Written in Water

DANCE / 2018-2019




Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, Artistic Directors and Choreographers
Ashwini Ramaswamy, Choreographic Associate
Amir ElSaffar and Prema Ramamurthy, Composers
V. Keshav, Visual Artist (with additional artwork by Nathan Christopher and historical image provided by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge)
Aparna Ramaswamy, Ranee Ramaswamy, Ashwini Ramaswamy, Tamara Nadel, Jessica Fiala, Dancers
Amir ElSaffar (trumpet, santur, and vocal), Preethy Mahesh (vocal), Rohan Krishnamurthy (mridangam), Arun Ramamurthy (violin), Kasi Aysola (nattuvangam), Musicians

Have you ever felt mesmerized while watching a dance performance? Written in Water might have that effect on you—the colors, sounds, costumes, and choreography will seem to take you to another world. And even if you’re unfamiliar with classical Indian dance, you may find yourself captivated by the work unfolding on the stage…an expression of emotions and states of being told without any English words.

How is that possible?

The dance, music, and design elements work together to convey feelings that transcend language. No matter your spiritual or cultural background, everyone can relate with the universal themes of Written in Water: morality, divinity, adversity, and community. And you don’t need to be an expert in Indian dance to appreciate the beauty, effort, and experience of the performance. But here’s a bit of a helpful summary to connect you with the history and vision of Written in Water so you can better enjoy the experience.


Using movement, gesture, melody, and rhythm—Bharatanatyam (pronounced BAH-rah-tah-NAHT-yam), is India’s oldest classical dance tradition. Bharatanatyam dates back more than 2,000 years to the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu (in southeastern India), where dancers used music and movement to translate mythological themes and stories for the people. It is a living, breathing dance form that has evolved throughout the centuries. In the 1930s, Bharatanatyam moved out of the temples and became a concert dance form. Today, dancers and choreographers in India and around the world use Bharatanatyam in innovative ways to create their own work.

The word “Bharatanatyam” comes from four words in Sanskrit (an ancient language from India): Bha (Bhava, which means expression), Ra (Raga, which means melody), Ta (Talam, which means rhythm), and Natyam, which means dance. It was traditionally a solo dance form, performed by women. Today, men and women perform Bharatanatyam, both in solo and ensemble productions.

The two main aspects of Bharatanatyam are rhythmic dance and expressive dance. In rhythmic choreography—known as nritta (NRIT-tah)—dancers perform dynamic, often symmetric, movements with their entire bodies—torso, head, legs, arms, hands, and feet—while they use their bare feet to stamp out rhythms on the floor. Expressive dance—known as abhinaya (AH-bee-nah-yah)—is the physical expression of emotions and states of being. Dancers use hand gestures, facial expressions, and body movements to tell stories and convey emotions.

Bharatanatyam technique is made up of a vocabulary of rhythms, postures, gestures, and movements, which offer a beautiful language that can be used in creative ways. Just as a poet can use words to write his or her own poetry, a choreographer can use the Bharatanatyam vocabulary to create his or her own dances.

The dance is accompanied by live music: a vocalist singing in an Indian language (usually Tamil, Telegu, or Sanskrit), a melodic instrument (usually a violin or flute), a two-headed drum called a mridangam (mruh-DAHN-gahm), and a conductor, who uses small cymbals and vocal percussion to mirror and complement the rhythms of the dancers’ feet.


Understanding the inspirations and themes of Written in Water will help you relate to the performance and better appreciate the work. Written in Water is a collaborative creation that brings together choreography, ancient poetry, mythological stories, three musical styles, and visual art to explore universal ideas of humanity, community, adversity, morality, and divinity.

Written in Water does not tell a linear story. Rather, it explores the idea of a human soul on a journey toward ultimate wisdom. This idea is universal; it is experienced by people of all cultures from around the world. It is something we can all relate to, regardless of our nationality, ethnicity, or faith.

In creating Written in Water, choreographers Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy were inspired by an age-old board game from India known as Paramapadam (PAH-rah-mah-PAH-dham). This game takes players on a symbolic journey in the search for ultimate wisdom. (Paramapadam might look familiar to you—centuries later, the British brought it to the Western world, where Milton Bradley adapted it into “Chutes and Ladders.”)

Ranee and Aparna have used the Paramapadam game board as a framework for Written in Water. This framework is both physical and metaphorical. At times during the performance, the game board is projected upon the stage and the dancers negotiate snakes and ladders, which represent the heights of ecstasy and depths of longing. Watch how the dancers move when they are traversing the snakes and ladders.

To add additional emotional layers to Written in Water, Ranee and Aparna drew from the 12th century epic poem The Conference of the Birds, which explores the journey toward transcendence from a Sufi perspective. In this poem, a group of birds travels through seven valleys to find their leader. Each of the valleys represents a state of being—spiritual longing, human love, unity with others, detachment from material life—ending in the realization that the leader they were seeking was within them all along.

They also have drawn from the Indian mythological story of Ksheerabthi Madanam (Shee-RABH-dhee MAH-dah-nahm), the Churning of the Seven Seas. This story is a metaphor for a world in chaos, the dynamic tension between good and evil, and the mythological figure of Vishnu, who becomes the perfect center toward which humans strive.

Ranee and Aparna commissioned a new musical score for Written in Water from Iraqi-American composer/musician Amir ElSaffar, which brings together musical influences from South India, Iraq, and American jazz. To create a visual environment for the work, they commissioned paintings from India-based visual artist V. Keshav to be projected on the stage floor and a standing screen. The artists worked together to construct the choreography, music, visual art, and design of Written in Watersimultaneously, in a collaborative process that lasted four years.


