Jazz Saxophone Joins Bharata Natyam in Tribute to Woman Saint

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Song of the Jasmine - Mahanthappa

CHICAGO

The original production of “Song of the Jasmine,” where premier jazz saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa accompanies Bharata Natyam performance by the Ragamala team, led by mother-daughter duo Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, debuted here before a mixed audience in the packed auditorium of the Museum of Contemporary Art, April 10. Their first-time collaboration celebrates the revered Tamil Vaishnava saint Andal, who went beyond established ritual worship to claim instead an intensely personal relationship to the divine. The post-performance Q&A was moderated by MCA Associate Director of Performance Programs Yolanda Cesta Cursach.

As co-artistic directors, the Ramaswamy duo, with Ragamala dancers Ashwini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala, reframe the classical Indian dance form for the contemporary stage in this 75-minute experiment with improvisation performed to the saxophonist’s fusion of Carnatic and Western forms. They uphold their ancestral tradition while interpreting it through their own distinct voices. Mahanthappa’s quintet comprised Rez Abbasi (electric guitar), Raman Kalyan (Carnatic flute), Rajna Swaminathan (mridangam), and Anjna Swaminathan (Carnatic violin). The staging was completed by a canopy of brass bells and costumes created in Chennai, India.

The 10th-century Tamil mystic poet Andal refused to marry any mortal for Lord Krishna was the sole object of her affection. Her fish-out-of-water urgency culminated in their union within the sanctum of the Srirangam temple, where the radiant 15-year-old girl was absorbed into the image of God. Born of an artistic dialogue spanning more than a year, Song of the Jasmine explores this typically Indian fusion of the spiritual and the sensual, drawing profusely upon descriptions of nature as metaphor to bridge the two realms, in Andal’s erotic poems expressive of deep longing, anguish, ecstasy and the desire to merge the soul with the Supreme Consciousness.

Aparna and Ranee gave an MCA afternoon master class April 11 that drew on the philosophy, spirituality and myth of their South Indian heritage. Recalling Bharatanatyam’s origins as temple dance employing the vocabulary of gesture on a rhythmic foundation, as poetry become music, Ranee said the whole comes together as a language of emotion that needs to be interiorized. Aparna underlined its spiritual basis, as almost praying through the body, intensely personal yet aiming at self-transcendence.

The show repeated April 11 and 12. “Song of the Jasmine is unique in bringing contemporary music’s improvisational technique to Bharatanatyam, with every performance markedly different,” says the Ramaswamy duo. Aparna sprouted the idea in 2007, while witnessing Mahanthappa perform at the collaborative jazz-Carnatic festival in Minneapolis. Hailing jazz as America’s first global music and as social engagement, Mahanthappa said they “built the evolving piece from the ground up, creating new ideas in real time, performing together since last May.” The Ramaswamys insist on maintaining Bharatanatyam’s traditional purity (violin, mridangam, flute) while interacting with jazz improvisation (saxophone, guitar). “Our dance vocabulary has not changed in this experimental fusion, reflecting an intentional decision not to mix Bharatanatyam with other forms,” said Ranee.

The biggest drawback, especially for the unfamiliar American spectator, was not explaining, neither in the program booklet nor just before the performance, the respective narrative themes and presiding sentiment of each of the five scenes depicted: Cupid’s arrow inflaming passionate devotion (spring-raga Vasantha), loving Vishnu through his successive incarnations, merging with God within the sanctum (sublimity of Revati), etc., the judicious choice of raga and tempo for each, some insights into the gestural vocabulary used.

The first Bharatanatyam artist to be named by Dance/USA among the ”25 to Watch,” Aparna recently gave a solo performance at the prestigious Music Academy in Chennai. Mother Ranee was named a 2012 United States Artists Fellow. Since her first cross-cultural collaboration with the poet Robert Bly, Ranee’s creations have freely moved between the classical language of Bharatanatyam and a Western aesthetic. Ragamala has toured extensively, including at the American Dance Festival, the Kennedy Center, Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai.