Orissi Stirred, Shaken and Served! 
- Prof. Ashish Mohan Khokar, Bangalore 
e-mail: khokar1960@gmail.com 
Photos: Suzanne Lee 
June 21, 2008 

1958: In a modest Youth Festival setting of Delhi, Orissi was first seen courtesy two Oriya youngsters, Dhiren Pattnaik and Priyamvada Mohanty and at once lapped-up and platformed by the two eminent critics of the day, Charles Fabri and Mohan Khokar. "It was thanks to efforts of such serious critics, that the pundits of the Sangeet Natak took notice of the form and later thanks to them, Orissi got established," Lalit Mansingh stated recently. By 1958, Indrani Rahman had made it a dance form to watch. 
2008: Full 50 years later, in an off-beat, "cool" country like Malaysia, thanks to the mission and vision of one exceptional artiste - Ramli Ibrahim - Orissi has got a shot in the arm. Known for his perfection in two Indian classical dance forms - Bharatanatyam and Orissi - this local-talent-gone-global has done more for Orissi than many other Indian proponents put together. Here is how. 

In the last 25 years, he has made Orissi an important and a major form to reckon with in Malaysia where the predominantly Tamil settlers of Indian origin would rather serve Bharatanatyam for dinner, instead of sambar! He has also trained several Orissi dancers of merit - Rathimala, Guna, January Low, Revathy, Tan Mae Mae, Nishah Devi - and inspired many more, He has created a solid space for Orissi in Malaysia and it is a major achievement to do so in an alien and Islamic country.  

But Ramli will not be only remembered for all of above in history of Indian and world dance. He will be most remembered as a great artiste, who has served his muse, without compromise, with finesse and one who set new benchmarks in dance standards. 

STIRRING ORISSI 2008 was a 25 days extravaganza where over 140 Orissi dancers and gurus, scholars and critics, rasikas and riveted audiences bonded. For 3 weeks, Ramli’s Sutra Foundation, celebrating its 25th anniversary, mounted a grand panorama of Orissi with help of major Malaysian companies like Maxis and Petronas. A few Indian govt. agencies like the ICCR and Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Orissa State govt., paid for travel costs of some Indian gurus and groups but the brunt of organizing and delivering the festival fell on Ramli and his team. While January Low (in addition to performing superbly with the Sutra group) and team looked after logistics, Shiva Nataraja looked after technical and hall requirements. Parent-volunteers looked after the guests with genuine concern and supplied high tea every evening, in addition to much other behind-the-door logistical support. Transport chiefs Mani and Shaan (Shanmugham) handled all local transport with graciousness and courtesy. Stirring Orissi 2008 has set new high in festival organization and it will be hard to match these. 
As to the festival, it was divided into 4 main sections, opening with focus on Gotipuas, photography and painting exhibition at the prestigious Petronas gallery; solo performances; seminar and group performances. Having attended the 2 days seminar followed by 5 evenings of group performances one feels there was lots to learn, see and relearn. Rethink Orissi? That’s for those new to the dance-scene and who wish to be noticed in dance circles and make a statement; for old-time watchers of the dance-scene (and not just Orissi), tradition and its manifestation is more important.  

As Sunil Kothari failed to reach the seminar on time to be its first speaker, as billed (he was busy in Singapore attending Ratan Thiyam’s show!), Leela Venkataraman took to the mike and apart from dates and kings, she reconstructed some basic history of the period.  

It was left to Shanta Serbjeet Singh, the senior-most dance critic present, to take the discourse to a higher and a more philosophical level. Shanta S Singh has a unique ability to cull layers of aesthetic and dance delights and present them in a very simplified way, attracting both the lay audiences and enthusing the connoisseur. Her humane approach to arts make her the most convincing and sincere speaker.  She summed up the proceedings by saying, "Do one thing and excel in that, instead of multi-tasking." 

Yours truly devised his presentation away from Orissi form because as many said, by that point in time (of the 25 days festival), Orissi was coming out of ears! I focused on pre- Orissi history and shared 3 short films, one very rare one on Ram Gopal from 1938. He spoke of two principal styles: Bharatanatyam and Kathak! No mention of Orissi because there was no Orissi way back then. A film on U S Krishna Rao also was platformed to reinstate how dance history got written. The role of critic, beyond the mundane and obvious one of writing reviews, was done away with and the historian in me wished to share the process of writing of dance history. The youngsters in the hall responded warmly while gurus like Minati Mishra and Gangadhar complimented on taking them back in time by showing rare films. 

Rohini Dandavate from Columbus, Ohio, came armed with laptop charts and all on how to initiate art funding (easier attempted in America and Canada as that model rarely works or applies elsewhere), a point made more convincingly the next day when a professional fund-raiser, Vimala Sundaram, presented her model and how she and her team with Ayesha Harben put together the Stirring Orissi Festival for Maxis and got Sutra the much needed support. Her presentation was first-rate and showed she was a professional, not some armchair university types.  

In all this, rebel-rouser, humorist, painter, author and now a promoter of Deba Prasad Das School, Dinanath Pathy, who has had many previous incarnations, spoke on some new trends in Orissi. He balmed the Oriyas for their complacency and focused on local and regional politics. He provided many a laugh in an otherwise serious dance debate and discussions. At every point, fellow painter, more renowned and more direct and more Oriya than all - Jatin Das - kept interrupting and pointing to other aspects of Orissa.  Pathy’s son, Soubhagya was direct and crusty while conducting seminars. Alex Dea mumbled introductions and did no justice to the proceedings while Mohammed Anis Nor was delectable with his poise and panache for inducing laughter in a gracious manner. Joseph Gonzales’ voice is his fortune while Mario D’Cruz conducted her session well.  

