FIRES OF VARANASI in the India Dance Festival in The Hague

Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim by the Ragamala Dance Company.

Contrary to Western belief that death is the end, Hindus believe it to be only the beginning. The ancient holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is where life and death become one and continue together in the eternal afterlife – death being the beginning of a never ending pilgrimage. The idea for Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim was born when mother and daughter Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy scattered the ashes of their father/grandfather in the sacred river.

Aparna and Ranee’s Ragamala Dance Company was founded in 1992, their work taking its inspiration from the South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam. Based in Minneapolis in the United States, it is a rare treat and privilege to see the company perform in the Holland taking part in the India Dance Festival at the Korzo Theater in The Hague.

First impressions were of the setting. We are used to seeing dance in the ubiquitous black box, relying on lighting to create the mood and atmosphere. Fires of Varanasi takes place on a suitably exotic and very symbolic set. At the back of the stage are  steps like those in Varanasi which lead down to the river. In front of them and on either side of the stage are three long rectangular pools of water. Hanging from above are fourteen brass bells. So, the scene is set.

The two priest-like male dancers enter carrying smoking urns of incense, candles float on the water and the performance begins. The music is mostly vocal, both male and female, to the accompaniment of sitar, tabla and flute – it would have been nice to have the music live on stage rather than recorded.

Most of the dancing is either solo or duet sequences performed by Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy but the ensemble, consisting of the two male dancers and five other females, are usually onstage. There is one ensemble piece with giant shadows being cast on the back wall which is particularly effective.

Indian dance is full of symbolic movements like a sign language which only the initiated can follow or understand but in Fires of Varanasi  the gestures symbolizing ritual bathing or cleansing were a consent theme and easy to recognize. This was quite a major production, beautifully presented with fabulous costumes and music and must be considered one of the highlights of this year’s India Dance Festival. Michael Hasted  26th May 2024