One of the finest culturally specific presenting organizations in our area, operating continuously since 1981, is the Indian American group Ragamala. They produce an average of eight concert events a season, usually featuring classical artists from India but also those living in the U.S. For the past four years they have also been the producer of UTSAV, an ambitious festival of South Asian performance which just completed a two-weekend run this past Sunday, Oct. 14, with daytime events at Seattle Center and evening events at the University of Washington and the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI).
The Indian community is unusual among ethnic groups in a combination of ways that encourage this kind of cultural nurturing.
India itself is extremely diverse culturally, with a large complex of performing arts, including classical music, song and dance traditions of exquisite subtlety and variety, and a range of folk sources from different minority groups. So there's a large heritage of material to draw from, and many teachers, schools, as well as academies that provide opportunities for young Indians in the performing arts.
The Seattle-area Indian community is a highly educated and motivated one, with many of the recent arrivals of the past decade working in the high-tech industry. They are mobile, relatively affluent, and savvy communicators, and they often travel back and forth from here to the mother country.
Ragamala has been blessed with excellent leadership since its founding in 1981. Although a consistent core of individuals has contributed to the organization's prominence over the years, the one figure keeping things going most effectively has been Ramesh Gangolli, an urbane and witty retired professor of mathematics at UW who is a vocal performer himself and an untiring champion of Indian classical music. He would be the first to acknowledge that after many years with the same support group, Ragamala needed to be refreshed with new leadership, and a set of younger people has recently taken over, many of them skilled performing artists themselves.
At MOHAI this past Saturday night, I attended a UTSAV program of bharatanatyam by soloist Meera Krishna, a talented local dancer accompanied by an ensemble of five musicians. Bharatanatyam is one of the eight classical dance forms of India, and the most popular, widely taught at schools, academies, and universities. Originally associated with temples, the form was revived and expanded as a public art in the early 20th century.
Although performed now on proscenium stages, and no longer directly associated with temples, it remains devotional in nature – an earthly representation of the divine forces of the universe, often filled with myths and stories of gods and demons. It is remarkably difficult to do, with a rigorous vocabulary of isolated torso and leg movements, hand and facial gestures, complex footwork, and demanding musicality.
I first saw Krishna dance more than five years ago at the Northwest Folklife Festival, in performance with Joyce Paul, another gifted bharatanatyam dancer who had recently arrived in the area. Paul was one of the musical ensemble accompanying Krishna last weekend, playing nattuvangam (finger cymbals) and at times beautifully singing out the complex rhythms Krishna was dancing.
Recently, Krishna took a few years off from dancing while having her first child, and I was pleased to see that she performed on Saturday with an authority and clarity more substantial than in the past. She maintained her poise throughout the rigors of an hour or more of solo dancing, even able to charmingly introduce each new piece without breathing heavily, a feat in itself. Although rather diminutive in stature, her stage presence is amplified through a wonderfully erect and pliable torso, clearly articulated legs, and elegantly long arms and hands.
Krishna choreographed or co-choreographed four of the five works, including my favorite, a sly exposition on a wife's joys of connubial bliss with a man other than her husband. She also created or co-created the music for three of the dances, illustrating the remarkable relationship between south Indian carnatic music and bharatanatyam, itself south Indian in origin. Krishna is a carnatic singer herself, a skill that classical dancers often acquire as part of their training, though in her case she studied with her mother, a well-known vocalist.
Part of the delight of the program was that it was done to live music, not always the case in local presentations. The excellent band included the vocalist Priya Raghav, percussionist Subrahmanyam Sudhakar, and the veena player Sheila Sudhakar, who gave a soulful, bluesy coloration to her seven-stringed instrument.
Through program notes and stage comments at this event, and even almost-live video showing backstage preparation at one concert I attended a while back, Ragamala makes an effort to give context to the work they present for those not familiar with it. To their credit, non-Indians have been welcomed as part of their audience and their organization, proving that the appeal of these wonderful art forms transcends cultural identity.