Sunil Kothari’s session was lame. After everything had been discussed for two days, to come 24 hours late and show some basic Gotipua stuff and steps (courtesy Guru Gangadhar Pradhan) and some sketchy version of the history of the form made little impact. Senior players of the Indian dance-scene should be better prepared for important seminars.  

Strangely, in days to follow, he was the only critic to be given a citation of merit by Sutra! Shanta Serbjeet Singh is as senior as Kothari and either the organisers should include all such stalwarts or not play favourites at all, a lesson for the future. In return, on the near-concluding day Sunil Kothari honoured Ramli…. while Leela Venkatraman provided the context and introductions.  
The Indian High Commissioner H.E. Mr. Ashok Kantha and gracious wife Sharmila were enthusiastically involved and attended many events, including one where attendance, the 10th anniversary issue, was launched and the first -copy given to Malaysian Minister for Urban Growth and Culture. Shanta Serbjeet Singh set the tone for the evening by giving a touching speech on why and how the arts matter in current globalisation. At the dinner hosted by our High Commissioner, a book on Classical Dances of India with Ramli Ibrahim gracing the cover was given to his Excellency.  The evening provided a platform for Jatin Das’s wife to sing and of Sharmila Biswas and Guru Gangadhar group, to dance. After a rather distasteful belly dancer had shown her stuff, the Indian contingent took to flow with Bollywood dances and good fun was had by all…Madhavi Mudgal, Sharmila Biswas, Jyoti Shrivastava, Aruna Mohanty, Sunil Kothari, Shanta Singh and yours truly showed some dancing talents, other than the classical. 

The seminar concluded with a group discussion on how to make Orissi more relevant. Only Madhavi Mudgal made serious sense when she debunked lots of frivolous light-and-sound-make-performances bit, adding, "Just be at it and don’t try anything drastically different." The Nrityagram girls had a session of body-bending and leg-twisting to show how well-tuned their bodies were and in what good form they were in. It is strange when they dance, Surupa’s body looks so stretched and so stressed. All her veins of neck stand out, straining and her postures are over done. Bijayini smiles excessively, no matter what the sthayi-bhava of the item. But they are managed very well by Lynne Fernandez.  

The evening group-shows had reasonable quality, though only two groups made real effort and brought in some fresh items that shone: Madhavi Mudgal easily shone like a finely-chiseled jewel for her excellent skills, high aesthetics and wholesome group. Each dancer is a perfectly-etched artwork. And Sharmila Biswas, is a critic’s and rasika’s delight, for she brings something new, some unseen aspect of the form and does it well. She is a genuine Orissi artiste. 

The Nrityagram ensemble had too similar types of items and same packaging.  Some cameos were rather overdone. Pavitra Reddy is the most relaxed dancer in the group while Surupa tries too hard to match Bijayini’s effortless and joyous deliveries. Their dance is very manly and virile. Good lights and choreography are their hallmark.  
Ratikant Mohapatra group was well-honed and in good form though why he did not perform and add to the event, remains a disappointment. He would have done well to participate himself on stage, as, while all the girls gave an excellent account of their solid training and foundation, the absence of a central figure, so necessary in group works, could be discerned. Guru Gangadhar’s group headed by Aruna Mohanty took one back in time and proved they were natives of the soil and the form, although the projection in Kanchi item was dated and unnecessary. The Ajit Bhaskar Das group from Johor Bharu showcased beauty through simplicity of form. The team was well-matched and balanced. The best was of course by locals and host, Sutra! In Ramli and his groups’ art, the beauty of form, exceptional aesthetics and near-perfect presentation come through convincingly. When he rode on the seven-horsed chariot as Sun god, even gods were put to shame! Ramli was resplendent. Guna, the next day in Dashamahavidya, almost got into a trance with his powerful depiction and all participating dancers, gave a great account of their art. 

The STIRRING ORISSI 2008 festival provided for much informal interactions and it was good to see youngsters Pallavi Das, Sonali Mishra, Arushi Mudgal, Diya Sen mingling. Sujata Mohapatra and Jyoti Shrivastava provided divergent strains while Ranjana Gauhar, oops, Padmashree Ranjana Gauhar (she made that point so often in the announcements that Malays thought Padmashree was her first name!) and Shreyasi De’s performance was nothing much to write home about. They just went through the Orissi paces and postures. Minati Das, the senior most Orissi dancers was hallmark of graciousness, good-manners and great art. 

In the end, one wonders where Orissi stands today? If these were the most representative exponents of the form, (Sonal Mansingh, where was she?) invited from India, Europe and America, then it can be safely said the best in Orissi now lives and dances in Malaysia! Long live Ramli. The fact he invited, included and encouraged all shades of Orissi to meet and merge, shows his own security as an artiste, as an organizer and as a celebrator of art. Need more be said? 

Ashish Mohan Khokar, reputed critic and dance-historian, editor-publisher of attendance and author of 34 books, attended and observed the Stirring Orissi Festival held in Kuala Lumpur.