The classical form of Indian dance known as Bharata Natyam is a spiritual art. According to the late Rukmini Devi, one of its greatest exponents, the dancer performs to unify body and soul, achieving bliss through self-forgetfulness.
A wonderful example of this immersion in the dancer’s art came at the end of Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim (2021), which the Ragamala Dance Company of Minneapolis presented on March 15 at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. In the final solo of this program, Aparna Ramaswamy performed a dancing hymn to Shiva, her arms outstretched to receive the deity, a smile of expectant rapture on her face. If this was not bliss, then what is? The whole evening had been leading us to this moment, gradually loosening our ties to Earth with a combination of infectious rhythms and gorgeous imagery, until we arrived at a place where we could cheerfully surrender, with the dancer, to a metaphysical transformation.
That transformation, in Fires of Varanasi, involves death and rebirth. The seeds of the piece lie in the passing of a Ramaswamy family member who requested that his ashes be scattered in the Ganges River at Varanasi, a holy city in India where Hindu priests perform a fire ritual dedicated to Shiva.
As the work began, attendants entered carrying smoking jars in a solemn procession. Set designer Willy Cessa created a stylized riverbank with the famous stairs, or ghats, of Varanasi upstage, and three shallow pools of water framing the central performance space. A cluster of temple bells hung over the stairs.
As the dancers entered, they pressed their palms together in the traditional sign of greeting, one raising the gesture steeple-like above her head, another drawing circles with it in the air, a third turning her body round. Throughout Fires of Varanasi, individuals drew our attention even in the irregularly patterned group numbers. Every figure on stage followed his or her own path. When a soloist stepped into the spotlight, the ensemble members retired to the sidelines, where they assumed stretchy yoga poses or meditated calmly.
While some of the solos contained lively “pure dance” sections in which percussive rhythms drove stamping feet and darting gestures, the family matriarch, Ranee Ramaswamy, is past the age of athleticism. In any case, this work is too solemn for hijinks. What stood out, then, was the dancers’ expressivity, and the marvelous delicacy and clarity of the hand gestures (hasta mudras) used for storytelling.
Standing firmly planted, Ranee Ramaswamy described the attributes of Shiva, forked fingers outlining the deity’s terrible eyes, whose glance can incinerate. With a soft, undulating movement, she indicated the waters of the Ganges flowing from his matted locks. A fist with raised thumb, lying on a flat palm, symbolized Shiva’s regenerative power. In another segment, Ranee Ramaswamy mimed the falling rain, splashing in it and dousing herself with water.
Aparna Ramaswamy changed characters with lightning speed. One minute she was coy, showing us flowers opening and bees buzzing around them. An instant later she stood sternly erect, drawing taut a bow and arrow. She was the most fluent and active of the soloists.
Later, Ashwini Ramaswamy depicted an episode from the Puranas in which Krishna defeated the evil serpent Kaliya. A mischievous smile lit up Krishna’s face as he played his flute. But the smile changed to an expression of horror as birds and fish dropped dead from Kaliya’s poison. The serpent reared his mighty head, cobra-like, but Krishna dove fearlessly into the waters of the river Yamuna to deliver a mortal blow.
Another soloist, Chaitra Chandrashekar, returned us to the banks of the Ganges, where, bowed with grief, she scattered the ashes of a loved one. Here, Fires of Varanasi approached a painful, human truth. Bharata Natyam is an art of courage and faith, however, which never fails to comfort the sufferer with visions of beauty.
For more on the Ragamala Dance Company, visit ragamaladance.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.