Rare honour for the Odissi maestro in Malaysia 
- Shyamhari Chakra 
e-mail: shyamharichakra@gmail.com  
Photos courtesy: Kalpana Dance Theatre 

 May 31, 2009 

"As an Oriya documenting the development of Odissi, you must be part of our humble homage to Guru Debaprasad." When Shangita Manoharan called to invite me for the event in Malaysia recently, I wondered what motivated this Kuala Lumpur based Kalakshetra trained Sri Lankan Bharatanatyam dancer and founder-director of the 15-year-old Kalpana Dance Theatre and her Chinese friend and collaborator Goh Kuan Hock, a lawyer, to mount an Odissi festival in their country. "It's an irony," I had then told myself little knowing then that I would soon be reminded of the ironies associated with the Debaprasad legacy. 

As I landed in Malaysia and watched the well designed four-day festival - Anjali: Homage to Odissi Guru Debaprasad Das - in its capital city of Kuala Lumpur and the island city of Penang, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that while the rest of the world is dominated by the Kelucharan Mohapatra style of Odissi - though it was Debaprasad and his disciple Indrani Rehman who introduced Odissi to the world through their continental tour - Malaysia has been the only exception where all the dancers belong to Debaprasad Das gharana, thanks to the celebrated Malaysian dancer-choreographer Ramli Ibrahim's association with Debaprasad nearly three decades ago. However, when the first ever international Odissi festival was hosted in Kuala Lumpur last year by Ramli's Sutra Dance Theatre, the Debaprasad Das style of Odissi was sadly and conspicuously missing! 

"Guru Durga Charan Ranbir (the flag-bearer of the Debaprasad style and recipient of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi award from Government of India) who has several disciples in this country was shocked at the raw deal that the style was meted out in the Malaysian international Odissi festival and it was his earnest desire to stage Anjali in this country as a mark of respect to his late mentor. Thus, all of us came together - Kalpana Dance Theatre and the Temple of Fine Art from Kuala Lumpur; Guru Ranbir's Nrutyayana and Odissi danseuse Leena Mohanty's Bansi Bilas (both reputed Odissi dance institutions from Bhubaneswar, India, in the Debaprasad Das style) in putting up the four-day festival," explained Shangita whose 12 year old dancer-daughter is a disciple of Guru Ranbir. 

Indian High Commissioner felicitates guru Ranbir
The festival that got support of the government owned Malaysian Tourism Centre (MTC) and was hosted at its state-of-the-art auditorium in Kuala Lumpur - a few furlongs from the famous Twin Towers - was inaugurated by The Indian High Commissioner Ashok Kantha, a connoisseur of Indian culture while his Sri Lankan counterpart was also present. Such was the rave response to the event that all the tickets for the festival were sold out well in advance and people were seen waiting at the reception desk and willing to watch the shows standing inside the auditorium, thanks to the pre-publicity that the Malaysian media accorded to Anjali. 

The festival featured 11 dancers from four countries - Australia, India, Malaysia and Singapore - who worked together under Guru Ranbir's direction to present choreographic compositions of three generations of the exponents of Debaprasad style - late Guru Debaprasad, Guru Ranbir and Leena Mohanty, a disciple of both the gurus. The dancers included the troupe leader Leena Mohanty, her Mumbai based dancer-sister Leesa Mohanty, Guru Ranbir's daughter and disciple Gayatri Ranbir (all from India); Geetha Shankaran-Lam, Sumathi Chandra, Umesh Shetty, Parveen Nair, Nadina Krishnan and Nritta Ganeshi Manoharan (all from Malaysia); Manjula Radha Krishnan (from Australia) and Daisygarani Tamilselvam from Singapore. The Musicians that included eminent (mardal) percussionist, rhythm composer and guru, Dhaneswar Swain, were flown in from India to extend live music support for the performances that was an added attraction for the audience.  

Surya Upasana
Surya Upasana

Surya Upasana, an invocation to the Sun God that witnessed Leena Mohanty's distinct debut as a choreographer, set the mood of each evening. The stunning visuals replicating the blooming of the lotus petals, the seven white horses forming Surya's chariot and the yogic postures of the Surya namaskar (salutation) were a treat for the eyes. Similar was the pulsating presentation of Guru Ranbir's composition Jaya Bhagavati Devi - depicting different facets of the goddess Durga - that culminated with mokshya, the fast-paced dance of ecstasy that marks the denouement of the Odissi repertoire. Extensive use of the sabda-swara-pata - exclusive to Debaprasad style - was the hallmark of the two presentations. 

Jaya Bhagavati Devi
Krishna Nata

Juxtaposed with the vigour of the mangalacharan (the auspicious beginning of the recital) and mokshya numbers were the lyrical and intensely emotive numbers of pure and expressional dance - Krishna Nata (the dance of Krishna) and poet Jayadev's Geet Govind - both choreographed by Guru Debaprasad; the rare Vajrakanti Pallavi, Govinda Damodara Stotra (in praise of Lord Krishna) and Ardhanariswara depicting the masculine and feminine aspects of Shiva and Parvati complementing each other - all compositions of Guru Ranbir. 

Govinda Damodara Stotra

The light (MATIC and KR Studio), costume (Sumathi Chandra and Shangita Manoharan) and set designer (Am Ghooi Ket) deserve special mention for the magical mood that they could create on stage. The colours of the frequently changing costumes and the light convincingly conveyed the moods of the recitals. If the costume was predominantly white for Surya Upasana, it was red and black in Jaya Bhagavati Devi and yellow for Govinda Damodara Stotra. Even in the duet number of Ardhanariswara, while one dancer had the yellow saree-black blouse, the other had black saree-yellow blouse that indicated how minute details were taken care of to enhance the appeal of the show. 

"O our revered and beloved guru, we pray to you to lead us from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge" - as a Sanskrit sloka invoking this sentiment marked the commencement and the culmination of the recital, Guru Debaprasad must have smiled from heaven and blessed his devoted disciples who carefully carry forward his legacy of traditional Odissi. 

Shyamhari Chakra is an art critic based in Bhubaneswar. He's a correspondent for The Hindu.