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Putting the record straight
- Bibhuti Mishra, Bhubaneswar
(in response to Ramli Ibrahim's interview "A storm in a teacup")

October 14, 2005

I read with interest Ramli Ibrahim's interview on what is being called the 'odhni' controversy. Obviously he has been fed a lot of lies and half-truths by people who have a commercial interest in him! That's why Ramli has completely misunderstood the situation and his reactions betray his frustration and intolerance for criticism.

Ramli's dancing prowess is not questioned and even in my review I talked about the group dance being a visual spectacle. What was pointed out was the deviation in Odissi costume, its 'Šuchitya' as Shanta Serbjeet Singh would say and the changes in original choreography.

Dancers dancing in tight, low cut blouses with navel rings dangling from bare midriff, was found a 'violation' of what Odissi costume is/should be; it was in bad taste too. If some people found it to be of good taste they are entitled to their opinions. But the record has to be put straight.

Ramli says that Sutra has always promoted this costume. But when he danced here on earlier occasions, he never had his co-dancers wearing such costumes! How come? And Guru Durga Charan Ranbir (with whom Ramli has been working) says that when he got Ramli to dance, he never allowed such costumes. Guru Ranbir cites the example of Khajuraho dance festival performance and is even prepared to show video cassettes and CDs to prove his point that he has never been associated with such a costume.

Guru Ranbir is a star disciple of the late Guru Debaprasad. Then there is Gajendra Panda too. Many of the disciples are leading dancers like Sangeeta Dash, Manjushri Panda, Pratibha Panda, Sujata Mishra - all of Debaprasad style. Why do none of them dance wearing the costume of Ramli's lady dancers if Debaprasad approved, nay advocated it? Why do gurus like Ranbir and Gajendra not subscribe to it? Only Ramli who learnt for a few years from the late Guru was told to wear such costume and nobody else? He talks about Indrani Rehman, the lone exception. She danced mostly outside and if Ramli says he belongs to Rehman school, not Debaprasad school, that is understandable

He is wrong when he says that most Odissi dancers wear flimsy see-through material, a transparent sash. Because they don't and even for those who do wear 'odhni,' the blouses are not tight low-cut ones as Ramli got his dancers to wear. For example, Sangeeta Dash, a star disciple of Debaprasad has the saree draped over the upper part of her body, a style followed by most Odissi dancers today, and not transparent sash. He says, "However, I am also aware that the 'odhni' was a contemporary and not a traditional embellishment of the Odissi costume created during the 'Jayantika' (crusaders of contemporary Odissi) times, a group out of which the late Debaprasad eventually opted out." This requires a bit of elaboration.

Does he mean that Debaprasad opted out of Jayantika because of his difference of opinion over the costume? Nothing could be farthest from the truth as no other Debaprasad disciple follows Ramli's example. And what is this distinction between contemporary and traditional costume of Odissi dance? Does he mean traditionally Odissi dancers danced without any drapery? If tradition is cultural custom and usage, the very first dancer who danced 'Odissi' (the terms is hardly five decades old!) on stage with Odissi getting a separate identity was Priyambada Mohanty Hejmadi at a youth festival in Delhi and she wore the costume with her upper part draped. Since then, the same costume with little changes here and there but never a bare blouse is being followed and hence it is traditional. 'Jayantika' gave it the stamp of approval.

Traditionally the dances from which Odissi evolved i.e Gotipua and Mahari too were not guilty of such aberration. Gotipuas had the saree draped over their upper part although they were young boys! And Mahari dance was a 'bhitara seva' (secret service) of Lord Jagannath. When it came to stage, the blouse they wore were of thick cloth and had a V shaped zari border in front besides a number of necklaces hiding the bosom.

If he and the intellectuals who support him cite temple sculptures, then Odissi dancers have to go nude! It is just like saying that since according to myths Goddess Durga as 'Mahishasuramardini' had no clothes on when he killed the demon Mahisha, anyone who enacts a dance drama 'Mahishasuramardini' should also be nude! Even the idols are made to wear clothes! And his argument about his dancers being young and thin and hence the traditional accoutrements would not suit them is nothing short of funny. There are any number of young and thin dancers wearing traditional costume and looking none the worse for it!

Orissa has welcomed many foreigners who have come to learn Odissi and someone like Ileana Citaristi has settled here. So his comments about there being intolerance because of his being a foreigner or a Muslim (Sorry, no bigotry in Orissa, Ramli. Your friends are poisoning you for their own interests) or Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra billboard being there as proof of his brand of Odissi being a threat to others, are baseless and ludicrous. Incidentally Ileana has written an e mail to him (a copy of which came to me as I am an involved party) on this.

