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Transformation at Sutra
- Rahul Acharya, Bhubaneswar

November 21, 2006

My first introduction to Ramli Ibrahim was during the ongoing rehearsal sessions at Bansi Bilas, Bhubaneswar. All the artists present there included some top names like Guru Durga Charan Ranbir (my master), Rajika Puri and of course Ramliji (I address him as Ramliji because I find this 'Ji' connotation most suitable for such a revered yet friendly man), all getting geared up for the 1st International Odissi Festival: Shraddhanjali, scheduled to be held in New Delhi. It was a very short introduction but a memorable one. Ramliji leaves an indelible mark on anyone who meets him, no matter how insignificant the person might be. Way back in 2001, I was a virtual nobody and I must have meant little for a man of his stature. The next meeting was a private affair, with Guruji formally introducing me to Ramliji, after a gap of two years (2003) again at the same venue. This time the occasion was a collaboration between two great dancers - Guru Durga Charan Ranbir and Ramli Ibrahim. The meeting was an important one because I was slowly being recognized as a dancer disciple of my Guru. Shortly after this, Guruji was invited to choreograph for Sutra Dance Theatre. After this trip, Guruji's travel to Malaysia became an annual event.

In 2004, when Ramliji was invited to perform at the Konark Festival, my meeting with him at Guruji's place was a significant one. It was during this occasion that Ramliji divulged that he was following my progress as a dancer and it was high time I needed an international exposure. It was not as if I had no international exposure before. In fact I had had a fair amount of international experience by then, traveling extensively with Guruji, who was presenting me to international audiences. But all the previous trips were like any other performance in India, where you present your works and return. This time I was asked to be a part of Sutra and observe how Sutra functioned. This was Ramliji's move to equip me well so that I would become an able protégé of Guruji and spearhead the Deba Prasad Gharana in a similar way as he and Guruji were doing.
Guruji left for Kuala Lumpur with our musicians early in 2005, to tour Malaysia and Singapore with the Sutra dancers. This time Ramliji asked for his permission to invite me to Sutra and present me before the Malaysian audience. With Guruji's consent, Ramliji sent me an e-mail, writing to me about his plans. That would materialize later the same year.

My travel was scheduled for 28th July 2005, immediately after my performance at India International Centre, New Delhi. Guruji had prepared a grand repertoire to solve the dual purpose of performing to an elite audience both in New Delhi and Malaysia. The repertoire included a new Sthayee which was later to be his landmark choreography, a new Mangalacharan, some new Abhinayas etc. My performance at New Delhi was a memorable one and it earned me good reviews. This was particularly significant because my mother was present to watch me perform. Probably this was for the first time in two decades of my dancing career that my mother saw me as a professional. With everyone extremely satisfied at my premiere, both Guruji and I became more confident of our repertoire. Now the day had finally come on which I was scheduled to fly. Upon reconfirmation of the tickets, we realized to our horror that the Air India flight I was supposed to board, was called off due to heavy rains in Mumbai, as it was scheduled via Mumbai. This made Guruji panic and now the real work began, with mother running from pillar to post to put me on another flight. As is said, "God comes to your rescue when everything fails," miraculously I got endorsed on Malaysian Airlines, which generally flies packed, and that too for face value. But it would leave a day later.

My sojourns have been to Europe and the Americas, but Malaysia was going to be my first destination in South East Asia. I was a bit apprehensive, but at the end of it all, it turned out to be much more than I had anticipated.

