Ragamala performs Written on Water at Jacob’s Pillow

The game America knows as chutes and ladders goes back 1800 years. Painted snakes slither on historic boards, forming the slides, and the rungs reach up to flowering trees, plumed birds, suns and moons and rain shining like falling stars. The game descends from a second-century Indian tradition, and as Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival opens this summer, it meets a Sufi poem, a Hindu myth and Iraqi music as improvisational as jazz. Ragamala Dance Company from Minneapolis performs Written in Water, a contemporary work in the classical Indian dance style of Bharatanatyam.

Pillow director Pamela Tatge has known Ragamala for many years and has looked forward to bringing them to the Berkshires.

She finds in their work an absolute attention to detail in every jewel, every expression — “it is intentional, researched, thoughtful and alive,” she said, “not a form from the past glorified in a museum setting — it has energy, precision and deep investment, and you feel it.”

Artistic directors Ranee Ramaswamy and her elder daughter, Aparna, lead the company, and Ranee’s younger daughter and Aparna’s sister, Ashwini, now dances with them.

They are known for translating their traditional movement in contemporary forms, Tatge said, and for collaborations. In Written in Water, they are working with visual art and new music — a live ensemble with Iraqi, jazz, and Carnatic instruments will perform a score by the Iraqi-American composer Amir ElSaffar.

Ragamala began this new work with the game, called Paramapadam. It is Hindu game, and growing up in India, Ranee saw it played. Families would bring it out on the evening of a festival of Shiva, she said by phone from the Twin Cities. Players would roll a die or, traditionally, six cowrie shells, to move game pieces along the board. Climbing upward brought them closer to the home of god. And every time a player rolled, moved and landed on a new square, that square had a story embedded in it.

Older people would fast and keep vigil on the night before the festival, and they would play the game to distract them and tell the stories they landed on to the children, who would stay up to listen until they fell asleep.

Ranee wanted to express the movement of the game in dance — the roll of the die and bodies moving across a board, rising high and falling low.

In Bharatanatyam, she said, the dancers traditionally interpret a poem or a story, blending movement with music and words. So Ragamala searched for a text to follow the idea of a journey toward God. And they lighted on the 12th-century Persian poem, Farid ud-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds.

Thirty birds fly across a landscape, Ranee said, looking for the home of God, and they find God finally within them. It is a Sufi poem, and Sufi thought has a deep connection with Hinduism; it was born in India. As she researched for her choreography, she travelled to London to see a Sufi game board made of wood and mother-of-pearl in the same style as the boards she had grown up with honoring Shiva.

She found it natural then to move from a Sufi poem to a central Hindu myth. In a story from the Mahabharata (and other places), divine beings, some benign and some chaotic, ally to churn an ocean of milk. As the landscape turns, Ranee said, many things come from the sea, and at first some are toxic. But as the water keeps turning, goddesses emerge, and the tree of life, elephants and prosperity.

She sees endurance in this story. It shows her the courage it takes to face the fear in churning and change.

“When you’re afraid,” she said, “you don’t see all the good that comes after.”

In Hindu and Sufi poems, as in the board game, people journey through good landscapes and bad, as they get knocked down and get back up again, fall in love, and strive, all the time, to reach the sky.

Ranee and her daughters came to ElSaffar with this sea of poetry and research and shared history.

Ranee and Aparna met him because, like him, they have both won the Pillow’s Doris Duke award. When she received hers, Ranee said, ElSaffar spoke and performed at the ceremony. He talked about his music and his many years of training.

“It sounded so similar to Carnatic vocal music,” Ranee said.

She felt in his music a rhythm and tone like the Southern Indian music that often accompanies Bharatanatyam, a singer with strings and percussion. ElSaffar plays jazz trumpet and performs in the centuries-old tradition of maqam.

Maqam is the classical vocal tradition of Iraq (he explains on his website), and it was once a daily sound across the cities. It could come in a call to prayer, a hymn or a poem, a playlist to for the gym, a concert at a coffee shop, street patter in a marketplace. Maqam means improvised compositions based on a system of melodies.

“It takes many years of training, from teacher to student,” Ranee said. “He has studied with masters in Iraq and in London.”

For this piece, ElSaffar has found Persian and Iraqi poems to weave through the music.

“He has in his voice so much emotion,” Ranee said, “it feels very comfortable.”

Both traditions are thousands of years old, and they come together with a common spirit and beauty, and feel wholly contemporary. Ragamala will bring a vocalist from India to join the live ensemble, and a rare woman percussionist.

The music in turn influenced the choreography, and finally Ragamala turned to an illustrator and political cartoonist for a Hindu newspaper. She drew representations of a classical game board they will project onto the dance floor, so that the dancers will move across it.

“We literally played the game a thousand times,” Ranee said, “finding configurations” of light and dark, longing and elation.

Bharatanatyam combines rhythm and emotion, storytelling and gesture.

“You use body and breath,” she said.

Writing on the Water invokes the everyday working of the magic they see in this world

“I love that idea,” she said. “When you’re writing, you know what you’re thinking, but no one can see it” — until the writing inhabits a living woman.

This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle; my thanks to Features Editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh. Photo at the top: Ragamala Dance Company performs Written on Water at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Photo courtesy of Chris Duggan

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