Ragamala Dance Company is a mother's gift to her daughters Ragamala Dance Company is the life work of Ranee Ramaswamy — and now her adult daughters, Aparna and Ashwini. Creative work can be lonely, Aparna says, and having "built-in companions" is a gift.

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

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This Mother's Day, we're visiting a celebrated dance troupe founded and run by a mother and her two daughters. Ragamala Dance Company, based in Minneapolis, is famous among fans of India's oldest classical dance tradition. It regularly gets rave reviews for dancers' technical precision and spirituality. Marianne Combs made a visit.


MARIANNE COMBS, BYLINE: On a springtime morning, the Ragamala Dance Company rehearsed an elaborate number called "Fires Of Varanasi." It evokes the ceremonial spreading of ashes at the Ganges River and the human journey from the earthly to the immortal. For the performance, they will wear ornate outfits that combine saris, jewelry and dramatic makeup. But for now, the eight or so dancers are in simpler dress, some with smartwatches on their wrists.


COMBS: Ragamala is the life's work of the Ramaswamy family. Mother Ranee Ramaswamy says she founded the company 30 years ago, in part as a vehicle for her incredibly talented daughter, Aparna.

RANEE RAMASWAMY: It was as if she was born to dance. You know, we all talk about previous births and reincarnation, and I think she was a dancer in her previous birth. So it just - it was natural to her. And from that age of 3 to now, she has never deviated. She didn't want to do anything else but dance.

COMBS: Ranee and Aparna are now the co-artistic directors of Ragamala. It almost seems like Aparna is its head while Ranee is its soul. Aparna's younger sister Ashwini is its heart.

ASHWINI RAMASWAMY: There is a feeling when I'm with my mother and sister in a room, in a studio, on a stage. From my inside, it's this connection, a feeling that doesn't happen anywhere else.

COMBS: Ashwini Ramaswamy is also a choreographer and a dancer with the company.

ASHWINI RAMASWAMY: And it's intangible. It's a high. When I watch them on stage from the wings, when I'm on the stage 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.


COMBS: The oldest classical dance form of India is called Bharatanatyam. It is a sacred art designed to evoke a sense of spiritual bliss. Older sister Aparna says what draws this mother-daughter team to this work and keeps them going are their shared values.

APARNA 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.

COMBS: Being a family, Aparna says, makes the dance stronger. But younger sister Ashwini says it's not always easy. Imagine dancing with your mom or your sister. And her mom and older sister had a relationship grounded in dance before she was even born.

ASHWINI RAMASWAMY: So I'm kind of fighting against that. I'm like, what can I do that's different than what's already been handed to me?

COMBS: Answering that question is part of what makes their dancing innovative. They're the rare kind of family that can provide each other with honest feedback that's grounded in love. And, Aparna says, they can take it from each other.

APARNA RAMASWAMY: And that's a wonderful thing because when you're a creative person or 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.

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

R RAMASWAMY: The one thing to have two daughters in the company is that they will tell me when I should get out. I am confident, 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.

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

For NPR News, I'm Marianne Combs in Minneapolis.


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