January 29, 2019
To explain her latest work, dancer and choreographer Ashwini Ramaswamy evoked a memory: bars on windows in India. (We were both born in America to Indian immigrants.) She moved onto discussing how a DJ or electronic musician recalls the past in the present, creating a new song that samples a snatch of an old one.
Meanwhile, bars on a window flash in a faraway brain. The connection, between forms of samples, led to an early vision, of an audience led to the diasporic headspace via music played first live, then remixed.
I had called to discuss the result of that vision: Let The Crows Come, the proposal which landed Ramaswamy a Fall 2018 BAC Space Residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan. A few weeks earlier, we met in the Danny Kaye & Sylvia Fine Kaye Studio at BAC. Ramaswamy wore a blouse and loose pants, a sari fastened on top. As she clapped I recalled the fearsome teachers from childhood trips to India. Alanna Morris-Van Tassell, a dancer trained in the Martha Graham school, improvised to her beat. Let The Crows Come unites dancers and musicians new to bharatanatyam, the dance form practiced by Ramaswamy, who—unlike the teachers of my memory—bears the flat a’s and cheer of the Midwest. In high school and college, she was a member of a different sort of “one percent,” as she put it later by phone: nonwhite students. Along with her sister and mother, with whom she now runs a bharatanatyam troupe based in Minneapolis, she immersed herself in her art. Her two worlds honed her ability to code switch: to enter any space and seem like a native.
Before the residency began, she read an article on the intelligence of crows. She had once thought of the sharp-beaked birds as harbingers of evil. A new sense jolted her. She thought to pair fixations: the integrity of crows with the cut-up rhythm of diasporic life.
Via online searches, crow cameos surfaced in ancient text. In a hymn from 5th century BCE poet Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana, the Hindu god Rama pierces with an arrow the eye of a man in the form of a crow. The crow gets a boon: to see spirits others cannot. At the close of a poem from the Tamil Sangam tradition about a lovelorn woman, a crow lands on the mast of a ship to observe the humans below. A third text sources to a 9th century Vedic architecture treatise, the Brihat Samhita, vast enough to consider flowers and insects. The excerpt uses the movements of crows to predict the future.
Texts brighten points in Ramaswamy’s orbit: from the bird’s “other sightedness,” to the longing of the woman, and the nonlinearity of a Brihat Samhita sense of time. By phone, Ramaswamy sounded very much the sampler of a DJ paradigm, laughing that she slanted her read of them to suit “a theory” she has “chosen to adopt.” Meanwhile, untrained bodies move to Sanskrit words and control their sound. Like the second generation kid, bharatanatyam can wear new clothes and still be itself.
Mallika Rao is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work centers a diasporic, second gen American perspective, and can be found online and in the pages of The New York Times, The Believer, The Village Voice, Vulture, and The Atlantic, where she is a regular digital contributor.