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Artist Q&A with Ragamala Dance Company

ArtistQ&A
Ragamala Dance Company, founded by Ranee Raswarmy, will bring their beautiful movement to the stage in Sacred Earth this March. Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form of the Indian culture and daughters Aparna and Ashwini now help Ranee share this beautiful, unique dance style with people across the country. Before their arrival they answered this Artist Q&A so you can learn more about them.
 
What made you originally start Ragamala Dance Company in 1992?
 
Ranee: I founded Ragamala (which translates to ‘garland of melodies’) in 1992, after having moved to the United States from India in 1978. My daughter Aparna and I were singularly focused on introducing and educating audiences unfamiliar to Indian dance and showing them how dynamic, complex, yet universal Bharatanatyam could be. Over the past 25 years, the company has become known for thoughtful yet unexpected artistic partnerships that shed light on the cultural diversity that is the backbone of current human life.
 
Why did you feel it was important to share in your particular style of dance?

Ranee: Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form that has stayed relevant through its practitioners. It is an integral part of Indian culture due to its multi-dimensionality, integrating physicality with music, sculpture, theater, philosophy, and psychology. Though a culturally specific practice, Bharatanatyam is a universal language that conveys both the spiritual and the secular. I felt (and still feel) that it belonged on stages throughout the world, not just in India.
 
When I first came to the U.S. in 1978, virtually nobody knew about Indian dance. It became my life's work to spread the greatness of this dance form. Aparna and I began this mission in Minnesota, but now we travel the world doing what we care so much about – educating western audiences about Indian dance and culture. Living in the United States, we are inspired by so many diverse cultures and art forms. We think creatively and find new and innovative ways to capture and move the audience while staying true to our tradition and maintaining the highest artistic standards. When that is done well, it makes the work accessible and draws in audiences.
 
The leadership of Ragamala Dance Company is in the family. What is it like to share in this presentation of such a traditional art form with your family?
 
Ashwini: I learned about hard work from Ranee and Aparna. Growing up around that much drive and passion can’t but rub off on a person! We all run the organization and oversee every detail because at the end of the day we are responsible for everything that happens. I am in absolute awe of what the two of them have built, and how hard they work to make sure that everything associated with Ragamala meets their standards. Because we are family, we can be honest about our reactions to each other, and give positive feedback that will elevate our dancing and choreography.

Aparna: The line between family and work has always been blurred for me, because my mom and I started this journey when I was very young. Working full time with parents and siblings is not for everyone; we each have very different personalities, which actually works well for use because we use each other as a sounding board. We definitely disagree at times and it can be virtually impossible to keep personal issues from creeping into our workspace. We continue to learn and figure out how to balance our work lives and personal lives, and it all comes down to the fact that we are doing what we love with people we love. That is very special.
 
Ranee: My favorite thing to say to people is “I get to take my children to work with me every day!” I’ve been saying that for years. I’m extremely proud to have raised two daughters who work with me and are continuing something I started over thirty years ago
 
You approach Bharatanathyam as a living, breathing language that can speak about the human experience. How do you think dance can reach more people or reach people in a different way than spoken word?
 
Ranee: Bharatanatyam is the externalization of internal emotions, philosophies, and thoughts. The dancer must become completely absorbed in his or her dancing in order to make a meaningful connection with the audience. It is always our intention and hope that the performance will make an emotional impact on the viewer that movement and music can, at times, take further than the spoken word.
 
What do you hope people take away from your performance?
 
Ranee: When a newcomer comes to see us, we hope that they can see beyond the costuming and makeup, and that they focus on the visceral emotions and universality of the art form. What we do is ancient in origin but not in content – we present completely original work that combines a contemporary Western aesthetic with an Indian ethos. 
Our style of Bharatanatyam is known for sharp technique, precision, rhythmic complexity, and truthful emotion. Sacred Earth also features spontaneous interplay between music and movement. We are fortunate to be joined by an absolutely stellar 4-piece orchestra from India, and they elevate any performance.
 
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