Magical Sutra - a tribute to Odissi
He does not ask much. It is only that we understand his yearning to create a small space for enchantment ... . Meet Malaysian dancer and choreographer, Ramli Ibrahim.
INTERPRETATION AND TRADITION: Ramli Ibrahim has heightened awareness of the performing arts.
HE got the idea when he was performing at Ubud, right at the heart of Bali with some of the most famous of the Balinese dancers, who are called "Living Legends". As he describes it, the highlight of the performance at Ubud was remembering the slow descent down the steps of the split gateway, or Pura Dalem, that frames empty space, like two palms held out to celebrate the heavens, of the 83- year-old dancer Ibu Cenek. He did not realise it then, nor did anyone in the audience know that it was an evening that was to bring the terrible Tsunami in its wake. They were so spellbound by the gorgeous sounds and movements of dance forms and ideas that had travelled across those very same seas and found such a rich harbour in the island of Bali that time itself seemed to stop. The 83-year-old dancer could be a Princess of ancient Orissa, walking down the steps of Konarak to greet the sunrise, her movements very subtly transformed to mimic the birds, the prehistoric lizards and reptiles lurking in the tropical lushness of the Indonesian archipelago.
The next morning came the news of the disaster that had particularly struck parts of Indonesia with terrible ferocity. It was at that moment that Ramli felt the idea stir within him to create an evening of dance that would not only pay homage to Odissi, but to the power of dance. Or as he writes: "The arts have always provided a therapeutic experience after a tragedy of such a magnitude. At its highest level, the arts blur the line between the sacred and the profane; the beautiful and the ugly; the good and the evil and confound simplistic answers to life's enigmatic riddle."
At the Sutra Dance Theatre's home ground at Kuala Lumpur, Ramli Ibrahim holds all the threads that have connected him to the contemporary dance worlds of both East and West with an expert sense of being at ease in many worlds. In the garden there is a small bridge that connects an island of tranquillity surrounded by tropical plants that invite a cloud of bees, birds, butterflies that flutter under its circular tiled roof shelter. This is where he likes to meditate, he says. Next to it is a small open-air theatre, where he holds smaller more intimate performances. The ground floor of the main house is more in the style of a Western dance atelier, with large open spaces and mirrors whereby the dancers can watch themselves perform. The Chennai based artist A.V. Illango who has been invited to observe and paint the dancers has hung up some of his work on the walls that are free, these reflect the highly statuesque poses that the group envision. Upstairs, there is an excellent library and areas where dancers, designers, artists, writers, poets, musicians and administrators can meet, to work individually, or in groups. The kitchen and dining room area is also flexible. There is no apparent hierarchy. Since the troupe is preparing for its debut of "Spellbound-Odissi Live!" that evening, the kitchen is populated by the musicians that Ramli has invited from Orissa. The go about preparing their own meals in Ramli's modern kitchen wearing their dhotis and cotton vests as if they were in their villages (though it's unlikely they would actually be cooking in their own homes.)
That evening there is a shower of tropical rain as the guests walk into the magnificent entrance of Kuala Lumpur's Istana Budaya, their new cultural centre. It sets the tone for the grandeur of Ramli's vision together with the sets designed by Sivarajah Natarajan, the brilliantly creative partner to Ramli's choreographic imagination. Using the technological facilities of a modern theatre to its fullest, Natarajan manages to re-create the atmosphere of the ancient Orissan temples in all their vivid splendour. Just as the images seem to be carved in stone, the lights change and the dancers step down from their friezes, or watch as Shiva himself descends to perform his cosmic dance.
Ramli follows in the tradition set by a Ram Gopal or even an Uday Shankar in taking the heroic moment by the hand and treading the path that is often so dangerous between becoming too exotic or too enchanted with his own sensuality. By insisting that it is a tribute to Odissi, perhaps, what he is also exploring is this very same appeal to the gorgeousness of Odissi that surrenders to the feminine in all its manifestations of desire. Though the programme has been carefully planned to showcase Ramli's strength as a masculine dancer depicting the eight different facets of Shiva, the piece that he has choreographed for his troupe of young dancers, "Asta Nayika" underlines his versatility.
As he describes it, "Nayikas are analysed according to the dramatic situations in which they find themselves, these in turn manifest in one of the most important moods in traditional dance, drama and paintings erotic love (Sringara." There is something that is almost innocent in its sweetness in Ramli's handling of the different types of erotic love. The fact that most of his dancers are heart-breakingly young and of mixed parentage and perhaps even with a mixed religious and cultural background seemed to take them back to another era, when ethnicity and nationality were not given precedence and like the early aspirants to places such as Shanthiniketan or Kalakshetra they lived only for dance.
Is this actually regressive? Can we celebrate it only because it is happening outside of the Indian dance space and we cannot admit that there might be something effete in such an uncritical imitation of the Odissi tradition? Obviously these are questions that will trouble those who watch Ramli and his Sutra Dance Company perform in India.
Then again, when we think of the way in which the Balinese Dancers walk down the steps of their ancient temples, balancing several centuries of cultural history on their slim shoulders and making it all their own, we must credit Ramli without creating his own history and stamping a small step on the ladder. He does not ask much, only that we understand his yearning to create a small space for enchantment.
Or as he says: "Let its simple message of beauty touch you. That life must be lived to its fullest as it is divine that everything else changes, but Beauty remains."
That is the lesson he has tried to explore for us in "Spellbound Odissi Live!"
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