Ramli and his magical dance scapes 
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai 

September 16, 2005 

Malaysia's most famous dancer Ramli Ibrahim and the Sutra dancers with guest artiste Rahul Acharya, cast a spell on audiences in Chennai over 2 evenings of traditional and contemporary presentations. Forum Art Gallery was instrumental in bringing Sutra Dance Theatre's Spellbound to Chennai on 3rd and 4th September as part of their Spellbound - India Tour 2005. 

Trained in classical ballet, modern dance and Indian classical dance, Ramli is an accomplished dancer and choreographer, with impeccable mastery in Bharatanatyam, Odissi and contemporary dance. Ramli studied Bharatanatyam under Adyar K Lakshman and Odissi under the late Guru Deba Prasad Das. He established the Sutra Dance Theatre in 1983 in Kuala Lumpur. He has groomed some of the finest dancers to have emerged from Malaysia and at the same time placed Indian classical dance in the context of the Malaysian experience. 

Ramli's lavish pictorial biography titled 'Ramli! The Heart of Sutra' was released at a function at the Forum Art Gallery on 3rd morning. It chronicles the milestones and achievements of this Malaysian dance icon from his early years up to present times. This was followed by 'Under the Spell', an exhibition of paintings based on Spellbound by Chennai artist A V Ilango. 

The evening showcased items from a wide repertoire of Odissi, based on the thrust of Deba Prasad's style. In a city where Bharatanatyam dominates and we hardly get to see performances of other dance styles, this was like a breath of fresh air. The Mangala Charanam was an invocatory homage to the Mother Goddess in her form as Saraswati, followed by a Mukhari Pallavi. In Ashta Shambu, Siva was eulogized in his eight fold forms and attributes. After Krishna Tandava, the Ashta Nayika or 8 types of nymphs were portrayed in accordance with traditional text. The beautiful concluding item was Aditya Archana, an item in praise of Surya. Emerging from the primordial waters, he sits on a lotus in his golden chariot drawn by seven horses, representing the seven colors and driven by his charioteer Aruna. 

Guru Durga Charan Ranbir, with whom Sutra is associated, and Ramli Ibrahim are senior disciples of the late Deba Prasad and over the years, both of them have continued to work along the lines of their guru. All the items presented were works of gurus Durga Charan Ranbir and Deba Prasad Das, with Ramli's choreographic touch introducing new sensibilities into the traditional compositions. Says Ramli, "It is a miracle that within a short span of approximately 45 years, Odissi, an ancient dance form from Orissa, India, which at one stage faced near extinction, should now thrive once again in our midst. More extraordinary still, that a rare school or parampara of Odissi should flourish in Malaysia. Specifically, this is the Odissi parampara of the late guru Deba Prasad. Malaysia, through the work of Sutra Dance Theatre, has concentrated on this particular school of Odissi, whilst the rest of the world has mainly been exposed to the late guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's compositions." 

The second evening's dazzling performance was devoted to eclectic contemporary modern works, mainly inspired by Odissi and Bharatanatyam, with global influences from other streams, both in choreography and choice of music. Kamala explored the concept of devotion and piety inspired by and related to the Mother Goddess. Sacred Geometry had music by Zakir Hussain. First created by the legendary Nijinsky, L'apre Midi D'une Faune explored mood and erotic sensuality to music by Debussy. Klingsor's poem was given a grand aural manifestation by Ravel's music in Sheherazade. The stunning concluding item was a Pallavi in Shankarabharanam, originally composed by Pankaj Charan Das, and imbued with Ramli's choreographic inputs. 

The aesthetically renovated Museum Theatre was an ideal setting for the performances, though the overactive air-conditioner made us freeze through out! As the dancers wove their magic spell on stage, dancers pranced across the backdrop created by A V Ilango. Shivaraja Natarajan was in charge of light direction. The young Sutra dancers were Anushya Nair, Tan Mei Mei, Nisha Devi Govind, Divya Nair and Sivagamavalli Selvarajan. 

Here's what Ramli has to say about the tour in an exclusive interview to 

What is the purpose in showcasing an evening of traditional Odissi followed by an evening of contemporary work? 
"Spellbound prog I (traditional Odissi) was created and premiered in Kuala Lumpur and taken for a Malaysia/Singapore tour. This tour was accompanied with traditional musicians from Orissa led by Guru Durga Charan Ranbir. Therefore, it was natural that we should want to also present the traditional Odissi program in India. But the decision to present also our contemporary modern works was made as we wanted to showcase such repertoire inspired by Asian dance idioms, metaphors and vocabularies. We hope that this will give a more accurate picture of what Sutra does. Much of our contemporary modern work is involved in defining new aesthetics inspired from indigenous sources and from our Asian background, especially India. This is an emerging trend in Asia." 

Your criteria in choosing guest artiste Rahul Acharya for this tour, and Leesa Mohanty for your last tour. 
"Sutra has a very intimate relationship with Orissa. In fact, we presented just before we left for India, Leesa and Leena Mohanty in an Odissi program. Sutra Gallery had also featured contemporary modern paintings of Dinanath Pathy, Ramahari Jena, Soubhagya Pathy and others. The choice of Rahul Acharya was made as he was a star disciple of Guru Durga Charan Ranbir whom we had worked with very closely. I had discussed with Ranbirji that it is important that Rahul is slowly exposed to the international scene. Rahul is not only a talented dancer but also a serious scholar and writer. His exposure will enhance the Deba Prasad parampara to which we all belong. I predict that Rahul will be one of Orissa's important male dancers and scholars of the future." 

How would you describe your experience in performing Odissi in Malaysia and here in India? 
"I think we had created an impression wherever we performed. Sutra's presentation was very theatrical thanks to lighting and set designer Sivarajah Natarajan. For our contemporary program, we danced to the set design by Chennai's artist AV Ilango. All these collaborations had been not only meaningful, but also successful, and I am pleased. We ran into a little controversy in Bhubaneswar as my dancers did not use the drape shawl 'dhavani' over their blouses. This is purely because the 'dhavani' in my opinion hides the waist line of the dancer and thus diminishes the aesthetic form of the bhangis. This must also be in accord with the late Odissi danseuse Indrani Rehman who did not also use the 'dhavani'. Not wearing the 'dhavani' did not become an issue when we performed in Pondicherry, Auroville and Chennai but was sensationalised in Bhubaneswar and there were lots of comments coming from those who did not even attend the performance. Somehow, the controversy was not over the innovations that we had made in Odissi but unfortunately hijacked by this rather slight issue. As far as I am concerned, we are all mature people and we can accept both options of wearing or not wearing the 'dhavani'. After all, what matters is the dance. But the lesson learnt is that, when in Bhubaneswar, just wear it!" 

Guest artiste Rahul Acharya from Bhubaneswar, is a disciple of Guru Durga Charan Ranbir, since the age of 4, and trained exclusively in the classical idiom. He presented 'Penetrating the Rasa' at Sutra's festival in Kuala Lumpur in August. 

Rahul stayed on to become part of the Spellbound tour, for which he had to be trained in non-classical movements. How was the experience? "It was good, it opened my mind. I learnt concept of space management, timing, exploration of space, technical terms - like spage, concept of prom side, anti-prom side. I learnt a lot of ballet exercises, and about Ramliji's abstract ideas. It was nice to experiment, but Odissi is my life. I am very conscious doing contemporary movements, and feel more natural in traditional items. Ramliji is doing a wonderful job in Malaysia. I felt Odissi has more strong hold in Malaysia than in India. The best part of my trip was the realization that people there know the technicalities as they have been watching Ramliji for so long. But Ramliji encourages young dancers like me to try new work, especially me, because he has been following my career for a long time." 

How difficult was it to adjust his classically trained body to new movements? "I try to control my Odissi postures, but my spine stays curved, so I try consciously to make it straight. By looking at me, people used to say, "This boy does not belong to Malaysia, he is too traditional!" I belong to the lineage of guru Durga Charan Ranbir and Deba Prasad Das gharana. My guru has invested a vital part of his life in shaping me up and has a lot of expectations of me. I feel responsible to carry on the tradition and strengthen the Deba Prasad gharana. That is why I was invited by Ramliji, who always says, "Dance for the Shiva within yourself. If you want to only show off on stage, there is no rasa." When I'm on stage, I try to find the divinity within me, and dance like I'm in a sort of trance. I feel I am now sort of reaching out to dancers and am being welcomed." 

Rahul is trained in Yoga and is doing research on Jagannath Culture pertaining to dance as a temple ritual. With so much passion for dance and carrying on the Deba Prasad tradition, this youngster is someone to look out for. 

Lalitha Venkat is editor of