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A Classical Dancer Who's Challenging Her Traditions

Performing Arts

Ramaa Bharadvaj, an outspoken proponent of Indian dance, unleashes her fearless side.

July 09, 2000|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Everything changed in 1978 when her parents spotted a matrimonial ad in a local newspaper. An Indian man, studying in the U.S., was coming home to seek a wife. (Singing and dancing were a plus.) She and Bala Bharadvaj exchanged photos and horoscopes and, after a two-hour meeting, the arranged marriage took place. In short order, they moved to Atlanta, where Bala was working on a doctorate in engineering. Though he could never have anticipated how things would play out, he has remained her staunchest supporter.

In 1982, the couple returned to India, praying at a temple dedicated to Siva, the Indian god of dance. Ramaa, who had contracted a spinal infection that left her paralyzed from the waist down, was hoping for a miracle. Thirteen-month-old Swetha suddenly started duplicating the three most common hand gestures in Indian dance--a sign that God intended her to perform, her mother was convinced. Three months later, Ramaa was off medication and giving another concert.

It's sometimes rough to have a "calling"--to be the messenger for the next generation, acknowledges Swetha, a UC San Diego management science and biochemistry double major who started dancing professionally at age 4. It wasn't until she went away to college and danced by choice that she began to appreciate the opportunity.

"We went through a pretty weird stage," she says. "If I didn't do my chores at home, it carried over into the studio. Besides, my mother has enormous energy and is something of a perfectionist. She creates an image in her mind and won't stop until she gets it right."

The Bharadvajs moved from Atlanta to Boston in 1980 and headed West seven years later, settling in Yorba Linda. Her sister Uma Suresh also came to Southern California, where she performed with her twin until 1991. The situation was "highly competitive to the point of ego clashes," Ramaa says--and for seven years, they didn't talk.

"I was the more extroverted and she needed to find out who she was," Bharadvaj says. "She called me up on Mother's Day last year, and now we're inseparable--just like in our teens."

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Living in Los Angeles has provided valuable lessons that have added a marketing expertise and technical sophistication much needed in Indian dance, Bharadvaj says. Though lighting designers have been used infrequently in that arena, they are now integral to her productions. Today she networks extensively through workshops, conferences and outreach programs to help raise the profile of her work.

"This town is all about entertainment," she says. "If you're not serious, you get swallowed up."

In 1982, Bharadvaj founded her Angahara Academy of Performing Arts, which today has 48 students. In 1990, she formed her six-member Angahara Ensemble from dancers trained at her academy. The troupe has performed primarily in India, Canada and Southern California, generating mostly positive reviews.

Ramaa and Swetha Bharadvaj's "Ardhanariswara" duet "took dance metaphor into the realm of the spiritual," wrote The Times' Lewis Segal of a 1995 performance.

Bharadvaj's big breakthrough came in 1993 when the troupe first performed at Dance Kaleidoscope. The visibility led to the highly regarded Lester Horton Dance Award for outstanding achievement in staging traditional dance--a prize that carries great significance because it was voted on by the dance community rather than a "bunch of snobby panelists," the outspoken choreographer says.

That year, she also started an Indian dance curriculum at Costa Mesa's Orange Coast College, where she still teaches. Since then, she's received three California Arts Council grants--two for her multicultural work and one for traditional/folk art. And the prime-time "Grand Performances" appearance in which she dances with her daughter should further bolster credibility.

With success comes responsibility, she says. There's an obligation to give back. One of her dreams is the creation of an AIDS-related production, an idea that gained impetus when a beloved writer-friend recently told her that he was diagnosed HIV-positive.

"The work of the Old Masters is fabulous, but, like the world, an art form must keep changing," she says. "I may draw inspiration from 400 years ago, but I'll be damned if they call any of my pieces a '400-year-old dance.' "

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Swetha Bharadvaj will perform "Tarangam" in the Dance Kaleidoscope festival at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Theater, 5151 State University Drive, L.A., on Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $18; students, seniors, $12. (323) 343-6683. Ramaa and Swetha Bharadvaj will perform "Invocation to the God of Rain" and "The Descent of Ganga" in the "Grand Performances" series as part of an evening of Indian music and dance at the California Plaza Watercourt on July 22 at 7 p.m. Admission is free.

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