Odissi with its sensuous creeper like bodily deflections has largely, in sculpture and dance, been represented through the female body.
A committed Odissi performer and choreographer, Ramli Ibrahim has never hesitated to push the boundaries of the dance, constantly experimenting with productions, incorporating contemporary sensibilities
Rarely has one witnessed the kind of after-show buzz, the air crackling with excitement, as in the crowed foyer of the Experimental Theatre Auditorium at the Malaya University in Kuala Lumpur, with shrieks of high resounding praise, and warm hugs with dancers and visitors urgently grouping for photographs, as one experienced after each show of Odissi on High. Presented by Sutra Foundation, in association with Cultural Centre Universiti Malaya and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Indian Cultural Centre, this latest offer with combined concept and artisitic direction by Sutra Foundation’s Ramli Ibrahim, Guru Bichitananda Swain of Bhubaneswar’s Rudrakshya Foundation and Sutra Collectives, provided proof of how the togetherness of like-minded talents from two countries — (in this case Malaysia and Odisha in India), can inspire new directions in art work.
Presented against the backdrop of the interactions in Kuala Lumpur held by Kalinga International Foundation led by former foreign secretary of Government of India ambassador Lalit Mansingh as chairman, Odissi on High could be rated as an excellent example of Southeast Asian cultural exchange, with two artists Ramli Ibrahim and Guru Bichitrananda Swain and their institutions in a joint effort.
A committed Odissi performer and choreographer, Ramli Ibrahim, has never hesitated to push the boundaries of the dance, constantly experimenting with productions, incorporating contemporary sensibilities, while catering to today’s cosmopolitan audiences. Simultaneously, he has also worked closely with proven scholar/artists from Odisha like Late Dinanath Pathi, and talents belonging to the Debaprasad Odissi school like Guru Durgacharan Ranbir and Gajendra Panda, and musicians like Srinivas Satpathy and musicologist Gopal Panda and others have composed the melodic base for Sutra productions. With these cultural associations, Sutra has produced works like Ganjam and Amorous Delight, the latter based on verses from Amarushatakam. Now joining hands with Bichitrananda Swain’s Rudrakshya, ‘Odissi on High’ brings in a new element with special accent on the male dancer, with performance space equally shared with the female counterpart.
Odissi with its sensuous creeper like bodily deflections has largely, in sculpture and dance, been represented through the female body. Bichitrananda Swain’s exploration of Odissi nritta, its grammar and syntax unblemished, predominantly for the male performer, has evoked varied responses from gurus and dancers in Odisha.
Representing different schools of Odissi, Ramli owes his allegiance to the Debaprasad tradition revelling in the vigour of the broad ‘chauka’ and fire of Saivite themes, while Bichitrananda starting as a Gotipua later trained under Gangadhar Pradhan (at Odissi Academy), Kelucharan Mohapatra (at Odissi Research Centre), and even Sanjukta Panigrahi and Ramani Ranjan Jena, (all part of Odissi history now) follows more of the Jagannath centric approach decided upon when Jayantika discussions hammered out a concert format for all of Odissi in late fifties. While the works of the pioneering Gurus were with the solo dancer in mind, their compositions being rearranged and re-interpreted for group presentations today, has led to new aesthetic challenges, in preserving the core technique of Odissi while experimenting with group spacing and movement designing.
By supplementing the dance effort with an exhibition of painting largely inspired by the dance, Ramli provides yet another supporting art aesthetic exploring the Odissi body prolife. Sutra’s invitation this year to South Indian artist A.V.Ilango, whose Paintings were displayed in the entrance and foyer, provided a most interesting backdrop to the festival. The masterly introduction to the dance performance saw excerpts of a film with Ilango speaking on how dance and painting are inter related for just as the dancer’s body traces lines in space through movements, the painter visualizes those body lines through his drawings on canvas.
He spoke on how the painter connects a tradition from the past which he inherits, while living with the present. In other words Tradition while living in the eternal present contains within it the verities of the past as also the aspirations of the future. Speaking of art, Ilango wished for less of intellectualizing , with more of emotive involvement for according to him one has to experience art - and the heart obviously has its reasons.
