DANCE | Ragamala’s multimedia “Sacred Earth” draws from ancient art forms


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.

Following their run at The Cowles Center, Ragamala will tour Sacred Earth to 23 cities nationally, starting at Indiana State University in Terre Haute in October.