Fanning the Flames
Eight kings gather around a fire conjuring sacred hymns in hopes of bringing forth a divine child. Complex beats thump in tune with their sharp steps. Their faces focus on the flames as they squat down towards the fire with elegance, strength and poise praying to be blessed with an heir. The heat of the moment fuels their devotion to this practice as an infant is born from the flames.
Ramya Ramnarayan, Image By NRI
“Do you get mad – like feel angry at the fire?” a girl asks from within the circle of kings. “Yeah, I do feel like I look a little mad because of the way my hands are,” replies another student. The dramatic tone fades away from the mythological. The kings revert to their teenage girl personalities by giggling and chatting about the way their hand positioning and facial expressions alter the audience’s perception of their emotions on stage. They discuss how a sharper flick of their hands affects the centuries old story they are portraying from Southern India.
“Are you ready yet?” asks their dance instructor, Ramya Ramnarayan as she restarts the music.
Eight young women dance together in a studio at the Nrithyanjali Institute of Dance, where they are portraying a story about a king and queen who long for a child and finally receive one from the gods. Each student acts out each part of the story. From the king who comforts his forlorn queen to the heroine who excels at archery, sword-fighting, and singing, their movements and facial expressions bring this ancient fable to life. Ahead of the classroom, Ramya, the choreographer and artistic director of the dance institute, sits cross-legged on a woven rug, swathed in a royal blue with a red and orange shawl. As she turns her head towards the stereo to adjust the volume, her gold earrings sway back and forth, ticking in time with the complex beats flooding the room.
The scene is a familiar one, a teacher posed elegantly in front of her students as she snaps her fingers, providing encouragement and pointers to the rhythm of classical music and dance postures. But this is not ballet – it is Bharathanatyam, a centuries old dance form from Southern India. And Ramya is a renowned performer in India and the United States who teaches this expression of music through dance to students as young as six years old.
For Ramya, dance became a part of her life when she was only four years old. Living in Chennai, India with her mother, father and older brother, she was encouraged by her parents to pursue Bharathanatyam. Her mother’s extensive knowledge of classical music inspired her love of the arts. Ramya observed many disciplines of traditional Indian dance, but her mother also exposed her to dance troupes that visited from Russia and Europe. When Ramya was five, she studied with the Russian Embassy Ballet for three years. But by the time she was eleven, she was already performing full length Bharathanatyam concerts thanks to her eight years of hard work and dedication to the practice.
From 1975 to 1993 she received intense dance training from two well-respected and coveted gurus, S.K. Rajarathnam Pillai, and Dr. Padma Subramanyam. And when she returns to India once or twice a year to perform, she continues her studies with her guru, Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan. In addition to her dance training, Ramya is also well educated in Classical Carnatic Music and Sanskrit.
This deeper knowledge about music and classical language has enabled her to strictly adhere to the South Indian traditions while making the art forms relatable to contemporary audiences. Ramya often chooses social themes she thinks people will connect with like love and the difficulties of war, “Even though some of the songs were written hundreds of years ago, the language doesn’t need to be constraining,” she said. “The message gets across to the audience through the dancers’ expressions and emotions. Music is universal.”
But being a choreographer is more than choosing themes.
There are two things Ramya seeks to accomplish with every performance: The piece must convey a message and provide exposure to something new. “Everyone must feel inspired and take it to the next level,” said Ramya. For example, right now she is preparing for her upcoming hour long performance on November 23 in the Thanksgiving Festival for the Newark Museum’s exhibition, India: Public Places, Private Spaces. She is performing a piece about the fundamental element of Indian culture – the sacred relationship between student and teacher. By sharing this aspect of Indian culture, she hopes to open doors to new interests whether they are in dance, music, language or scholarship.
“Choreography needs to come from inside you,” she said, “It has to be the spark.”
Ramya’s role as an instructor began in 1990 when she and her husband moved to New Jersey from India only a year before. At Madras University in India she earned her bachelor’s degree in Accounting, but her love of performance, dance, music and story-telling led her to teaching Bharathanatyam in the States. “I was totally scared because of the shock between the different cultural experiences,” she said with a laugh. “But I was surrounded by people who wanted to help and support me. Arts advocacy groups and universities were open and interested in giving exposure to Bharathanatyam. I was nurtured so beautifully in this country by them, performing in many festivals right here in New Jersey.”
The Nrithyanjali Institute of Dance opened in 1990 and now has 6 instructors. In addition to her own dancing, being a mother and wife, Ramya teaches 5-7 days a week for at least an hour a day. She admits that the work can be both frustrating and rewarding. Since most students begin at only six years old and spend five years learning basic techniques, the first three years function as a filter. “If a student makes it through the first three years, they will continue to pursue it,” said Ramya.
Dancers begin at a young age to gain the strength and flexibility necessary for poses. Unlike ballet, where students can perform in a recital six months after their first lesson, Bharathanatyam takes years, but many dancers perform well into their 70s because it’s not as hard on the body as ballet. By the time students are 12 or 13 years old they can perform a two hour concert. This is also when they begin their emotional education, which continues to enhance their performances as they mature into adults. Like the lessons that build their knowledge of Bharathanatyam over the years, the relationship between teacher and students becomes stronger too.
Ramya welcomes her students into her spacious North Brunswick home she shares with her husband and two sons. Inside the warm and orderly home, the walls are painted sea foam green and decorated with Indian carvings, paintings and family photos. Shining wood floors reflect the light of a five-tiered shrine of small statues in the living room.
As students enter, they walk in and remove their shoes at the front door as if it was their own home. “They’ve practically grown up with me. I’m like a second mother to them,” says Ramya as one of her students closes the door. They walk barefooted downstairs into the dance studio giving a wave to their instructor, “Hi Auntie,” they say.
Downstairs, the girls help each other tie their outfits properly as they chat about their day. Their conversation moves to Bharathanatyam and rehearsal begins. They discuss different movements with their teacher. From the snapping sounds their feet make against the floor, to the angle of their elbows, Ramya talks them through the precise choreography of the ten minute king fable the students have been practicing for six months.
After the divine child has risen from the fire, she becomes a beautiful and talented woman. The heroine’s ambitions to conquer to world abound in the girls’ simultaneous depiction of her. They begin with sharp stances holding a bow and arrow, or sword-fighting, to the delicate poses of the heroine finding her true love. Through every expression, Ramya is there to fuel their passion for the story keeping them in rhythm and in character. At times she will tap small cymbals or sing along, drawing out the students’ emotional connection to the story.
When they finished, they looked peaceful and content. Ramya casually quizzed them on the difference between specific hand movements, or Mudres, held during a performance. Like the characters they portrayed, the students have matured and become a part of a rich cultural history by learning Bharathanatyam. Led by their instructor’s passion for tradition, after nearly eight years of training, they all knew the answer to her question about Mudres. Ramya’s fingers fan into position, “What is this?” she asks.
Her students reply in unison, “Fire.”