Details about the costumes, projection, movement, and music…


  • Bharatanatyam dancers wear costumes stitched together from traditional saris (wrapped garments often made from handwoven silk). This design was created in the 20th century to make it easier for dancers to move freely. The cotume includes a blouse, pants, an upper sash and waist sash, and a pleated fabric that fals in front of the dancer’s midline. When she takes a bent-kneed position, the pleats open up like the folds of a fan.
  • Dancers wear anklets called chalangai (SHA-lan-gay, pieces of leater sewn with many small metallic bells), to enhance the rhythms of their feet. Experienced dancers have the ability to modulate numerous different percussive sounds with different parts of the feet. This modulation yields delicate or more impactful sounds from the dancers’ bells.
  • Dancers also wear South Indian ‘temple’ jewelry—gold-colored pieces embellished with stones made to look like rubies, emeralds, and pearls. A set of temple jewelry consists of long chains and pendants, short necklaces, headpieces, earrings, waist bels, nose pins, and bangles.
  • Daramatic makeup is carefully applied to dancers’ faced—especially around the eyes—to highlight their expressions an dsubtle yet impactful facial movements.
  • Red dye know as alta (AHL-tah) is used to paint ht edancers’ fingertips and toes. The red color accentuates dancers’ hand gestures and foot movements.


  • In Written in Water, Ragamala Dance Company commissioned paintings by contemporary Indian artist V. Keshav to be projected on the floor of the stage and on a screen behind the dancers. Take note of how the projections change through the course of hte piece.
  • Mr. Keshav’s paintings present contemporary interpretations of figures from Indian mythology and their identifying symbols, with an emphasis on a sense of movement and beauty.


  • Bharatanatyam has 36 fundamental movements that use the dancer’s entire body—torso, head, legs, arms, hands, and feet. These movements, called adavus (AH-dah-voos), make up the alphabet of rhythmic choreography in Bharatanatyam.
  • Look for the araimandi (AH-rai-mahn-dee) position (half-seated with the dancer’s legs bent and knees and feet pointed outward) from which many movements start in Bharatanatyam.
  • There are 28 single-handed hastas (gestures) called Asamyukta Hasta (AH-sahm-yook-tah HAHS-ta) and 24 double-handed hastas called Samyukta Hasta (SAHM-yook-tah HAHS-ta).  It takes many, many years to study Bharatanatyam, and children will start as young as age six or seven.
  • In rhythmic choreography, these gestures are used to beautify the rigor of the line. In expressive choreography, they can have a wide variety of meanings when presented in context with body movements and emotional expression.
  • Written i Water is performed without intermission or pauses for costume changes. Observe how the dancers transition between the different parts of ht eperformance through their choreography, expression, and music.


  • There are a variety of rhythms created by the musical ensemble and by the dancers—the musical instruments, vocals, and the movements of the feet.
  • Notice the mix of musical styles—South Indian classical music is called Carnatic (car-NAH-tik) music, and in Written in Water, it is blended with the classical music tradition of Iraq—known as Maqam (mah-KAHM)—and also with American jazz influences.
  • Listen for strong melodies backed by a drone, or a note that is held steady.
  • What instruments do you hear? Try to point out the violin, mridangam (drum), trumpet, and santur (sahn-TOOR) (hammered dulcimer).
  • Written in Water also features vocal percussion. This is a percussive language that is understood by both drummers and dancers. The vocalizations mirror and complement the rhythms of the dancers’ feet.


  • How do the vivid colors of the costumes and proections add to the mood of the movement? Try to think of what feelings you experience when you envision different colors. How do the artists use colors to help evoke feelings?
  • How does the mix of different musical styles make you feel? Why do you think the artists decided to bring together these specific forms of music?
  • The music was written especially for Written in Water. How does the music interact with the choreography to create a dialogue between musicians and dancers?
  • How does Bharatanatyam compare and contrast with ballet or other forms of dance?


In order to create a work of art, artists take inspiration from many sources. Written in Water was inspired by a board-game, mythological stories, poems, music, and imagery. It’s one thing to just feel inspired, but it’s another thing to act creatively upon that inspiration. So, let’s take action!

Ragamala Founder and Co-Artistic Director Ranee Ramaswamy remembers playing the Indian board game Paramapadam as a child. Once a year during a religious festival, everyone would stay up at all night and fast. Her family would play the game to distract themselves. Ramaswamy recalls the magic of the game—a seemingly simple game that brought to light some important life topics like mythology, fate, purpose, free will, transcendence, and humanity. This game was a major inspiration for Written in Water.

Now it’s time to create your own board game that relates to your cultural identity. First, come up with a goal (what it means to “win” the game). Then, work backward to figure out the steps and rules needed to achieve that goal by way of the game. Will you use cards, dice, or maybe a coin? Are there elements of skill or chance involved? Do players work in teams? Take your time to plan out your own unique board game on a poster board or piece of cardboard. Get creative by adding color, drawings, and other fun elements to your board that remind you of your culture and heritage. Don’t forget to come up with a name for your game, too. When you’re finished, try playing the game with a friend or family member.

If you feel comfortable, share a photo of your board game on Instagram. Be sure to tag @thekennedycenter and use the hashtag #myculturalboardgame.


Go even deeper with the Ragamala Dance Company: Written in Water Extras.

Writer: Mary Callahan

Content Editor: Lisa Resnick

Logistics Coordination: Katherine Huseman

Producer and Program Manager: Tiffany A. Bryant

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