Review: Finally back at the Harris, Ragamala's 'Fires of Varanasi' comes full circle

En route to the Harris Theater on Thursday night it briefly occurred to me that I might have seen Ragamala Dance Company perform when they came to Chicago in 2018.  After a brief Google search, it was confirmed.  “Written In Water” was deeply supported by Harris Theater’s former President and CEO Patricia Barretto. The performance explored the expansion of spiritual consciousness through the lens of the 2nd Century Indian board game Paramapadam and was indeed the historically opulent performance I saw on a date with my then-boyfriend who was preparing for a visit to India for Holi and his friend who comes from the Sikh Religion in India.

Much has shifted in our personal lives, institutionally and in the world since I last experienced Ragamala three years ago. I was eager to see where we landed when I greeted my mom as my plus one on arrival. Envisioned and choreographed by deeply insightful mother/daughter co-directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, “Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim” was inspired by Ranee’s father’s wishes to be cremated in Varanasi, an ancient holy city in Northern India. The piece was later dedicated to the original champion of this project, Patricia Barretto, who passed away in 2020. Exquisitely and exclusively performed by Minnesota-based Ragamala Dance Company at the Harris Theater on Thursday night, viewers were guided on an enduring 90-minute, three-part journey honoring Ancient Hindu gods and goddesses, Hindu mysticism, spiritual ascension, Hindu devotion and holy pilgrimage.

In the opening piece, “Agni,” soloist Aparna Ramaswamy, dressed in elaborate crimson traditional Indian garments, kneeled in silence amid a sleek white set design conceived by French scenic and lighting designer Willy Cessna. The structure had a striking resemblance to the ceremonial ghats seen in the holy city of Varanasi. Varanasi is a region where Hindu and Buddhist worshippers have gone for thousands of years to transition, search for moksha, be cremated or deepen their spiritual practice.

Seeking the blessing of Agni, the fire god, by lighting candles in a stage right rectangular pond that symbolized one of the 88 banks of the Ganges river in Varanasi, Aparna prepared us for the meditative crossing ahead. Like small lily pads, the candles floated into a direction of their choosing, carrying intentions of their own as the audience nestled into a brightly lit theater. Eager for the house lights to fade, I glanced up to realize the half-lowered curtains were on an upward journey of their own. As the mood was set and the house faded to black, I nodded with satisfaction; it was clear we were all headed on a transformative pilgrimage approaching beginning and end, life and death, performer and audience, earth and sky, as the inextricably linked and deeply layered elements that they are.

Draped in shades of fire, eight dancers entered the modern white stage posing in tender alternating bharatanatyam postures behind three performers holding reverent brass bowls of dense and dancing smoke that welcomed ancestral spirits to enter the space. Each element carried an essence of its own. I was mesmerized by the many dynamics that were simultaneously before me: the smoke, the water, the water’s reflection, the ancient postures and sacred geometry. With precision and pleasure, “Varanasi” unfolded organically, oftentimes blurring the fine line between performance and prayer. I asked myself: “What am I praying for? Who am I praying for? Who is keeping me in their prayers?”

Captivated by the reflection of fire and water flickering as a faint backdrop in scene two, “Liquid Shakti,” I was transported into another realm as the soloists Ranee Ramaswamy and Ashwini Ramaswamy accentuated every musical polyrhythm with their bodies. From their eyes, to their head, to their arms to their feet, every inch of the body shared a story to pre-recorded instrumentation scored by Ranee and Aparna with numerous musicians in the musical ensemble in India during the height of COVID lockdown.  The remaining dancers in the “Liquid Shakti” scene alternated on varying levels cleansing themselves in the three pools of water framing the stage. It is believed that this act of cleansing in the bathing ghats is a daily practice for pilgrims in Varanasi to achieve immortality and ultimate transcendence.

In the final scene, “The Purification of the Living and the Salvation of the Dead,” I was particularly drawn to the moment when all of the dancers came together on the embankment stairs in seated dynamic pose. At times, the hands were in stagnant prayer above the head or oscillating around the torso or held together with heads bowed close to the chest. There were moments of uncanny unison when all of the dancers began to do a weaving motion with their hands that resembled both a harpist or a weaver. This was said to pay homage to the 15th century Sufi poet Kabir Das of Varanasi who said, “An extraordinary weaver has woven this shawl of life, by stretching the vertical threads of one's actions and the horizontal threads of destiny. This human body is a combination of past actions and destiny.”

The lighting transitioned to a healing tone of amber, creating a strong glow of protection as the dancers embarked on the final leg of their journey. One by one, the ornamental bells hanging from the ceiling began to ring. I was stunned by the fullness of the echo and genuinely surprised to see how this live element of sound brought the entire performance home for me. As dancers began to wrap themselves in the quintessential spiritual white cloth, I was over the moon. Never before have I seen so many ritualistic staples revealed on stage with such grace and ease. As the pilgrimage began to meet its height the chant of Shiva pulsated through my veins.

Accompanied by the intermittent chime of ritualistic bells, what appeared to be sun salutations and white sand (which could symbolize cremation), we arrived both cleansed and elevated to a fluorescent spotlight which could have been the sun or the moon, interrupted by piercing silence. I took a deep exhale and smiled at my mother, who was seated to my right and felt the euphoric high I often feel after completing a yoga practice. Together both the audience and Ragamala Dance Company achieved something special that night, a gift of stellar completion, grievance and renewal.  What more can we ask for as we set out on our personal pilgrimages full of risk and hope navigating the life and times of numerous global pandemics.