Ranjanaa Devi, founding director of the Fine Arts Center’s Asian Arts and Culture Program, will retire Oct. 19 after 35 years with the university.
Devi created the program in 1993 after she was invited by director emeritus Frederick C. Tillis to address the critical need for diverse arts programming at the Fine Arts Center. The program has given center stage to artistic endeavors that reflect many cultures of Asia, bringing to the region work that is often available only in major metropolitan venues. Most notably, Devi is responsible for presenting the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Qawwal, Ali Akbar Khan, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, Simon Shaheen, Wu Man and the Tibetan Sand Mandala.
The Asian Arts and Culture Program has become a beacon of diversity on campus and a unique resource for students in the valley’s higher education institutions. Devi’s partnerships with colleagues at UMass Amherst and with Five Colleges Inc. have resulted in enriched academic curriculums and unique opportunities for outreach through such offerings as artist residencies and workshops.
Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said, “The extraordinary work Ranjanaa Devi has done in bringing Asian arts and culture to the UMass campus and the wider Pioneer Valley community has had an enormous impact. And the significance of that work for me and my family, and my gratitude for her contributions and her friendship, cannot be overstated.”
Neal B. Abraham, executive director emeritus of Five Colleges, said, “Her leadership of the Asian Arts and Cultures programs for the UMass Fine Arts Center frequently attracted interest from faculty members and students throughout the consortium. She was very effective in building and sustaining collaborative partnerships. She also taught courses in Asian dance that drew interest from students and faculty colleagues.”
Devi’s ongoing partnership with the Springfield schools’ Chinese language program has meant that for the past 20 years thousands of K-12 students have been able to attend concerts and interact with the artists.
Devi has been the recipient of awards and grants from foreign governments and national, regional and state agencies, including two citations from the Massachusetts Senate.
Notable institutions that she has received funding from include the Japan Society of Boston, the Japan Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, The Japan Society of New York, Ministry of Culture Taiwan (Republic of China) in collaboration with Five Colleges Inc., National Dance Project, New England Foundation for the Arts, Community Foundation for Western Massachusetts, and the Association of Arts Presenters.
As director of the Asian Arts and Culture Program, she has secured Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) organizational grant awards every year for more than 10 years.
Devi has served as a panelist for MCC, New England for the Arts, Jacob’s Pillow and at the Association for Arts Presenter conference in New York. She serves as a Trustee on the Board for the Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies and Culture, Jampel Nyingpo Ling, based in Amherst. Her professional memberships include the Dance and Child International (daCi), National Dance Education Organization (NDEO), Asian Studies, Association for Asian Studies, Association of Arts Presenters and New England Presenters.
Since 1984, Devi has been an affiliated guest faculty member at the Five College dance department, teaching courses on Indian dance, ritual and history and presenting her work in Five College dance faculty concerts.
In 2000, she designed the Alankar: Arts India, a travel-abroad study course at the university. As the tour director, Devi led five tours for students and community members to see and experience the arts and cultural heritage of India between 2001 and 2011.
Roger Blum, chair of the Five College dance department, called Devi a “force of nature.” He said, “She and her carefully curated Asian Arts and Culture Program have brought a global richness and depth to the Five College dance department for decades. Always curious and respectful of other artists and dance forms, Ranjanaa’s persistence in educating us in the aesthetics and cultural traditions of half the globe is invaluable for Five College dance students and faculty.”
Before working at the university, Ranjanaa was an internationally recognized dancer and the artistic director of her own dance company and president of Nataraj Performing Arts of India, a not-for-profit arts education located in western Massachusetts but with its roots in India.
She has received acclaim for her many full-length choreographic works, including “Gita-Govinda,” “In Praise of Tara” and “Mudra: The Gesture Speaks.” These choreographies were inspired by Hindu, Buddhist and Asian ritual themes and united the performing arts with the fine arts and traditional forms with contemporary elements and staging.
The Williams College Museum commissioned her to choreograph a work centered on the museum’s collection of Indian miniature paintings which led her to create RagaMala; Nine Emotions, a large scale theatrical production inspired by Sanskrit drama, martial art forms in India, classical and folk dance and spoken word.
She taught dance classes, held school residencies throughout New England and toured internationally performing in Canada, Australia, and India and was twice invited to Japan to perform with her dancers. She has written several articles on dance technique, expressive and lyricism in Indian classical forms, dance as a meditation, and on the connection between ritual and dance.
Smith College music professor Margaret Sarkissian said, “As long as I have resided in the Valley, Ranjanaa has been the beacon for Asian arts. She has built up a vibrant concert series that is truly amazing for a market so small. Through her hard work and personal connections, we have had the privilege of hearing famous and emerging artists from all parts of Asia. Ranjanaa’s determination to keep ticket prices affordable for Five College students has made it possible for so many of our students to experience these priceless opportunities.”