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Panjara and She Ra premiere at Tarikan Dance Festival
- Dr. Sunil Kothari
Photos courtesy: Sutra

September 23, 2012

Sutra Foundation's Tarikan Dance Festival 2012 featured two new choreographic works under the title 'Transfigurations': 'Panjara' choreographed by Sutra's Rathimalar Govindarajoo and 'She Ra' choreographed by Dutch born Kalpana Raghuraman (Korzo Theatre, The Hague). I caught up with the last performance of these two works on 2nd September 2012 at KLPac Studio 2 at Kuala Lumpur, managing to arrive from Singapore in time.

Ramli Ibrahim had informed me that these two works examine myths - the archetypes of mythology and how their avatars perpetuate these in our contemporary psyches in various transfigurations. Ramli's and Sutra Foundation's creative journeys are not limited to the traditional, classical Indian dance forms. In his early youth, Ramli had performed in Sydney Dance Company at Sydney Opera House in modern choreographic works of Graeme Murphy, a leading choreographer from Australia. Poppy, choreographed by Graeme featured him in a decadent tango, a multi media dance theatre based on the life and times of Jean Cocteau. That was in 1978. Ramli has since then choreographed and performed several contemporary works within Malaysia and abroad.

By a fortuitous circumstance, I had met Kalpana Raghuraman in Kiev, Ukraine, when Sanjay Rajhans, based in Kiev had organized in 2006 a Festival of Indian classical dance forms featuring dancers from various countries, specializing in classical Indian dance forms. Some were from Indian Diaspora, some immigrants, some from Sweden, Singapore, Amsterdam, Italy, France, Russia and so on. Kalpana, a trained Bharatanatyam dancer had come from Amsterdam. She had received training from her mother Sharada Raghuraman, who in turn had studied under one Kalyanasundaram, a cousin of Dandayuthapani Pillai. Kalpana also received further training in Bangalore from Padmini Ravi. We were quite impressed by her performance and kept in touch with each other through e mail. During my visit to Amsterdam, I met her again at Leiden where she was conducting classes and was interested in contemporary choreographic works. She later on visited New Delhi and performed at the Habitat Centre, presenting her innovative works. She then received a fellowship to study further in West Africa. It offered her very fruitful experience and she also met Serge Aime Coulibaly from Burkina Faso in 2007, a musician with whom she collaborated for her works.

Since then she has never looked back. During Ramli and Sutra Foundation's Netherlands tour in Hague, Amsterdam, Utrecht and other cities, at Hague where since 2010 Kalpana is artist-in-residence at the renowned Korzo Theatre, they met her and also the dynamic director Leo. Ramli invited Kalpana to choreograph a new work for Sutra Foundation artistes. Kalpana, Simone Giacomini, the musician, Leo Spreksel the Director of Korzo Theatre visited Kuala Lumpur and Kalpana and Simone started working in right earnest on the new work she titled 'She Ra.'

She Ra

I did not know anything about 'She Ra.' Kalpana told me that She Ra is a character from comic strip of the '80s and is a super hero woman; Kalpana has taken off from She Ra, Indian mythological characters who are valorous, courageous personalities with infinite powers. Arjuna, Durga, Shiva, Hanuman or Kannagi represent qualities such as loyalty, honesty and perseverance. Not to represent them through narratives, she worked towards presenting them through their energies and qualities. There is no one to one hasta, hand gesture narration, nor mukhajabhinaya, facial expressions. Instead, using the basic Bharatanatyam and Odissi technique in which Sutra dancers have excellence, Kalpana has resorted to abstraction, suggesting the Bharatanatyam and Odissi vocabulary but has choreographed the work to wear a different look. Using adavus, basic footsteps, with different time cycles, dancers facing audience diagonally and striking the floor, at time the arms spread diagonally, or a teermanam executed, or an utplavan, jump used, barring the prologue in which dancers suggest Shiva with flowing Ganga from Jata,or Krishna riding a chariot with Arjuna or Kannagi moving palms around her breasts and so on, the work is performed for 50 minutes rigorously with dancers displaying their command over the technique as per the demands of the chorographer.

