form represented in the show comes from the Warli people in western India. The Warli make the wall paintings on the inside wall of their huts, made with earth materials and cow dung, painted over with white pigment. Though the Warli paintings are traditionally made by women, in recent years men have learned the art form as well, and it is generally men who have gone outside of villages to share the form as interest in the paintings has grown.

One such artist is Anil Chaitya Vangad, who Ramaswamy visited last year at his village outside of Bombay. The people in the village, she says, live off the land, and lead a very simple life. The artist created 3 paintings for the performance, one of which is in the lobby on display and the other two which have been photgraphed and are projected onto screens (with video work by Perimeter Productions). Vangad’s paintings, seen blown up across the entire backdrop of the stage, are enormously elaborate, telling the story of the daily life of a village. The final image of his painting, that of a tree, is simply awe-inspiring.  

In addition to the visual art elements of the show, Ragamala’s performance also utilizes an ancient Indian poetry that takes as its subject 5 different landscapes- desert, mountain, field, seashore and forest, according to Ramaswamy.

The poems are translated into English and heard as voiceovers in between the sections. They are also set to Southern Indian Classical music that evokes the emotion of each of the landscapes through the different scale progressions. The music ranges from somber to very lively and particularly noteworthy is the vocal work of Lalit Subramanian. 

While the dance vocabulary for all of the pieces is classical Bharatanatyam, used in all of Ragamala’s work, the dance pieces are informed by both the visual art and musical and poetry elements, Ramaswamy says.

The dancers, who include soloists Ranee Ramasamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, are each individually precise and full of flair, but what is most admirable about the production is the way that the choreography moves throughout the space, with incredible flow and rhythm that seems effortless as the dancers weave in and out of the entrances, between each other, moving like pendulums like a living organism.