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Fires of Varanasi

The dancers’ feet trace the pilgrimage routes of Varanasi, embodying the millions who seek to re-write a living, sacred, internal geography.


From choreographers Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy:

As first-generation Indian-American artists, we feel a dual responsibility to honor the traditions of our birthplace while absorbing the cultural codes of our new home. We examine the perennial questions of the immigrant: How to transmit traditions and cultural wisdom across time and place? What is maintained? What is left behind?

The Fires of Varanasi has grown out of our personal experience of our father/grandfather’s death away from his homeland. Constant themes of resilience and continuity during the Hindu death ritual were striking. Our conversations about migration, cultural transmission, changing power structures within our communities, and death in the diaspora become a microcosm for a broader need for societal sustenance across generations.

In this large-scale, multidisciplinary dance work, we explore the liminal spaces in the birth-death-rebirth continuum to understand human experiences of migration—physical, cultural, emotional. For us, the transformation of a body after cremation—and the remnants of bone found within the ash—is a powerful metaphor for the Indian ethos of resilience and profound belief in the tenacity of people and cultures.

The sacred city of Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. Here, one is literally—and publicly—surrounded by the intimate rituals of death, both beautiful and apocalyptic. On the bank of the Ganges, temples and riverfront ghats (stairs) offer pilgrims direct access to the river’s cleansing powers, the cremation fires on its banks, and the ashes drifting through its waters.

The city’s architecture centers around five pilgrimage circuits, representing the five senses, five elements, and five transcendental powers that merge the human with the divine. As Hindus, we believe everything—from plants and humans to thoughts and emotions—is composed of these elements. Humans are charged with keeping them in balance, internally and externally. When they are out of balance, violence and confusion prevail.

Our choreography will evoke and embody the pilgrims whose feet rewrite the city’s geography year after year. Dancers and musicians become lingering echoes of ritual and ceremony, bridging the space between internal and external, secular and sacred.

An original score/soundscape will evoke the heightened state of the city, where nature and ritual permeate night and day. Commissioned compositions by Carnatic composer Prema Ramamurthy and percussionist Sakthivel Muruganantham will be played live. Recordings of priests reciting Vedic chants of Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanatha temple will be incorporated at various points to invoke the spirit of pilgrimage and the constant vibration of being in a sacred space.

A large-scale installation for the stage by New Delhi-based visual artist Manav Gupta will transform thousands of Indian earthen vessels into an homage to the swirling waters of the Ganges. Handmade from clay dug out of the river and returned to the soil, these vessels are a metaphor for the life-cycle that is etched into the city’s marrow.

In collaboration with French light/set designer/art director Willy Cessa, we will merge choreography, sound, scenery, lighting, and film footage of Varanasi to form a multidisciplinary/multi-sensory experience.

Start and End Dates



Minneapolis, Minnesota

Project Created By

Minneapolis, Minnesota
Ragamala Dance Company creates interdisciplinary dance works that explore the intersection between the ancestral and the contemporary. Under the direction of Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy (mother and daughter), Ragamala’s approach to Bharatanatyam as a dynamic, living tradition has resulted in work that speaks across boundaries of language, culture, ethnicity, nationality, and faith, and has…

In Collaboration With

Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota


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