The result is a riveting production to the music which helps the choreographer to visualize her concepts and movements. Sutra dancers performed with finesse and one admires their abilities to fall into the forms, body positions, covering the space, running around and evoking many times vaguely what super hero characters invest themselves with - boundless energies. The repetition of the striking of feet and once again suggesting the rounding up of the iconic images, the work stands on its strength as a contemporary work.

Kalpana has to her credit the solo she created for the modern dancer Sabina Perry and was selected for Dutch Dance Days 2011. In another work 'Through the eyes of my city' Kalpana worked with twenty local Indian amateur dancers investigating personal relationship to the city. She created 'Towards Dawn' for two male contemporary dancers from West Africa and choreographed 'Padme' for ten Indian dancers. She plans to expand it for The Indian Dance Festival 2012 at Amsterdam.

Rathimalar Govindarajooo in her modern work Panjara, the Cage, deals with women's issues with reference to Asian women, pinpointing that in reality the way women are depicted in mythology is different and are suppressed, disenfranchised and are cynically begrudged even when their full capabilities are known. She raises issues like how far can women compromise what is due to their rights as human beings and to fulfill the full spectrum of their dynamism in this fast changing world. In her choreographer's note, she states that under the patriarchal shadow of Man, the Panjara, the Cage, becomes the battleground where women grapple with issues that plague their kind.


These concepts are translated through the vocabulary of modern dance, she has based upon Odissi and Bharatanatyam and it is evident that she has gained a lot of experience from working with Shobana Jeysingh in London, participating in contemporary works. Using a frame of a square on the stage, symbolic of a cage, Panjara, Rathimalar has her dancers executing movements often drawn from Bharatanatyam as seen in extensions of the arms while balancing themselves on the rod of the square, moving gracefully arms locked as seen in Odissi, and also managing various difficult, at time tortuous movements on the floor, arranging dancers in a row, one leaning on the other. The principal dancer Nalina Nair, buxom, broad shouldered, dressed in costume with flowing scarf, which she flicked as seen in Indonesian dances, performed in an anguished mood, moving under the square frame, coming out of it and suggesting distress, trying to free from inner turmoil. One can interpret the movements as they appeared. In the final sequence, she appeared with her disheveled hair strewn with flowers, transforming herself as it were in Durga/Kali, bringing out from her mouth a small ball, and stood in her full glory.

The musician Edwin Anand, as the biographical note says looks to Michael Jackson, Craig and AR Rahman for inspiration when he works on music. He composes music, writes lyrics, and produces beats. Edwin has fascination with electro and dance beats saying that the genre sounds very alive and forever changing, this constantly challenging to produce something new. He himself played drum beats, dressed differently and in another sequence he played electric guitar standing in a corner. Ramli told me that he dresses differently and the idea is to suggest how men manipulate women. Had Ramli not told me, I would have thought that there were two different musicians.

Rathimalar worked with her colleague dancers of Sutra. Therefore it was obvious that they all had a rapport and better understanding of what Rathimalar wanted from them to translate her concepts. The work left a strong impression. However I must confess that it is not easy to grasp in contemporary dance creations, what is being staged and presented.

Sutra Foundation's Tarikan Dance Festival 2012 had a clear agenda to have two world premieres of two new works, reviving Sutrarasa and presenting five Pallavis in succession to showcase how Sutra brings classical dance forms closer to modern sensitivities.

I was feasting my eyes watching these productions, enjoying them with Sivarajah Natarajan's lighting. As a painter, Siva was painting the scenes of dance with various colours in a masterly manner, enjoying himself with wonderful opportunities he got to explore the medium of light with fascinating colours. Ramli's dancers have won praise for their uniform training, thorough professionalism and high international standards. For Ramli, Guna, Geethika Sree and Sivarajah Natarajan, there is no looking back. They look forward to scaling greater artistic heights.

Dr. Sunil Kothari
Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to, the roving critic for monthly magazine Sruti and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 11 years.

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