I went through your interview carried in Narthaki; I would like to assure you, there is absolutely no foundation for your fears of sabotage, boycott or jealousy by rival groups. I am in Orissa since the last 26 years and you can imagine, being an outsider myself, if I have not been the target of local parochialism and narrow-mindedness by a certain section of the society ( more from the part of government officials than the common man). We, the students of Kelucharan Mohapatra, don't have a forum as such and we are not so many either in Orissa. The fact that the bill board of Kelucharan Mohapatra's award function was standing at the gate of Rabindra Mandap was absolutely a coincidence of dates and nothing else; I also had put a big board with the publicity of my festival (5th of September) at the entry at the time of the Sanjukta Panigrahi's memorial function (24th,25th,26th of August); we obviously do this to advertise the forthcoming programs , since we cater to similar type of audience.

There was no threat of sabotage. It is just the figment of imagination of some clever people who were trying to make a fast buck at Ramli's expense, perhaps giving him a picture of imaginary Taliban in Bhubaneswar! Hope Ramli is suitably assuaged by Ileana's assurances and understands the handiwork of mischief making by vested interests. Contrary to what he says, Bhubaneswar is the easiest of places without any problem or rabid fanaticism.

Bad reviews did not come from one writer, there were others too who wrote about it in the local English and vernacular press. But even it came from one, i.e me, there is nothing to be surprised about it. There are not many critics in Orissa and I have been one for the last two decades (as art and culture is my beat) and I have written for a number of national newspapers and magazines. I have been a critic for The Indian Express, The Pioneer and am now with the Hindu.

I have all the respect for Sitakanta Mohapatra and Jatin Das but I am sorry they are not authorities on Odissi dance. Dhirendranath Patnaik is at present President of Orissa Sangeet Natak Akademi. In fact, Patnaik, a founding father of Odissi, along with the dance gurus brought Odissi to what it is today. A prominent dance scholar, this is what Patnaik says about Ramli's costume, "I have not seen the dance but I saw the pictures and I found the costume in bad taste. We at 'Jayantika' decided on the costume and bare blouses were a strict no-no. It offends the eye and aesthetic. I call upon everyone to preserve the sanctity of Odissi classical dance." Incidentally, Patnaik attended the meeting and rally where there was a protest against such distortion in Odissi custom and costume. Guru Durga Charan Ranbir joined too and condemned such aberrations. But let me clarify that it was not against any individual; it was simply issue based protest on 9th October 2005 in Bhubaneswar. A number of dance gurus, dancers and musicians -celebrities in Orissa - joined the protest rally and meeting. Does their opinion matter? Or is it just Mohapatra and Das?

Now about Shanta Serbjeet Singh's piece. She is entitled to her opinion. And if she finds bare blouses in good taste so be it. If the body is ungainly how come a bare blouse would make it visually appealing? Anyway it is her aesthetic and I have no quarrel with that. But others are also entitled to their opinion and please, the deviation in Odissi costume is not a trivia. Classical is disciplined and dignified and anything that mars it can be justifiably pulled up. In fact even though in Kerala, rural women go about without draping their blouses, the classical dance there has dancers very decently and suitably covered!

I am sorry Shantaji is wide off the mark when she says that Orissa has not produced any dancer of calibre after Sanjukta and should try to produce a Ramli. Ramli is good, but there are others, male and female who are as good if not better. From Oopalie Operajita through Aruna Mohanty, Sangeeta Dash to Sujata Mohapatra, we have had brilliant dancers. From Naba Mishra and Bichitrananda Swain to Ramesh, Manoranjan, Amulya and a whole lot. And ask Guru Gangadhar Pradhan whether there are brilliant male dancers produced by him or not. Praise Ramli. But please don't give sweeping statements to discount others.

Regarding the article, 'The costumes of the Sutra Odissi dancers of Malaysia: A dialogue with textual and substantial evidences,' I would just say this. One of the writers is Soubhagya Pathy, the son of Dr. Dinanath Pathy. The senior Pathy has had his works reviewed by me, had my papers in seminars organised by him and my articles in a book edited by me. I hope that answers the question my credibility and positioning on the national scene.
The memorandum signed by dance scholar and one of the founding fathers of Odissi, Dhirendranath Patnaik,
who is also President, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Debadutta Samantsinhar, secretary SNA and Guru Durga Charan Ranbir among others.

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