The Princeton University Art Museum is hosting a daylong festival to accent its two current South Asian art exhibitions — “Epic Tales from India” and “Contemporary Stories: Revisiting South Asian Narratives” — on Saturday, December 3.
And while there are a variety of free offerings throughout the day, an important culminating free event is the 5:30 p.m. dance performance by Ramya Ramnarayan — a practitioner of Bharatanatyam, arguably the oldest of south India’s eight traditional dance styles.
Interviewed at her home in North Brunswick, Ramnarayan, pictured at right, talks about the interconnection of art, poetry, dance, and music. “I’ll be connecting dance and music to what can be seen in the galleries,” she says, pointing out that dance — like painting — has a visual aspect.
The event is supported by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, in partnership with the museum, to recognize both the growing Indian population in central New Jersey and the importance of presenting a wide variety of genres.
The live music accompaniment is provided by three New York musicians: vocalist Roopa Mahadevan, violinist Harini Rajashekar, and percussionist Kavi Srinivasa Raghavan, who plays a mridangam, a double-sided drum capable of making both low and high-pitched sounds.
Slim and beautiful, Ramnarayan is wearing a sari, a sheer scarf, jewelry, and sturdy red socks. On her forehead is the small red circle worn by many Hindu women. Between preparing for a performance in Florida in a few days, she is ready to talk about the Princeton performance, which will consist of an hour-long presentation of five dances.
She says by her varying selections she will send the audience into a refreshed state of calmness. “I want to clear the busy thoughts in one’s head,” she says. “Dance is meditation in movement. Meditation is being alert; it is not going to sleep. Bharatanatyam transfers the meditative effect from dancer to audience.”
Ramnarayan says her Princeton program reflects the Bharatanatyam approach and includes dances that tell a story as well as dances that are abstract. She says she will start with an invocation to the mother-like deity Devi-Kali, who vanquishes evil, then depict the happy-go-lucky god Krishna and the perfectionist god Rama, and dance the birth of Krishna in a prison cell and his journey to a safe location. She also dances love songs.
She says the abstract dance differs from the narrative dance in stressing intricate footwork. “For both, I talk in my mind, and I use body movements, hand gestures, facial movements, and rhythmic footwork. I use music and poetry in the various Indian languages. [Twenty-two languages are officially recognized in India.] It communicates as long as the audience pays attention.”
Early in our visit Ramnarayan has established that her mode of communication works. In response to my wondering whether one has to know her specific dance vocabulary in order to understand her dance message, she communicates physically.
“I welcome you,” she tells me (advancing with an outstretched arm, palm upward.) “Watch out!” she warns (mouth fixed, eyes darting, as she recoils.) “I don’t completely trust you,” she states (walking forward hesitantly, glancing from side to side, arms at her side.)
Ramnarayan has used the same sort of dancing question and verbal answer with young audiences at more than 300 schools. “Even kids in kindergarten to second grade understand what am I saying with my movements,” she observes.
Fixed choreography exists, but Ramnarayan rarely uses it. Drawing on her hefty experience, she prefers to create her own dance language. When she performs these days, Ramnarayan likes to improvise. “I need to get a pulse of the audience,” she says.
An exception is Ramnarayan’s recent DVD recording of fixed choreography she learned as a teenager. A historical document, the disc is a tribute to her revered teacher, S. K. Rajarathnam Pillai. “This,” says the dancer, “is the legacy of my guru, who passed away. He was exemplary.” The disc is titled “Guruvin Kural Amudam” (Sweet Voice of the Guru).
In performance, Ramnarayan’s dress, based on ancient temple sculptures, is vivid and be-jeweled. Headgear, dangling earrings, a choker, a long necklace, bangles, and a belt sparkle with precious metals and gemstones. The anklets carry bells.
A finely pleated fan-like section of fabric descends from her waist toward the floor. As Ramnarayan moves, the fabric fan changes shape and amplifies the three significant Bharatanatyam postures she uses. Its shimmering colors signal whether she stands erect, squats partially, or squats fully. Makeup enhances the movement of her eyes.
Training in south Indian classical dance styles proceeds by introducing essential movements layer by layer. Abstract physical movements come first. Like ballet beginners, students work at the barre. Learning the Bharatanatyam style, they master yoga moves that make the body supple.
Next they work at dance steps made by the lower body. Ramnarayan lists “stompings, lunges, turning, twisting, twirling, and jumping.” What she calls “upper body moves” follow; these include moving the neck horizontally, using the arms, balancing on one foot, and adding hand movements that match lower body movements, the mudras. “Mudras have specific meanings,” Ramnarayan says, “but a skilled performer can convey passion and meaning to an audience without the audience knowing the dance vocabulary.
Training the face to communicate comes in the final phase of dance lessons. The eyes are particularly important. “My eyes must reach to everyone in the audience,” Ramnarayan says. “Intimacy helps in a solo performance, but tracking what the eyes do also needs good lighting. It can work with an audience of 350 to 500 people.”
For effective communication Ramnarayan engages the audience with her eyes. When I attempt to show my understanding of what she means by calling it “looking at the audience,” she proposes, instead, the term “looking toward the audience. “‘Look at’ is restricted and two-dimensional,” she explains. If you try this at home with a person or an object, you will feel your horizons expand.
Born in Chennai, formerly Madras, India, Ramnarayan started formal instruction as a dancer at age four. Her father is a pioneer photographer in south India; her mother, a television anchor. Her brother, three years older than Ramya, works in information technology. The family spoke Tamil at home.
Ramnarayan attended a convent school as a day student. “The exposure to Catholic practices gave me an understanding of another religion,” she says. It also developed her fluency in English. The language of instruction was English, and Ramnarayan spoke English, not Tamil, with her friends at school.
While at the school, Ramnarayan underwent rigorous dance training at home. She refers to her instructors as “gurus,” spiritual teachers. “I saw my gurus three times a week,” she says. “They were veterans in their field. I was fortunate to have the best in the world. The guru frequently conducts dance performances. My gurus have passed away, and I have been my own guru for the last 25 years.”
Having come to the United States in 1989, Ramnarayan says, “I’ve lived here longer than I lived in India. I return to India because of my art.” She performs in India six times in December and January.
In 1993 Ramnarayan founded the Nrithyanjali Institute of Dance, of which she is the artistic director. Located in North Brunswick, the Institute trains students in Ramnarayan’s dance specialties.
Ramnarayan has taught and given lecture-demonstrations at various colleges and universities in the tri-state area. As a teacher at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ramnarayan created notation for the Bharatanatyam style of dance and includes it in her handbook, “Introduction to Bharatanatyam — Book 1,” published in January, 1998. Briefed properly, trained dancers learn how to make the dance movements from Ramnarayan’s text and her stick figures. Dance notation is almost always difficult to read, and Ramnarayan likes her students create their own notation when they reach an intermediate level.
Ramnarayan and her husband, an engineer, have two sons. Their 19-year-old is a Rutgers student. Their elder son, 24, has graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. About to leave for a backpacking trip in south Asia, he joins us briefly and provides a snapshot of life in the family. Not sure exactly where he’ll go or how long he’ll stay, he says, “It depends on how high my energy is, how long my money holds out, and if I get homesick.”
South Asian Arts and Music Festival, Princeton University Art Museum. Saturday, December 3, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.
Events include performances by Princeton student groups, a scavenger hunt, Indian food, a craft project, and a lecture by visiting scholar Ravi M. Gupta, chair of Religious Studies at Utah State University. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.
Ramya Ramnarayan, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, McCosh Hall 10. Saturday, December 3, 5:30 p.m. Free. Reservation requested. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.