Born in Ranchi, Bihar,* India, Ratna trained in the Lucknow gharana ** of classical Katthak Dance from the age of four. Unable to eschew dance for an extended length of time Ratna, after a brief hiatus from dance for familial reasons during her teen years, began training in the South Indian temple dance, Bharata Natyam. Subsequent to completing her Ph.D. in English, in her 20’s, she began training in Orissi, initially for rehabilitation from physical disabilities. Ratna quickly became enthralled with this dance form and began applying herself to a deeper understanding of Orissi dance. She observed firsthand the stylistic growth of Odissi dance through the years of its rediscovery, the Orissi Renaissance, then she had opportunity to interrogate that development as an American scholar with the perspective of distance during her year as a Fulbright Advanced Research Scholar (1985-86). Ratna went back to India on an American Institute of Indian Studies Fellowship in 1988 to research the indigenous theatre traditions of Orissa, for their influence on Orissi, as well as to investigate the spiritual fountains of the dance style. In 1989, she received the National Endowment for the Arts Choreography Fellowship and began following the footsteps of her teacher.
Her choreography has included the intense dance drama of India's first struggle for independence, Jhansi Ki Rani, Dowry Death (based on the murders of thousands of women because of lack of adequate dowry), Amandla Awethu/Mukti (a retelling of racial and communal violence in India, South Africa, and the US), and an adaptation of the Nobel Laureate poet, Rabindranath Tagore's Chitrangada, the Warrior Princess (as a tale of privileging the light-complexioned women in Indian society and marriage), Temptation (voicing the perspectives of the marginalized), Resistance (a celebration of the power of the women who were dancers-scholars in the past), Lament (a tale of desolation caused by so-called advancements in technology, performed to computer music, composed by Dr. Arun Chandra, an Evergreen faculty member), a continuation of the theme of Resistance, a two-hour, multi-chaptered, multi-media collage, using dance and animation, and Seeds of Liberation (based on Staying Alive and Biopiracy by Dr. Vandana Shiva)
Ratnas experimental work began in 1981 when she choreographed a dance to Northwest poet Lonny Kanekos Sukiyaki Mama and performed it in Nippon Kan with jazz drumming. Since then, she has choreographed and performed with poetry readings by Marvin Bell and Robert Bly. In 1988, Ratna choreographed and performed a Sundanese poem, sung by Indonesian musicians, in Bandung, Indonesia. In 1990, Ratna went to Latvia and choreographed and performed portions of the epic, Lacplesis, in Liepaja. More recently, in 1996, Ratna did seven performances of a traditional Orissi dance number, Moksa, with taiko drumming in Japan with Lasenkan. She also choreographed a piece that told the story of the rabbit in the moon, sung in Japanese.
In 1997, Ratna choreographed scenes from the Gita Govinda with Western music (in conjunction with modern dancers, performed for On The Boards on April 24, 25, and 26). Subsequent new works for spring production in 1997 at The Evergreen State College in Olympia as well as The Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, included Karna Kunti (Dr. Tagores lyric, Karna Kunti Samvad, rendered in classical Orissi music, dealing with issues of an abandoned child confronting his birth mother), Mahabharata War with Sundanese music, and Tears of Rahwana (from the Ramayana to Sundanese gamelan music, dealing with the pain of a war widow. This work was in conjunction with Beijing Opera choreographer from China, Cao Chen, who played the role of Rahwana).
She has performed in several countries, including India, Great Britain, the Baltics, Indonesia, Singapore, China, Philippines, Japan, and South Africa. She did a performance and workshop at the UN Conference on Women in China in 1995 and toured the Kansai area in Japan with a Japanese company, Lasenkan, in 1996. In October 2000, she performed one of the Panchakanya dances at the Odissi Festival in Washington, D.C., to high acclaim. Again, in February 2001, she performed Kunti at the Konark Festival in Orissa to bring the mahari tradition of dance back to its high standing in its state of birth.
The Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA) invited Ratna to conduct a two-week workshop in the Philippines in April 1998. In July 1999, she did workshops and performed her choreography of Lament in Capetown, South Africa. She has also done several workshops in the US, Philippines, China, and Japan on the empowerment for women through dance movement, including the yearly Women of Wisdom Conference in Seattle, the Pedagogy of the Oppressed Conferences, and the very successful one at the UN Conference on Women in China. Most recently, in May 2000, she did workshops in the mahari style of Orissi dance at Nrityagram, Bangalore, India. Ratna has also trained several dancers who are now performing in the United States, Canada, and Japan, including Gargy Banerjee and Sachiko Murakami.
Ratnas sole mission now is to reconstruct the mahari dance tradition in Orissi (in spirit, form, depiction of female characters and choreography) and both create a research institute as well as perform and promote the cause of the womens (mahari) tradition that was effectively silenced and given only a nodding acknowledgment during the years of reconstruction of the neo-classical Orissi dance, in the post-colonial nationalistic fervor of the 40s and 50s. Since then the principal gurus of Orissi dance have revived and recreated the gotipua (male) tradition of Orissi dance and brought it to international acclaim as "the" style of Orissi classical dance. A powerful and beautiful womens dance tradition, the mahari style of Orissi dance was crushed in the 20th century. The mahari style is characterized by the blending of spirituality and sensuousness as well as the extremely lasya upper torso movement. Mahari dance themes are woman centered, whether it be the Mother Goddess herself or famous women from the epics of India.
Padmashree Guru Pankaj Charan Das, the adopted son of a Mahari (temple dancer), learnt the art of devotional movement from his mother and kept the tradition alive on his own body. Guru Das taught Ratna his masterpiece creation, Panchakanya, "Five Women," the portrayal of Ahalya, Kunti, Draupadi, Tara, and Mandodari, from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in solo dance dramas. Although Guru Pankaj Charan Das is a man, he never forgot the women's perspective of the mahari tradition. His Panchakanya dances, as Ratna learned them, embody the woman centeredness of the mahari style.In order to promote the Panchakanya dances, seen by only a few in India and abroad, Ratna performs all five of them (Ahalya, Draupadi. Kunti, Tara, and Mandodari). The mahari solo repertoire that is performed by Ratna Roy, her daughter, Shyamali Hauth, and the Urvasi Dance Company (including Gargy Banerjee, Scheherazaad Cooper, and Sitara Thobani) consists of the Thali Naca--plate dance (now performed by her daughter, Shyamali Hauth), Gativilas Pallavi, Vadya, Arabhi, Vasanta, and Sankarabharanam Pallavis, Nava Durga, Santakaram, Mangalarpan, Mahari Suci Srngar, Gita Govinda dances, Madhurastaka, Oriya songs, and the Panchakanya.
The dances Ratna performed brought tears and a standing ovation from Indian women in China in 1995 during the Womens NGO conference in Huairou. One of the dances was performed at the Odissi Festival in Washington, D.C., in October 2000 and also at the Konark Festival in Konark on February 21, 2001. An illustrated lecture on "The Mahari Ang of Guru Pankaj Charan Das" was sponsored by Padmabhushan Sonal Mansingh and Padmashree Dr. Sunil Kothari in Delhi on February 26, 2001. Hopefully, the 21st century will boast of the revival and growth of the mahari style of Orissi dance in a protected environment.
* Ranchi was in the state of Bihar at the time of Ratna's birth. In the year 2000, Bihar was divided into two states, Bihar and Jharkhand. Ranchi is now state capital of Jharkhand.
** Also see Kathak links