Based only on nritta, ‘Odissi on High’, while dealing with Pallavi compositions, of the pioneering Gurus and then the next generation of disciple/gurus, shows how concepts of time and space have subtly changed in a fast changing universe. The main language of art conceived and handed over by the Gurus, is adapting to new circumstances. Two paramparas of Odissi come together with a shared dynamism. Guru Debaprasad Das’ Kolabati Pallavi in a group reinterpretation had a striking start, with a glimpse of a cavorting Krishna appearing and disappearing emphasizing the eternal search for the elusive ultimate. This Pallavi in the Sabhinaya fashion has a short Banamali Das composition “Sangineere Chaha” wherein all the female and male dancers are looking for this God of love who has stolen hearts. The joi de vivre and the practiced ease with which ‘banda’nritta’ type of formations with dancers lifted off the floor, in the course of the dance appeared and dissolved was a sheer joy to watch.
The next in line to Debaprasad, came his senior disciple Durgacharan Ranbir’s dance visualization of the Pallavi in Mukhari starting with the obeisance to the personified raga murti, conceived as a male divinity with a red face ‘Raktavarna Mukhabari’ . The backdrop visual of the murti rising out of the bright red Lotus, and the motion Graphics and colour designs with artistic minds like Shivaraj Natarajan and A.V.Ilango providing art direction and Weijun’s motion graphics, added upto stunning impact along with the movements of the dancers with the tribhanga and the chauka clearly held in the fast moving formations. There was nothing stereotyped or clichéd about any of the swiftly changing group patterns, with smooth exits and entrances. Combinations of just male performers, or female dancers, or of both male and female dancers- with constantly changing group patterns created riveting variety.
Guru Bichitrananda Swain’s Tala Taranga (waves of rhythm) was the piece de resistance of the evening. The wonderfully synchronized twenty five minute composition with five male dancers of Rudrakshya - Santosh Ram, Samir Kumar Panigrahi, Jagyandatta Pradhan, Sanjeev Kumar Jena and Bichitra Behera with their superb technical command, quick silver rhythms and laya (speed) giving a new dimension to Odissi which went beyond just virtuosity. Against the delightful backdrop of the visual of the Konark temple the ‘chhandas’ or rhythm patterns in an aesthetic mix of undreamed of speed, punctuated and contrasted by savoured slowness and dramatic stances created sheer poetry.
Here was abstract dance able to suggest and evoke emotive highs and lows based on the blend of percussive tones from instruments like the mardal, the mridanga and the khanjani (cymbals). If the music (mostly percussion with occasional snatches of melody) conceived by RamaHari was sensitive, the dance in verve, technical perfection, complete coorination and involvement created a high, almost bringing down the auditorium with applause at the end.
Wrung out with excitement, the intermission of fifteen minutes was a much needed reprieve to regain inner equanimity in the audience. Sutra’s homage to the great Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, took the form of a group rearrangement of the Pallavi in Shankarabharanam, late Bhubaneswar Misra’s redoubtable musical composition with Guru Kelucharan’s choreography making it one of the inimitable signatures of Odissi nritta. An exuberant presentation involving all the participants of Sutra and Rudrakya, the musical recording, provided by Bichitrananda Swain had young Raghunath Panigrahi’s voice, the silken alap passages in Shankarabharanam (perhaps sung for Sanjukta Panigrahi ) with an undreamed of melodic richness creating a deep nostalgia in those who have heard Raghunath in his young days in the late fifties and early sixties.
One sees the creativity of the guru in the isolated torso movements, and the more one hears the music of this Pallavi, the more one understands why music composer Bhubaneswar Misra is deemed a genius.
The next Pallavi in Chakravaka, a dance composition of Durgacharan Ranbir, in the reinterpretation by Ramli, was conceived in the form of something akin to the temptation of the Buddha, where the man in meditation is disturbed ad finally consumed by the wiles of the femme fatale. While executed with ease by well trained dancers, for this critic there seemed a cultural otherness in the very obvious physicality of the females thwarting the mal - somewhat alien to Odissi aesthetics. Artistic freedom doubtless allows different approaches. But a more subtle method conveying the same message, would enhance the appeal of the production.
Bichitrananda Swain’s dance composition of a Pallavi in Anandabhairavi a musical composition by Rama Hari, with dancers from both Sutra and Rudrakshya participating, made for a delightful finale. Sung in the warm tones of the composer, the Pallavi made a suitable base for male/female partners. Again Ramli’s eye for group aesthetics saw a different group designing with pairs of dancers providing a wonderful tapestry of rhythm. Right through the ecstatic joy of sringar, for which this raga is so suitable, in the fast moving group patterns, made for a fitting end. It was Odissi signing off on a high note indeed!
The writer is an eminent dance critic