May 21-June 14, various venues
This is the first Gotipua performance in Malaysia
ANY fan of the classical Indian dance form of Odissi would have been in seventh heaven in the last few weeks. Stirring Odissi 2008, the country’s biggest ever Odissi festival, presented performances, exhibitions, and talks galore, all centred on this ancient dance style.
The festival was held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Malaysia-India diplomatic relations. It was presented by Sutra Dance Theatre, which is celebrating its own anniversary, the 25th, this year.
Run over three weeks and encompassing various venues in the Klang Valley (with one performance in Penang), Stirring Odissi brought together some of the world’s most accomplished and renowned Odissi dancers as well as musicians, visual artists, scholars, and enthusiasts of the dance from across the globe.
Madhavi Mudgal’s brilliant choreography for the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Repertoire created a contemporary feel while using the traditional syllabus
Odissi certainly has many admirers, for it is a breathtakingly beautiful form of dance. It was originally developed in the temple of Jagannath in Orissa, East India, as a form of worship and meditation.
The dance form was kept alive, first, by the Maharis, and then the Gotipuas.
The Maharis were devadasis (chosen servants of god) who would sing and dance for the deity Krishna. They performed dance sequences that expressed lyrics from the Gita Govinda, an epic written by 12th century poet Jayadev.
Various reasons have been presented by academicians to explain why the Mahari tradition died out to be replaced by the Gotipua tradition. The latter tradition arose from the fact that the Maharis never performed outside the temple’s grounds; instead, they taught the dance to Gotipuas, young boys dressed as girls.
It was these performers who took the dance into the public milieu. Odissi was seen for the first time outside the temple in the early 16th century.
By the 1940s, however, Odissi was on the verge of extinction. But some might say this might have been a blessing in disguise – for the determined spirit of Odissi re-emerged to dance with even more beauty and pride than before, thanks to a handful of great gurus of Orissa.
Odissi now encompasses both the traditional and the contemporary. It has stood the test of time and evolved into a truly living classical art. It has found acclaim and international audiences, effectively dissolving national, racial, and religious boundaries.
In Malaysia, through renowned dancer Ramli Ibrahim, Sutra Dance Theatre has been at the epicentre of the flowering of Odissi. Ramli can be credited with creating immense interest in this dance form as well as nurturing talented exponents of it.
Ramli must have been proud indeed to see Stirring Odissi 2008 take place: The festival was a red-carpet Odissi affair involving eminent scholars, dance critics, dancers, and distinguished rasikas (audience).
Talking about the dance
The Seminar Series had sufficient fuel for robust intellectual discourse with topics presented by India representatives Sunil Kothari, leading dance historian, scholar, author, and dance critic of Indian classical dance; Shanta Serbjeet Singh, senior arts columnist and critic, author, and cultural activist; Ashish Mohan Khokar, author, dance critic, and dance publisher; Sitakant Mohapatra, acclaimed Oriya poet and critic; and many others.
The panel sessions were facilitated by prominent Malaysian arts practitioners and educationists such as Alex Dea, Joseph Gonzales, Marion D’Cruz, Mohd Anis Md Nor, and Soubhagya Pathy.
Some of the key issues discussed by speakers, panellists, and members of the audience include concerns about the difficulty of fundraising for supportive and educational activities. While some fretted over the nature of “evil, capitalist corporations”, others raised the need to compromise and to find an alignment between a potential donor’s goals and that of the performance or art form seeking funding.
Many arts practitioners were new to the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR), and were delighted to find that this would be a good avenue of funding and sponsorship.
I feel it’s a little unfair to tar all corporations with the same brush – after all, Stirring Odissi 2008 was presented in part by Maxis. And the fact that the telco did not insist on calling the event “The Maxis Odissi Festival” shows that some corporations are willing to allow their beneficiaries a free hand, and that they do attempt to give back to society earnestly.
Some voiced out their concern about the possible disappearance of the innocence and authenticity of the Gotipua tradition.
The threat actually lies in the increasing “sophistication” of the dance, and its irreversible effect. Parallels were drawn with our own Mak Yong tradition; that is, the “urban” Mak Yong is more “sophisticated” than those that taught and performed in rural areas.
Although innovation in any ancient art form is to be encouraged, the preservation of authenticity is of even more importance because of the irreversibility that “sophistication” has on dance.
The most hotly debated topic was Cultivation of a New Audience and Making Odissi Relevant in the 21st Century. The Indian panellists raised concerns about the fact that the dance is losing its audience (and dancers!) in India, and applauded the fact that there has been some measure of success in gaining a new audience for Odissi in Malaysia.
Ajith Bhaskaran Das, a Malaysian bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer based in Johor, offered his theory on today’s “restless contemporary audience”, and said that there is a need to repackage the Odissi repertoire to suit changing audience tastes.
Doing the dance
The festival showcased the grace, energy, and artistry of some of the world’s most renowned Odissi gurus and dancers.
It was humbling to be in the presence of Guru Minati Misra and Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, who had received training from the first generation of modern Odissi gurus such as Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Debaprasad Das, and Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra.
Female and male solos as well as group performances were presented at Gandhiki Hall, Penang; Amphi-Sutra, KL; the Malaysia Tourism Centre, KL; and the KL Performing Arts Centre.
The performances that I found most enchanting were Rituvasant, a duet performed by female dancers Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen (on June 8), and the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Repertoire (June 11), a group performance choreographed by Madhavi Mudgal.
Rituvasant is a pure dance that expresses the freshness and lyricism of Spring set against a backdrop of intricate paper-cut patterns.
The choreography was tightly knit, and exhibited great tandava (masculine) energies despite being performed by women.
The dance played on symmetry and asymmetrical patterns befitting a duet, and accentuated the tribhangi (a pose formed with three “bends” of the body) to great sexy effect.
Both dancers exhibited the kind of charisma that keeps the eyes of the audience affixed on them.
Despite being based on a traditional syllabus, Madhavi’s choreography for the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Repertoire created a contemporary feel with its exploration of space and use of unique music.
The first item, the slow and easy going Kalyan, created the ambience of an evening walk through the fields.
The second item, Aakaar Prakaar, had sections that reminded me of parachute formations, when skydivers come together to create a shape and then break away quickly.
Dance literature was also sold at the festival. Some of the titles include Attendance by Ashish Mohan Khokar, India’s only Dance Annual, and Rethinking Odissi, by Dr Dinanath Pathy, a study that strives to understand Odissi dance at the advent of the 21st century.
Stirring Odissi 2008 marks an important milestone in the history of our nation’s performing arts, and that is, the recognition of Malaysia by India as a growth centre of Odissi.
‘Stirring Odissi 2008’ was presented by Maxis and the Sutra Dance Theatre. The exhibition of multi-media works centred on the theme of Odissi is still on at the Galeri Petronas and will continue until June 22.
All pictures: from The Star.