After a comfortable flight I landed on Malaysian soil, early in the morning on 30th July. At Kuala Lumpur international airport, I was welcomed by Ramliji himself. I was caught unawares as I did not expect him there in person. I was under the impression that he had made arrangements for his vehicle to fetch me. Quite conversant with the way celebrities behave in India, I expected Ramliji to be a bit snobbish about his virtual 'demigod' status he enjoys in his country. Rather, I met a very warm, hospitable and down to earth person at the airport. After this red carpet welcome, I was driven to the heart of the city and all along the one hour drive from the airport, I was introduced to many landmarks including the famous Petronas Twin-towers, overshadowing the other high-rise buildings in KL. Finally our car rolled into a picturesque landscape, and there was a beautiful bungalow beside a lake from where one could see the Petronas Towers in its backdrop. This bungalow seemed to me like an ancient temple with modern sophistication, an unusual one in this hi-tech city. This temple-bungalow was Sutra Dance Theatre, the temple of Indian Classical Dance in Malaysia, situated in the posh Persiaran Titiwangsa area of KL. After seeing the artistic residence-cum-theatre, I got a first hand knowledge of Ramliji's aesthetic tastes. I was introduced to all at Sutra including the ever smiling Annas (the maid), the charming Shanti (the accounts officer), Sarah the perfect executive (officer in charge) and not to forget Gundu, Shakun, Girija, Kalpana and Ibu, the pets at Sutra. Animals are also treated with utmost care at Sutra. To top it all, Shiva (I knew him well before traveling to KL) the resident artist and the mastermind behind the stage craft, lighting, set design etc. Shiva is a very talented man and I call him a “master of all trades."

Sutra House is a very artistically designed residence-cum-theatre. It includes an outdoor hexagonal Amphi-theatre to stage performances and can accommodate around 200-300 people at a time. The studio hosts regular exhibitions of fine arts and photography. The well equipped library consists of a priceless collection of books on arts. From Nijinsky's biography to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, you name it and it's right there on the shelf. This library was my favourite hangout after working hours. The whole Sutra house is a museum and is open for visitors throughout the day. Everything here is a piece of art and Ramliji has worked out the minutest details. Even the fork resembled an antique piece to me. You need to visit Sutra, to get a feeling of what art is all about, how creative a person could be, to be virtually breathing art, day in and day out.

After resting for the whole day, by afternoon I was all geared up to work. I was briefed about the program by the time the dancers arrived. Nisha, Anushya, Mei Mei, Valli and Divya formed the group that would travel to India on a performance tour. I recognized some faces as they had come to India before to work with Guruji. Ramliji had planned two repertoires, one pure Odissi and the other contemporary. I started getting goose-bumps when I was told that I would have to perform the contemporary works as well. Rahul Acharya is a very orthodox Brahmin. In his whole career as a dancer he had never performed even a folk piece, let alone contemporary and now he was instructed to break the ice. Ramliji is very clear with his ideas and what he wants. He clearly wanted me to come out of my cocoon. The work began. I was already aware of the Odissi repertoire and didn't have much work except a bit of improvisation and yes, group co-ordination was most essential. Even the position of the waist had to be the same.

The real challenge was the contemporary work, especially the famous Nijinsky piece "Scheherazade" recreated and the fear factor was always the music cue. I am so used to rhythms on percussions that it was really a nemesis when I realized this opera by Ravel had no percussion. Ravel really made my work tough. I shuddered at the thought of rehearsing Scheherazade, let alone performing it on stage. I was asked to pick up the balletic moves and was specially coached. Our mornings would start early, with stretching and warm-ups at the studio and then Ballet classes. Guna (an elder brotherly figure and popularly known as 'Gunanna') was our instructor. He would instruct us to improvise with a lot many ideas. It was great fun. For the first time I became fully conscious of my body. Never before had I realized the full potential of my body. I could jump, fall, roll and do whatever I felt like. I felt light. Initially it was a bit difficult because my body is so used to Chouka and Tribhanga that I couldn't imagine dancing without them. But here I was taught to follow my impulse, how to love my body. I realized that body was actually an instrument for the gods. I am really obliged to Ramliji for bringing out this realization in me.

Our practice sessions were real fun. We used to work from morning 9 till evening 7 amidst occasional breaks for lunch and tea. Especially lunches used to be fun with everyone around the dining table enjoying every morsel of food accompanied by lots of laughter. Then after a really short nap, we resumed work. It was really amazing as to how none of us ever felt tired and where all the energy came from. I felt as if Ramliji was an expert occultist who had charged every nook and corner of Sutra and thus anyone entering the premises got electrified.

