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How a mother and her daughters created an innovative Indian dance company

Ashwini Ramaswamy (left) and Aparna Ramaswamy perform <em>Fires of Varanasi</em> at the Joyce Theater in New York City.
Steven Pisano
/
Ragamala Dance Company
Ashwini Ramaswamy (left) and Aparna Ramaswamy perform Fires of Varanasi at the Joyce Theater in New York City.

Ranee Ramaswamy believes her oldest daughter was put upon the planet to dance.

"We all talk about previous births and reincarnation," says Ramaswamy. When it came to her eldest, Aparna Ramaswamy, she had no doubt. "I think she was a dancer in her previous birth, so it was natural to her. From the age of 3 to now, she has never deviated."

So 30 years ago, Ranee founded the Ragamala Dance Company in Minneapolis, partly as a vehicle for her talented daughter. In the decades since, Ragamala has become famous among U.S. fans of India's oldest classical dance form, bharatanatyam. The dance company regularly gets rave reviews for the dancers' technical precision and spiritual transcendence, as well as for innovative collaborations with other artists.

The company is Ranee's life's work — which she now shares with her daughters. Ranee and Aparna are the co-artistic directors, and Aparna's younger sister, Ashwini Ramaswamy, works for the company as dancer, choreographer and communications director. Each woman brings a specific set of talents to the family business. If Aparna is the head of the company and Ranee is its soul, then Ashwini is, perhaps, its heart.

"There is a feeling when I'm with my mother and sister. ... It's intangible — it's a high," says Ashwini Ramaswamy. "When I watch them onstage from the wings, when I'm onstage and I see them watching me from the wings, when we're together on the stage — it's incredible. And I don't know any other way that I would have that feeling if we didn't work together."

The Ramaswamy family practices bharatanatyam, a sacred form of dance designed to evoke a sense of spiritual bliss and that's demanding to perform. It combines precise footwork, hand gestures, facial expressions and even eye moments. What draws this mother-daughter team to this work and keeps them going are their shared values, says older sister Aparna Ramaswamy.

Ranee Ramaswamy (center) with her daughters, Aparna (left) and Ashwini Ramaswamy.
Laura Bianchi / Bogliasco Foundation
/
Bogliasco Foundation
Ranee Ramaswamy (center) with her daughters, Aparna (left) and Ashwini Ramaswamy.

"This deep love for this art form, this deep value of discipline, dedication, excellence and reaching for something that is so much bigger than us," she says.

Being a family makes the dance stronger, Aparna says. But younger sister Ashwini adds that it's not always easy. She points out that her mom and Aparna had a relationship grounded in dance that started before she was even born.

"So I'm kind of fighting against that," she says. "I'm like, 'What can I do that's different than what's already been handed to me?'"

Wrestling with that question is part of the soul of their dancing. It helps, Aparna says, that they're the rare kind of family that can provide each other with honest feedback and take criticism with the security that it's grounded in love.

When you're a creative person or when you're an artist, it can be a very lonely journey. And so the fact that you have built-in companions on that journey is such a gift.

"And that's a wonderful thing," she says. "Because when you're a creative person or when you're an artist, it can be a very lonely journey. And so the fact that you have built-in companions on that journey is such a gift."

Mother Ranee Ramaswamy recently turned 71, but she says she has no intention of leaving the stage anytime soon.

"The one thing, to have two daughters in the company, is that they will tell me when I should get out, I am confident," she says, laughing. "Because you can't trust others! They'll just tell you, 'Oh, you look good.' But I know I have two people who will tell me, 'Mom, you should stop' — then I will stop."

Until then, mother and daughters will continue to dance together, evoking the divine and urging each other on to greater heights.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ranee Ramaswamy in <em>Fires of Varanasi</em> at the Joyce Theater in New York City.
Steven Pisano / Ragamala Dance Company
/
Ragamala Dance Company
Ranee Ramaswamy in Fires of Varanasi at the Joyce Theater in New York City.

Marianne Combs

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