Sharing an Indian tradition of art and home in St. Paul

arts / Article

November 13, 2015 by Ira Brooker

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Photo collage courtesy Ragamala Dance.

Despite our reputation for "niceness," Minnesota isn't always the most neighborly place to call home. For better or for worse, the state's well-known passive-aggression sometimes keeps us at arm's length from our fellow Minnesotans. That's the antithesis of the Indian festival of Navarathri, a celebration of art and community with an emphasis on bringing neighbors together.

While the holiday is celebrated differently from region to region, in Ragamala Dance founder and co-Artistic Director Ranee Ramaswamy's homeland of southern India, Navarathri is a nine-night festival built around friends and neighbors visiting each other's homes and sharing their art. That structure provides the framework for the first Navarathri kolu festival, a Knight-funded celebration taking place this weekend in downtown Saint Paul. ("Kolu" refers to a display of figurines that provide a centerpiece for South Indian Navarathri festivals.) Using the Landmark Center as a home base, Ragamala will invite neighbors from around the city to share and experience art and performances from India and around the world.

"We have invited artists of all backgrounds to participate. While there will be plenty of artists performing Indian dance and music, we also have tap artists, modern dancers, poets, and musicians," said Ashwini Ramaswamy, Ragamala's director of marketing and public relations. Even the culinary arts will be represented, with Chef Raghavan Iyer providing snacks and educating attendees on the importance of food in Indian festivals and rituals.

Ramaswamy expects the audience to include both people who grew up celebrating Navarathri and those who are experiencing the festival for the first time. "For people unfamiliar to Navarathri kolu, we have commissioned the wonderful filmmaker Caitlin Hammel to create a film that focuses on five Minnesota families celebrating Navarathri last month. It’s the perfect glimpse into a world that is foreign to many and familiar to many who will be attending."

The event is something of a homecoming for Ragamala, which has been touring around the country for much of the past year. In keeping with the celebration's low-key, homegrown spirit, though, Ragamala will be hosting but not performing. "We wanted it to be very organic and informal, just like a real Navarathri celebration," said Ramaswamy.

The theme of home as an artistic venue resonates for the Minnesota-based company with roots in Indian tradition. "This festival also shows our deep connection to the Twin Cities because it is a free, accessible way for Minnesotans to enjoy and share art of many varieties," said Ramaswamy. "Over the last 25 years, Ragamala has worked with Minnesota artists like Robert Bly, performed in venues in every corner of the state and really connected with audience members here. Minnesotans are wonderful consumers of art, and this place has been a source of inspiration to us for many years."

Local audiences have come to expect ambitious and elaborate performances from Ragamala Dance, and they'll have a chance to see that again soon when co-Artistic Director Aparna Ramaswamy's solo show “They Rose at Dawn” opens at the Cowles Center in February. For this weekend, though, the company is delighted to be facilitating a cozier, more scaled-down approach to art. “The important thing is, art is bigger than you. You share what you have. It’s not about how good you are," said Ranee Ramaswamy. "We’re hoping to bring that feeling of oneness that connects community with the arts.”

Ragamala Dance presents Bringing the Arts from Home to Community: An Ode to Navarathri Kolu at the Landmark Center, Nov. 13-15. For more information, visit www.ragamaladance.org.

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