Sutra’s founder and artistic director, Ramli Ibrahim, has been pushing for recognition and affirmation of odissi’s roots in Malaysian soil for almost two decades. He’s worked at educating Malaysians about one of the most beautiful classical dances in the world, and has taken odissi performances around the country three times. This year’s Spellbound – Odissi Live is his fourth effort, and has so far appeared in Langkawi, Penang, Ipoh, Seremban, Johor Baru, and Kuala Lumpur; in March, it appears in Singapore.
From what I saw at Istana Budaya on Wednesday night, I think I can say that, after 18 years of hard work, Ramli can now lay claim to establishing his own parampara with a Malaysian identity that still manages to remain true to the dance form’s Indian origin.
Using Istana Budaya’s sophisticated stage to full effect, the production combined dance, music and imagery with the use of multimedia technology. Images of temples and sculptures from Orissa in India from where odissi originates were projected to mesmerising effect onto a screen at mid-stage.
Sutra’s set and lighting designer, Sivarajah Natarajan, created a wonderful see-through effect with the images so that, sometimes, dancers standing behind the screen looked superimposed on the projected images; on other occasions, the images seemed hollow and the dancers looked as if they were posing inside the temples.
Through these larger-than-life images, Ramli was trying to say that odissi from Orissa has indeed come to life in Malaysia, its presence duly seen and felt.
Spellbound was segmented into six parts: Mangala Caranam, Pallavi (Rag: Mukhari), Ashta Sambhu, Krishna Tandava, Ashta Nayika and Aditya Archana. During most of these segments, the stage was set at two levels with the inner part raised and filled with temple arches and columns.
Mangala Caranam is an invocatory dance dedicated to the Goddess Saraswati, goddess of revelation, song, myth, art and learning. The dance started off slow and sensual and surrounded with images of fluorescent, flying lotuses created by lighting in the background. This first dance is simple and introduces basic odissi movements such as sculptural poses, the chowka (square positions) and some bhava (expression).
The Pallavi was executed by four primary female dancers and one male dancer. This is mainly a pure dance exposition in which Ramli elaborates on the movements of odissi and the use of space. The poses in this segment were more challenging as they required the element of balance. Perhaps not quite warmed up yet, some of the dancers struggled to keep that balance. In a series of lyrical movements, the tribhanga (three bends of head, torso and hip) was observed when the dancers were in movement as well as when stationary. As if to show a contrast, arm movements were not only circular and fluid, but also angular and interruptive.
This was followed by Ashta Sambhu, a piece on the god Siva that unveiled eight-fold forms describing his divine attributes and recounting his triumphs. This piece utilised only a very small space on stage and, except for entries and exits, the dancers mainly moved within the confines of the spotlight that shone on centre stage. Ramli was the male lead and was supported by some of the younger Sutra dancers to support him in a piece that involved substantial drama in telling the story of Siva.
“This piece is very masculine,” explained Ramli after the performance. “The dancers I selected have not had more than one and a half years of odissi training, hence they are still very pure in their approach. At this young age, they are also not that aware of their femininity yet.”
Krishna Tandava is a composition by the late Guru Deba Prasad Das whose parampara Ramli had inherited. It is a work that celebrates the god Krishna. This piece is most colourful in terms of costume. Both the male dancers, Ramli and Praveen Nair, wore headdresses of peacock feathers just like the one that adorned Krishna’s head in the paintings that were projected onstage before the piece began. Krishna was depicted by lifting both hands to the right side as if holding a flute. Flautist Abhiram Nanda, part of the live orchestra accompanying the performances, led this piece and took the opportunity to shrill the flute excitedly.
“Ramli’s style is outspoken, masculine, filled with adrenaline, crisp and dynamic,” said Geetha Shankaran, one of Ramli’s former students and now a full time odissi teacher at the Temple of Fine Arts.
Ramli is aware that others share the same opinion, hence his decision to insert a sensual piece, Ashta Nayika, during which eight female dancers enact the dramatic situations into which nayikas (heroines or maidens) get themselves.
This abhinaya (expressive) item – which was mostly the work of January Low, another Ramli student who has made a name for herself – was rather lengthy, not to mention difficult. The dancers have to display their mastery over the various rasa (moods), especially sringara (the mood of love), and use an intricate language composed of facial expressions, hand gestures, and body movements to convey their meaning. In this piece, the dancers interacted with each other. Sometimes, two events took place simultaneously (related or not), one on the front of the stage and the other on the raised platform behind.
This item is best watched in Sutra’s open-air theatre in Kuala Lumpur where the audience can be close to the dancers. At Istana Budaya, much of the mood of this piece was lost on those seated too far away to see the dancers properly, much less connect with them.
The last item, Aditya Archana, broke away from the conventional moksha (final item in an odissi performance). In form, it was different but in meaning, it paralleled the concept of liberation in Hinduism. The form it took is that of Ramli’s parampara: odissi with an infusion of modern dance and ballet, forms in which Ramli was trained.
“The modern and ballet training helps to improve our posture and make our bodies fitter. It provides the muscular conditioning that is absent in classical training,” said Low. “It helps us with spatial understanding.”
The theme in this concluding piece centred on worshipping the sun. The modern elements were used well to model an image of flickering sunrays and the ebb and flow of the ocean on which the sun shone in mid-rise. While some movements were beautifully reconstructed and restyled, one part of the sun salutation act looked too much like a convenient cut and paste of an entire yoga warm-up sequence.
Overall, the dancers exuded confidence on stage and were well rehearsed – though, perhaps, balance, body alignment and synchronisation could be improved on.
Noteworthy were the Orissan musicians: Sukanda Kumar Kundu (vocalist), Guru Dhaneswar Swain (mardal), Abhiram Nanda (flute), Niranjan Biswal (violin) and Swapneswar Chakraborty (sitar).