For over two decades the Ragamala Dance company has been exploring new methods of expression within the ancient South Indian dance tradition known as Bharatanatyam. The group stages critically acclaimed performances across the globe and this Saturday, January 31, they'll bring their highly lauded new production Song of the Jasmine to Clowes Hall. 

I spoke with Ragamala's co-artistic director, choreographer and principle dancer Aparna Ramaswamy about the program's innovative mix of jazz and Carnatic music.

NUVO: Song of the Jasmine is a rather unique Bharatanatyam performance, as you're combining the traditional South Indian classical Carnatic music accompaniment with American jazz. What inspired the concept and why did you seek out alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa to collaborate?

Aparna Ramaswamy: I saw Rudresh perform at the Walker Art Center in 2007. He was touring with his album Kinsmen and I was so impressed with his ability to bring together Carnatic instrumentation and jazz. With Ragamala we work on many collaborative projects with different artists. So when I saw Rudresh I was really struck by the potential for collaboration. Beyond that I was really interested in seeing the point of view of another Indian-American artist, and to see how he uses his art form to bring in that identity as an Indian-American.

With this project it was very important to me to use Carnatic music and have a strong Carnatic base. Rudresh and I have talked for many years about this project and how it could come together. The idea of instrumentation was very important to us, so we selected the ensemble together thinking about who would be a good fit. And then we selected each of the ragams together for each section. We created so much of the piece together in the studio. We would sit and work together in creating the music and the dance. There was so much give and take between the music and the dance. 

NUVO: Improvisation is such a huge component of jazz music. What's the role of improvisation in Bharatanatyam performance?

Ramaswamy: Traditionally Bharatanatyam is performed as a solo dance so there's a great amount of room for improvisation. The idea of improvisation is obviously a big part of jazz and it exists in Bharatanatyam if handled properly. 

There's some choreography presented to the dancers in this peice, but they may use it in different ways and in different orders. They each may be reacting to a different instrument at the same time. There's an eight minute piece in the work that's a trio between me, my mother [Ranee Ramaswamy, who founded the group] and sister and that entire section is improvised. You'll see similar movements but each dancer interprets it differently every night. There's a long solo section between me and Rudresh where we're just reacting to each other and improvising. 

NUVO: I understand that the thematic concept of the piece was based on a text by the poet Andal. Can you tell us about that?

Ramaswamy: Yes the work is based on a very well known set of verses by Andal called "Nachiar Tirumozhi". It's a 143 verse text where she describes her longing for the Hindu deity Vishnu or Krishna and her feelings expressing her right to be one with him. There's a very strong concept in Indian literature and throughout the Indian psyche that doesn't separate the spiritual and sensual. So when one writes about taking union with the divine they use the metaphor of a lover. So that's why we've titled the piece Song of the Jasmine because the jasmine flower is used in worship in temples and it's also used by women to adorn themselves and make themselves attractive.

This oneness of interweaving the spiritual and sensual is very present in Andal's poetry. We were influenced by certain lines in the text, this idea of being in a dreamlike state and thinking of God or one's lover and feeling that longing. So all the feelings that come from that, the agony and ecstasy those are all concepts and emotions we can relate to now even though Andal's poetry was written in the 9th Century. On top of that there's the idea of the transcendent, and becoming one with the supreme consciousness. Without using the text in the performance we use music and dance to interpret the ideas and emotions in Andal's work.

NUVO: We think of Bharatanatyam as being a very traditional and classical form. Do you experience any resistance to innovating the form as Ragamala have done in Song of the Jasmine?

Ramaswamy: There's a lot of innovation being attempted in Bharatanatyam today in India and in the diaspora as well. And people are utilizing different methods of innovation. People use the words traditional and classical to describe Bharatanatyam and those words speak to the history and a codified vocabulary and language. But there is so much of a contemporary quality inherent in Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam performed as a solo with Carnatic music is contemporary. That is something I really want to emphasize. This is not a static form, it's not a museum piece.

There's a lot of interest in seeing what else can be done with Bharatanatyam. People are influenced by other artistic forms, they have different curiosities. So in the choices my mother and I make we do not tamper with the technique of Bharatanatyam. We don't mix in other forms of dance and we are not trained in other forms of dance. But the language of Bharatanatyam is absolutely full and rich, and we use that language to reach out to other forms. And when we reach out to meet other forms, whether it's with a visual artist or poet or a jazz musician - we make sure there's a deeper connection than just trying to fuse two things together onstage. There has to be artistic, cultural and thematic connections that make sense. And work has to be done to make sure there's justice done to each of those elements.

Our work has been received well. I'm sure there are people who feel that these types of experiments with Bharatanatyam are not necessary. But I feel as long as the work is done well and with integrity there's a lot of acceptance. Again we're not tampering with the form, that's important to us and to a lot of people watching the dance because of the pride we feel in carrying this art form forward. 


Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.

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