On August 5th and 6th, I was to have my solo premiere "Penetrating the Rasa" at Amphi-Sutra. With Ramliji himself doing the make-up and anchoring, everything was taken care of really well. There was no flaw, wonderful publicity; a great audience including the Page 3 personalities of Malaysia, the brochures, tickets, every detail was worked out neatly. Ramli Ibrahim was such a perfectionist that anyone being slightly flexible or compromising was severely reprimanded. The performance was highly appreciated and I felt wonderful.

We enjoyed our rehearsals. But we also had to cope with Ramliji's various mood shifts. At times he would be cracking jokes and at times he would get furious. I used to get a bit nervous over his unpredictable nature. However, thank God! I never faced his wrath. He was so caring. In the evenings he would take me out for drives, shopping, to dinner. I thoroughly enjoyed his company. Each moment spent with Ramli Ibrahim was a learning point and I was conscious of my self development. I keenly observed how he dealt with people, how he danced, how he choreographed, how his ideas flowed. In the process I learnt a lot.

Soon we were all geared up for our India tour, after our Odissi presentation at Amphi-Sutra. I did not realize that one and a half months had already passed and now it was time for me to leave. I had become so attached to all the Sutra inmates that departing was a nostalgic moment. But my greatest solace was that I had become a part of Sutra. It was an honor for me. Finally we left Malaysia and arrived in India.

The India tour was unforgettable and took us to Chennai, Pondicherry, Bhubaneswar (my home town) and Delhi. We performed at prestigious theatres like the historical Museum Theatre in Chennai, the Ashram Theatre and Bharat Nivas Auditorium in Pondicherry, Kamani in New Delhi. Each performance was better than the other and I could feel I was growing up with experience. I was actually getting accustomed to Sutra's ways. Ramliji made it a point that we never made a mistake on stage. As precaution, he made us undergo adequate rehearsal sessions and familiarized us with the stage, lighting etc. Everything was so professionally managed. We particularly had a great time in Pondicherry with Lalit Uncle and Shernaaz Aunty with Kritatma (their son) being our hosts. Pondy as a place, is spiritually charged and it was a divine experience to perform there. Lalit Uncle and Shernaaz Aunty were extremely loving and affectionate. They made all of us feel really special. We had great fun with Kritatma, who is taller and sharper than his age.

After South India, we came to perform at Bhubaneswar. People commented that I had improved as a dancer. The performance was really appreciated. Rarely do we see such events of international standards in Bhubaneswar and thanks to Dr Dinanath Pathy, a great painter and visionary, who made it possible through his untiring efforts. But a small controversy turned unexpectedly and shaped into a storm. This was particularly derogatory. But all is well that ends well. Shortly everything died down. Our final destination was Delhi, where we performed at Kamani, to an audience comprising of eminent dancers like Navtej Johar, Sharon Lowen, Shovana Narayan etc.

I was happy to be back home, and richer by experience. There was so much I had learnt; I realized that I was a changed person. My approach to dance changed, my approach to life changed. Everything around me changed. My transformation was for good and I was also evolving as an individual. I would always remain indebted to the man behind my transformation: Ramli Ibrahim.

After this trip, I was invited to Malaysia once again and this time Sutra's star dancers, January Low and Revathy Tamilselvam, formed part of the troupe traveling to India. This tour experience was even better and took us to places like Kalakshetra - the heaven for Bharatnatyam, NCPA Mumbai etc. We had a grand experience performing unscheduled for the tsunami victims, on the road adjacent to the sea, in Pondy. Everyone was taken by surprise. We all got close to each other during this trip. I cherish such trips for all times to come, that enrich me both professionally and personally.

(This article was published in journal Angarag, Nov 2006)

A disciple of guru Durga Charan Ranbir, Rahul Acharya is an Odissi dancer based in Bhubaneswar. He's a regular contributor to

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